She Speaks We Hear

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An Interview with blogger & reviewer Mariam Khan

Image: Mariam Khan, courtesy of Mariam Khan

At She Speaks We Hear, we are always on the lookout for diverse women doing interesting and varied things. We are especially keen to platform and publicise women who are making an impact in a niche or speciality area. So in 2016 we are hoping to share with you interviews with fabuladys who you should know about! (If you are a fabulous woman doing great things and would like more people to know about you, then get in touch! You can either submit a piece for the site or you can be interviewed).

Last month we interviewed Dr Sukaina Hirji, this month we have interviewed Mariam Khan, a multi-talented blogger with a huge following. See below for the interview.

SSWH: So Mariam, please tell us about yourself.

Mariam: I currently work at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon-Avon in the Press and Communications department. By day that is my full time job. Many of my other hours are devoted to reading (mostly Young Adult fiction), blogging and going to the theatre and other adult life stuff. I also run a Twitter chat every Tuesday evening at 7.30pm called #FeminismInYA. Although we discuss themes in Feminist themes in Young Adult fiction these are often synonymous with real life issues women face. Fiction can often be the catalyst to drive change in real life and I hope that the small chat I host on Twitter creates change in people’s thinking, opens their minds and makes them look at real life and fiction with a renewed perspective.

SSWH: Why did you start ‘Hello I Am Mariam’?

Mariam: I started my blog because my creative writing lecturer Alyson made me. Honestly I had no intention of being online or sharing any part of my life or my opinions online. My lecturer encouraged blogging as a platform to receive feedback on my writing. I guess slowly I realised I could share my opinions online and this was a great way to express myself so I just did that. I’ve never really had a plan, I talk about what I love and what affects me.

“I mean, I love Emma Watson but where is the Asian Feminist equivalent?”

SSWH: You identify yourself as a feminist, why does feminism appeal to you? Does it contradict with your faith?

Mariam: I do identify as a Feminist. However I also have issues with Feminism. I recognise that the Feminist movement in its early years favoured white women. Even today, I get upset and frustrated by how Feminism is mostly championed by White women. I mean, I love Emma Watson but where is the Asian Feminist equivalent in our society? There isn’t one and if there is THAT-woman of colour is definitely not championed the way Emma Watson is.

Google will tell you Feminism is: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” In today’s society I believe it is only fair that women and men be allowed to start from the same starting point. Men can do some things women can’t, or have to try harder to do but then it goes the other way. Women can do things men can’t. Except women are still seen as second class citizens. Even synonmousing Feminism to Gender Equality makes me cringe because what does that mean? In my opinion Gender Equality is different to Feminism. Gender Equality is the equality between two genders. But even here, I think, but there are some aspects that can not be made equal. Is it fair that women get upto a year off to have a child and men don’t? But then women get periods every month and men don’t. This is why we need Feminism. Feminism highlights women’s needs. It highlights why men and women are not equal, not in a malicious way, just in an a factual focused way.

Islam and Feminism. This is a topic I have purposely avoided writing about for the longest time for many reason. The main reason is because I don’t have enough knowledge to address this question. So my answer to this question won’t be extensive and it won’t really be an answer. The only thing I will say is that although there are differentiations between man and woman in Islam I believe in my personal opinion as a Muslim woman that Allah has established these differences and duties because he is all knowing. Women in Islam are respected, what the modern-day culture does with their interpretation of Women’s rights in Islam is up to them but honestly did our Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W) hit his wives? Swear at them or curse them? I don’t think so. Yes he had many wives (to Western standards) and yes modern day Western Feminism wouldn’t appreciate this but he didn’t live in the West. How is it fair to apply the Feminist movement (concocted in the West) and apply it to a religion and culture of women without taking their beliefs into account too? This, I have said previously is my problem with Feminism, the lack of intersectionality or openness to other beliefs and religions. We are not all white women and this is why Feminism is different for us all. I’m still working out how compatible Islam and Feminism are but I’m getting there and it is a hard question and an even harder journey so bear with me. However I don’t believe that Islam and Feminism are incompatible.

My religion doesn’t restrict me, I’ve been a Muslim for 23 years and I have never felt restricted by my religion, culture on the other hand is another thing. Don’t get it mixed up!

SSWH: Thank you for your in depth answer, to the last question. Turning now to your writing, what made you decide to write book reviews? How diverse is the publishing industry and specifically, the book reviewing community?

Mariam: I write book reviews because I want others to read, I would love for someone to read a book review I wrote and then in turn buy an actual book or borrow the book from their library because of it. I think the publishing industry has realised that it actively needs to encourage diversity and is working on that right now. The book reviewing community is wide and there are bloggers from everywhere but there is always room for improvement.

SSWH: What is your favourite book?

Mariam: My favorite book. Wow, you need to stop with these tough questions! One of my favorite books has to be ‘The Alchemist‘ by Paulo Caelho. It’s about a shepherd boy who goes on a journey the story acknowledges our humanness, and our ignorance as humans of what is around us and the world that we live in. Every time I read this book I look at life with wider eyes and a sharper mind.

SSWH: Which author inspires you the most and why?

Mariam: J. K. Rowling is the author who inspires me. There are many others I could mention but I grew up on Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling created a world where children didn’t feel powerless. She created a world where children could escape. She inspired a generation of children and young people to read and that in itself is inspiring.

SSWH: You also feature advice blogs for your readers, what motivated you to share your wisdom with others?

Mariam: I wouldn’t say I share wisdom, I sort of tell my stories and then hope someone will read them and not make the same mistakes. Or if I offer advice it comes from a personal mistake I’ve made. I do not pretend to know about things I don’t. I am only 23 and recognise life needs to happen but there are things I do know something about. Things I struggled with in University or at work and if writing about these things could possibly make someone else feel positive about feeling the same way and not like they are on their own on a deserted island then I am all for writing and sharing my experiences.

I like to talk to other people and explore the things we have in common and those we don’t. The reason I started the Graduate series on my blog is to demonstrate that no two graduates have taken the same path towards their dream job. As a young person I always wanted to know how to get places in life and speaking to other people not and sharing their stories on my blog I hope that young people today realise there isn’t a set path, we are all making it up as we go along.

SSWH: Now for our final question, could you tell us what advice you would give to anyone who wishes to start a blog site?

Mariam: If you want to start a blog just do it. Be kind, be true to what you want to write about. Get involved in the community of bloggers you want to join. Don’t steal anybody else’s work – because that is called plagiarism. There isn’t a set way to do things and although it can be difficult sticking to your niche, your personal point of views, things that have shaped your opinions will be much more interesting than just saying the same thing as the 40 bloggers before you. I have done a few posts on blogging tips.

I like to question things, to unpick them and then put them back together again. That is how I learn and I’m still learning about Feminism and about my religion and about a lot of other things.

Our sincere thanks to Mariam for answering our questions. You can read her blog ‘Hello I am Mariam’ and follow her on Twitter @helloiammariam

Interview by Akeela Ahmed

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. Image courtesy of Mariam Khan.
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The Writer Woman (Thoughts on ‘Black Milk’ by Elif Shafak)

by Roszeen Afsar

@Roszeen

In my previous piece, ‘The Unwritten Woman’, I highlighted the need for women of different backgrounds to write about their experiences,  here I want to focus on women writing as a profession.

The idea for these two blog pieces really came into my mind when I picked up a book called ‘Black Milk; On Motherhood and Writing’ by Elif Shafak, a favourite author of mine. Wanting to know about the female voice in literature, I was immediately interested in reading this and it did not disappoint me. Shafak discusses her struggles in choosing between her career and motherhood, believing that there has to be a choice between the two until she finally accepts what she wishes – to have both. She talks about her experiences in facing and overcoming post-partum depression and what this time in her life meant for her. In the end, I felt in Shafak’s writing a warmth towards the notion of motherhood, perhaps an understanding that it is in some ways part of the essence of the female and important to her own femininity.

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

Image courtesy of Roszeen Afsar

In between these struggles, Shafak writes about other female writers having to grapple with this dilemma too; embodying the all-encompassing role of motherhood whilst also holding onto an all-encompassing profession. As opposed to those women I talked about in my previous article who couldn’t imagine writing about themselves or engaging in any kind of creative activity, this books brings up the lives of women who chose to sacrifice their conventional roles in order to pursue their creative passions. Shafak shows through biographical examples that when female writers have made the decision to become career authors, they have often felt the need to sacrifice the possibility of becoming mothers completely.

At the same time, however, Shafak does look at the other side of the spectrum. She brings up the idea of a woman who denounces her creativity and expression to a life of marriage and motherhood. An example she gives is the wife of famous writer Leo Tolstoy, Sophia Andreevna Bers, who Shafak imagines could have had aspirations of writing as she was a diarist and helped Tolstoy with his manuscripts. However, Sophia does not get the chance to pursue a course of life similar to her husband’s because from a young age she enters into their marriage and becomes pregnant – in fact she has thirteen children in total. Because of the consistency of the pregnancies and the short time between each, Shafak describes Sophia as a ‘moon woman’; her stomach like the phases of the moon. The phrase ‘moon woman’ I think is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life; when I read it I thought immediately of my mother-in-law who has (incredibly) given birth to ten children. She is a moon woman – most of her life spent in pregnancy, breastfeeding and raising those children.

What makes this book more thought-provoking is that Shafak does not pass any judgement on the choices of the women she talks about, but shows how in the past the nature of the writing profession was such that women felt forced to follow one extreme or another. I believe these polarised perspectives on a woman’s role are still present in other forms. Amongst some aspects of feminism there is an argument that the identity of a woman is as an individual personality and the role of motherhood is in contradiction to this. Motherhood is thus presented as a burden to female liberty as opposed to how it is seen from an Islamic perspective; a defining aspect to the nature of a woman. Islamically, whether or not a woman gives birth, the mothering qualities of mercy and gentleness are understood to be part of the female soul. I have found a refreshing quote from Bosnian politician and writer, Alija Izetbegovic, which sums up this latter sentiment perfectly;

‘One of the arguments of the feminist movement is that a woman has been expressing herself as a mother and that it is now time for her to express herself as a personality. In their argumentation, mother and personality are opposed terms. I would like someone to explain this to me. I have always thought that there is nothing more personal or richer in personality than a mother, that a mother is a superb personality.’

Because many female writers of the past believed that they had to cut off their personal lives in order to continue their writing, the female voice in the written world seems to miss out on the potential of the raw female experience from the eyes of many women. This is because those writers never choose to write about it or have very little experience of it themselves, having chosen a different life. Elif Shafak talks about how she suppressed her femininity in order to be taken seriously in the writing world. She gives an example of becoming aware of this suppression when stood next to a pregnant woman who glowed with the femininity she says felt the lack of.

In the previous article I wrote of my despair at the women around me choosing not to make a note of their own life experiences. I did this because we have a lot to lose by not knowing about them. They are comfortable as women, as much as the pregnant woman in Shafak’s book, and for this reason it would be profound to read about what makes them so. I can try to create something, for example, from the perspective of a woman during her time of labour, but I cannot know what she experiences in that time or how she feels when she holds her child in her arms unless it is something I too have been through, and even then it will be solely from my perspective not the perspective of another woman.

When I really think about it, in terms of literature I have only ever read about a woman having a child as a plot device connecting to something else in the story. I am sure that there will be examples on the contrary, but my main point is that a great deal of spiritual and creative ground is being lost. There is a huge potential for the communication of stories about the female experience – not just about giving birth, but about the woman in ways rarely seen.

I witnessed such a creative potential first, funnily enough, within the diary of Anais Nin. Anyone who has read Nin’s novels will no doubt believe that she should never be associated with motherhood, however her diaries are very different from her fiction. The particular passage which comes to mind was one she wrote after giving birth to a stillborn baby. This was emotional to read, as you can imagine, especially as it was the result of what she describes as an extremely painful labour and her lack of will to give birth. It is true that Nin refused to have children after this, however she was a woman who fostered her maternal instinct into her personality and expression. Nin wrote unashamedly with her femininity – she was never shy to write as a woman. She openly suggested that her books were her children, that her writing was her creation and that her ways of communicating and being around others were solely from her maternal instincts. An example of this is in the same passage regarding the birth;

‘A dead creation, my first dead creation…The failure of my motherhood, or at least the embodiment of it, all my hopes of real, human, simple, direct motherhood lying dead, and the only one left to me, Lawrence’s symbolic motherhood, bringing more hope into the world…Perhaps I was designed for other forms of creation.’ 

Though she believes her literal motherhood to be destroyed, Nin still writes with a voice from an experience no man could imagine. This is a kind of voice rarely heard in literature, even today.

As a final thought I must add that I do not believe a woman’s only expression is in her literal ability to give birth. But the symbolic motherhood is a profound metaphor of the female in all her innate qualities, and as a bringer of life – be it through words or worlds. If we look into ourselves, we can find these words and worlds waiting to open their eyes.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.