Last month, Waterstones Book Store in London hosted Muslim Women Speak, “a micro-festival of interactive sessions curated, chaired and presented exclusively by Muslim women.”
The festival was curated by Zeba Talkhani and was designed to let Muslim women speak about their own experiences in the publishing and writing industry in the UK. Shereen Malherbe spoke to Talkhani to find out a bit more about the event.
SM: What inspired you to curate and host MWS?
ZT: I love literature festivals and make time to volunteer and attend as many as I can. In the past few years, I was struck by how I knew amazing Muslim women writers and publishers in my personal life but wasn’t seeing this fact reflected in the mainstream literature circles. The idea behind MWS was to change that. Representation is important and I want young Muslim women and women of colour to have amazing role models and get a chance to interact with these women.
SM: What were the speakers’ main messages to the audience?
ZT: The speakers on the day were varied in their background and experiences, but the common thread linking them was their positive attitude and their decision to not let lack of representation or even misrepresentation derail their work. These are women are challenging stereotypes and doing so in their own unique ways. Hala Abdullah was in London that evening from Saudi Arabia and shared her experiences of starting a female only writing club and how it’s giving young women in Saudi Arabia a voice. When asked about the pessimist nature of our society she was unfazed and responded that the club is making a difference for these women. And that’s what sets Muslim women and people of minority apart – they focus on the positive aspects of our society and work towards making these traits popular by doing what they do.
SM: Was there anything surprising that came from the event that you would like to share?
ZT: I can’t imagine why, but at the time I was surprised by the amazing turn out and the interest and curiosity surrounding the event. It was heartening to see non-Muslims in the audience and it just reiterated the fact that there is an interested audience and it’s time the publishing and media gatekeepers realise this. I’m hoping more such events will help that.
SM: It was set in Waterstones bookshop. How important is it that Muslim women write their own narratives?
ZT: It’s important that everyone writes their own narratives and I see a lot of Muslim women doing just that. One of my personal favourite’s is Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan is Not Obliged. It’s more than just a Muslim Bridget Jones; it’s something that’s never been done before. Its immediate success and the fact that there is going to be a sequel soon proves that there is room for own voices and publishers need to understand that.
SM: Do you think the landscape for UK publishing is changing for Muslim women?
ZT: Yes, things have definitely improved. There is also an increase in independent publishers who are doing a great job in amplifying own voices and creating inclusive environments for Muslim women and women of colour. I think it’s also important that we have other platforms working hard to challenge mainstream media narratives.
SM: What are the challenges?
ZT: I think the biggest challenge Muslim women face in the literary world are unconscious biases. Because of the lack of representation, a lot of people have misguided notions about Muslim women and I think this acts as a barrier for our success. But Muslim women are definitely changing this by speaking up and positively engaging with the world.
SM: In your opinion, are the voices and authentic narratives of Muslim women starting to eradicate stereotypes?
ZT: Of course, there is no doubt about it. I think this is where social media comes into play. Those who seek authentic voices can now find them online. Platforms such as She Speaks We Hear and sister-hood magazine are transforming the way we think about Muslim women. And then there are brilliant Muslim women role models who are redefining our understanding of the roles of Muslim women in modern society and helping eradicate stereotypes by being themselves.