As Muslim writers, should we always talk about identity?
In February last year, when news of a pre-university college in Karnataka, India banning its Muslim women students from wearing the hijab broke into public discourse, a publication I’d previously worked for asked me to commentate about the incident.
At that prospect, a wave of fatigue washed over me – to discuss the hijab again? To participate in this trite whirlwind of the same polarising debates that make the same arguments and introduce the same “different” or third perspective on it, which often prompts the Muslim community to do some self-reflection on its part?
I knew I was being approached because I am a veiled Muslim woman who works in the media. But, while it is exasperating to witness non-Muslim male writers commenting upon issues relevant to Islam, Muslims, and Muslim women such as the hijab debate, I feel exhausted at the thought of having to explain myself and my identity, yet again.
"While it is exasperating to witness non-Muslim male writers commenting upon issues relevant to Islam, Muslims, and Muslim women such as the hijab debate, I feel exhausted at the thought of having to explain myself and my identity, yet again"
At the same time, I’m also left feeling guilty and somehow culpable, as if my refusal to cover such stories might lead the publication to invite writers who might not have the lived experiences – and insights that comes with it – to do justice to the story.
In India, as also in countries like the US, newsrooms are diseased with a woeful lack of diverse voices. This lack of diversity in the newsroom is an old problem that still persists, even though research suggests that including diverse voices not only makes for good media, but is also a best practice.
The well-documented fallouts of the lack of diversity have been major, and their impact far-reaching. But one implication that tends to fall off the radar is the undue pressure this puts on the few Muslim writers and journalists who may have managed to find their way into the newsroom.
As the only or one of the few Muslim writers around, there is pressure – sometimes self-anointed – to write about identity-related stories because you’re the only person there who should (and can) tell them.
If you write enough stories about the Muslim identity, there is also the threat of being pigeon-holed, which can be constraining when you are a writer with wider interests and abilities. Even so, most Muslim writers do have the genuine desire to share stories about their lived experiences, make compelling arguments about politicised faith, and have their perspectives seen.
But why write about identity in the first place? Do identity-centred stories in the media influence the larger discourse about what it means to belong to marginalised communities, or are we simply adding to the pandemonium when nobody actually listens?
Over the past few years, a curious overemphasis on identity has crowned over journalism. Some media outlets, especially the ones that are wholly digital, even carry ‘Identity’ as a section in its own right, giving race, ethnic, and gender identities a nice spotlight.
Sometimes, though, articles that explore Islam in different aspects of life are categorised under ‘Identity’ or tagged as such, where it then seamlessly melds with all sorts of iterations of identities when, in fact, it is a religious group.
In the UK, the media has driven intense racial stereotyping around “Muslim grooming gangs”. @DrEllaC writes about the origins, beneficiaries and harms of this persistent trope ⬇#STATEOFJOURNALISM2022https://t.co/HPh4ItKlV7— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 15, 2022
Just like being Christian or Hindu, being Muslim means being part of a religious community, one that happens to be as heterogeneous as it is widely spread out all over the world, making up the minority in the West, the majority elsewhere, and the major minority in a country like India.
On the global platform, however, Muslims are foregrounded mainly in contexts of war, terrorism, oppression, and persecution rather than in matters of a more quotidian persuasion: lifestyle, wellness, or even hobbies, without undue emphasis on the Muslim part that is both a keyword and an alienator.
For the most part, the framework in which Muslims are discussed in the media remains unquestioned – persecution, poverty, backwardness, conservativeness, and exceptions to said conservativeness.
It’s as if to say there are no stories about Muslims beyond these themes. Widespread Islamophobia coupled with the relentless nature of the news cycle creates a dire urgency when covering news about Muslims, which is entirely absent in other faith groups.
"The push-and-pull of writing about being Muslim while resisting an imposed framework in which to talk about it still needs much careful navigation"
To reclaim this narrative would require us Muslim writers to indeed talk about our identity – but with essential boundaries put in place. The push-and-pull of writing about being Muslim while resisting an imposed framework in which to talk about it still needs much careful navigation.
But you see, we don’t have to write within the context of persecution on the one hand and justification for Islam on the other. In fact, we don’t have to write within the framework of the Muslim identity at all.
Most Muslims would likely opt to share parts of their Muslim identity and practice that hold deep personal significance to them, such as the month of Ramadan and all that it entails. Some are compelled to report the truth of their community despite hate and ignorance, while still others tend to reflect the many aspects of what it means to live a faith-based lifestyle. At the same time, as a Muslim journalist I spoke to reminds me, Muslims are allowed to write about something fun, too.
It would be the least bit surprising if there’s a Muslim journalist out there who vehemently refuses to explore their Muslim identity through their work. Our identity is multifaceted, after all.
All I’m saying is that having more Muslims in the newsroom would statistically increase the chances that someone would want to write about being Muslim – and the diversity of experience that encompass our faith – without feeling any pressure to do so.
Tasneem Pocketwala is a freelance culture journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes about books, gender, identity, cities, and art.
Follow her on Twitter: @tasneemsworld05
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.