The first of her kind, a Nigerian warrior Queen of Zaria (née Zazzau), Amina broke the bounds of a male-dominated society. A little side bit to note; she was Muslim. While much of her history is that of legend (due to word of mouth tradition) she remains an integral part of Nigerian history, a statue spear in hand, on horse, erect in Lagos. Her legacy remembered. She is amongst the many Muslim women who often go unheard of or unspoken about in history. Moving forward with plans for the National Photographic Exhibition with CTS, celebrating 100 women and marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, it is integral to celebrate Muslim women throughout history. They demonstrate that they have and always will contribute to whichever society they belong, deconstructing the misinformed narrative placed upon them. Here is one amazing example to start with, and plenty more are to follow.
Amina was born in 1533, 200 years before British colonial rule, to the ruler Bakwa of Turunku and resided in the city state of Zazzau. She grew up surrounded by wealth as her family traded in imported metals, cloth, cola, salt and horses. Her time was spent improving her military skills with the Zazzau cavalry warriors. Her devotion to the military practice led her to become a leader of the cavalry, over which time she accumulated notable wealth and numerous military accolades.
One of the many beauties of pre-colonial Nigeria was that men were not threatened by power and strength held by women, which made Amina’s forthcoming role as Queen all the more respected and a matter of commonplace where assertion of female authority is concerned.
Throughout Amina’s reign, she faced relentless competition to expand her kingdom amongst the Hausa states. These states belonged to neighbouring powers of Zazzau, where she ruled. There lay three trading routes through northern Africa which connected the Sahara with the south and western Sudan. These routes were imperative to hold power beyond her own kingdom. To conquer these sites, she conjured an army of 20,000 men who went on the serve a 34 year long war the length of her reign, expanding her kingdom to the largest in its history. With this expansion, she brought indescribable amounts of wealth to the lands, introducing new skills and trades to the people. Amina’s skills knew no bounds, looking beyond her military life she also established her architectural skills whereby the earthen walls around the city became a prototype for all Hausa states.
Refusing to marry and never to have bore children, Amina instead chose to take a temporary husband from foes whose legion had been vanquished after every one of her battles. She disposed of them shortly after and left no heir, her brother assuming the throne after her death. Her legendary tales led her to be the model for the television series Xena Warrior Princess. She truly represents a woman who is not as capable as a man, but in this case, more so. She is the perfect case to show that Muslim women have and always will be challenging the narrative by, simply, existing.
I am young.
I am a Muslim.
I am a feminist.
These beliefs have become second nature to me. However, many will question my feminism, and many will further state that my faith is incompatible with gender equality. This reality provides many young Muslims with fear of openly displaying and discussing faith in academic circles and in the workplace.
We should strive towards eradicating the narratives that have been handed to us. We are told that we cannot practice the Islamic faith and be feminist, that we are oppressed just for the simple fact that we are Muslim. There is a constant attempt to band together every Muslim under the same experiences and to create an overarching definition of what it is to be a young, Muslim woman. Is that not oppressive in itself?
There is no simple or universal definition of what it means to be a young, Muslim feminist.
To be young in the 21st Century is, unfortunately, to be growing up in difficult times. Generation M is to face the highest levels of debt, fewer opportunities than generations before us and we are witnessing the worldwide political chaos. That being said, I’m still proud to belong to this generation. In the wake of political unrest, and the rise of hate crime, the sense of unification has been overwhelming. Many young people are now beginning to engage in politics, and are becoming aware of the impact that policy has on their lives. In London, the mass majority of youth will not stand for hate and bigotry.
My definition of what it means to be Muslim, may coincide with some but differs to many. Every single person has an individual relationship with their faith. It is something which is deeply personal and private. Every declaration of faith is valid.
To be able to call oneself a feminist, one must simply believe categorically in gender equality. It means believing in gender equality and recognising that it currently does not exist. Whether you choose to shave your legs or wear a burka or not should have no impact on the way in which you are a feminist. To be feminist means being unapologetically female, in which ever way you deem suitable, while demanding equal rights and respect.
As a young, Muslim feminist, I feel oppressed. But the only oppressor I face is the society which tells me I cannot possess egalitarian ideals while still holding on to my faith.
Rihana Osman is a postgraduate in Global Ethics and Human Values and a bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.
Research completed at the University of Bristol shows that Muslim women are 71% more likely than white Christian women to be unemployed. This study was made by comparing women with similar language abilities, education, marital status, number of children and strength of religious belief. It is a very sad fact that Muslim women are problematic to most Brits, whether they say it out loud or not. David Cameron made his views loud and clear when he announced that Muslim women should be taught English to tackle “backward” attitudes. Our very existence is a rejection of the mainstream discourse which perpetuates a view that in order to be liberated you must wholly subscribe to western values. So, Muslim women must work twice as hard as their white, female counterparts to be taken seriously in the workplace and not be written off as the ‘other.’
“Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in British society, according to a report by MPs. They are three times more likely to be unemployed and looking for a job than women generally and more than twice as likely to be economically inactive” Says The Women and Equalities Committee, BBC News 2016
The Muslim women I have grown up with are strong, powerful and influential. They are patient, aspirational and brilliant and have shaped who I am today. This might come as a surprise, as it is very rare to come across Muslim female role-models in the media. I was first introduced to a leading Muslim woman in a dusty history book passed down to me. In this book, I read about Khadija, a prominent and hugely successful merchant of her day. She was influential in pre-Islamic Arabia which was overwhelmingly patriarchal and made a name based on her own merit; a true example of a powerful Muslim woman and what the roles they are truly meant to take. The view that all Muslim women are passive, withering wallflowers is a western social construct. It is a dangerous label to give which derives from a lack of cultural understanding and often Islamophobic views. Dealing with this label is draining and impedes our growth and ability to flourish in the workplace.
Perhaps it is about time we stop underestimating Muslim women and take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror… and ask “when is the last time you made a judgment on a woman who just so happens to be Muslim?”
Maymouna Osman works in the Education sector and blogs in her spare time
I am often asked whether I have a female British Muslim role model. My mother is a British Muslim and happens to be my role model. She’s inspired me to be a strong and motivated. I’ve also drawn a lot of strength and good values from her and I’m probably not wrong here when I say that most Muslim girls will talk about their mother this way. But when considering whether or not I have a role model who exists in the public sphere, and in sectors of which I have always had a personal interest in i.e. politics I sadly have to say that I did not have one growing up.
This is not to say that there aren’t amazing, driven British Muslim women making their mark and having successful careers, but they simply have not been given the platform to be able to be seen as role models for young women. Many people do not seem to see this as an issue, for as long as you have a role model in the field you feel passionate about, why does it matter they do not reflect who you are? However, not seeing people that represent you, and all you stand for in the public sphere is highly damaging, especially on young developing minds. It creates the belief that people like yourself don’t belong in these institutions, therefore the barriers are too entrenched to attempt to break through. It leads young people from various ethnic minorities to consider themselves as unworthy, or incapable.
Additionally, it can lead people from ethnic minorities to change who they are, suppressing their cultural roots in order to appear more ‘palatable’, or simply more alike to their white colleagues. A young British Muslim woman may simply begin to refer to herself as a British woman, as she knows most of her role models, or people in the field she is attempting to break into, are also simply British women.
As Dr. Line Nyhagen, from Loughborough University, states that some organisations such as Parliament, the BBC, churches and mosques “have particular barriers to the inclusion of women”. With this gender-based barrier set before them, “women from minorities face triple discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and religion”. When seeking to gain statistical evidence to show that in fact, Muslim women are not represented in positions of power, it became clear that almost no data of this kind is being collected. It is hard to paint a clear picture of the situation, due to how diversity is usually examined. Ethnic diversity (rather than religion) and gender are the characteristics which tend to be reported. However, in light of the recent rise in Islamophobia, hate crime and that British Muslim women are “70% more unemployed than white women”, does the way in which data is collected need to be revisited?
The reconsideration of diversity data collection is one way of attempting to solve the issue of the absence of British Muslim women in powerful positions. Another way of combating the issue is to provide women who are currently fighting to break these barriers with a platform. Change the Script’s research into exemplary British Muslim women has led us to discover some remarkable and inspirational women. By providing these women with a nationwide platform, not only do they finally have their success acknowledged but they also become examples to young women and girls in demonstrating these barriers can, in fact, be broken, and there are role models in which they can personally see themselves in.
Rihana Osman is a researcher, with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and a bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.
Simply entering the words ‘British Muslim women’ into the News Google Search will provide you with clarity on the issue of misrepresentation in the media. The search comes back with articles based on the topics of oppression, terrorism, submissiveness or simply the words of British Muslim women attempting to defend themselves against hateful rhetoric.
Fauzia Ahmad links the rise in the Islamophobic hate crime following terror attacks to the way in which the media creates a narrative of the events. She explains that the media creates a divide between the public, it becomes a battle between ‘“modern/Western” values and “traditional/Muslim” dichotomous frameworks’. In 2016/2017, 62,685 race-related hate crimes were reported (a rise in 27%) and 5,949 religious related hate crimes (a rise in 35%).
The phrases and terminology used by the media, such as attacks on “British values” and failure to integrate make Muslim women appear to be the enemy, and subsequently make them easily recognisable targets. The splaying of images of women in traditional Islamic dress across papers following attacks or on topics of terror creates a lingering link in minds of the public. The suspicion and vilification. Ahmad additionally views the terms ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ as problematic. To use these terms is to say that Muslims are ultimately grouped together with terrorists, they simply practice to different levels.
Aside from the representation of Muslim women in the media leading to hate crime, there is also the on-going narrative of submissiveness and oppression. Women who chose to wear religious clothing are branded as brainwashed and controlled, people cannot fathom that it is the woman’s own choice- they must have been coerced. Although sadly, some women do not have a choice, these women are the minority. Some people go as far to say that a woman cannot call herself a feminist if she calls herself a Muslim.
The focus on negative and damaging representations of British Muslim women allows their success to be ignored, ‘the successful, well-socialised Muslim woman is completely invisible’. With the accomplishments of British Muslim women being largely ignored by the media, it appears as though she is not permitted to have positive existence in British society, she remains as the ‘other’. Female Muslim narratives should not only be permitted in the media when they are speaking out against their narrow representation, they should instead be permitted to inclusion- eradicating the perception of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Rihana Osman is a researcher, with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and a bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.
Growing up, I was an absolute bookworm. I still am, but over the years I’ve been faced with the realisation that the formation of my identity was through literature. Literature and film play a role in forming young minds. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are largely absent* from both, so how do young people from ethnic minorities form their identities through these mediums?
Darren Chetty’s chapter in The Good Immigrant: ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People’ explores the effects of underrepresentation of BAME characters in children’s literature. He believes that it links to something so much bigger than beauty. There is the expectation that children are “colour blind,” so therefore it has no longstanding impact on their development whether they are represented in literature. Critics of Chetty’s thoughts will state that children are simply too young to be considering ‘race’ issues and it is not something that they consider when reading.
Young children, who are not yet able to grasp the concept of racism, do not think of themselves as representative of success or power. When given the task of writing their own short stories, the descriptions of their characters were worlds away from what they are and did not necessarily culturally represent themselves. This, in turn, has an effect on the way in which BAME children feel about their own success, and even exploration, as their ‘own life does not qualify as subject material.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the effect that literature had on her own work as limiting, ‘because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.’
“When you’re young, you translate yourself through representations of people that look like you.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s chapter in The Good Immigrant, ‘Forming blackness through a screen’ explores the issue surrounding the lack of British black people on Television. “When you’re young, you translate yourself through representations of people that look like you.” Eddo-Lodge speaks of television shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, although this was not a British show, it was the closest thing many young people viewed as BAME representation. Comedian Shazia Mirza relates, describing family excitement at Trevor McDonald appearing on the news as “he was the closest thing we had to a British Asian woman at the time.”
‘a rare acknowledgement of our existence in the U.K’
Wei Ming Kam, co-founder of ‘BAME In Publishing,’ recalls her mothers reaction to seeing a culturally representative person onscreen. It was something which she assumed to be excitement, but came to realised it was simply shocking: “I’ve noticed our long, gaping absence from the cultural landscape and come to recognise the mix of shock and curiosity at seeing a face like mine onscreen, a rare acknowledgement of our existence in the United Kingdom.”
‘Long, gaping absence from the cultural landscape’
The large absence of positive depictions of familiar faces on screen does not mean that they are not displayed entirely, however, the existing displays are usually negative. The display of black women is as loud, angry and rude. Arab and Asian women as docile and submissive, the illiterate African and the suspicious Muslim. A British actress who is of African heritage should be able to easily play the role of doctor, princess, mechanic, lawyer, and vampire. The basis of her casting should not be, “we need an African, to play an African.” A character is a character and an actress is an actress.
*This does not mean that I am blind to the recent rise of BAME writers, actresses, poets, photographers and models. By largely absent I am referring to the bigger picture, in which if you were to see all works in one space, the work from BAME creatives would be overshadowed.
Rihana Osman is a researcher, with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and
“And my daughter pointed to the image of the woman with blonde straight hair and said
‘Mummy I want hair like her’.
Selina Bakkar from Amaliah.com at Stylist Live: ‘Meet the Muslim Women Empowering Others’ “
The misrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the media is recognised as a widespread issue and different narratives are being published in order to counter it. Despite that narrative, a time old issue still remains; the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the arts, culture, and fashion. When those from ethnic minorities are included they are usually misrepresented or displayed as ‘exotic,’ which feeds into the harmful trend of fetishization and alienation.
“Society has prescribed one ideal of what it means to be beautiful, and this is something that is in desperate need of change”
During the Stylist Live panel on Muslim Women Influencing Others, Selina Bakkar spoke of when her young daughter pointed out an image of a white, blonde woman and expressed her wistful thoughts on looking like her. This was the moment where she realised there is a desperate need for change.
The effects of under-representation in fashion and film can be devastating on one’s self-esteem and can even lead to severe complexes. When everything you are shown as beautiful (models, actresses etc) are so far from how you appear yourself, you naturally begin to question whether you can ever be worthy of beauty. In secondary school, I absolutely hated my thick, curly hair. A majority of my closest friends were from different ethnic backgrounds too, we made daily habits of attempting to change our appearance to fit in with the societal definition of beauty, we attempted to tame our hair and wild eyebrows, and are naturally different body shapes were subject of ongoing despair.
Advertising plays a huge role in this. For example, the advertising for hair products growing up persistently projected the image that big, frizzy hair was ugly and that it should be tamed in order to be beautiful. I received my first hair straighteners as a gift when I was 13 years old. I was overcome with excitement, thinking I’d finally have something close to beautiful hair. Two hours later, in a room filled with the odour of burnt hair, I turned to look in the mirror. Of course, it was nothing like what I had wished for. I didn’t suddenly have long, smooth, shiny, straight hair.
“our features being surgically placed on others and described as beautiful is hurtful to many”
So after years of being told by society that is natural features were not synonymous with beauty, to see our features being surgically placed on others and described as beautiful is hurtful to many. Of course, people are free to do as they please, the aspect of the trend that is hurtful is that these features were never described as beautiful until they were placed on others. They are now heavily featured in fashion campaigns, and many models and influencers now possess these characteristics. They are on front pages, used in fashion campaigns, however, they are still not represented by those who possess the features naturally through their heritage.
POSITIVE ACTION vs REPRESENTATION
Now we come to considerate and deliberate over what the best way forward is. The term ‘positive discrimination’ is usually met with eye rolls or disgust. ‘If people are truly capable, they will eventually reach that position.’ Some individuals who could benefit from positive action also refuse it, stating they do not want to be a token, they should be recognised for their achievements alone. I believe that these individuals are simply not looking at the bigger picture. The bigger picture is the representation and encouraging participation. I believe they are failing to recognise the drastic impact that inclusion could have on an individual’s self-worth and the impact it would have on the changing of monotonous beauty ideals.
If you want to feature plump lips, frizzy hair, a curvy body, dark skin, thick eyebrows, braids or a hijab in campaigns, advertising or film, then simply hire women who have these traits. Trust me, there are plenty of them who are dying to be recognised for their talent. If you need an actress to play a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh- then employ the actresses who actually belong to and understand these cultures. They are being ignored, they are not tokens and they have talent.
Rihana Osman is a writer with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and a Bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.