Why Are Men Speaking for Muslim Women in Literature?

What is your favorite book? You might be like me and have too many to mention. Of those books, which characters are your favorite? Do they represent you?

The answer to this, in the majority of western published literature is probably no. If you are represented, have another look at the author — is the author part of your demographic?

As one example, I think of Khaled Hosseini and his bestseller, “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” His book centers around two Muslim women and is written by a man.

Should that matter? I think it does.

We need to consider why men are allowed to speak for us. This is not a critique of Hosseini — it is a critique about how others seem to be filling in the literary gaps to narrate our stories. There are increasing opportunities to be heard through various online platforms that capture our voices. These platforms are filtering into mainstream and providing alternative narratives to the stereotypical representations of Muslim women that usually dominate the media — but it isn’t enough.

We need to consider why men are allowed to speak for us.

Last year, I studied classic literature as part of my english literature degree and something struck me. The classics that define an era from modern classics such as Sam Selvon’s, “The Lonely Londoners” to Emily Bronte’s, “Wuthering Heights have shaped future generations and given us snapshots of a bygone era. They have allowed us to share insights into differing perspectives of history.

In modern literature, the representation of Muslim women is slow, with self-published or independently published titles still dominating in this demographic. Self-publishing is an empowering platform and one we can use to overcome barriers from an industry who tend to reinforce the status quo, or give our narrative to an already popular selling male author to write. With the lack of support from a major publishing house or an agent, the quality of some self-published literature still isn’t competing with mainstream.

How can it when mainstream literature often has an entire team behind the whole process? Publishing is a business. Books making money can be a risk, the market is shifting and it is no wonder professional agents and publishers don’t have the time to support many up and coming authors.

In modern literature, the representation of Muslim women is slow, with self-published or independently published titles still dominating in this demographic.

Now I want to see another revolution; a literary revolution. How?

  • As readers, we can share and review books from authors.
  • Take the time to post reviews, they really do make a difference.
  • Be active in your selection of books, consider who they are written by and who they are aiming to represent.
  • As writers, be yourself. Don’t imitate a trend or an author who is selling well- any trend is likely to have long passed by the time you are ready to market.
  • Take your time before releasing your writing onto a platform. Join critiquing groups and read widely.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your favorite author if they can mentor you. I am not saying bombard them with an epic unedited manuscript, instead start slow!
  • Reach out, share your ideas, share a synopsis or a first chapter. As authors, we can support writers as they begin to write their books.

By creating a community where we support each other’s work, it will begin to change our representation in books and allow the quality of what we write to increase, giving us a real chance of being part of the fabric of mainstream western literature. We are starting to be heard in news. They recognize we have voices and opinions — but we are still being excluded from mainstream literature — still being denied our voices and our contributions to society. We continue to be tossed aside — lost.

Join me and start a literary revolution. Now is the time to write our own stories. Our voices, our words, our aspirations have power. We need to write and create the classics of our generation so our stories remain etched in people’s consciousness and make a lasting change that stands the test of time.

What are you waiting for? As classic writer, William Wordsworth said, “To begin, begin.”


Shereen Malherbe is a British-Palestinian writer. Her novel, Jasmine Falling is available to buy worldwide. To find out more visit www.ShereenMalherbe.com & tweet @MalherbeGirl

This article was originally published on Muslim Girl

Published by Shereen Malherbe

Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Her novel, Jasmine Falling has been voted as one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim women. Her second contemporary fiction novel, The Tower, was published by Beacon Books on April 2019. Her first children's book, The Girl Who Slept Under The Moon is out now.

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