Cover up and Shut up

(This article was originally commissioned and written for The Dangerous Woman Project with Edinburgh University)

You can sense when there’s danger around. An instinct begins to unfold in your belly and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You’re suddenly aware of every movement around you. A flick of the wrist or the turn of a head. Sounds become clearer, and you notice everything. An uneasiness permeates your surroundings and tense glances convey silent messages.

That’s how I first found out I was dangerous. Not because anyone ever told me, but because of the way they acted when I was in the room.

As a Muslim woman living in the Western hemisphere, you get used to making people uncomfortable. If you’re living in a world that calls for your demise with every headline, your very presence in an airport is enough to cause discomfort. But it wasn’t the media’s construction of Muslim women that made me notice the danger we posed, instead, it was watching my mother.

As an Irish convert to Islam, it’s safe to say that my mother had no concept of lowering her voice, let alone silencing it. She had fought hard enough to get into this religion in the first place, fighting a Catholic family and what I can only imagine would be the worst case of Catholic guilt, and she wasn’t about to act as a second class believer just because she wasn’t born into the faith. She learnt about Islam, read everything she could, and proceeded to voice her formulated opinions in our community. Much to the disdain of the Arab men who ran our mosque. They didn’t like her tone, her opinions, or her voice at all. I sat, a small child, and watched time after time as my mother challenged them on their decisions and fought to give the women of our community more space in mosques. Space that had previously been denied to them.

Other women in our community sat silent, obedient to husbands that urged them not to get involved. My mother sat in protest at our local mosque, refusing to move, or play the silent role that culture had dictated. Many of the Muslim men in our community hated her. They hated her for challenging what had previously been absolute. They hated that she spoke up. Most of all, they hated her for not being malleable to control from the patriarchy. On one occasion, my mother and I sat in our local mosque praying, once more refusing to move. The men in charge were furious that we wouldn’t heed them, and called my father, demanding he order her to move or they would call the police. My father laughed and told them to make the call. And so, at 3AM on a winter’s night, the police trooped into our local mosque and threw my mother and I out of our place of worship.

We laugh about it now, but it’s remarkable that my mother and I, both of whom are not physically strong or menacing, posed such danger to these men, and their authority, they felt the need to call the police in order to remove us. We weren’t playing by their rules, and nor were we conforming to stereotypical representations of suppressed Muslim women, and it terrified them. If you begin playing with the paradigms of their understanding of what Muslim women should be and are, you’re threatening preconceived notions and therefore you’re a danger.

It’s something I’ve continued to do, and I’ve grown from watching my mother be a dangerous woman, to becoming a dangerous woman myself. Not because I ever aspired to it, or because I wanted to be contentious, but because I was raised to question things, and speak up when I didn’t agree, and that’s two things that will label any woman as dangerous quicker than you can imagine. Historically, we’re supposed to sit down and shut up at all times, seen and not heard. Islam is a religion rooted in feminism, yet the same can’t be said for the cultures surrounding it.

Had I played my role right, and read the correct lines, I would have worn a headscarf and kept my mouth shut, remaining passive and entirely unthreatening. I often used to think that as a Muslim woman living in Britain, I would primarily make non-Muslims uncomfortable. Yet my affiliation to Islam has never been the reason people feel uneasy, but instead it’s my ability to play with the paradigms of my religion that really worries them. And by ‘them’, I mean both Muslims and non-Muslims. I’m part of a generation of Muslim women who are happy to question their faith, interpret it in new and different ways, and above all, vocalize those interpretations. That in itself is dangerous.

Traditional constructs have given way to a new version of Islam that fits into our realities and the worlds we live in. We don’t wear headscarves. We wear short dresses, shorter shorts, and bikinis. We dance in clubs, sometimes all night long. We date men before marriage and always without a chaperone. We pray five times a day. Fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Celebrate our religious holidays, in a really big way. We’re no longer limited to one interpretation of our faith. Instead, we now dance until the dawn, pray our nightly prayers, and then collapse into bed with our lovers.

We’re doing all the things that traditional Muslims don’t agree with or believe in. I’ve seen the uneasy glances cast my way by worried aunties in the local mosque. They label you a rebel, a wayward child, someone who has strayed from the right path. You can tell they think you have less right to be there, that you’re somehow less religious than them and because you don’t follow their interpretation, you’re less Muslim. They’d rather we opted out of our religion altogether, denouncing Islam and leaving them free to cast us off into the ‘lost’ pile. Either that, or opt into their idea of Islam, headscarves firmly in place, quietly accepting the boundaries and limitations. Our refusal to give up on our faith, or practice it within the traditional constructs, is really messing up the dialogue and threatening traditional beliefs.

It’s not just an older generation of Muslims that call for our silence, but the Western non-Muslims would also love us to opt into Islam in a more visibly obvious manner. Currently, we’re not fulfilling a stereotype and that’s problematic. Stereotypes are easy. They’re manageable. People understand them. The lines are clear and the box is open and ready for you. But if you’re refusing to get into the box in the first place, you’re already posing a threat. We don’t float around in burkas, no one is running off to Syria and nor do we sit on the outskirts of British society. We marry out of our culture, no one is chained to the kitchen sink, we’ve never met a member of the Taliban and have no clue what ISIS is all about either. We’re as confused as you are. We integrate into British life, and more importantly, we thrive within British society. Muslim women are excelling within academia, politics, arts, entertainment and the business world. And they’re doing it all while holding onto their faith.

My very existence sticks a middle finger up to the stereotypical Jihadi bride, and it makes the Western world uncomfortable. Suddenly, the rules have changed and subsequently there’s unease. If the game changes when you’re half way through it, how can you win it? I am loud and I’m visible, I defy stereotypes every day and I refuse to cover up. People fundamentally want to understand other people within a certain context. When you’re unable to do that, you’re seen as a threat. You become a lot less malleable.

We’re no longer acting out Islam in the way the media has constructed, and nor are we following the rules set by fellow Muslims. There’s a real desire in both camps for us to cover up, play the traditional roles we’ve been given, and above all shut up. To stop diluting notions of Islam and Western stereotypes. Yet the Muslim women that I know are incredibly multifaceted. They’re creating new worlds with a new dialogue. Worlds that are wholly British and Muslim. Their faith enhances them, feeds their spirituality and is something to be celebrated. It is not bound by rules or muddied by stereotypes. It is inexplicitly linked to their identity and cannot be torn away or given up.

And that is something that Muslims and non-Muslims don’t understand, and once there’s a lack of understanding, the leap to ‘dangerous’ is remarkably quick. There’s no pursuit of knowledge or an attempt at understanding, just fear, and it infiltrates every exchange, transforming you from woman, to dangerous woman.

Salma El-Wardany