Religion is an integral part of a person’s identity, but the world is still full of prejudices that prevent some people from accepting and respecting religions different from their own. In a significant way, the condemnation affects Islam, often distorting the opinion about its adherents. For example, modern Islam women seek to change the dominant stereotype of a quiet, obedient, and oppressed Muslim woman. By presenting their modern images and way of life in literature, writers also contribute to the destruction of prejudice and a better understanding of religion. This paper examines two novels that contribute to breaking stereotypes of a submissive Muslim woman. Although it is hard to change public opinion driven by fear, it is crucial to support the pursuit of understanding and respect of different worldviews.
The misunderstanding of women in Muslim countries stems from broader misconceptions about Islam in general. The public’s opinion is formed significantly with the information obtained from the media. At the same time, the media can be very selective in which details to represent in their coverage and which are not. Journalists usually present this religion as single and monolithic, although it is common among many peoples and states in Africa and Asia with their different histories and cultures. Islam is considered one-sided and is equated with fundamentalism, jihadism, and terrorism. Its image is supplemented by stories about restrictions, backwardness, oppression of women, and danger. As a result, these narratives determine attitudes through an understanding of belonging – “others” against the existing way of society living. Consequently, stereotypes spread quickly and are reinforced by information messages presented to society.
The stereotypical image of Muslim women most often includes such personal traits as silence, modesty, obedience, and being oppressed. This image existed long ago in the Western view of Islam and gained new strength in connection with the war on terror after 2001 and public interest in the emancipation of Muslim women. Men whose work and reflection contributed to creating the myth of oppressed Muslim women in the 19th century did not have the opportunity to contact them to learn the truth. Moreover, the narrative of saving tyrannized women served as an excuse for strengthening colonization activities. The stereotype continued to hold and flourish, allowing it to be used as one of the reasons for other military campaigns.
The myth continues to live and influence people’s opinions on various scales in the modern world – from personal biases to political campaigns. In some countries, this theme affected the political sphere even more and resulted in calls for hijabs prohibition, the protection of Muslim women from Muslim men, and the non-acceptance of Islam due to its patriarchy. A vivid example is Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech during his presidency, where he announced that the burka was a symbol of repression. He said that such clothes are not welcome in France, as they cut women off from public life, deprive them of their identity and dignity, and in general contradict the idea of freedom. Another example of political concern for Muslim women is speaking on their behalf by influential liberal women, such as Laura Bush which became more frequent after the attacks of September 11. At the same time, Muslim women themselves remained outside the framework of similar events.
People can interpret multiple religious texts in contrasting ways, and their explanations depend on society. It is worth noting that many world religions have sexist narratives, and the singling out of Islam is only another way to contrast the values of different cultures. The stereotype of oppressed Muslim women excludes viewing them as modern people, deprives them of part of their individuality, and as a result, represents them as outsiders of society. This perception negatively affects the lives of Muslim women and makes them fight stereotypes.
Creativity and various related activities have become essential aspects of presenting the Muslim way of life to society. In particular, many media oriented on Muslim audiences appeared today to discuss various ideas, including identity and culture. They reflect the rapidly developing world of technology, in which cultural boundaries are no longer as rigid as before. In particular, Muslim women activists create media spaces working on various platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Their content is an effective alternative to the media, which continues to broadcast the stereotypes discussed in this paper.
Such activities of Muslim women are essential not only as an alternative to existing media and their narratives but also as a space for integration into societies around the world. Their creative activities can reveal the actual images of Muslim women and teach people to evaluate the dissemination of biased opinions critically. When working in the creative sphere, Muslim women raise important identity, activity, and belonging issues. Moreover, they often position themselves as cosmopolitans and, in this way, destroy stereotypes and fight their socio-economic exclusion. Writers are a significant part of the described creative power that can destroy existing myths.
Muslim women writers can simultaneously break stereotypes with their example and reveal a woman’s life in their books. Writers Kamila Shamsie and Leila Aboulela, whose books are analyzed further, are Muslim, which affects their work. Aboulela advocates the revitalization of Islam in English-language literature and talks about characters whose faith is tested under challenging conditions and societies with little tolerance for it. Kamila Shamsie represents the third generation of women writers in her family. She represents Muslims and reveals social and political discourse in her works. The positions of the authors, as well as the themes that they raise, are of particular interest to the destruction of existing myths and stereotypes about Muslim women.
Literature allows readers to know the world improve their understanding of surrounding people. Therefore, modern literature is of interest in studying the image of Muslim women. The Home Fire novel written by Kamila Shamsie is a vivid contemporary rethinking of Sophocles’ play “Antigone.” In the original work, the main character must choose between her religious duty to bury her traitor brother and civil law, which tells her to give his body to be picked apart. Despite the complexity of the primary source, Shamsie managed to write a unique novel that retains the dilemma of choosing between family and obedience to society in the plot. Moreover, the book describes the modern realities of immigrant life, political intrigues, the complexities of family relations, and love story. Two young British Muslim women – Isma and her sister Aneeka are among the main characters of the Home Fire; they are very different, but both exciting people.
In their way, each of the two women in the novel Home Fire destroys the stereotype of silent, submissive Muslim women. Isma is very brave and loving, as she takes care of the younger siblings – Aneeka and her twin-brother Parvaiz, after the death of their mother and grandmother. Simultaneously, she does not forget her dreams and ambitions, and after the twins grow up, she goes to America to continue her studies. Isma is very aware of prejudices about Muslims and is not surprised by additional searches and interrogations at the airport. She is critical of stereotypes and existing attitudes towards Muslims but remains careful to protect her family. Thus, Isma became an adult responsible for children early, and these events changed her, but she remained brave, curious, and ambitious.
Aneeka attracts even more attention than her sister and acts against stereotypes actively. She is also intelligent and studies to receive a law degree. At the same time, she is beautiful and attracts the attention of men, which, in the opinion of society, does not correspond to the image of a diligent Muslim woman. In the book, she devotes most of her time to bringing her twin brother trapped by ISIS to Britain. Aneeka uses Eamonn Lone, the son of an influential politician and her sister’s romantic interest, for her purposes. Having begun a relationship with Eamonn without feelings, Aneeka gradually falls in love.
A young woman also significantly opposes society following the command of the heart. Her devotion to Parvaiz is so extreme that Aneeka does not think about the caution that other immigrants, including her sister, are forced to observe but makes every effort to bring her brother back. She condemns Isma for telling the police that their brother is in ISIS and stops their communication. When Parvaiz dies and is recognized as a terrorist, she goes after his body and demands that he be buried in Britain. Later, when Eamonn gets trapped and shows up in the bomb belt, Aneeka stays with him, not runs away. With her courage and ability to defend her own opinion, this character destroys stereotypes.
Another example of a literary character that does not correspond to stereotyped ideas about Muslim women is the protagonist of the book Minaret written by Leila Aboulela – Najwa. She not only destroys the stereotype of a quiet and submissive Muslim woman but demonstrates the individual path of a woman in the understanding and acceptance of Islam. The book presents various episodes of Najwa’s past and present life using a nonlinear narrative. In the past, a young woman is a student at the University of Khartoum from a wealthy family. Although her father is an influential politician, Najwa is far from this area. Moreover, she is also not very devout, is more interested in Western culture, and sees her future as the wife of a rich man and mother. However, a political coup in Sudan leads to the death of Najwa’s father, and she, along with her mother and brother twin, finds political asylum in London.
After moving to London, Najwa faces many problems and challenges. Her brother is addicted to drugs, which is why all their money savings end quickly. Moreover, because of drugs, he attacks a police officer and goes to prison. Their mother suffers from a severe illness and later dies. Najwa finds support from a woman from the mosque, which helped her get to know Islam and find peace in it. Faith gives her security and identity, which she lost after staying alone in an unfamiliar city and unusual circumstances. Later, the protagonist finds a job she would not take when she had money. Increasingly immersed in faith, a young woman changes her life – she leaves an abusive relationship and meets a more pleasant man. However, she refuses to marry him, and they break up. Najwa still feels better than before and plans to go on Hajj. In this way, a young woman independently goes her path to Islam in the book.
Through Najwa’s complicated life story, the writer demonstrates a Muslim woman’s independence, strength, and potential. Moreover, Aboulela, using the example of a character she created, shows that religion is not imposed on young women. They come to it when they feel the need for faith or are ready to accept it. The path the character passes reminds readers that Islam is not about how women dress but about spiritual security. Describing her work, the writer speaks of her books as ‘Muslim immigrant fiction. In this way, she emphasizes the importance of religion for understanding characters and their identity, rather than geographical location or other characteristics. At the same time, the author demonstrates that Islamic traditions and religion may take place in the modern world and are not outdated. This assumption is facilitated by the fact that Aboulela does not seek to describe or explain Islam to her readers but conveys the experience people face in their ordinary lives.
Appearance is seen as an essential component of a person’s identity, and therefore the issue of wearing a hijab or scarf covering hair is particularly concerning for the public discussing Muslim women’s position. Many see such clothes as a unique form of restrictions on freedom of expression. The example of the French president expressing non-acceptance of hijabs is mentioned above. This topic is revealed in the book Minaret, where learning more about Islam, Najwa also gradually comes to the decision to wear a hijab. The writer describes the character’s experiences and concerns about her modernity, beauty, how much the hijab hides or reveals her personality.
Najwa’s first attempts to wear a scarf in front of the mirror did not bring satisfaction and raised doubts. The protagonist does not understand how to approach the process properly and how the scarf will suit her. However, having shown perseverance and using her mother’s tobe to cover her hair, she feels different and attractive in a new way. This part of the book is significant since it destroys myths and answers many worrying questions about the clothes of modern Muslim women.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to consider another aspect – the decision to wear a hijab is very brave, as it immediately changes the opinion of part of society, not only about the beauty of a woman but also her character. Therefore, Najwa also demonstrates her courage and determination, and not submission, taking such an important step for her. Accepting themselves and wearing a hijab, women also express confidence in themselves and their personality. They do not seek to meet Western standards of beauty and sexuality but draw attention to the fact that women should be considered as individuals, not sexual objects.
In addition to representing Muslim women, there is also evidence in the books that stereotypes are supported by an incorrect approach to the situation assessment. For example, Lila Abu-Lughod, in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? draws attention to the fact that oppression and problems do exist, for instance, in access to education, the full realization of rights, and similar issues. However, they affect not only women but also men since such problems are provoked not by culture and religion but by political processes. Poverty, unequal distribution of resources, national and international problems – concern about Muslim women allegedly oppressed by religion distracts the public from addressing these issues.
Shamsie and Aboulela subtly weave the political side of life into the stories of their characters. In the book Home Fire, the life of Parvaiz depended on politics, and it pushed Aneeka to resolute protests. In Minaret, initially, the political coup changed the main character’s life and directed her along a new path. Finally, as noted earlier, supporting stereotypes is most beneficial for political conflicts.
Another common feature of novels is that they focus on the lives of immigrants. Being in a new culture can be shocking, especially when part of society does not accept the presence of migrants. In the novel Home Fire, the non-acceptance generated by fear is reflected in the rapid recognition of Parvaiz as a terrorist, contempt for Anika in the media, distrust of Isma that she is flying to continue her studies. Most characters in the story seek to be careful, as they know that they receive special attention due to their cultural and religious background. Minaret, in turn, shows the loneliness of an immigrant living in another country. Although Najwa is passionate about Western culture and values earlier while being a student, she feels invisible in London and only finds herself in religion. Loss of sense of belonging, distrust by society, and similar feelings are common among migrants, and books make it possible to understand such experiences through presented characters better.
Thus, the stereotype of Muslim women imposes on them exclusively such qualities as obedience, modesty, and submission. Myths also suggest that different Islam traditions and even clothing restrict women and their freedom. However, these myths were created and maintained significantly without Muslim women’s participation and for the benefit of political conflicts. Modern female representatives of Islam destroy such stereotypes and show their strength and determination. Women writers simultaneously demonstrate their example of a Muslim woman who is not oppressed and transmit new narratives through their works.
Books whose characters reflect the lives of Muslim women influence the process of breaking down stereotypes. They show that women can be ambitious, brave, follow the call of their heart, sometimes recklessly. However, every woman is unique, and religion does not limit their identity but is an essential part of it. As both the studied fiction books and the additional sources show, the problem of suppressing people exist but not only affects Muslim women. Nevertheless, with a more detailed view, one can understand that their roots are not religious traditions but political contradictions and global problems, such as the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Therefore, it is vital to break down stereotypes and support action on global issues.