This April, Manchester University Press is running a series of blog posts to mark the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, charity and community.
This week’s reflection comes from Amina Yaqin, a series editor for our Multicultural Textualities book series.
Ramadan is a time for introspection and reflection and a retreat from excess and conspicuous consumption. As we approach Eid al-Fitr, the last ten days of Ramadan beckon with Laylat al-Qadr, the night of power when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This is a time for forgiveness and reflection, bringing the larger community together. How people mark it will differ depending on where you are in the world.
The spirit of community can be fostered in many ways: through public iftars, charity, care for individuals who are struggling, prayer and fasting. This Ramadan I had the good fortune of attending a community iftar organised by the Dialogue Society which was dedicated to the theme of rekindling the community spirit. It was a reminder of how hard communities have worked during the pandemic to support each other and the bridge-building work that is done by interfaith groups to foster greater understanding and harmony in a multicultural society.
When it comes to Muslim communities in the UK there is a recognition through data that there are inequalities embedded in the system that affect groups in different ways, from housing and transport to home schooling. The communities are diverse and many have come under greater pressure during Eid festivals and Ramadan. For women, Ramadan is a particularly demanding time as there are heightened expectations around fasting and family responsibilities.
I have been drawn to the concept and ideals of community in Muslim writing in my work as a scholar. The notion of community has taken different shapes and forms depending on the historical period under consideration. Islam’s role in Europe has come under scrutiny as a threat to European civilisation. What gets overlooked are some of the principles of community life such as convivencia in al-Andalus and the Millet system in Ottoman Turkey. While not perfect, they offer Islamic ideals of communal plurality in Europe and can help us to debate models of modern multiculturalism. Harmonising multiple and diverse communities continues to be a challenge in secular democracies and a mistrust of Islam can often find common ground between the Right and the Left .
In my writing I have looked at how narratives of multiculturalism and Islamophobia have impacted gendered belonging and Muslim communities in the UK. Central to these debates is the woman question and the issue of women’s rights in Islam. For the west, women’s rights in Islamic societies are akin to those of second class citizens and a key marker of difference, giving them the moral high ground. Debates about the hijab are a means of both representing and stereotyping Muslim women. While the demythologisation of the hijab is to be welcomed, the stereotype of performativity as a signifier of Muslimness is limiting. What gets lost are the individual narratives of women and the diversity of participation in religious life across different groups.
What gets lost are the individual narratives of women and the diversity of participation in religious life across different groups.
I have analysed the veil from transnational, global and national lens from the majority perspective of Islamic nationalism in Pakistan and the minority lens of Muslims in Britain. Feminist methodology, intersectional approaches and decolonial praxis has informed how I interrogate the concept of agency across languages and cultures. Muslim women’s issues regularly make up global media headlines reiterating a universalist narrative of oppression. This is not to say that some of these concerns that come out of experiences of women in Muslim countries are based on unrealities; there are truths to the claims made as they are in the diaspora. But it is how their stories are framed and become the frame narratives around which recognition of the other takes place in multicultural societies that is of concern. As Peter Morey and I argue in our co-authored book Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11 (Harvard University Press, 2011) ‘the twin concepts of stereotyping and framing are applicable beyond the boundaries of individual practices, taking different forms in different media, but always staking out the territory within which “Muslimness” and “Muslim issues” are recognised and valorised’.
In my most recent publication on Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing (Anthem Press, 2021), I explore women’s contributions to narratives of resistance and their participation in a politics of change in twentieth century Pakistan. I focus on the life and writing of poets who have come under censure for writing about their bodies, mental health and alternative histories of the nation. It is the story of progressive women poets and their responses to dominant narratives of nation, community and gender. In particular, I trace how we might understand the trajectory of feminism from the personal and political writings of poets such as Ada Jafri, Zehra Nigah, Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed. Their narratives are intertwined with the women’s movement and its alliances to the left and a resistance to the military state. By re-presenting female sexualities in a new light their writing asks us to reconsider the stereotypes and expectations that define women in a Muslim society.
Ramadan is a time for greater inclusivity and communities will look beyond the political to come together in meaningful ways. The reunions at the end of pandemic restrictions remain bittersweet with lives lost and borders redrawn by a UK government dismissive of migrant communities. While war rages in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis hits pandemic proportions worldwide, the Night of Laylat al-Qadr, better than a thousand months when the angels descend to the earth and “Peace it is until the emergence of dawn” (Qur’an 97.3-5) is just around the corner.
Amina Yaqin is a series editor for Multicultural Textualities. The next book in this series, The multicultural Midlands, is due to publish in January 2023. For more information on the themes encompassed by this series, visit https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/series/multicultural-textualities/
Take a look at other blogs in our Ramadan 2022 series on the MUP website.