''The outer space beings are my brothers. They sent me here. They already know my music."
- Sun-Ra (Jazz musician, 1914-1994)
Uproar over the niqab continues and a just few days ago an eighteen year old woman in France actually bit a police officer who tried to arrest her for wearing Muslim garb. Frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more biteyness over this issue as the niqab has turned into a shrill political obsession among the middle classes who have little better to do than wonder ‘Is this good for women?’ (WITHOUT ASKING THE WOMEN INVOLVED on both sides of the argument) and ‘Can a woman wearing a niqab really be a citizen of society?’ (when it is laws such as those passed in France that effectively bar women donning Muslim garb from full citizen rights). The experience of listening to a debate about Muslim women that is so distanced from real human-to-human dialogue with Muslim and ex-Muslim women has been both frustrating and surreal. Everyone wants to talk about them but few want to talk TO them and make sure they’re getting real human perspectives from both sides of the argument.
I’ve basically liked two pieces on this issue, one by Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship (http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2013/09/niqab-asking-people-wear-veils/) and the other in Vice Magazine (http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/the-great-niqab-debate). Amazingly, Vice took the time to talk to women who aren’t white and don’t live on a side-street off Upper Street. Wowzers.
I’ve made a conscious effort to NOT write lots of pieces for my blog on this issue, but it’s hard to say nothing. The level of the debate has been so low I didn’t want to contribute. Also, I’m a woman who’s a bit ‘ethnic’ and was raised Muslim, so few days pass without me getting a little annoyed by a dismissive article in the press. Being from a certain background can mean that you’re constantly up against situations where, if you intervene at every point, you find yourself defining your own identity in a purely defensive way. As a 35 year old woman who’s living my own life (and was never, ever beaten into wearing Muslim garb) I think I want my writing to be defending what’s right but also breaking into new ground. Surely the privilege of being 2nd generation means I can dream beyond certain pre-destined cultural roles? I hope so. Dreaming is pretty much my favourite pastime, and thus the kid’s book I’m writing at the moment isn’t a diatribe on the niqab but a fantasy novel called Tribe of the Snow Leopards. Magic, furry creatures and sequined headdresses galore.
When I was growing up life was kind of boring and not much fun but I liked writing and often dreamt I was flying on the back of a robot through the back streets of Eltham. My father’s abuse defined the family landscape, and while I loved school and daydreaming in the park I was continually informed that what was 'out there' was 'Western', 'bad', and a place where I'd never be accepted. Stay and be abused, leave and they’ll corrupt you. Being a wizard seemed a great way to make my own world that wasn’t Muslim or ‘Western’ but just everything I needed it to be… my true native land.
Precisely for this reason I was so excited when I learned of Samira Ahmed’s interviews with Asian women from the suburbs, revealing a similar obsession with other-worldliness in the shape of David Bowie. When I came across her BBC Radio 4 documentary 'I dressed Ziggy Stardust', like an image-hungry urchin I wanted cry out ‘They’re like meeeee!!!!!!’. Well, sort of… Like me, Samira grew up in the suburbs of South London, where the South Asian diaspora was rather thinly spread in the 80s and where the far right had gained some confidence on the streets. The BNP headquarters were shut down after a rather excellent ANL demo in ’94, but the memory of those brats who killed Stephen Lawrence (they were known to be involved in a BNP-related gang) was unpleasant enough. I remember my mother coming home from Sainsbury’s saying 'I saw them! They were on the other side of the street and they kept looking at me a laughing and spitting on the ground!'. She said all this in Urdu so I had to have it repeated a few times before I copped on. She meant, of course, the killers of Stephen Lawrence, walking free after the trial. I sat with her for a bit, drank tea, saw her get on with things after a while, and I went back to reading my awesome novel. It by Ursula Le Guin novel and it was awesome because it detailed the life of this kid who didn't seem to have a place in the real world until he discovered his magical powers. HE WAS A WIZARD!!! Wow. I loved every word. Words were my magic and they whizzed me off to worlds that just seemed nicer and more empowering than the real one around me.
Unsurprisingly, I grew up to adore the likes of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Natasha Khan, people who grew up in the suburbs and made their own identities.
I was reminded of Samira again when I looked at the Guardian Guide a week ago and nearly wet my pants because Khan (AKA Bat for Lashes) was on the front cover. I went straight to my computer and listened to all three albums, ‘Fur and Gold’, ‘Two Suns’ and ‘The Haunted Man’. Sometimes the outer-world experiences of Khan and Sun-Ra are a refreshing take on dealing with ‘difference’. Khan is better known for her glittery, shaman-like image than the fact that she has a Pakistani Muslim dad and was expected to have an arranged marriage. She was saved by her parents' divorce, but one listen of 'Sirens' summons a picture of the monsters (and men) that still haunt her imagination. It’s no coincidence that while creating glittering, far-out artistic identities for herself Khan has had to cut off all with the Pakistani side of her family. But she’s also not defined by what she thinks of Islam or race. She’s defined her own narrative. One minute she’s naked on an album cover carrying a man on her shoulders (she decided against hair-removal and make-up for the photo shoot); another she’s a Native American wizard. It makes you think. Sometimes the best way to be a woman is ignore Caitlin Moran's book and do whatever the fuck you like. Carrying various kinds of oppression on your shoulders when growing up can definitely engender an intolerance for being told what ‘women like you’ should be thinking or doing or writing about or singing about...
Every time I read yet another tedious piece by Alibhai- Brown or Keith Vaz, or get a request for my opinion on the niqab, I wonder 'Is this the only crap we get to talk about? Is this what they want to publish by people like me?'
The debate so often defines difference as disadvantage and utterly fails to consult the 'disadvantaged' themselves. By these rules women from my background must be the subject, never the authors of our identities, doubly disadvantaged by the dominant narrative of two cultures. Do I want to be a pawn in that sort of world? I'd rather fly to Pluto, dressed as a shaman. All hail the 3rd Space.