Token. Token Token Token.
When I hear the word token, or think about it even, I think of something cheap. Something that can be exchanged for something else. A replacement. However, I am fully aware that my identity, the very person I am, will be the token of many.
I am not a token woman. Growing up being the only girl in my immediate family (I’ve got two younger brothers), getting your own way was sometimes quite difficult. I remember being very ambitious and needy – and still unapologetically am. I remember trying to break the rules, be me, and expect everyone to accept me for it. I remember when my grandmother expressed her disgust to my mum when she saw me playing football with my brothers. “WHAT IS THIS? WHAT IS SHE DOING? GIRLS DO NOT PLAY FOOTBALL!!!”. I still laugh at this. I was always very competitive. I wanted to do everything. Be the best. Slay it all. And for then everyone to say, “look she’s done it!”. I admit that I’m still like this, but I’m not a glory-hunter.
You see, I’ve always wanted to make a name for myself. I’ve always sought opportunities to shine, create my own path, and allow others to embark on the journey with me. But this hasn’t been easy. It had to begin with a single idea – to accept that I am a feminist.
At 16, I hated the word feminist, although I was always always pro-women. I thought that Margaret Thatcher was a great woman (oh my god how on earth could I?! I have since had a dramatic change). I believed that women had already been granted equal rights with men. I used to think “well, we’ve already had a woman Prime Minister, women can vote, we can drive cars, we can become CEO’s – so why are they complaining? What else do they want?” I think that these thoughts were perpetuated by the fact that my school, an all-girls Muslim school, was a very anti-feminist environment. Feminism was seen as the great evil – something exclusive to Western women. Surely Muslim women cannot be feminists right?
I believe in intersectional feminism. My feminism is 100% intersectional. When I came across kick-ass activists on Twitter near my 18th birthday – I thought “oh god look at these women!”. They were immediately inspirational to me. And even though my school led everyone to believe that feminism was bullshit, I thought “you know what, fuck it”. I’m so tired of confining myself, I’m so tired of pleasing people. Fuck it, I’m a feminist. Yes, you heard it. I’M A FEMINIST.
I remember at that moment my disgust at even contemplating that feminism was wrong. I thought “how can I be pro-women if I don’t believe in feminism”. I had been misinformed, and quite stupid too. I saw the disgusting misogyny, sexism and grave inequality in this country and everywhere else I went – and although my friends expressed surprise and concern at my decision, I did not care. If I am to to speak about women’s rights, I must also speak about feminism.
I am NOT a token woman. Apart from being a feminist, I am also a Muslim woman, living in the West. I proudly wear my Hijab everywhere I go, therefore inevitably becoming a part of my identity. I am aware that society expects me to conform to the whims of men, to get married early, not to have a career path, and perhaps not even go to university. Shocking right? The stares I attract when I’m reading a book on public transport is quite staggering. Do they think that I cannot speak English? Do they think that I am uneducated?
Well guess what society? I am literate, go to university, can speak three languages fluently – currently learning a fourth one. I am BRITISH. I’m a radio presenter. I hold different committee positions for societies. I’m also a Spokesperson for a new national campaign, and am an activist for a political party. I do all of these things whist being a young Black Muslim woman. You didn’t see that coming did you?
I do not think that people, or even society realises how difficult it is to go against certain aspects of your own culture, whilst trying to fit into the West simultaneously. I come from a culture which believes that women should be accompanied whilst travelling, that they should marry young, be a good housewife, and most of all, be a devout Muslim woman. I’m fairly certain that I can be a devout Muslim woman whilst disagreeing entirely with the above statements right? I don’t believe that a woman needs to be married to be ‘successful’, I don’t believe that men need to follow where women go, I don’t believe that women should be confined to the role that is a housewife. If the latter is your choice, that is completely fine with me.
I hate the notion of women being forced to become different to themselves just because men say so. Or society says so. Or maybe even their culture dictates it. This is especially true of Muslim women, everywhere they are, not just in the West. I hate the fact that women being constantly targeted by men when it comes to ‘advice’. An example of this is the case with Nour Tagouri – an Arab-American Muslim woman journalist who took the decision to be featured in Playboy. Whilst I will never contemplate appearing on such a magazine, I support her with the fact that it was completely her own choice to be featured in the magazine – despite its horrendous publications. Perhaps what made me angry was the sudden outpour of Muslim men and ‘Haram police’ uploading videos on YouTube essentially lecturing her what to do, hiding their bigotry under the banner of ‘advice’. To put it politely, this is complete bullshit. Muslim women do not need the ‘advice’ of Muslim men, especially when they promote some very sexist content online that degrade women. What is wrong with you? What’s worse, what they are screaming out isn’t even advice, it is demands. They are literally demanding women what they should do with their lives.
I have come to realise that powerful Muslim women, those who have actually made a name for themselves are constantly subject to scrutiny, intimidation, degradation, abuse and ultimately, harassment. This worried me a lot at the beginning, but if I don’t do anything for women like myself – who will do it for me? “But this girl, is she even a Muslim?”, “how can she not wear a Hijab?”. “Oh my god she is wearing too much makeup!”. Well men, God has told you to a) lower your gaze, and b) you are not infallible either. I find it absolutely baffling that some men who lecture Muslim women to wear the Hijab have time to tweet photos of Kim Kardashian, then expect the Virgin Mary to appear in front of them if the woman is a Muslim. Most horrifyingly, the abuse also comes from women too, not just men.
The reason why I wanted to start I Rise was to foster a community of strong, independent women who can think for and empower themselves, and support each other whilst doing it. Don’t ever let anyone tokenise your achievements in life, ever. Know your worth because you are way to good for that.
Rahma Hussein is a second year History student at King’s College, London.
Cover photo: poster at Girlcon 2016.