The Guardian’s Life and Style section has a biweekly series called This Muslim Life. The series consists mainly of vignettes of the experiences of its author, Noorjehan Barmania, who writes on “the life of an Asian immigrant in Britain.” The author brings in anecdotes about topics such as multiculturalism in Britain, her childhood in South Africa, the cultural differences she experiences as a South Asian woman in the U.K., and negotiating her relationship with her boyfriend in a context where dating is culturally and religiously frowned upon.
As I browse through the articles, I see way more references to culture-specific issues than to anything relating to Islam, even though the series is called This Muslim Life. In a way, this could be a positive thing, in that it demonstrates that Islamic identity is not monolithic, and not the only force at play in a person’s life. Being Muslim doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you write about or think about will be directly related to Islam, and Muslim women also think about things like dress sizes and avoiding futures of spinsterhood. And it’s not written in a “look, we’re just like you!” kind of way; it’s just a matter-of-fact look at some of the things happening in the author’s life.
On the other hand, many of the articles have a heavy focus on the life of a South Asian immigrant woman living in Britain, and I worry that this ends up equating Muslims with immigrants, and reinforcing the notion that Muslims are cultural and national outsiders to British society. Of course, many Muslim women in the U.K. certainly do share Ms. Barmania’s heritage; however, calling the series “This Muslim Life” means that it wouldn’t be a major leap for readers to conclude that her experiences were directly related to her being Muslim. It also implies that “Muslim culture” is different from “British culture,” when Ms. Barmania writes about her family never having “proper holidays” like her English school friends did, or the fact that camping is not part of her cultural framework. There are several articles that are focused on the experience of coming to Britain as an immigrant. Other articles talk about skin-lightening creams and the desire for fair skin within the writer’s community.
While these are all interesting pieces, by appearing under the title of This Muslim Life, they reinforce the idea that Islam is outside of mainstream white British culture, that Muslim is a category that applies primarily to immigrants, and to cultural and racial “others” (as defined in contrast to the dominant British society.) Perhaps this is just me being sensitive, since I almost never saw myself reflected in any of her descriptions of Muslim life. As a white person (whose skin probably couldn’t get any lighter) who grew up camping, among other things, I felt resistant to this construction of a “Muslim life,” without contextualising it as a “South Asian Muslim life.” But my own personal issues aside, I do think it can be damaging if readers are led to constantly see Muslim-ness as other-ness, as outside experiences that they are not expected to relate to.
And when Islam did arise in her articles, it was often in the context of constraints on relationships and dating, and how that affects Ms. Barmania’s relationship with her boyfriend. Certainly, this is a tension that many Muslims experience (and no, we’re not going to get into a discussion here on whether dating is allowed in Islam), but what image does it convey if Islam is only discussed insofar as it limits the author’s dating life? Here, Islam becomes something restricting and outdated, with rules that need to be transgressed. It would have been nice to see at least something demonstrating a spiritual connection to the religion (though I admit I haven’t read all of her articles, only as far back as January.)
Perhaps by using the word “this” in the title, Ms. Barmania’s intention was to identify her series as reflecting specific experiences of “this” Muslim woman and not necessarily any other. However, it’s difficult to attempt to represent any kind of Muslim life to a non-Muslim audience without a whole bunch of qualifiers, and I’m not convinced that this series is properly contextualised.
On another note, let me be the first to wish MMW readers an early Eid Mubarak!