Sariya Cheruvallil Contractor, a convert to Islam and Sociologist at the University of Derby in the U.K., has written an in depth exploration of the lives of British Muslim women in the book Muslim Women in Britain: De-Mystifying the Muslimah. Sister Sariya seeks to reinstate the Muslimah as a storyteller as the book examines the perceptions of Muslim women in Western society as they have been shaped by historical and sociological conditions such as colonialism, patriarchy and Orientalism.
Muslim Women in Britain: De-Mystifying the Muslimah examines issues of femininity, Britishness, inter-communal relations and social cohesion while presenting the reader with incisive narratives of Muslim women on familiar topics such as the hijab, Muslim women in the media and feminist debate, particularly in a Western context. Although the book primarily covers the lives of Muslim women living in Britain many parallels can be found in the lives of American Muslim women and Muslim women around the world as we experience the increasingly globally connected society evolving around us.
Ms. Cheruvallil Contractor recently allowed me to interview her about her book and her writing. She poignantly reveals her intentions in compiling this work in the poem below:
Who cares about brand? Who cares about name?
This was never my claim to fame!!!
This world, in a nutshell, has become too dry….
What happened to those dreams to fly?
Agreed the skies are one front we have won.
But don’t opportunities stretch up to the sun?
What bought us here were once just visions,
That the anonymous dreamer refused to imprison!
So my friend my dreams I choose;
Them I choose to follow.
Sister Sariya Cheruvallil Contractor not only provides a substantial contribution to the Ummah with a work such as this but is also an inspiration to Muslim women as she lives Islam for herself and shares her story. The interview questions and answers are provided below:
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? How long have you been writing?
Assalam Alaikum and thank you Sis Janette for this opportunity. I am grateful for the conversation.
I am a convert to Islam and was born a Catholic in India. I have however, lived in different parts of the world and often like to describe myself as a world citizen. I have always been interested in writing. I was good at it in school and I loved essay writing! I formally began writing in 2006. I also wrote poetry, especially when I was bored in class!
I began my career as a Human Resources professional, however I very quickly began to realize that my passions were in inter-community and inter-faith dialogue. As a ‘hijabbed’ Muslim woman, I realized that I needed to represent and talk about my faith. People had questions about Islam and I had the ability to answer them. This led to my first bits of writing on online forums and blogs. I enjoyed this writing so much that I decided to do this formally and one rather fine day, I decided to follow my dreams and I resigned from my job.
My first formal writing assignments were for the website www.readingislam.com. I wrote about Islam, my journey to Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), comparative religion and dialogue. Around this time I got married and I also won funding to undertake a PhD on Muslim women at the University of Gloucestershire which I completed in 2010. This formalized my writing and I now write as an academic and as a person, a woman and a Muslim who experiences a beautiful shared world.
2. Is writing your primary means of employment?
Well yes and no! I now work as an academic at the Centre for Society, Religion or Belief (SRB) at the University of Derby and I do bits of teaching and a lot of research mostly within the Sociology of Religion. As an academic one of my job roles is to write. I write about my research findings and hope that these can benefit communities, policy makers and everyday people. This is one of the favorite parts of my job! I also continue to write for online e-zines and I write for a website called onislam.net
3. What genres of writing most interest you?
Most of my writing at the moment is academic writing – my expertise lies in Religious Studies and the Sociology of Religion. I am passionate about ‘religion and belief’ diversity in Britain and beyond. So I undertake research from an inclusive paradigm and with a constant strand of promoting cohesion and pluralism. I believe that it is important to recognize and celebrate the diversities among human beings. I am a great optimist and believe that although human beings come from a diversity of backgrounds, usually if we look hard enough, we can find commonalities and shared values in our existences. And on other matters, we can agree to disagree. But it is important to have these conversations and to ask and answer difficult questions. This is especially important in current environments where people seem to all fear each other. Racial hatred, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism all seem to be on the rise. I think we need to give peace a chance – this is what I write about!
4. What inspired you to write Muslim Women in Britain: De-Mystifying the Muslimah?
Like I was saying earlier, as a hijabbed Muslim woman, I realized that many misconceptions about my faith had to do with people’s misunderstandings around how Islam supposedly treated its women. The media portrayed Muslim women as oppressed and subjugated and Islam is often presented as misogynist and patriarchal.
Also as a convert to Islam, I studied Islam through its foundational texts – the Quran and the hadith. I also believe that my deep personal readings of the Holy Bible also directed me towards Islam. I recognize that this Islam which I know and love is emancipatory and egalitarian towards women. Muslim women are equal before God Almighty. However when I look into some Muslim communities, I realized that Muslim women are not always given the rights and roles that Allah and his Prophet (s.a.w) guarantee to women and which are enshrined in the Quran. Sadly, I came across communities in which Muslim women were denied education or access to the mosque.
Finally when I look at what was written about Muslim women, I realized that there was very little literature that was written by and for Muslim women. Everybody else’s voices and opinions about Muslim women were being heard, except that of the Muslim women. As a Muslim woman myself, this was a gap I could address and needed to address, which ultimately led to my research and the book. I needed to present Muslim women’s voices and opinions to the wider world, clarifying our existences through our stories.
5. Do you have any new projects upcoming?
This year I worked with three other colleagues to co-write a book on Religion or Belief, Discrimination and Equality: Britain in Global Contexts. This will be released in November 2013. For 2014, I am co-editing a textbook on Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion: Theory, Methods and Ethics and I am writing another book on Living Islamic Theology: new pluralist paradigms of Islamic education in modern Britain. I also have written or will be writing a number of book chapters, journal articles and e-zine articles.
All these publications are the result of research projects that I have been undertaking. In terms of new projects, I would really like to work on Muslim women’s historical contributions to scholarship, Islamic history in South India and also on women’s experiences of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. Funding is always an issue, and I am constantly seeking funds to continue my research.
6. Is there a website where readers can go to stay informed about future books and writing projects from you?
My staff profile webpage at the University of Derby has links to all my academic writing. This is available at http://www.derby.ac.uk/staff-search/dr-sariya-cheruvallil-contractor. I shall gradually try to link all my other writing to this page too, InshaAllah.
7. Does Islam have a significant influence upon your writing?
Yes! It does! As you will have realized Islam and removing misconceptions about Islam is what inspired me to write in the first place. I also write about other things including justice and fairness for all in a pluralist world. I believe everybody, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religious or non-religious belief has a right to be treated well – this sentiment is also inspired by my personal Islamic faith.
8. What do you want readers to take away from your writing? Is there a particular message or theme to your work?
In my book Muslim women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah, I postulate that Muslim women are doubly marginalized: firstly, by the patriarchy that is practiced within some Muslim communities and secondly, by an increasingly secular world which fears anybody who is visibly religious. However I also discovered three things:
(1) The immense capability, wisdom and common sense of the everyday Muslim woman. I like to say that I have worked towards reinstating the Muslim woman as a storyteller who tells her own story and my hope is that my book encapsulates the voice of Muslim women. This voice is immensely emotive and powerful. My research provides evidence that by telling their own stories, Muslim women can demystify themselves, remove misconceptions about their faith and forge bridges of commonality and humanity across all women and men.
(2) Secondly, Muslim women’s Islamic scholarship is extremely empowering and enables them to challenge both patriarchy within some Muslim communities and stereotypes of Islam within wider society. This knowledge is Muslim women’s greatest tool and I would urge more women to go out and study their faith.
(3) I believe in the ‘power of conversations’. There is so much misunderstanding in our world. I think the simplest solution is that we TALK about our differences, and thus find commonalities and celebrate our differences. We will have a better world if we do so.
9. What words of advice can you give to aspiring authors?
Writing is one of the most pleasurable things you can do especially if you are writing about something that you are passionate about. However getting published can sometimes be less pleasurable and perhaps a little tedious.
I would strongly encourage all aspiring authors to persevere both with your writing and with getting a contract.
Writers block, distractions or simply life can come in the way of your writing. This is normal! But when you find yourself unable to write, don’t leave your writing desk (or laptop or notebook or whatever mechanism you use to write). Instead I suggest you continue with other aspects that are essential to getting published. Do something that is more mechanical – create an index, find references, read competitor material. Don’t ever stop!
In terms of getting a publishing contract, I cannot stress the importance of following all the instructions that are usually provided in great detail on publishers’ websites. Take the time to e-mail / talk to commissioning editors to understand all the guidelines carefully and then follow them to a ‘T’. Take your time to think through, research and then very carefully write your book proposal. Do not rush this phase at all. In many ways your book proposal is as important as your book!
10. Can you include a list of your books and articles with any active website links for purchasing copies or reading your work?
This is available on my staff profile webpage – http://www.derby.ac.uk/staff-search/dr-sariya-cheruvallil-contractor.
Muslim Women in Britain: De-mystifying the Muslimah is available on Goodreads and Amazon at the links below:
And a formal book review by Katherine Bullock in the Journal of International Women’s Studies can be read at the link provided here: