Empowering Muslim Women in Literature : In conversation with Na'ima B. Robert

March 7, 2018

I had the honour and pleasure of speaking with renowned author, poet and speaker Na'ima B Roberts, author of the critically acclaimed book From My Sister's Lips, that has inspired myself and women of all backgrounds in our journey as Muslims. 

 

It is the voice of a Muslim woman speaking for herself that resonates with the reader and sharing the accounts of Muslim women who have chosen Islam, it remains inspiring literature for those who need to  hear their sister's voices on this journey.

 

 

 

Many thanks for joining me. For those who are not familiar with your work, could you introduce yourself to our audience?

 

I’m Na’ima B Roberts; a writer, editor, publisher, speaker and a poet. I’ve been Muslim for nearly 20 years Alhamdulilah.  Originally my parents are South African; I was born in the U.K. but grew up in Zimbabwe and lived in Egypt for 10 years, so I feel quite international!

 

I wrote From My Sister’s Lips which has been in publication for over 10 years now, and the YA fiction novel She Wore Red Trainers, and various other children’s books. I am the founder of Sisters magazine.

 

Back in 2001 I started writing children's books due to taking my son to the library and having no books on Muslims or Islam that he could read. I wanted to be the one to write beautiful books on Islam and Muslim culture, so I started researching the world of children's books and writing.

 

 The swirling hijab was my first manuscript to be published by Mantra Lingua, a bilingual publishers who loved the positive message about hijaab which is still not in children's books today. I went on to publish several books with them.

 

I then connected with my agent and we did multicultural novelty books together. She helped me get the deal for From My Sisters Lips. After that I wrote From  Somalia with love, Boy vs Girl, Far From Home, She Wore Red Trainers and Black Sheep which I consider one of my best books which is based in South London and is a class-based Romeo and Juliet based on the brothers that came from the street at the time. 

 

I've been lucky enough to work with mainstream publishers. The only Muslim Publisher I worked with was for the novel She Wore Red Trainers. 

 

What does your identity as a Muslim woman mean to you?

 

My identity is multi-layered. Because of how I have chosen to dress, many people don’t know that I’m mixed-race. This was an issue when I first become Muslim as I came from a background of Pan Africanism in University. I wanted to be identitfied as an African so I wore a headwrap.

I am proud to be African and proud to have been raised and grew up in  Africa, which gives you a different perspective. I was no longer identifiable as African when I started wearing the niqab and it continues to be difficult.

I get the Muslim privilege but don’t get the Black privilege as they don’t see themselves when they see me.

However, it doesn’t stop me from celebrating my culture, because who will? You have to make a conscious choice to hold on to your culture, either in the Muslim community or in the West and have cultural confidence, especially in a cross-cultural marriage.

 

 

As the founder and editor in chief of Sisters magazine, what were your intentions behind starting the magazine and what has the impact been like since starting?

 

It started as a result of a trip to South Africa where I was invited to do a book tour for From my Sister’s lips and speak at several events along the way. While I shared my story about becoming Muslim, many people said how inspirational my story was.

When I returned from the tour, the big question in my mind was how can we continue this conversation and connection between sisters?

I didn’t want to be a poster girl for Islam which I think elements of my community wanted me to be so they could say Islam liberates women and have me as an example.

For me it was about honesty between sisters, based on love and our love for Islam no matter the price and challenges that accompany it. No adverts or apologies for Islam, it was about being real about living as a Muslim and being supportive and inclusive which is really where SISTERS magazine came from.

 

What has your journey been like as a Muslim business woman?

 

I never wanted to be a businesswoman. When I started SISTERS magazine, I didn’t start it as a business, it was about a legacy. It was a surprise to me that it turned into a business! I hated the financial aspects of business. I had self-limiting beliefs about money, but I would say I started to own my role as a business woman at the end of 2016.

I read a book called Lynchpin and another book by Brendan Buchard which led me to a complete mind shift; I accepted my role as a business owner and relished the challenges that presented themselves to me. I decided to make change and make it what I wanted to be.

 I’m a lot more focused and have learnt so much through training, speaking with mentors and reading case studies. I take it seriously.

I work with people who care about their products and their legacy; I have had a fantastic time and it has been enjoyable to see brands  we first encountered flourish and grow.

 

How do you feel about the representation of Muslim women in media and public spaces?

 

On a national scale, I think certain Muslim women are singled out for praise for what can be possible. As a Muslim community overall, I think we are still stigmatised and stereotyped. Muslim women are less stigmatised than men because you have the darlings of the press, such as Myriam Francois-Cerrah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied . Even in films and media, the Muslim woman is the victim not the villain; she doesn’t have agency or choice. I think Muslim women have more privilege than Muslim men in the wider society.

 

Representation amongst Muslims has also changed; the community I was previously in had a narrow understanding of a woman’s role. It was to get married, observe proper hijab, preferably niqab, stay in your home and rear your children. The thinking has changed due to the necessity, which was born out of financial realities. There were numerous gatekeepers before; from your dad to your husband, to the elders in the community who had to give you permission and support so you could what you needed to do.

 

With the growth of social media and the internet, those gatekeepers are not as important anymore. So if you want to start a magazine, you don’t need your local imam’s support for that, you can just go online and start. You don’t have to leave your house or travel without a mahram if that was an issue. These were perceived barriers back in the day but now, you can be anyone you want from your keyboard! Sisters are networking, forming companies and starting campaigns from all over the world which would not have been possible 20 years ago. We see Muslim women everywhere, running, climbing mountains, getting angry on TV, cooking and so much more. It is light years away from where we used to be in the community.

 

Twitter @NaimaBRobert

Instagram: @naimabrobert

 

Her  next event will be at Gele Galore in London on the 31st  of March:  http://bit.ly/GGMotherkind18 

 

Join her writing challenge here: bit.ly/500wordschallenge

 

Her FB group:  We Are Storytellers FB group here:  www.facebook.com/groups/342258719609031/

 

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