Let’s face it- the intersections of misogyny, oppression and Islamophobia make being a Muslim woman one of the hardest things to do. Given the ignorance that is already rife about the Muslim community and the said ignorance which is further exacerbated by the BS spewed by people like Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins, it becomes crucial to establish firmly a discourse that discusses as authentically as possible the challenges of being a Muslim.
One of the easiest ways to do this is through books. As a vociferous reader and an equally passionate feminist, I have recently started making a conscious attempt to start reading more and more literature written by women of colour, especially Muslim women living in conflict areas. In this listicle, therefore, I share with you eight books that paint a true picture of what it is like to be a Muslim woman.
1. My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani
I read this memoir of the wife of Pakistani politician Ghulam Mustafa Khar when I was in the eighth grade and remember being left shaken to the very core of my being. Durrani’s writing does not beat round the bush- in less than four hundred pages, she sketches a poignant tale of her abusive marriage to Khar, and the atrocities he committed to his wife and children. Durrani narrates how she was forced to have more children than she wanted to, and was regularly the victim of marital rape and abuse. Each word from Durrani’s pen reverberates with pain and melancholy, and the photos attached in the book of Durrani and Khar only serves to drive home the sorry state of women in Pakistan. The most telling aspect of the book, however, is how women like Durrani, despite being intelligent and well-educated and brought up in high society, still cannot escape the rampant shackles of abuse and mistreatment.
2. Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy
This nonfiction debut from Egyptian feminist, activist and New York Times columnist Mona Eltahawy raised several eyebrows in the literary world due to the bold title, but don’t let that deter you. Mona’s experience living and working with Muslim women, especially women living in states of extreme deprivation, make her book a stunning revelation on why there is an urgency for a sexual awakening in the Middle Eastern countries. More than that, however, the book lambastes the apathy of the Western, largely Christian world when they look at the subjugation of Muslim women as natural, even acceptable, and thus do nothing to bring about a revolution. The underlying message of the world is crystal clear- that unraveling and unpacking female Muslim sexual agency is the most important step to abolish misogyny and establish equality in the Muslim world.
3. Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
This hilariously rib-tickling book chronicles the tale of a fifteen year old Muslim girl named Jamilah living in Sydney, Australia with her strict, agonizingly conservative widower father and two older siblings. Outside the confines of her orthodox Muslim home and into her public school in Sydney, however, Jamilah transforms into Jamie, an unambiguously Caucasian girl with peroxide blonde hair and light blue eyes that gives away her true identity to not a single soul at her unapologetically racist school. The book highlights the oft-skimmed over issues of racism and colourism in Australia, and what it is like for a young girl to grow up without a mother. Jamilah’s teenage struggles (including, but not limited to, finding a modest dress for her school prom that is not a gunny sack) punctuated with her pride and love for her Lebanese heritage, give her story a raw, honest edge, and you will find yourself relating to her, even if you’re not a teenage Muslim girl.
4. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Written by writer and Professor of English Azar Nafisi, this memoir sketches Nafisi’s return to her home in Tehran, Iran during the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, during which she founded a book club consisting of seven of her most dedicated female students from university. The book is divided into four sections, and each deals with an important aspect of Nafisi’s life in Iran. After being terminated from the University where she taught for refusing to wear a hijab, Nafisi’s book club sought to discuss and dissect the most important works of Western literature ever- including the Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice and Lolita. Nafisi’s students discuss a lot more than just literature, however- they soon start having impassioned debates about boyfriends, marriage and sex, to name just a few. Reading Lolita in Tehran gives the readers a glimpse into the female Muslim intellect and resilience, and is a searing story of determination and fearlessness in the face of impending doom.
5. Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Al-Sanea
Written in an epistolary form, with emails being the prime mode of narrative, Al-sanea’s debut novel follows four young Muslim women living in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and their defiance in pursuing a life untainted by the misogynist expectations and conservative lifestyle expected of them. The four women discuss many ‘taboo’ topics like sex before marriage, contraception and female orgasms in a way that is healthy and sometimes downright funny. The narrative is fresh and breaks away from the ‘Saudi Arabia=rampant misogyny’ belief in a way that is extremely believable. It really comes as no surprise, then, that the book has often been compared to Sex and the City for its humour and honesty.
6. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Writing about the struggle of living in Iran during the Revolution in the format of a graphic novel may seem a bit odd, but the comic element doesn’t trivialize the matter- on the contrary, the graphic novel format only seeks to further cement the gravity of the challenges faced by the author. Persepolis is the tale of author Marjane Satrapi’s life as lived during the Iran-Iraq war, and highlights the lasting effects of war and bloodshed on innocent lives. Written in two parts, the first one deals with Satrapi’s growing up in a war-torn Iran, and the second part details Satrapi’s high school and teenage years in Vienna, her return to Iran and ultimate immigration to France. The book has won several prestigious literary awards and has been made into a film as well.
7. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
American novelist Mohja Kahf’s novel is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis. The book delves deep into the life of Khadra Shamy, a Syrian immigrant living in Indiana, USA. Khadra comes from an ultra-conservative Muslim family, and the ensuing tale is the story of her trying to fit into an American lifestyle while still maintaining her Muslim identity. When Khadra’s seemingly idyllic marriage goes sour, she leaves her home in America and returns to Syria to find herself again. The book is a fantastic read for it not lays bare what it is like to be an immigrant in an alien land, but also the fierce independence and fearlessness of the young Muslim protagonist.
8. In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmad
Written by an British-Muslim doctor, Qanta Ahmed’s book is a tale of what it is like to not only be a woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but a female doctor working in the public health sector. Deported from the US due to visa issues, Ahmed is faced with no option but to accept an opening in Saudi Arabia. Soon, however, she is excited by the prospect of working in a land deemed by so many as oppressive and misogynist. The tale that follows is one of rejection, derision, lack of acceptance and unbridled sexism, but also unexpected love and new-found friendships. Ahmad talks about the various microaggressions put in place against Saudi women- denial of basic rights like the right to vote and the right to drive, and how all women, Muslim or not, have to wear a burqa while out in public. Ahmed’s prose is spectacularly informative, while also narrating the agony of being a woman in a country where women are more or less invisible.
Honorable mentions: White Teeth by Zadie Smith, A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam, Princess by Jean Sassoon, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
This list is, of course, in no way exhaustive and is only a list of the writer’s most favourite books. Did your favourite book make it to the list? Leave a comment on the books on Muslim women you have read that truly struck a chord with you.