Muslim women who shattered stereotypes in the past year

Muslim women who shattered stereotypes in the past year
#IWD2020: For International Women’s Day, Sami Rahman looks at four Muslim women who have made history and shattered stereotypes in the past 12 months.
5 min read
07 March, 2020
Nadiya Hussein, winner of the Great British Bake Off 2015 [Getty]
Pick up any newspaper or browse the internet and you're sure to find a story or two about Muslim women. This minority group has been under more scrutiny and speculation than ever before – and not all of it is positive. That's why it's so important to recognise and highlight the stories of Muslim women who are making history and shattering stereotypes. 

When compiling this list I was struck by the sheer number of inspiring Muslim women there are – past, present and even future.

Whether it be running successful businesses or leading armies into battle, Muslim women have been making history and inspiring generations for over a thousand years. 

Read also: It's time to read about the untold history of revolutionary Muslim women

To put this into perspective, just less than 100 years ago, women in America did not have the right to vote. Yet today, in 2020, Muslim women are still ridiculed and misrepresented by the media, public figures and even politicians. 

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan

Poet and spoken word artist Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan has used her growing social media platform to highlight social issues like Islamophobia, immigration and racism. 

Not a stranger to the spotlight, the former Cambridge student who released her debut poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter last year, has also performed on BBC Radio, ITV, Sky and TEDx, to name a few. 

However, despite a growing list of achievements, what makes Suhaiymah truly stand out is what she hasn't done. 

In 2019 Suhaiymah made headlines when she unceremoniously pulled out of the Bradford Literature Festival after it was revealed that the event was part funded by a government-led counter-extremism group. 

Taking to Twitter Suhaiymah explained that she did not want "to provide credibility or legitimacy to the counter-extremism project".

She added: "The government's counter-extremism strategy relies on the premise that Muslims are predisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance." 

Nadiya Hussain

Nadiya is a woman who needs no introduction. She won the Great British Bake Off and public's heart back in 2015 before going on to appear in several documentaries and cooking programmes, publish a series of books and bake a birthday cake for the Queen. 

And it doesn't stop there.

Last year Nadiya became an advocate for mental health, using her own past experiences to help others. In a BBC documentary titled Nadiya: Anxiety and Me she opened up about suffering with a panic disorder.

In the documentary, and subsequent memoir, Finding My Voice, Nadiya recalls being beaten and bullied at school so badly that she wanted to commit suicide.

"I didn't know what death was," she wrote. "All I knew was that it meant not living the life I had now – and I didn't like my life."

She also made history by being awarded and MBE on the Queen's 2019 honours' list earlier this year.

Speaking about the prestigious accolade Nadiya wrote: "I know my grandparents would be really proud, they wouldn't understand what was going on, or what it means, but they would be proud nonetheless.

"Little old rice farmers family in the middle of nowhere with a granddaughter with an MBE! Who would have thought it?!"

Hodan Nalayeh

When journalist Hodan Nalayeh was gunned down by Somali militants last year the nation grieved, but her work on highlighting the beauty of her homeland became even more poignant. 

The 43-year-old mother of two, who was pregnant at the time, was among the 26 people gunned down at the Asasey Hotel during a meeting with local politicians. 

Somali-born Hodan moved to Canada when she was eleven but returned to her homeland a year before her death. She was one of Somalia's most promising journalists who had made it her mission to show another side to the war-torn country by focusing on its beauty and people. 

Her family described her as someone who had "spent her life devoted to serving the Somali people and reporting on positive, uplifting stories" in order to "spread light and love to the Somali world".

BBC Somali's Farhan Jimale, who was a friend of Hodan's, described her as a "bright star and a beautiful soul who represented the best of her people and homeland".

"She was especially an inspiration for the young" he added. "You have Somalis from diaspora going home and she was a link between older Somalis and the young. She spoke both languages – English and Somali – so she was like a bridge." 

Khadijah Mellah 

There were no shortage of stories about Muslim women in sport this past year, but Khadijah's stood out the most. The teenager made history last year after she became the first British-Muslim woman to take part in a horse race wearing a hijab and win.

From a young age Mellah's parents took her for riding lessons in Kent, but the cost and distance meant that they were unable to keep up with regular classes.

And, although the horse-riding industry isn't seen as a typical career or hobby for Muslim women, Mellah's passion didn't deter her. In fact, it only spurred her on, especially when she discovered a local riding club.

"I've always loved horses and had ridden at a riding school in Kent a few times when I was younger," she told The New Arab.

Read more: Meet Khadijah Mellah: The UK's first ever hijab-wearing jockey

Mellah soon became a household name among racing enthusiasts. Oli Bell, a presenter from ITV Racing sung her praises on social media by tweeting: "I could not be prouder of this inspirational young woman. 2 months ago she hadn't even sat on a racehorse. Khadijah Mellah is a superstar and today she showed the world that anything is possible."

Mellah has also been pictured with the likes of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the Duchess of Cornwall and even the Queen of England.

"The Duchess of Cornwall came to my documentary premiere which was amazing," recalls Mellah. "I also met the Queen at QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot in October. She asked me about the race and my story – both are days that I will always remember.

"There is a stereotype that Muslim women can't go out there and do certain things. Hopefully this will show my religion in a positive light."

Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London.

Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman