Piers Morgan & The “N” Word: Who can speak on the issue of race?

As I sit here pondering my life, my contempt for the recent decision in the Ferguson case, and whether I should have an extra slice of carrot cake before bed– I couldn’t help by contemplate the issue of race in America and the UK.  Recently the British journalist and television host Piers Morgan, made some contentious comments regarding the use of the “N” word being commonly used both on social media, entertainment and within society – especially amongst African-Americans. Before some people question as to whether I have standing in this issue, or whether I am “qualified” to give my two cents (or dirhams, pennies…whatever) on this topic, I’d like to state that indeed I am a black female and also Muslim. I guess I’m what my mother would call me “double jeopardy” (largely in her opinion regarding the stigma I’m likely to incur due to my race and religious identification/manifestation).

The “N” word is a word that bares so many connotations to me depending largely on context, both in the historical and contemporary sense. It is a word I know for certain my grandparents generation certainly wouldn’t have used, they didn’t know what rap music was and if they heard it they found it a nuisance.  The most plausible explanation is that people in Oman or Uganda don’t usually label people according to their race as they lived in a society that was not as multi-cultural like the Western Europe or the USA (people in those places identify by order of tribe. I have a tribe, but in the interest of not wanting to encourage nationalism or sectarianism I will not state this. Regrettably, it is a word that first I came to know by way of rap music and film during my early years prior to developing my knowledge of self and socially cognizant outlook on life – which I very actively promote.

In the light of Piers’ comments and the fierce criticism it has attracted, this has made me think of several issues within this storm along with questions, that Piers and many other people may not have asked or pondered. Of course these questions and the analysis that come packaged are subject to scrutiny and may spark debate – I’m ready for that:

Can you actually kill a word though?

Perhaps the amusing aspect to Piers Morgan’s suggestion is the notion that a word can be banned, eradicated or killed. One could easily beg to differ.

While I have a small margin of appreciation for the fact that some people (or even a majority of people in society) may find certain phrases and term socially undesirable, the “N” word, like any other racial, ethnic or sexually derogatory words is not one that can just be “killed” or phased out as and when Piers or any public figure pleases. Words are not like garbage that can easily be disposed of whenever one feels like it. I mean I couldn’t wake up one day and decide that a slang term or meaningless word should suddenly be banned irrespective of how compelling the reason is (well, perhaps in my own house or bedroom).

Words just like the views held by members of society are not something that can be changed overnight nor magically like the swish of a wand in Harry Potter; rather they have to go through socio-cultural evolution. This is where many people or the particular group acknowledge the history of the term, actualise the fact of and how it is degrading or offensive to the a specific person/group of people, and find measures to raise awareness and discourage its usage from the public domain – which may filter down to its non-usage in private settings. Such a process takes time to eventually discourage the usage, the example of the Afrikaans “K” word that was widely used by many white South Africans to disparage Black South Africans during the apartheid era, is an apt example of a word being gradually phased out using the above process – but even so, this has taken over two decades to be phased out. From this one can make the deduction that it is easier to change the institutions, labels and books but indeed it’s a battle to change the hearts and minds of a people.

Looking at the bigger picture: The role of the Corporations

The role of media and entertainment corporations is something that Piers Morgan (understandably) and some members of the public subconsciously (or out of financial expedience) ignore is the role that media and entertainment corporations play in the widespread usage of the “N” word. Again, by placing the burden of “killing” off the “N” word on black people, whilst dismissing the corporations’ role is looking at the situation very myopically.

Within the record company structures, the image often presented to the consumer is that the artists have full creative control over their content and have some level of influence under the label there are signed to. After all, it’s their music and artistry that generates money for the record label right? While this may have some elements of truth, nevertheless there has been some frugality on the part of the label. In the world where supply meets demand and business interests meet (and are subject to collision with morality and ethics), it is more lucrative and financially expedient to encourage an artist to write/produce music that glorifies violence, degradation of women, promotion secular liberal values and the manifestation of individual liberty etc.

Of course this is juxtaposed with the production of socially conscious music that encourages people to have self-knowledge and enjoin in the good, as exemplified in the disparity in media promotion given to contemporary stars such as Nicki Minaj and French Montana as opposed to the socially conscious artists such as Public Enemy, LowKey or M.I.A.

This is exacerbated by the fact that even in the acting industry; the portrayals of black people are usually ones that perpetuate stereotypes endorsed by largely white-owned media executives and directors along with actors, that give more weight to the size of their pay check than to the ramifications their depictions have upon members of the black community or the wider societal perception of blacks. Basically Piers, if you want the “N” to be banned from usage in the public domain, also make an appeal to the media companies and artists who give a platform such words to become common.

Does being white preclude a person(s) from participating in racially contentious discussions?

Being white should not be treated as an automatic ban or preclusion from engaging in discussions pertaining to race/ethnicity. I very much dislike the view (often held by some black supremacists and separatists) that white people should be barred from engaging with blacks on in issues affecting them. Such a mind-set does little to encourage cohesion and further widens the gap of understanding.

If anything, it is usually very helpful to engage with white people (who in many western countries are the ethnic majority) in gaining insight into how best to ameliorate the problem of racism, and foster a climate of peaceful coexistence in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous society. However with that being said, the comments made by Piers Morgan (albeit with the best of intentions) seems to only exemplify his lack of touch with everyday members of the African-American community – a demographic he fervently tries to “advise”. How? In explaining how Piers Morgan demonstrates the above, two points that are interlinked will have to be made here: white privilege and the attempt to absolve responsibility.

In addressing the issue of white privilege both in a general sense and specific to the proposal made by Piers Morgan, it is common knowledge (especially for people of colour) that whites incur many privileges upon the basis of their skin colour alone. This is seen in various aspects of life including education, employment, the criminal and civil justice system, media and travel – all of which filter and affect our perceptions and course of dealings with one another in both private and public settings, across various cultural contexts.

Homing in and relating this back to the topic at hand, due to Piers Morgan being a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, he incurs the benefits of not having to bear the brunt of racial superiority being exerted onto him nor the experience of being discriminated against due to his skin tone (whether systematically through oppressive government policies such as South Africa’s former apartheid system, Pre-Civil Rights America…or even colonialism!). Oh, and let’s not forget having to deal with the constant negative media portrayal of his race, culturally biased exams and school curriculum, stop and search/stop and frisk policies, living in low income neighbourhoods where crime rates, drug use and unemployment rates may be high – the list goes on.

Unfortunately, for many African-Americans living in the U.S. what I have just cited is a reality that many, especially those indoctrinated with the provincial view of American society espoused by Fox News, choose to ignore – because it serves as an opiate to placate the sensitivities of those who are not victims of such circumstances.

Furthermore, in Piers suggesting that “If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves” this only serves to alienate and irritate many members of this demographic – in turn, earning more criticism. Predictably albeit unintentionally, the likes of Bill Maher, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Bill O’Reilly et al. will likely twerk to this tune as this suggestion is a poor and unviable attempt evade the guilt and accountability from the those that invented and used the “N” word as means of asserting racial superiority and dehumanising an entire race, and place the burden of policing the “N” word on Blacks who try reclaim the word from its oppressively negative connotation to one of empowerment. In other words Piers is absurdly attempting to place the onus on African-Americans (and the Black global community as a whole) to police a word that we didn’t want ourselves, rather foisted upon us by an inherent and systematically racist society.

For Piers Morgan, a white male who has never had to bear the brunt of such a term being used to denigrate his self-worth, nor the brunt of racism or the negative experiences that faces many African-Americans, to advise that black people should be responsible for “killing off” the N word reeks of hypocrisy and white-saviour-complex under the façade of “advice”. That’s like me advising members of the Indo-Pakistani community in the UK on the issue of the “P” word! That’s absurd!

The question as to if any success has been achieved in making the “N” word one of empowerment, endearment or in any way less threatening is not the issue here, and if this discussion is to take place, it is preferable that it is done in a way that is balanced and fair instead of being one-sided attributing the burden of responsibility to a particular group of people.

Advertisements

Can I touch it? Erm… : The Hair Conversations and the Politicisation of Black Hair

“Can I touch it?”, “Oh my God, your hair is so nappy!!”, “Wow *awkwardly smiles/fascinated stare* your hair is so different – I want an afro!”…or “Does the drapes….”  (There are other questions one can be asked, but due to Islamic etiquette I refuse to divulge the entirety of those questions).

These are among the many questions received by many black women and girls (including myself) at some point in their lives by a non-black peer, colleague or person generally interested in “the unknown”. Such individuals manifest an often genuine degree of fascination and feelings of shock and awe when analysing afro-textured hair. Of course in some instances, some people (normally those who exhibit a lack of home training in having regard for one’s personal space) may demonstrate the type of courage (rather ignorance/stupidity) you can’t get from a bottle of Jack Daniels and actually go there i.e. proceeding to touch, feel and quite frankly molest the hair of the afro-textured haired person in question. In some cases, albeit not all, this can occur with or without the permission of the recipient. Although, it is understandable that Caucasian and other non-black people of colour may have a well-meaning sense of curiosity with a hair type that is radically different to their own. These instances, in addition to the unintentional/intention comments made are forms of micro-aggressions, which can serve to alienate such groups from black people. As a result, hindering the efforts made to foster understanding and cohesion.

While the latter experience of touching a person’s hair without permission may not be particularly common in the UK, nevertheless it is an issue that is part of a wider conversation pertaining to the Eurocentric notions of beauty, race and the challenges they present to minority groups.

The politics and never-ending phenomena of Black hair (and at large the image of black women) is something that is contentious and often arouses feelings ranging from anger and frustration to joy and confusion – and all shades in between. The topic has been discussed by many cultural critics, black feminists and image activists including Michaela Angela Davis (not to be confused with the Black Panther member Angela Davis) and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. The topic was even the subject of the 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock entitled “Good Hair”. Furthermore, black hair has gained mainstream international media attention when in 2013 South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma urged African women to embrace natural hairstyles, and back in 2009 when  US President Obama’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, incurred negative reactions because she wore her hair in natural African twists while accompanying her family on a visit to Italy.

In order to understand how and why this is an issue to be explored and discussed, one cannot talk about the politics of black hair without putting the conceptions and notions of beauty under the microscope.

Why y’all so touchy?

Caucasian and non-black people of colour often wonder as to why hair is such a contentious issue in the black community. It is fathomable when assessing the situation on a superficial level, the subject of hair is something that is ordinarily considered quite trivial in comparison to bigger problems plaguing society as a whole and their respective communities. However, in deciphering the issue, it may be sensible to start with a quote to put things into context:

 “It’s amazing that it’s considered revolutionary to wear my hair the way it grows out of my head!” Tracie Thoms (actress).

Historically speaking, black people and their hair has long been an issue dating back as far as the days of slavery in which a slave who had physical features that resembled that of their Caucasian master was in some cases favoured in terms of receiving an education and spared from doing backbreaking menial work under the sun, compared to the slave that most resembled black African ancestry. Since then, the phrase “good hair” which has its roots in being used as a survival term, is commonly used today to denote the preference, along with the constantly promulgated notion of long, straight, silky hair being made a socially acceptable norm (at the expense of kinky, afro-textured hair being socially rejected). In turn, many black women and girls opt for the use of a relaxer made of chemicals that straighten the hair to fulfil the ideal of having “good hair” with children as young as six being subjected to regular treatments. For those that choose to wear their natural hair in styles such as an afro, twists or dreadlocks, they may have to endure negative stereotypes attributed to such styles, e.g. the notion of those who wear dreadlocks being synonymous with recreational marijuana usage or the afro being tantamount to “setting off the revolution” – with reference to the civil rights activists such as Angela Davis from the Black Panthers.

Of course these stereotypes are wrong and correspondingly, this has a profoundly negative effect upon black women and young girls growing up in a Western, Eurocentric society in which tells them, whether overtly or covertly, that their form of beauty is not highly valued. This culminates in many having an inferiority complex as to their race, heritage and place in the world. Many Children’s books, television shows and toys such as Barbie perpetuate the narrative of Eurocentric superiority in beauty, and even when Barbie did have a black doll called Christie – she had long straight jet black hair that resembled that of an Oriental or Indo-Pakistani woman as opposed to a sub-Saharan African girl! Where was her afro? Or twists or locks?! At least give a variation.

To add insult to injury, when I recall my days as a child I also struggled to find a doll that resembled myself – the fact that I was (and still am) overweight and black made the search all the more difficult in my quest to find that elusive “fat black doll”. However, in the end I did find my doll and to this day I still keep it as a reminder of the various types of beauty that exist – but also the refusal for the society I live in to accept natural African hairstyles and fuller figured women as also encompassing the many notions of beauty.

It is easy to look at the issue simplistically and point fingers at certain people, corporations and/or society as whole etc., but doing so would just be that: simple. The problem is much deeper, and by pointing fingers and not postulating ideas to solve the problem, one just engrossed in this sad and confidence-waning cycle.

My black is beautiful, so when did I cease to become black?

Questions relating to black hair are not helped when dividing opinions permeate within the black community, namely between two groups: those who are “pro natural” (those that advocate and opt to wear their hair in its natural state, also known as the “natural hair movement”) and those who choose not to wear their hair in the natural state (i.e. the way in which their hair grows out of their hair, for example weaves, wigs, chemically straightening). It is argued by some in the former category (and by some conservative non-black social commentators) that wearing hair in its natural state shows pride and acceptance in one’s racial and ethnic identity, with claims also asserted by some who are pro-natural that the altering of hair from its natural state may constitute the denial of one’s racial or ethnic identity. Such arguments presented can often be regarded as reductive as there are a range of reasons why an individual opts to present themselves in the way that they do, and in turn should not feel obliged to justify this to the rest of society.

The issue is not how one chooses to wear their hair (or whether one’s hair is store bought or naturally grown) but rather the idea that black racial and ethnic identities are only limited to one type of way or look. This is completely wrong as black hair is not one monolithic type; rather it represents a range of fashion styles, lengths, levels of versatility and textures – and yes, this includes extensions. One doesn’t stop being black because they have a weave or lace-front wig nor does one become “more black” because you wear sport an Afro or dreadlocks with a dashiki shirt, rather this contributes to disunity within the black community at large and does help in the quest for unity.

Where beauty and blackness are concerned, black women constantly find themselves in a position where they have to fight and defend to the rest of society why their features should be legitimised and accepted. For me as a black woman, I find it disconcerting that something as trivial as the way my hair grows out of my head is considered defiant or “revolutionary”. What makes this situation more disheartening is that anti-blackness, shadeism, colourism, sectarianism and nationalism are all forms of mental colonialism that continue to permeate within the Muslim Community.

It is until Black women and other non-black women of colour emancipate themselves from the shackles of mental colonialism by starting to accept, embrace and promote their natural beauty by abstaining from using terms that normalise inferiority and self-hatred emanating from their past, that the struggle for promotion and acknowledgement within Western society will get easier.

**************************************************************************************************************************

For those who are unfamiliar with the terms used in this piece. Here’s a brief glossary:

Good hair = A popular term in the black community (most especially African-American community), used to describe an black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.

Nappy = tightly coiled / curled unaltered hair. Coiled hair in its natural state

Non-black people of Colour (NBoPoC) = people who belong to racial/ethnic groups that are neither Black nor Caucasian i.e. people who are Latino, Middle Eastern/Arab, Indo-Pakistani Asian, Oriental Asian, mixed race (be this mixed black and white or otherwise) or any group in the “other” category.

People of colour (PoC) = normally and mainly used to mean black people (African or Afro-Carribean), although one could count non-black and non-Caucasian racial/ethnic groups as being also people of colour.

Relaxer/Perm = a creamy substance made from hydrochloric acid and other alkhalis. For the most part it is applied mainly on Afro-textured hair in order to chemically straighten the hair. Another name for the relaxer is called a perm. Thus permed or relaxed hair is hair that is chemically straightened.

My Thoughts and General Advice regarding the nature of Dialogue.

“If viewpoints and other promulgated opinions pertaining to Islam are to be challenged, which opens the doors for dialogue to occur, this should be done according to the ways (sunnah) of the Prophet and in a post-primary school fashion that doesn’t diminish the dignity of an individual. Likewise if ideas and thoughts are to be disseminated by individuals (and correspondingly questioned), in the interest of transparency, credence and accountability one’s identity should not be withheld. This is something for some members of the Muslim community to ponder in their course of dealings with the wider society…but most importantly with ourselves.”

 

– Nusrat Lodda, May 15th 2014

Our Future of Today, We Must Think Anew! : An Open Letter to the Youth, Teachers & the Wider Society

Dear Tomorrow,

I am writing to you because I value you, believe in you and have faith that with persistent efforts you can have the capacity to overwrite the wrongs of our forefathers – but most importantly overwrite the personal pasts that may continue to affect your present state. Within each and every one of you there lies a potential, a seed waiting to be watered, a key waiting to unlock a door or a chain waiting to be broken.  Among life’s biggest failures are not those did not have dreams, but rather those that had them but did not have the courage and determination to pursue them – indeed that is a great loss. Having said this, I come from a generation where although dreams may be evident, they are yet to be actualised. Why? Because we have been indoctrinated to believe that the main (and perhaps only) way to be successful is through the conveyor belt of going to university and getting a degree in order to be guaranteed “a really good job”. One of the modes of thinking we need to change is our notion of success, of which is often (although not exclusively) attributed to tangible gains such as wealth and fame. It is a shame that there are many in this generation that look up to the celebrities on the cover of magazines and the ones engaging in acts of debauchery, all in the name of reality television in the hope of making a name for themselves. Success does not and should not only be epitomised by these individuals, but rather I encourage you to widen your thinking and to reflect upon how you define your idea of success as opposed to what is socially constructed.

Education occurs in various forms, and so school is only one way of attaining it – if anything school is a very institutionalised, entrenched and rigid way of doing so. But what many people seem to disregard is the deficiencies of the school system.  During my time in school, I realised that school was a place that committed one of the biggest acts of genocide: the genocide of innovation, creativity and alternative/autonomous thinking. If you think it is a generalised blanket statement or a diatribe against the education system, let me proceed to explain and analyse – perhaps this will provoke you to reflect.

When I was in school I observed the failure of many teachers to truly realise the individual worth of each student, in the midst of being engrossed in target setting (exceeding expectations not always corresponding in reality) and extra assignments in order to maintain high ranking positions in the league tables, they failed to acknowledge other alternatives and possibilities beyond a marking criteria. They did not see that my innovative answers, ideas and concepts extended beyond that, instead confining my work to a set marking criteria and ignoring the effort exerted. It was only a few years ago that I was in your place, I was told that I was wayward, had special needs and that I should “be realistic with my options”. Really what they meant is that I should aim for something mediocre and stick at it as they did not believe I could actually exceed their expectations. If I had listened to the teacher that did not see my worth, I would not have proceeded with the process of becoming what I am today.

 

Conversely, that is not to say that there were not any encouraging and inspiring teachers present, I did have teachers that encouraged me to explore and foster a climate for free and alternative thinking to flourish. I thank the few teachers I had such as my English teachers throughout years seven to thirteen, making me realise my love for language, originality and conceptual analysis. Likewise I express my gratitude to my History teachers for awakening my political awareness and reasoning capabilities that question the narratives told from a certain perspective. Similarly, they made me reflect on how despite many life lessons we as a people rarely seem to learn from our pasts.

The sociology teacher, who embraced me for my quirky and eccentric nature, will never be forgotten. She was an important reminder of the diverse and dynamic nature of society, encouraging me to ponder as to who or what constructs society’s “norms”. Perhaps I continue to break many of the conventions. Last, but no least, the religious teachers I encountered especially in the realms of philosophy and ethics. Their teaching of various beliefs and arguments for and against the existence of God, not only reaffirmed my belief in a Creator, but further propelled me to actively propagate and defend Islamic Monotheism.

However when your worth is measured according to a single letter, which may result in you being limited to certain positions in life, this does not do anything to ignite your passion for learning – rather it can foster a climate of hopelessness and desolation. So because your classmate in an exam was able to remember an equation or fact minutes or seconds earlier, which may result in them being offered that ever coveted university place or job, it makes them a more eligible candidate than you? How many times have you tried to memorise an equation, facts about Henry the VIII or master literary techniques for an English Language exam only to never use these again in your life?

Unfortunately, it has become a normalised practice and a part of educational culture to memorise things, not always for the genuine love of learning, but rather to attain a certain grade only for it to be later discarded after the invigilator screeches “PENS DOWN!”. Marking schemes and template answers have created a climate where conformity and obedience result in many people not being able to critically think about the world around them. Turning a blind eye in the name of ignorance to the oppressive and hypocritical practices that are operative in the society we live in. It keeps us in this mind set where we limit our thinking and ideas to those endorsed by our teachers and society. This is further exacerbated while in the pursuit of higher education; debt becomes an inevitable consequence further enslaving many young people who, become so absorbed in finding ways to repay their debt, they have the disciplinarian culture firmly embedded making them unlikely to consider how to change society.

In these economic times, one of the most important aspects that should be more emphasised is the need to be innovative and entrepreneurial as opposed to being the perpetual employee. It is often said that if you do not build your own dreams somebody will hire you to be build theirs, instead of being a follower I endorse leadership, determination, creativity and innovation. Brand yourself, stand out and break the mould!

My sincere advice is that you should never let a grade define who you are, your worth and destiny is determined by much more than a transcript. Do not limit yourself to the expectations of others nor let their expectations become a reflection of your self-worth. Rather I implore you to never give up on the goals and dreams you have, always bear in mind that there is no set route to success rather there are many avenues and roads to be travelled and explored in order to get there (road trip anybody?). The words “You can’t!” should always be rebutted by the response “Says who?”, bearing in mind nobody else has the power to limit your progress; as the only limits imposed upon are those you put on yourself. If I had known back then what I know now things would have been different, I would not have let fear and the negative opinions of others hinder me from going for the gold.

 

Remember this is your life, broaden your horizons and explore the vast plains – THINK ANEW!

 

Yours Sincerely,

Sister Nusrat.

Should Nationalism and Anti-Black racism be an issue to be concerned about in the British Muslim community?

Racism and nationalism is one of the many callous and challenging aspects of human behaviour that can affect people individually, and whole communities and nations collectively. Particularly for those living in societies that are racially and ethnically heterogeneous, many people living in countries that are more racially homogenous may assume two things: firstly, that living in a country that is more racially diverse means racism is not likely to be a problem thus fostering a climate for peaceful co-existence to occur. On the other, there are some that assume that living in a racially plural society may make the propensity for racism and discrimination to permeate.

The root of racism is built upon the foundations of having a superiority complex over another due to one’s ethnicity or race, and therefore assuming that this makes one better than another.

Perhaps the earliest demonstration of such mentality can be found in the story of Prophet Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) when Satan refused to prostrate, because he believed that due to being made of fire – something aluminous – made him more worthy than Adam who was crafted from clay. Racism is an age old issue that even in today’s so called modern world affects various nations and peoples, which manifests in various forms irrespective of socio-economic background or gender. While history shows the problems incurred in trying the ameliorate the issue of racism and nationalism, the teachings of Islam derived from the Sunnah (ways) of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and Quranic text has addressed such problems early on. This is exemplified in various aspects of the Qur’an and famously in the Prophet’s last sermon.

Centuries have passed since the last sermon, but it seems the issue is something that continues to resonate within the British Muslim community. While many agree that discussing racial prejudice and nationalism is somewhat a subject that can cause awkwardness and discomfort, by refusing to acknowledge this issue exacerbates the situation resulting in the problem still not being solved.

 

Confronting the Issue

On Wednesday 12th February 2014, there was a Twitter discussion (which was also featured on al-Jazeera’s “The Stream” segment) initiated by the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative in the USA under the hashtag #BeingBlackAndMuslim. The discussion was on the issues and problems experienced by Black American Muslims in the American Muslim community, with contributions to the discussion made by many people all over the world including the UK, Middle East, Asia and mainland Europe. Perhaps the reason as to why this discussion was spearheaded by the American Muslim community is because it is a challenging issue that American Muslims face and demonstrate more of a willingness to talk about.

The discussion was vital in highlighting the issue as many recounted experiences of racism being displayed in many ways. For example, Black American Muslim male contributors’ related experiencing racism through stereotyping and name calling (terms such as “abeed[1]” were commonly cited). This was more pronounced amongst those males who were converts to Islam, and were assumed to have converted to Islam in prison or through the Nation of Islam (NOI). This was also experienced when making enquiries for marriage, in which many were turned down by virtue of their race. This sort of stereotyping within the American Muslim community normalises the notion that Islam is only sought by black men in times of adversity and identity crisis, as opposed to seeking clarity and spirituality. Likewise it reinforced the long-held stereotype of black men as being synonymous with criminality and incarceration.

Black female Muslims related experiences of racism particularly when it came to marriage. Some stated instances of not receiving as many marriage proposals as their white and Hispanic counterparts as well as feeling marginalised by the American Muslim community. Again, this was largely attributed to stereotypes of black women (especially those who appear assertive) as being ‘loud’ or the ‘angry black woman’.  Human Rights advocate and political blogger Dawud Walid joined the discussion tweeting: The most marginalized person in the American Muslim community is the Black female Muslim.”

 

Should this concern the British Muslim community?

The issue of inter-Muslim racism and nationalism is something that should concern the British Muslim community as this problem affects many of its members, but what are even more disconcerting are the responses of justification that are used to provide an alibi for such un-Islamic behaviour. While there is no such basis for racial superiority in Islam, to some extent these practices have been normalised within certain cultures of the Muslim community such as the caste system based on skin colour hierarchy and using this as a benchmark to decide how others should be treated. This is further exacerbated with the promotion of fair skin and Caucasian features as being the epitome of beauty, and the products marketed (both legitimately and illegitimately) in order to achieve this. If anybody within the Muslim community should be judged it should not be upon the colour of their skin but rather their level of taqwa (God-consciousness).

Also the fact that some religious institutions such as mosques are informally referred to as being for a certain ethnicity or race is quite sad as it fosters a climate for nationalism to become more apparent, often at the expense of alienating some members of the Muslim community.

 

Responses to Anti-Black Racism and Nationalism

The responses to the issue are quite mixed of which may differ between persons; therefore it would not be fitting to conclude that there is one general response. However, among the various responses to the issue of nationalism and racism is the common one of denial. This is usually demonstrated through the use of various pieces of Islamic text, Prophet’s last sermon and of course not forgetting the all-time favourite of citing Bilal (RA) as the exemplar for racial plurality. Although discrimination is something contrary to the teachings of Islam, this does not seem to correspond with the actions of some Muslims. Using the examples mentioned to deny the fact that racism is an issue dividing the British Muslim community is turning a blind eye to the oppression faced by fellow brothers and sisters in the deen in favour of appeasing the sensitivities of those who are guilty of such behaviour.

These sorts of responses are not helpful in tackling the problem rather they serve to hinder dialogue in trying to ameliorate the situation, therefore allowing the problem to continue. Perhaps the most constructive approach to the problem is not to deny its existence, but to adopt a sense of unity in tackling it. The foundations for this lie in building awareness and placing an emphasis on how Islam is universal and not allowing one’s personal or cultural sensitivities to take precedence. In addition, some focus should be made in religious sermons, schools and by community figures to discuss this issue further and educate the rest of the community on the contributions made by historical figures in Islam who were of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Considering all the issues that Muslims, not just within Britain, but on a worldwide scale have to endure such as the media vilification of Islam and the systematic oppression of fellow Muslims in the Muslim world you would assume that unity should be more widespread. And rightly it should, as exemplified in Allah’s statement in the Qur’an:

“The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islamic religion). So make reconciliation between your brothers, and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy.” – Surah Al-Ĥujurāt, verse 10.

Unless we act upon the above verse, the problem will be yet another centrifugal force which serves to create more disunity in the Muslim community – with cycle and the chains of ignorance unbroken.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Abeed is an Arabic term in Arabic meaning “slave”. This is usually used in an insulting context people of African origin to attribute stereotypes. The term can also be used to describe black people in general.

Benefit Street: A normalised practice of vilifying the economically vulnerable

It seems like Benefit Street is the new show on everybody’s lips, I mean everybody from your nan to work colleagues to even teens in the playground – it’s all everybody’s been talking about …and not always for the right reasons. The show which features the residents of the now infamous James Turner Street in Birmingham and how they survive in their day to day life on welfare. Many critics from both the Left and the Right have had mixed opinions upon the show, with the critics from the Right often claiming that the snapshot into the lives of the residents is a representation of how many are cheating the system, displaying a lack of motivation to better themselves and contribute to society “living in an age of entitlement”. Whereas members of the Left offering a more sympathetic side, citing  the notion that the show does nothing more than act as a distraction and opiate to the real issues of government incompetence – in turn pitting communities against each other.

It seems that Benefit Street (arguable extending to Channel 4 executives), is following a pattern of rhetoric that seems to not only grab wide viewership through sensationalism but rather seems to fit well considering the current economic climate and the dissatisfaction held among many….ah what better way to vent out your frustration than upon the underclass? This isn’t just subjected to the Channel 4 bosses either as other media outlets such as the BBC and Channel 5, who’ve produced programmes such as “People Like Us” (targeting a community living on an estate in Harpurhey, Manchester), “Benefits and Proud” respectively have followed this same correlation in order to gain viewership by image distortion. Some of the characters on Benefit Street may be reminiscent of personalities and people that we may know of, of course I won’t pretend like these types of people don’t exist, but to tar a segment of society with the same brush presenting a biased and vilified image is anything but fair – and speaking from the experience of being a Muslim it’s something I know only too well.

While the programme has attracted widespread criticism, I do say, there have been some moments where the programme has illuminated certain social issues that permeate within our society, for example the ongoing demonization and exploitation of migrant workers and immigration (particularly of those from Eastern Europe). It’s ever so easy to sit there in your recliner chair drinking your evening mug of tea complaining about the hardships you’ve endured especially with regard to employment and housing availabilities, and attribute these difficulties to immigration. The second episode of the show highlighted how many migrant workers demonstrated a willingness to work and in some cases entrepreneurial zeal in order to alleviate themselves from their financially dire situations. For example, the overcrowding house of 14 Romanians who collected cans from scrap and even creating a business in order to survive only to receive abuse by some of the residents, who ironically weren’t making any efforts of their own to find employment. Furthermore these men were enticed and brought over with the prospect of working for £40 per day, only to be conned and exploited by their employer and paid £10.

Another heart-breaking scene, involving a small boy belonging to another Romanian family who was the only English-speaking member negotiate restoring his electricity with a slum landlord after it had been cut off.

The fact of the matter is unfortunately it’s become a normalised practice to mercilessly victimise and vilify society’s most vulnerable members. Some of the residents of James Turner Street have even received death threats and other forms of verbal intimidation, and subjected to online abuse by users of social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. My theory is that this is deliberately done to act as a distraction and opiate from the hypocritical practices that go on within the economic and political system, it’s much easier to blame your woes on those less fortunate. These types of programmes divert us from the many practices committed by some of the wealthy, such as tax evasion and the financial blunders of those in the banking sector…but yet ordinary citizens have to pay for their mistakes while they continue to prosper?

What’s more, the show had left many members of the public wrongly informed about the harsh realities of living on welfare. Statistics from the 2013 Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion indicate that in the financial year 2013/14, an estimated 2.6 million families (8% of families in the UK) saw their benefit entitlement cut as a result of three welfare reforms, losing an average of £16.60. The benefit cut which had the most resonating impact was the change to Council Tax support in April 2013, in which those affected were already living in poverty. Of the 660,000 families hit by the so-called “bedroom tax” two thirds also had their Council Tax support cut.

As disconcerting as these statistics may be, the diatribes upon the underclass must be come to an end as we illuminate our mind to investigate not only the reality of poverty but we must get to the root of the cause. We may not be able to prevent it from happening but as a community at large we can aim to help those affected and collectively hold those in power accountable.

Challenging Fallacies: The Concept of Beauty and the Muslim Woman

Before I continue any further, as the writer, I would like to stress that the entirety of this article is in no way meant to be used as a barometer to judge other women upon. Rather, it should be a piece that ignites a sense of reflection about the type of world that we live in and how we as Muslim women should look beyond the false illusions of beauty that are propagated to us by society. The opinions and thoughts expressed are indeed my own, of which I wish not to impose upon the reader.

The topic concerning the worth of women in Islam is one that is very much discussed, contested and debated upon by many Western media outlets and among religious and secular intellectuals alike. As Muslim women, within our own religion, we tend to forget how Islam has elevated us in a plethora of ways. In today’s current commercial climate of “sex sells” and “if you’ve got it flaunt it”, we as women find ourselves engrossed by the ideas of what constitutes beauty. Consequently, this serves to opiate us from the realities of what Islam has to offer.

As the title suggests (and as many of you are aware), there are many notions and concepts regarding the issue of beauty of which in turn may affect the confidence and self-worth of women in our society. This is very much epitomised in the countless stories we hear and see in the news of women and young girls going to extreme lengths to attain a societally set standard of beauty, sometimes with dire consequences.

Having said this, it has now become a familiar occurrence that many Muslim women and girls experience conflict between the ideals endorsed by the Western media such as hedonism and superficial beauty, and the inner tranquillity and freedom that Islam provides without stress or hassle over one’s physique.

I know which one I would opt for, and as a convert to Islam it was through my journey that I realised this.

 

“She makes up one half of the Ummah and gives birth to the other half.”

Contrary to the ever-constant media driven rhetoric that Islam debases the woman, as a female revert in my early 20’s, I can honestly say that Islam gave the women her rights before any bra burning feminist in the 60’s. Subjected to being marketed as a sexual commodity in magazines, music videos and films and at times being addressed by demeaning names, one can hardly say that freedom and respect in relation to the women in our society is being given in its entirety. Perhaps one of the biggest fallacies presented to us is that through being exploited i.e. being used as sex symbols and being bombarded with constant commercialisation, we are in fact being liberated and free. That’s like saying that although illegal narcotics are trafficked and sold on the streets by dealers, because the drug addict had an autonomous mind and exercised an option to purchase the narcotic substance that somehow he is demonstrating his freedom!? I guarantee that society would not use this same epistemology of thinking to say that the drug addict was liberated (ahhh…the epitome of double standards!).

Through my experiences and observations, I find it rather impossible to criticize the niqab, hijab or any elements of the Islamically prescribed dress code (according to Qur’an and Sunnah) without a thorough exploration into Western clothing and the false notion of beauty that our society foist upon women. Indeed it is a travesty to say that a woman dressed in hijab or even niqab, is oppressed when we as a society (conveniently) never stop to critically think about the oppressive practices that are operative within the Western Society we live in. This is exemplified in the magazines, music videos, commercials all propagating a notion of beauty that (with all due respect) most women will struggle to achieve.

As women we are the nurturers of our children, the backbone of the home, the care provider etc…basically without us the household will fall apart (let’s face it you wouldn’t trust your brother to handle your laundry delicates now would you?). We are responsible for how our children grow, and if we spend all our time immersed in worldly things and not raising them in the way of Islam, then we are doing a great disservice to our daughters and sons.

The acquisition of knowledge is also something that is overlooked by us as Muslim women, the confidence of many Muslim women is waning as we are unaware of the great successes that have been achieved by us in the past…but more centrally, what we could achieve presently and in the future. For example, Sumayyah bint Khayyat the first female martyr who was killed for her conversion to Islam. Her death exemplifies a sense of pride we should have in our religion and how we should have strength in the midst of the pressure to conform to society’s ideals of what constitutes a “modern” woman and the tarring of our image as oppressed, weak and submissive. Strength in conviction and character, despite what the rest of society has to say on the matter, is surely a character that is invaluable and a true sign of courage.

Another example would be that of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). A true exemplar of today’s so called ‘career woman’, but most especially an honourable wife and mother. Successful in all her trade she never once sacrificed her integrity and was never fooled by the illusions of her time. Instead she made significant contributions both in commerce but also, as a Muslim woman, to that of her marriage and family life. She was a strong woman who stood by the Prophet through persecution in his quest to convey the valuable message of Islam.

Let us be a backbone for breeding the next generation of Scholars, Doctors, Imams, and other people of knowledge to which we reflect upon these teachings and implement them in order to become a people of depth, courage and seriousness.

 

“Cry Liberation? Who wrote the book?”

As I am writing, one of the interesting things that strike me in regards to the standards of freedom is this: who set the standards of what amounts to the liberation of women? Similarly, where is the demarcation between freedom and oppression? Often we find ourselves subjected to being judged and intensely scrutinised by the standards of Western liberal and secular concepts of what a woman should encompass to the point that anybody who believes outside of this criteria would fail and thus are relegated to being undesirably labelled as “extremist”, “radical” “fundamentalist” etc.

As a consequence of taking the Western ideal of freedom as the bench mark, many Muslim women both those living in the West and those residing in Muslim countries have started to develop a sentiment of inferiority complex – of which one has to adapt or “integrate” an Islamic way of living to fit in with false notions that at times go against our Islamic principles.

In turn, this leads us as Muslims to compromise the status of the Muslim woman and in many cases re-affirm the preconceived ideas and rhetoric that Western media already have tried to engrain in our minds. I hardly think that the likes of Tommy Robinson or Pamela Geller are the right authority to inform or dictate to us, about the status of the Muslim woman (yes, I still await their certificates from the Islamic University of al-Madinah authenticating their degrees in Shariah, Hadith or Dawah…NOT!). As Muslim women we do not have to conform to these ideals, rather we should realise that through the light of Islam and trusting in Allah’s omniscience, we should conduct ourselves in a way which we do not debase ourselves. But instead maintain our honour and dignity according to what had been prescribed and ordained by Allah azza wa jal.

 

Final thoughts

The thing that breaks my heart the most is when a muslimah doesn’t realise and embrace her own worth and her inner beauty, because some magazine columnist or celebrity tells her that being she just isn’t good enough.

However, my dear sister I leave you with this: we shine bright like diamonds, we are protected like pearls…and like a kite in the sky we are elevated through the clouds of this world (and in sha Allah the next). So maybe it is not as hard being yourself in an appearance obsessed world after all. All you have to do is to believe in yourself, hold steadfast to the rope of Allah and you can overcome the shackles of a materialistic and beauty obsessed world and realise your real worth.