Hip in a hijab: what it means to be young, Muslim and female today
It was the 16-year-old girl wearing a hijab, who spoke about feminism at Glastonbury, who first took my breath away. In front of thousands of muddy concert goers, she noted she was probably the only overtly Muslim person present. She spoke about living in a world where the odds are still stacked against women.
Those same odds are even more heavily stacked against Muslim women: employment discrimination, Islamophobia, social stereotyping and cultural expectations add to the challenges they face.
Like their peers, these young Muslim women are very much the selfie generation. Fashion, consumerism and online communities play a powerful role in their lives. And while feminism is undergoing a digitally-driven revival – faith is increasingly unfashionable, at least in the West.
My identity as a Muslim woman growing up in nineties Britain was focused on being a little too earnest, a little too self-explanatory of my ‘difference’ and therefore a bit too self-conscious and overly positive.
Today’s young Muslim women look so much cooler than I did and act with a different kind of confidence. I wanted to explore whether it was different to grow up young, Muslim and female today – which resulted in a BBC Radio 4 documentary entitled: Hip in a Hijab.
What I discovered was a growing wave of young British Muslim women utterly unlike the oppressed victims often plastered across our news pages or depicted as threats to ‘our way of life’. They dazzle with confidence and determination, believing that they can, and should, have it all: faith, ambition, success, employment and family. There’s nothing they see that will hold them back.
However, what I found the most fascinating was what these young women are not. They are not submissive, oppressed, or voiceless. But neither are they radicalised, western-rejectionist or ISIS fodder.
They are not apologetic about their desire for modernity and success in British life nor about their faith. They challenge assumptions from within the traditional Muslim communities, but also challenge conventions from wider society. Breaking boundaries is just what they do, and they don’t bat an eyelid. Their intrinsic self-belief is inspiring. What might baffle many is that they are fashionable, consumerist and quite scarily cool.
Most distinctive about many of these young women is the way they wear their headscarves and modest clothes. I learnt different ways to pin my own scarf (‘turban’, ‘layered’) and why ‘the bigger the scarf the better’. Or perhaps that was ‘so-last-season’.
Celebrity-stalking is another big thing for them – yes, even for Muslim teen girls. And they are conscious of the intersection many of them face between ethnicity and religion. They giggled while recounting to me the tale of their 40-something work experience manager at a major global retail store who crossed his arms gangsta style and told them how pleased he was they had travelled from their ‘ends’ to be there (while also cringing).
While these young women are ready for both the world and work, it seems that the professional sphere might not be ready for them. Toiling briefly at a law firm, one of the girls noted how she was the only Muslim in the whole company, and one of just a handful of women. Another teen I spoke to, who is aiming to be an engineer, feels that being female and Muslim in a male environment can be intimidating.
The UK may a global creative hub but people at the helm of businesses would do well to remember that creativity is usually not born from the comfortable middle ground, but from the edges. Young Muslim women are increasingly attempting to enter these industries find themselves facing a double battle. One from traditional parents and family who dismiss the creative roles as an unreliable career lacking in status. And secondly with mainstream businesses that are blind to the possibility that Muslims are a rich source of creativity.
Sarah Elenany, a designer who launched one of the first Muslim fashion brands in 2009, is a case in point. Her style is gritty urban cool, and she’s designed for some of the world’s biggest street brands. But she explains that the stereotypes held about Muslims and Muslim women in particular, (namely that religion results in oppressed minds) is actually a bigger problem for the industries that should be seeking out new ideas and new blood – than the hugely creative wave of young Muslims.
At the heart of what drives all of these young women is their faith, and they are not apologetic about it. Far from it. Instead they stand proud. Simply by getting on with their lives and not making a fuss about what they wear and what they believe, they feel that they can create change and foster acceptance.
Their aspirations are set against a tricky political backdrop. While my documentary was commissioned long before the horrific attack in Paris earlier this week, it feels like every time there is an attempt to understand these women on their own terms and humanise them, unconnected to politics or terror, it is overshadowed by terrible events ‘done in the name of Islam’.
As a society we need to properly understand that Muslim women can, and are, creating an identity on their own terms. And for those who say that the girls should abandon religion and move with the times might like to note that it is these young women themselves who are proud of their faith, feisty and fed up of being told what they should and should not be.
I’ll leave you with this: Sarah Elenany described Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, to me as a business woman and a ‘badass’. I’m thrilled to report back that the next generation of young British Muslim women are pretty ‘badass’ too.