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It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race. Edited by Mariam Khan

It's Not About The Burqa

Title: It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race
Edited by Mariam Khan
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509886401
Genre: Essays, Anthology,
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Since time immemorial, women have been taught to be silent, or forced into silence, or submission. We have been following that for centuries now, maybe earlier than that. Women are seen or heard through a filter, and for what it’s worth it is 2019 and we should be done with all filters. It’s Not About The Burqa – an anthology of Muslim Women by Muslim Women does just that. It is about voices unfiltered – bare and open, waiting to be heard.

The idea of the anthology occurred to Mariam Khan when in 2016 she read that David Cameron had linked the radicalisation of Muslim men to the “submissive nature” of Muslim women. And this led to Mariam thinking that why was she hearing this about Muslim women from a man, and that too who wasn’t Muslim? As years passed since this comment, she realised a lot of Muslim women voices were buried or drowned. She then decided to come up with this anthology.

What is also funny is that in the Western world, the Burqa is perhaps the only thing with which Muslim women are linked or identified. The title of the book says it all – that this book is much more and beyond that. Might I also add that the title is no way “just an attention grabber”. There is more to it, which is evident right from the introduction. Mariam Khan along with her 16 other contributors, bring you a collection that is trying to change the way you look at women, at Muslim women in particular and try and look beyond the stereotypes and boxes they are carefully placed in every single day.

The issues are several. They have chosen a few, that’s also because it is next to impossible to cover such a wide range of their culture, and the way they live. From an essay by Sufiya Ahmed (The First Feminist) that speaks of how she found her courage in the book given to her by her father, when she realised that the first feminist was actually Khadija – the Prophet’s wife and how that propelled her to making her own choices, to the first one in the book by Mona Eltahawy on how the time of revolutions has come, this anthology surprises, shocks, and in turns also makes you laugh and cry.

There are others that I loved: Not Just A Black Muslim Woman by Raifa Rafiq – handling the minutest minority – Black, Muslim, and a Woman. The honesty of the essay left me wanting more. There was another one on being a Muslim woman and dealing with depression – when you are told day-in and day-out that there is nothing known as depression. This essay by Jamilla Hekmoun had me gripped and choked.

I think what most people forget, and mainly men that women are so much more. This anthology in more than one way is a reminder of that. The essays, and to me each of them gave me a perspective that I couldn’t think of – some I could, most I couldn’t. I could sense the anger, and again, it’s time that the anger and passion comes through, which it does without a doubt in these essays. These women write about the hijab, about sex and the female pleasure, about divorce, the need for open conversations about sex and identity, and mental health among others.

Its Not About The Burqa is a call to everyone – to sit up, notice, and understand that you cannot reduce Muslim women to pieces of clothing. This book will not disappoint at all. You also need to go without any expectations and let all their experiences wash over you and be ready to listen. To listen to voices that do not get heard. To listen to a representation – even as a sample perhaps, widening perspectives and the need to be empathetic and above all the will to accept and understand.

 

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Ponti by Sharlene Teo

PontiTitle: Ponti
Author: Sharlene Teo
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509855322
Genre: Teenagers, Friendship, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

You read books that have similar plots. You also read books that surprise and stun you. Those books are rare and far and few in between. “Ponti” for sure is one of them! At the same time, it is a weird book in the sense of time and its shift – the constant back and forth, which only lends itself beautifully to the novel. “Ponti” also masterfully moves away from being just a “perspectives” novel to include landscape, culture, and ethos of not only a city but also friendship and matters of the heart.

“Ponti” is a story that centres mainly on two years – 2003 and 2020. Place: Singapore. Sixteen year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, who was once an actress and now is just a hack medium performing séances with her sister in an almost dilapidated house. Szu then happens to meet Circe – who is not only quite expressive to the point of being offensive but also privileged. Their friendship is the start of something, offering Szu an easy escape. Things happen, life changes and seventeen years later – life is off to another start, with a project and secrets that decide to not remain secrets anymore.

Might I add here that after reading this book, all you’d want to do is visit Singapore. Teo makes the city come alive like no other writer and just for that (if I had to pick one element of the book that is) I would highly recommend this book. The writing is edgy and full of wonders – good and bad. Yes, I would believe there could be bad wonders – or would that just be shocking so to say.

Teo’s writing is so powerful – at times I thought the wind had been knocked off me. I loved the pace and the style. The characters face loneliness, angst, and confusion like no other – this causes them things to do which perhaps they wouldn’t and that’s where most of the story stems from. “Ponti” also needs patience in the first couple of pages, after which for me it was a smooth ride. A read that is fascinating, worrying and also insightful in so many ways.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson

The Six Title: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Author: Laura Thompson
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781250099549
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When a non-fiction work reads like fiction, you know you have struck gold on so many levels. “The Six” is a brilliant example of that. First, it is the story of the Mitford sisters. Second, it is superbly written by Laura Thompson. Third, the pace. I have often realized that I get bored in the middle of a memoir or biography and that did not happen even once during the read of this book.

“The Six” as the cover tells you is about the life of the famous Mitford sisters. Born to the 2nd Lord Redesdale between 1904 and 1920, their lives have become synonomous with the darkest periods of history. The Mitford sisters comprised of Nancy, a highly succesful historian and novelist; Pamela, who lead a quiet life suffering from polio and other diseases; the glamorous Diana who broke all rules and divorced her husband; Unity – the most infamously famous who was so taken in by Hitler and his philosophy; Jessica, the communist and Deborah who finally married a Duke and became a Duchess. These were the six Mitford sisters. The book is not just about them though. Thompson magnificently covers history – sneaking up on you between the pages and blending it beautifully with the sisters’ stories.

Thompson covers it all – the glitz and the glamour and the riches to the failed loves and relationships. Nothing has been left out conveniently. A lot of analysis of each sister and their relationship with each other is honestly told and that to me is the highlight of this rivetting read. Thompson does not leave any stone unturned and like I said the writing is easy and yet intense, covering it all and somehow leaving so much room to imagine the ongoings. A read that perhaps may not be for all, but a great one nonetheless.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem : Essays
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-1250160652
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love Didion’s writing. So I may be biased, but that’s alright. I remember the first time I read Didion. It was “The Year of Magical Thinking” and I was floored. I was gutted as well, amongst other things that I was feeling as the book ended.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a collection of essays written in the 1960s, almost fifty years ago – a time and place that current readers have not and will not experience (not that I have as well). At the same time, somehow while reading the book, it all came alive right then and there. Didion paints not just one image but a landscape on paper. Her talent is truly timeless and every time she writes something, she almost supersedes the last piece/book.

Didion’s writing though may seem America-centric but is actually quite deceptive, in the sense, it encompasses the world-view which you only understand after a couple of essays. Maybe that’s why (one of the many reasons for sure) that this book was the one that was the essential breakout work.

Didion’s prose is grounded. It doesn’t stray at any point in time. From speaking of Joan Baez (which is a very affectionate portrait of a highly intelligent woman) to a think piece on the Santa Barbara Coast to Las Vegas and the culture of quickie marriages, there is always this sense of voyeurism and at the same time,​ this need to soak in more of what she writes. This collection, ​in fact, reminded of her other collection of essays, The White Album and After Henry, whose content is very similar to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”.

It takes a while to kick into the book, but it is also a good beach read (Surprised? So was I when I started it on a quick getaway). Her musings about life, in general,​ are also worth reading, even if you might not agree with some. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is one of the best essay collection you will ever read. So, please do not miss out on it. ​

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory Title: The Book of Memory
Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Picador
ISBN:9781250117922
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source:Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Book of Memory” is the kind of book that creates ripples in your heart and you will not be able to control how you feel. I think that happens to me the most when I read books that have unreliable narrators. There is this sense of thrill and caution and at the same time, a strange sense of empathy that emerges for such characters. I like books that the central character is so strong and yet doesn’t overpower the entire book. This one is that sort of a read.

Memory is an albino woman who is in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. She has been convicted of murder and as a part of her appeal, she has to write exactly what happened. And this is where the unreliable narrator angle begins (coupled with the wordplay on the name Memory, which as one goes along in the book means and stands for so much more). She has been convicted of murdering her adopted father, Lloyd Hendricks. Why did she kill him? Did she kill him at all? What exactly happened?

Gappah creates a book that might seem repetitive in terms of plot but isn’t when it comes to her writing for sure. And then again, once you are about half-way into the book, the plot also doesn’t seem repetitive or something you have read before. The characters are strongly etched and to me beside all this, it was only the writing that took the cake and more. What is also strange according to me is that Memory’s parents send her away when she is eight years old and that is not brought up again in the entire book. I thought it was oddly weird.

Having said that, “The Book of Memory” sometimes reads like a thriller and sometimes just a literary fiction book which has so much to give. The mutable nature of memory is there throughout the book – that is what makes it so unique and mysterious at the same time. All in all, this one was a hugely satisfying read.