Meet Generation M
By: Shelina Janmohamed/UK Telegraph
If I were to pick on face to define our global future, she would be female, Muslim, urban and digitally connected.
That might sound surprising, especially given that most of what we know of Muslim women is limited to what they wear or how oppressed we assume they are.
But behind our rows about banning veils and outlawing burkinis on European beaches, lies a group of women who are set to define our economic, social, political and cultural future. And it could be very positive for us all.
Being granted permission to take part fully in our society is not something these women – who I call Generation M – are waiting for.
They are part of a global group of Muslim women who believe that faith and modernity go hand-in-hand. They believe that being Muslim can be a force for positive change. They use their values to improve the world around them, build bridges across communities and assert consumerism as their right and as a badge of their identity.
They walk the line between dispelling the stereotypes that surround them and pushing against the cultural barriers that, in many parts of the world, have suppressed their voices.
Far from being held back by their faith, they see it as a form of liberation and they are going back to its roots to determine a new kind of feminism. It may not always sync with western middle class feminism, but it is a catalyst for change. That makes it exciting, but also a force of global proportions.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, approximately one third are under 15 and two thirds under 30. So the impact of young women is not to be underestimated, with their increasing levels of education, employment, rising age of marriage, later childbirth and a growing need to assert their rights.
Their mantra is “forgot to be oppressed, too busy being awesome” – which you don’t have to delve too deep into social media sites to find. They are navigating the challenges within Muslim communities, alongside the growing gendered Islamophobia they are experiencing.
Hate crimes are on the rise and, still, the majority of victims are women – who are spat on, jeered and even covered in faeces.
But Muslim women are learning to navigate this world – one that lauds them with one hand, and hurls faeces at them with the other.
There’s now an achingly cool Muslim fashion scene, from Jakarta to Johannesburg; New York to Mumbai. High street shops and designer labels are listening to what Muslim women want. But to reduce these girls and women to what they wear is to do them a disservice. It’s also to entirely misunderstand the diverse global nature of sisterhood, and the contribution that these young Muslim women are making to it.
We see it all around us. In the UK we are familiar with Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the 2015 series of The Great British Bake Off. She has declared: “I am British, I’m Bangladeshi and I’m Muslim. And I’m proud of all three.”
But while we might hold her dear to our hearts as a national treasure, her pride in her Muslim identity, and how it propels her forward to make a positive contribution is not an unusual story. Young Muslim women around the world are just as vibrant and dynamic. We just need to listen to their voices.
Take Yuna, a Malaysian singer with a soft jazz voice, who wears her headscarf with panache, has millions of followers and is now signed to a record label in the USA. Or Fatin Shidqia from Indonesia, who won the country’s first X-Factor series, can belt out Rihanna while wearing a gold lame outfit, at the same time as releasing a track called ‘Proud of you Moslem’ and spending her winnings to send her parents to on a pilgrimage.
In the USA, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad returned with a bronze medal from Rio. In the UK, Shazia Saleem launched a range of ready meals to overturn bring global cuisine to Muslims and dispel the myth that we only eat curry.
Consumption by Muslim women is particularly important. They have gone on to the high streets and found that the products they want are missing. Instead of moaning about their absence, they’ve been busy setting up their own businesses.
Take Romanna bint AbuBaker who founded the million dollar fashion business Haute Elan. Or Salma Chaudhry who set up a halal cosmetics company after she survived cancer and wanted to create a beauty range using wholesome ingredients. Or Nasim Rizvi who founded halal baby food to meet the needs of mums wanting to uphold their halal principles at the same time as working or running busy lives.
All of these are testament to women who are the superheroes of their own lives, and driving a huge social shift.
From astronauts to Nobel prize winners, these inspirational Muslim women are not one-offs but part of a bigger trend. They ardently reject the tag “oppressed” and are working hard to demonstrate their awesomeness. They are contributing to the sense of limitless liberation that many Muslim women increasingly feel. It is they who will forge the path for Generation M – and our global future.
These women are all around us. The question is: can we look beyond the burka to understand their stories, and how they are closely interwoven with our own?
Shelina Janmohamed’s book “Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World” is published today by IB Tauris.
Background | History of the Burka
The Koran enjoins all Muslims – whether male or female – to dress modestly and refrain from revealing “any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary”.
Beyond this general instruction, the holy book offers no specific guidance on female clothing. Its pages contain no mention of the burka or, for that matter, of the other varieties of dress that are now associated with Islam, including the hijab, or veil.
The burka appears to have originated in Persia in the 10th century, before slowly spreading to the Arabian Peninsula and present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Arabia, a variant known as the “niqab” was promoted by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam; in South Asia, the burka was adopted by the Deobandis, the local strand of fundamentalism.
When the Taliban captured Kabul and seized power over most of Afghanistan in 1996, they made it compulsory for all women to wear the burka.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, the garment remained largely unknown until relatively recently. It was the rise of the Wahhabi and Deobandi traditions which spread the burka to areas where it was previously invisible, including West Africa.
Hardly any women wore the burka in West Africa until two or three decades ago. Today, it remains rare in most countries in the region, explaining why some governments have imposed a ban without a public backlash.
The burka is a reflection of culture rather than an accepted interpretation of Islam and it remains an alien imposition in large areas of the Muslim world. Since the rise of Boko Haram, it has also come to be seen as a security risk, hence the gradual spread of the ban through West Africa.