Back in 2015 we shared a post about two British artists who were breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes merely with their presence. The female hip hop duo known as Poetic Pilgrimage, Tanya Muneera Williams and Sukina Owen-Douglas, talk about faith, feminism and being women of color on stage and they certainly know how to draw a crowd while doing it.
Tanya Muneera Williams, who often goes by Muneera (since she converted to Islam) recently wrote an essay for Independent.co.uk talking about how her identity and what she stands for can often be confusing for some, but she relishes the challenge of deconstructing norms and offering fresh insight into certain topics that are surrounded by a great deal of negativity.
The Afro-Jamaican rapper who is based out of London says converting from Christianity to Islam has made some people wonder whether she is now oppressed, as the hijab has somehow become a universal symbol of religious oppression, especially in light of so much anti-terrorism hysteria around the world right now, buoyed on by certain global political leaders.
The reason we chose to share parts of her essay was because we want to use our platform to share issues that matter, help expand the definition of feminism, be an intersectional online destination without the media hype.
Tanya begins her piece by stating the obvious when it comes to stories about Muslims:
“Conversions to Islam always sparks curiosity in others, especially if the convert is someone who sits outside of their usual expectations of what a Muslim looks like,” she said.
She goes on to explain how she decided to leave her Christian faith behind after her many questions about race and gender went unanswered. She was drawn to Islam from reading the works of Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi as well as the life of Malcolm X. Growing up, she also spent a lot of time listening to music, especially reggae and jazz, while pondering the meaning of life and philosophy.
She officially converted to Islam a few weeks before the July 7, 2005 London bombing attacks by the hands of radical terrorists, carrying out heinous acts in the name of “Islam”. While Tanya explains she had experienced her fair share of racism and sexism before her conversion, after that it added a whole other dimension, matching the growing hysteria that has still, to this day, not abated in regard to terrorism.
“I remember how society responded to me prior to my conversion. I was a girl about town and although I encountered racism and sexism I walked about hassle free, whereas now I face anything from micro-aggressions to complete disdain. For me, this is even more troubling than the overt Islamophobic name calling on the internet. That I can put down to bigotry, whereas the small everyday hostility from seemingly normal people speaks of the changing climate in the UK,” she wrote.
Along with her music, Tanya has become a conundrum of sorts, even within the feminist community.
“Yes it’s true there is definitely a theme of female strength and dignity in our music, however since wearing a headscarf as a woman of color, I am starting to wonder if feminism is really about all women expressing themselves. For every open minded feminist I meet, there is another who thinks I am oppressed by either my father, or that my husband forces me to wear hijab (if only they knew I’m still on the lookout for one of those and my father is a non-religious Jamaican),” she said.
This is an important point, because for feminism today to truly be as intersectional as it claims (and we believe it is), the conventional narratives must be broken down. We have to allow faith and religion to be part of the current feminist movement in a way that allows people of faith to define “choice” and “freedom” as they know best.
The medium that has helped give voice to Tanya’s self-expression more than anything else, is hip hop. The musical genre born out of a need to give black and minority communities a voice to talk about the issues they face in a way that was not dictated by the white narrative or norms.
“This community has always been embracing and inclusive – even the underdog is welcomed as long as they honor the culture. Through this genre my group has been able to break more stereotypes than any government policy. In the spirit of this, the one hope for the UK’s future that I see is an increased diversity of Muslims in the mainstream media. Not just token a black, female, disabled, elderly or Muslim voices, but a true reflection of the amazing wealth of experience one religion can include,” concluded Tanya.
While there are a number of activists and feminists who are speaking out about the horrors forced on women and girls in certain parts of the world in the name of Islam (think Mona Eltahawy and Nina Ansary), it’s also important we hear women like Tanya talk about an entirely different side of the Muslim identity.
And we don’t exactly have to look too far to see global and historical examples of how people of Islamic faith have cited their religion as the very reason for wanting peace, unity and progression. Boxer Cassius Clay famously converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Not only was he one of the world’s greatest athletes to ever walk the Earth, but during the Vietnam War refused to be inducted as he explained his religious beliefs forbade him from doing so.
He was widely criticized for this, but he stood by his beliefs. It is sad this is an oft-overlooked aspect of how faith can compel a person to act in a peaceful manner.
Basketball player Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr converted to Islam and subsequently changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who during his career claimed a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), a record 19-time NBA All-Star, a 15-time All-NBA selection, and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. He has also been considered one of the 50 greatest basketball players of all time.
In an essay from 2014, Kareem shared his thoughts on sexism in sports and why it needs to be gone. For those who only choose to believe the stereotypical narratives around men and Islam should know that this essay flies in the face of all of that.
And then there is of course the example of Malala Yousafzai, the worlds youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, and who is known globally as the young activist fighting to girls’ education despite being shot in the head by the Taliban. Her activism is supported by her father, yet another anomaly in the typical conversations about Muslim families.
What people like Tanya are doing is offering a more nuanced look at a religion that is closely held by roughly 1.6 billion people in the world. This is not to say we cannot ignore the harmful effects of the few who choose to use the name of Islam to carry out heinous violent acts, in the same manner Christians, Catholics and many other religious groups have been guilty of throughout history.
But in an increasingly hostile and divided world, it is important to understand not every identity is black and white, and we can learn much more from being open-minded. Tanya and Sukina are reclaiming a space for black Muslim women and are using their music to break down misconceptions in a non-threatening, artistic way that can become an important point of reference for a culture that still seeks to place individuals in pre-ordained boxes and categories.
You can hear more from Tanya in the video below, where she speaks about the need to acknowledge the diversity of British Muslims in a talk for an Everyday Muslim event: