National Read a Book day 2020: Muslim women's popular fiction

Over the last decade, readers, publishers, and booksellers have noted a surge in popular and genre fiction works being written by Muslim women. While Muslim women’s writing has a long history, particularly in South and West Asia and North Africa (SWANA), it is really in the last twenty years that there has been a visible rise in genre works written by Muslim women in the English-speaking literary world.

Modern black woman wearing hijab, sitting at home and reading a book.

Often, these genre texts are challenging stereotypes – of particular genres, and of the way Muslims, especially Muslim women, are represented in the English-speaking world. English literature has tended to reflect these stereotypes – we’ve been more likely to see what Peter Morey calls ‘Muslim misery memoirs’ that continue the narrative of ‘saving Muslim women’ (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s Time article) rather than Muslim superheroes, detectives, or actions heroes.

I was so struck by the changes I saw in English language publishing, that I decided to create a module to think through what Muslim women’s popular and genre writing looks like in the twenty-first century. We look at a variety of genres – fantasy, crime, romance, chick lit – and forms – non-fiction, poetry, TV and film – with only one rule: every text on the module must be by a Muslim woman.

A question I ask my students on the module is: how far do these recent examples challenge dominant narratives of Muslims, of women and of Islam? I’ve chosen six texts from the module which I think are interesting to explore in light of that question. I think these texts do challenge stereotypes in the way Muslim women have been represented, but I invite you to dip in, start reading, and decide for yourself. 

Fantasy - G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

(2012, paperback RRP£8.99; currently £8.15 at Hive)

Perhaps better known as the storyteller behind the 2014 Ms Marvel reboot featuring American Muslim Kamala Khan as the eponymous superhero, G. Willow Wilson has written a host of other works, including this fantasy novel set in a fictional Gulf location simply called ‘The City’. At times dystopian, the story follows teenage hacker Alif on his journey to dismantle oppressive state structures by writing a computer programme influenced by a mysterious manuscript called the Alf Yeom (Thousand and One Days). The city, a space of surveillance and politics, sits on top of the undiscovered djinn world into which Alif and his companion Dina journey in order to bring freedom to the dystopian city. The novel culminates in its own technologically facilitated Arab Spring – a riotous overthrowing of the state. Wilson takes pains to develop Dina’s character and her text poses some interesting questions about translation, the power of language, and the legacy of the Arab Spring. 

Graphic novel – Marjane Satrapi, Embroideries

(2003 in French, English translation 2005, paperback RRP£10.99; currently £7.99 at Blackwells)

Satrapi’s two-part graphic novel memoir, Persepolis, is probably her most famous work. But, while the short graphic novel Embroideries is less well-known, its black and white drawings of a post-lunch discussion among a multi-generational group of women is both intimate and engrossing. Satrapi, now in her early twenties, is our narrator for “a long session of ventilation of the heart.” The gathered women tell each other stories about marriage, divorce, male bodies, plastic surgery, sex and romance. The art style places the women front and centre, highlighting their faces and emotions: one moment laughing, the next weeping. Called, by one critic, “Sex and the City, Middle Eastern style,” Embroideries is of interest for the way it depicts women, generational differences, and feminisms in Iran and Europe.

Chick lit – Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

(2015, paperback RRP£7.99, currently £7.19 at Hive)

Labelled ‘the Muslim Bridget Jones’, Malik’s debut novel borrows heavily from Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel (which itself was inspired by Jane Austen) to tell the story of Sofia Khan, a British Muslim women living and working in publishing in London. Selected for Cityread London in 2019, the novel takes the form of a diary following Sofia’s adventures in love as she tries to write a book on Muslim dating commissioned by her culturally clumsy white editor. Probably one of the most well-known recent publications by a British Muslim genre writer, Khan’s novel – and its sequel The Other Half of Happiness (2017) – blend genre motifs with themes of Islamophobia and cultural integration: the ending may not be what you expect… 

Crime | Mystery – Ausma Zehanat Khan, A Dangerous Crossing

(2018 US/Canada) | No Place of Refuge (2019 UK, paperback RRP£9.99, currently £7.72 at Blackwells)

Ausma Zehanat Khan has so far written six novels featuring Canadian police officers Sergeant Rachel Getty and Inspector Esa Khattak. Each book in the series addresses global events affecting Muslims; she has written stories around the Srebrenica genocide of 1995, political prisoners in Iran, and mosque shootings in Canada. A Dangerous Crossing, the fourth book in the series, takes place in and around European refugee camps in Greece and Italy and focuses its story around the experiences of Syrian refugees. Descriptions of the conflict in Syria are told from the perspective of the two central characters, encouraging the reader to reflect on their own views. As the topic of migration is once again highlighted in UK media, fictional interpretations like this offer an important perspective on a very real issue.

Non-fiction – Mariam Khan, ed., It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race

(2019, paperback RRP£9.99, currently £7.55 at Blackwells)

Birmingham author Mariam Khan is clear in the introduction to this collection of short essays written by Muslim women: “if Muslim women are to be treated with respect, then it’s so important that we challenge the narrative built around us.” Seventeen authors, researchers, broadcasters, teachers, lawyers, journalists and activists offer their thoughts on racism, divorce, faith, sexuality, and desire in lively, irreverent, sometimes angry, often confessional, prose. Each chapter reflects its author’s experience of what it is like to be a Muslim woman in Britain, directly challenging common stereotypes. It’s an easy collection to dip into – choosing a particular essay of interest, for example – or to read from start to finish. As Khan writes at the end of her introduction: “now, we are speaking. And now, it’s your turn to listen.” 

Poetry – Nayyirah Waheed - two collections of poetry, salt (2013, Kindle £7.87) and nejma (2014, Kindle £7.87).

Described as “perhaps the most famous poet on Instagram”, Nayyirah Waheed writes minimalist poems on racism, representation, migration, love and longing. Her two published collections gather this work, but hundreds of her poems can also be found online. Take, for example, the three-line ‘immigrant’: “you broke the ocean in | half to be here. | only to meet nothing that wants you.” Or the understated ‘circumstances’: “where | you are. | is not | who | you are.” Waheed’s poems have been used by activists and celebrities to highlight different causes, especially those advancing women’s rights. She offers an interesting example of how a Muslim woman’s creative writing can be aligned with wider social change.