When Asyia Iftikhar first decided to pursue the arts—and study the Classics—she did it at the risk of upsetting her parents. Coming from a traditional British-Pakistani family, she was brought up with certain expectations—focus on academics, hang out with parent-approved friends and pursue a career in the sciences. Now a journalist, Iftikhar wrote about her decision to pursue the arts as a South Asian woman in Metro, a national publication that helped her story reach thousands of readers.
But while publications like Metro are read in almost every household in the UK, seeing names like Iftikhar’s in the byline—and reading the stories she writes—is far less common. In a media industry that pigeonholes writers of colour into solely exploring topics around identity and trauma, the journalist shared that she has struggled to constructively talk about her own experiences without being put into a stereotypical box—one that positions young South Asian activists in a battle between their heritage, which is widely considered problematic, and a future that is often dictated by outside assumptions of who they should be.
That’s not to say these harmful narratives don’t exist within South Asian culture too. Non-binary marine biologist and filmmaker Dawood Qureshi distanced themselves from their traditional Muslim beliefs and mixed Indian-Pakistani-Portuguese family after growing up and hearing that the community they belonged to had no place for queer people. Working in the conservation industry in the UK—which is largely dominated by economically affluent white people—added to this ostracisation as Qureshi shared with Screen Shot that they felt stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I felt like I could be comfortable with nature, but that extra added layer of feeling like I don’t belong has led to discomfort, the sheer lack of diversity within the conservation industry almost makes you feel like you’re losing your own sense of identity in order to assimilate,” they said. But their own struggles with finding their place has made it all the more important for Qureshi to be seen in their work. “I couldn’t see anyone like myself in this space, and because of that I almost drifted away, and I want other people to look at me and see someone like them and know they can do this,” they shared, adding that they were working on projects looking at the racism within the UK’s conservation industry in an effort to bring change. Where do you go when neither side seems to have a place for you? You make your own space—one that doesn’t see the world as so black and white, and that allows you to decide how past and present come together.
For Iftikhar, that space means exploring her own experiences with her community and all the things she wants to learn and unlearn in a constructive forward-thinking way. While she doesn’t limit herself in her writing because of what people will think, she does find herself keeping some pieces to herself. “There are certain topics my parents aren’t comfortable with me writing about, so sometimes I don’t tell them but because the journalism community can be lonely, I can’t get support from either side,” she shared.
The anonymity that the vastness of the internet can afford can be a blessing for many. Be Baaghi is an online community platform that creates a space for Pakistani women to share anonymous accounts of the ways they’ve experienced harmful traditions and also advocates for systemic change within society. Its founder initially created the platform to ensure contributors’ safety and to let their narratives shine through without the need for names. On its Instagram page, stories range from women sharing sexist encounters, being shamed for having darker skin tones or being silenced when talking about their mental health.
“I wanted to see more representation of South Asian people in digital art. Digital art is so cool and whenever I saw text posts or illustrations of people that I really liked, I would wish that there was a piece that related to desi [the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora] culture more. I loved the relatability of the posts and knew that desi culture and South Asian people needed to be reflected in this medium too,” shared Be Baaghi’s founder, adding that “sharing custom made educational posts or useful resources catered to Pakistani Womxn is what I am working on at the moment.”
Despite conversations around representation becoming increasingly common, there appear to be few resources available that aim to actually help young South Asians find ways to move forward. “Because of how white the nature sector is, you almost find yourself losing your identity in order to assimilate and it made me want to go back and connect to that again,” Qureshi explained as to why they wanted to become a filmmaker. “The exploration of that narrative through the media of film is a very powerful way to influence thoughts,” they added.
Melbourne-based filmmaker Kauthar Abdulalim told Screen Shot she was inspired by the medium of film for similar reasons. Abdulalim’s work focuses on exploring the lived experiences of her community in Australia—calling out incidents of racism and Islamophobia while also exploring issues that young women face within our own community, often through comedy and drama. While comedy may not seem like the most obvious route to take when addressing social injustices, Abdulalim explained that she took to mainstream fiction filmmaking over typical documentaries because she wanted to share unexpected stories with her audience.
“Fictional content would give me access to a diverse audience who wouldn’t necessarily have the same beliefs as me, and my work could challenge that and so now my main focus is fictional content. I also feel like we as Muslims and South Asians also need content that we can relate to and need to see ourselves on screen,” she said.
The truth is, we don’t need to only have sob stories in the media in order to be heard. What we actually need is effort and for young people from marginalised backgrounds to be able to decide what works for them without being talked over. By creating these platforms, these young South Asians are doing just that—being unapologetically themselves and showing others that they can be too.
It’s hard to talk about Islamophobia because there’s so much tension.
There’s the ‘good Muslim’ act Muslims perform daily to persuade non-Muslims that, no, we’re not terrorists. Actually, most of us get on fine, seeing as there’s nearly 2 billion of us in the world. There’s the defensive nature surrounding Islamophobia, for those who propel anti-Islamic rhetoric in both the large ways (pushing xenophobic ideas and trying to ‘get rid’ of Muslims) and in the small ways (saying dumb things like “It must be so oppressive to be a Muslim woman. I feel so bad for you.”). There’s also the trauma and the automatic defence mechanism that goes up by Muslims and ex-Muslims alike, because we want to show we’re not affected by the bigotry that has arguably shaped us—the collective trauma we share.
In addition to all of this, on a parliamentary level, the last decade has especially seen the rise of right-wing and Islamophobic laws globally. In February of this year, France passed a legislative bill to combat “Islamist separatism,” an ideology that describes “the enemy of the Republic.” French Muslims have said this bill unfairly targets them and many have noted that although the bill is supposedly ‘neutral’, it all has links to the French Muslim community. In the UK, Muslim Labour voters have recently been blamed for the dip in voter counts, with a 12 per cent drop in favourability.
Last Ramadan, Labour party leader Keir Starmer declined to be a part of Ramadan celebrations with the Muslim community at the digital Open Iftar, after pro-Israel groups questioned the views of Open Iftar’s CEO Omar Salha. Salha’s tweet said, “This #Ramadan, Don’t Eat into #Palestine,” essentially encouraging the boycott of Israeli goods.
During the Israel and Palestine tensions, I witnessed so many people across social media say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know much about this topic, I don’t want to appear anti-semitic’ yet it felt like no one cared about appearing Islamophobic. And why would they, when Islam is being treated like a deadly virus people need to step away from?
When asking in a Twitter poll if Islamophobia has become more normalised, 89 per cent of voters said yes. When I asked on my Instagram if Islamophobia has become more acceptable and if other causes have become ‘trendier’ to align with—the response was staggering. Many of the respondents noted the role the media has in the negative perception of Muslims.
Some said, “Islam is seen as ‘backwards’ versus other struggles such as LGBTQ+ rights are seen as being ‘progressive’.” Claudia, 30 said, “Islamophobia, as opposed to other forms of racism and prejudice certainly seems more normalised to me. Many people seem to not be afraid of being perceived as Islamophobic.” Another said, “Calling it ‘trendy’ is a reductive take but Islamophobia is definitely more normalised.”
Masuda, 27 told me, “The ‘work’ that has been done so far has not been enough to shift the narrative (for example, oppressive tropes) and humanise Muslims. When we do see ‘liberated’ Muslim characters, they are often positioned as the exception to the rules, the one that’s gone against the grain of their culture and religion to have the agency they’ve been seeking.”
Whereas Qavi, 26 pointed out that “so many other religions have the same rules, whether it comes to eating pork, drinking alcohol and even anal sex, but it’s because Muslim still follow these guidelines that we aren’t viewed as liberal. Religion has become taboo nowadays so anything that religion stands for is seen as outdated.”
There seem to be two things happening at once: Islamophobic denial—the refusal to accept that Muslims are being scapegoated and marginalised—as Islamophobia towards Muslim communities continues to rise. So what is the truth?
At times, it does come back to reporting, as Nesrine Malik wrote about for The Guardian. If my default is Islamophobic bias, the fear of a Muslim-majority planet, then no matter how covert, that will be reflected in the truths I am trying to seek.
For example, it is Muslims that are being blamed for the drop in Labour’s voter count yet no one is asking why is it that after decades of unwavering commitment towards Labour, Muslims are taking a step back? Starmer may not have been a part of the digital Open Iftar event but where was his or Labour’s efforts in partaking in the Ramadan festivities—something Labour politicians especially have historically done.
Many a time, Islamophobia, just like any other form of systemic oppression, is transparent. Careless words become normalised views which then become the catalyst behind hateful attacks. “The hatred towards Islam from top-down is obviously political and historic, but what has developed this in recent years is the idea that Islamophobic comments are not racist because they’re technically true,” said Adam, 25, in response to my query on the normalisation of Islamophobia across my Instagram.
“Coverage of the grooming gangs in Rochdale and elsewhere was not Islamophobic because it is apparently true that Islam encourages this abhorrent behaviour. This is in fact similar to a lot of anti-semitism (e.g. the idea that suggesting Jews run the world isn’t racist because ‘it’s true’) but it happens on a smaller scale, and crucially it is countered more and often by non-Jewish people in solidarity,” he added.
“It is quite common for anti-Muslim groups to show solidarity with causes that they think Muslims oppose. It is why the English Defence League (EDL) came out in mass protest in light of the grooming gangs scandal, despite paedophilia being rife in their organisation. I recall another story where a UKIP member called for a ban on halal meat, citing that it was the method of slaughter he disapproved of (in solidarity with animal rights activists). He didn’t realise that his proposed ban would also ban Jewish Kosher meat, and had to issue an apology to the Jewish community, but obviously no such apology to Muslims for obvious reasons.”
Similarly, when there have been accusations of anti-semitism in both the Labour and Conservative party, many MPs stood their ground that this was unacceptable and any anti-semitisim should be met with serious consequences. However, many people across my Instagram polls shared that this same respect has not been presented to the Muslim community when it has come to eradicating Islamophobia. No protest has been formed by MPs, if anything, these complaints occur occasionally, with no consequence. The Tories have even recently released a report that there is absolutely no Islamophobia in the Conservative party, which feels just as accurate as the Tories sharing that Britain is not racist.
This isn’t about playing into oppression olympics and tallying up who has it worse. What this is about is whose oppression seems obligatory to align with and whose we can scroll past. As oppression does not remove the ability to oppress another.
Though those black boxes on Instagram for #BlackLivesMatter were pointless last year, what it did do was cause noise. Now when you think about those that are being targeted and those who are living through civil wars, whose struggles do we accept and normalise and whose is it do we want to change? How are we picking what to care about and whose lives we’re willing to put the democratic effort into?
Perhaps, it’s this sprint of social media activism we do which means that one month, we all have the energy to focus on an atrocity so that, comes another, our efforts are already tired and die down before we even try. What we need to look at is actually why we pick and support a specific cause? Does it make us appear more ‘woke’? Make us look ‘cooler’? More progressive? Is that other marginalised group too taboo and not digestible enough to fight for across 15 seconds in an Instagram Story? What is it that we’re scared to say and stand for? If so, why?
I personally see non-Muslims being afraid to speak out about Islamophobia because right now, Muslims aren’t ‘cool’ to align with. With our negative press and the fact that our struggles are yet to be made commercially and aesthetically pleasing in order for there to be an outpour of rage across social media. Instead, there’s a complacent attitude that Muslims must tolerate the issues we go through within and outside of our communities. This human rights issue should make you want to speak up against Islamophobia, not fall into the complicit trap of silence. Or does it simply not align with your ‘brand’?