Interview with Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan
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Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is a writer, poet and educator, disrupting understandings of history, race, knowledge and violence. She works to equip herself and others with the tools and faith to resist the unliveable conditions we find ourselves in, and work towards another reality. Suhaiymah is the co-author of A Fly Girl’s Guide to University (Verve Poetry Press, 2019), author of Postcolonial Banter (Verve Poetry Press, 2019), and Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia (Pluto Press, forthcoming 2022), as well as host of the Breaking Binaries podcast.

On Reading

I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve always loved reading, but as I think most people who write would say, I never anticipated being a writer in any capacity. However, when I was studying in university, writing was an outlet for dealing with, or protesting lots of the institutional, structural violence that I was seeing around me. I pursued by undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, so it was really an institution where I saw what we mean when we say structural violence and structural discrimination. I also began activism in wanting to talk about and protest the things that I could see happening that were not fair, or that were not right. So I was just doing workshops with my peers, educating ourselves, and then, I suppose as the years have gone on, I’ve had the opportunity to have a larger platform to talk about those things: racism, Islamophobia, to kind of, try to mobilise and raise consciousness on a wider scale, and I did that through my poetry, writing plays, and I’ve got a book that is coming in March this year, Insha Allah. It is called Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia, and it is an attempt to really try and push the narrative around Islamophobia far beyond hate crimes and to look at the deeper structural dimensions and ask why it exists.

Tracing Islamophobia Through Race & Class

Racism is deeply embedded in the foundations of this country, as is white supremacy, which is the ideology of empire and an ideology entwined with capitalism and colonialism. They produce each other. So of course, it’s going to be a part of the education system in this country. I think one way to understand Islamophobia is to read it as a manifestation of racism that targets Muslims and those who are perceived to be Muslims. The ideology of racial hierarchy in and of itself relies on the creation of racial categories, and Muslims in the current moment are identified (wrongly, of course, in terms of theological understanding) as those who dress, behave, look, in a certain way.

So, today, we see policies that essentially legislate educators to target and carry out surveillance on and treat differently their Muslim students, and we see that in the surveillance of children in many different ways, we see it in school-to-prison pipeline that mainly harms black and brown children. We see it in the socio-economic injustices that lead to disparities at school, so we know that, your parental wealth is the biggest determining factor of your educational outcomes in this country. Parental wealth in this country is deeply determined by race, because of the history of this country, and the fact that so much wealth was pillaged and stolen from colonies, and many people in this country who are people of colour have come from immigrant backgrounds. Therefore, as a working class, their labour has been exploited in this country because immigrant labour is often exploited.

On Existing in Exclusionary Educational Institutions as a Muslim

I would just say that racism within the education system occurs on multiple levels. For example, I studied history.

The history in the university that I studied was obviously just the very white-washed version. Beyond the choice of the sources that we read, there are questions around what counts as an archive, who counts as a teacher, and all of these things are codified in ways that uphold racial white supremacy. Racism is the foundation of “brilliant educational institutions.” I went to Cambridge University. So much of the wealth that underpins the resources that the people of that university have access to is rooted in obviously the endowments of people whose wealth came from owning human beings (slavery), owning plantations.

So, on one hand you have institutions, including most of the private schools and universities, particularly those that are deemed to be very brilliant and have immense resources. Then on the other hand you have the experience of students in terms of surveillance, in terms of micro aggressions, in terms of exclusion, in terms of marginalisation, in terms of their knowledge being deemed inferior.For example, if you take Islam as an epistemology, as a form of knowledge in and of itself, that is something in western academic spaces, is deemed to be completely, unintelligible and inferior and that if you are a practicing Muslim, or visibly Muslim person in academia, by default you are seen to be unintelligent, backward, uncivilised, etc.

Additionally, these same tropes that are ideologically present in our curricula then have psychological impacts – and sometimes physical impacts – on those studying, and I think the burden of that is felt in many different ways, for example the feeling, the need to always prove yourself, to always work harder, all of those things.

The Role of the Artist in Disruptive Storytelling

Yes, I think responsible story telling is really important. I think that art plays a really big role in changing and challenging society, and I think that is because artists can often hold the mirror up to society, and I think that is often the feedback I get when people approach me. They say that this resonates with them, that this is something they have felt, and they feel that I have been able to articulate, and Alhamdulillah, I see it as a blessing. But I don’t see it as something particularly novel, and in fact, I think it is really interesting, the feeling people have when they feel that something resonates with them.

I think, that tells you what really responsible storytelling is about – harnessing narratives that may be widely felt but are not widely told, and the way that I see my work is that, it exists to interrupt the mainstream narratives that exist, whether they are about Muslims, about race, about the history of this country or anything else.

I think you have to remember that not only the tools of production, but tools of ideological production are largely owned by the same people who own the means of capital production – I’m talking about the news media, politicians, who create stories through peddling different narratives, TV, films, all those things. These are industries, even publishing, and so I think that where you have the capacity to exist outside of those mainstream narrative making machines that actually are beholden to fulfil the needs of their investors and to make profit, I would say actually in a way it is a responsibility. But it’s also the responsibility that you have because of the freedom that you have, that you are not tied to those things.

So I think that’s what it’s all about – enabling people to ask questions that perhaps they wouldn’t ask otherwise, simply because, we don’t question things that seem natural and normal to us, like racism that’s just part and parcel of society, dehumanizing people, that’s just part and parcel of the way we talk about people. Even disrupting just simple media myths is a really easy and powerful thing you can do, and I think it all challenges discrimination because you can’t hold power accountable as a normal person but you certainly can call it to account, and you certainly can speak truth about it and I think that’s really important. We look at the history of Islam – poetry has always been used to express, even in the time of the Sahaba, and the Prophet (SAW),

We know that at times the he would ask certain Companions to essentially call tribes to Islam by using powerful and beautiful speech or writing. So,

I think that perhaps Allah has also made poetry in particular, or speech of a specific kind, something that resonates with people’s hearts in a way that I think is really unique.

On Making the World a Better Place for Muslim Women

How can the world be made a better place for Muslim women? I think I would flip the question and say, the world can only be better for Muslim women if everything about it is changed. How I understand the experiences of Muslim women in gendered Islamophobia and the experiences of racialized women in particular is that the intersection that we sit at, where we experience gendered injustice and racial injustice and Islamophobia, and the oppression and the violence of a secular world, the violence of a capitalist world, I would say that being at that kind of a position, that intersection actually gives us this vantage point from which we can see how interlinked all the forms of violence of the world are.

So, I would say that the world won’t be a better place for Muslim women simply by us having more representation in media, or in advertising campaigns, or there being more clothing brands that are suited to our wishes in terms of how we dress. I give those examples because I think they’re good examples of how rather than changing the world around us, we’re encouraged to adapt our demands to the world as it currently is. So, to situate our demands within capitalism, how do you want to be equal under capitalism? I think as Muslim women we can see that we can never be equal under capitalism because capitalism is inherently unequal and Muslim women across the world experience that, whether that’s in sweatshops and workshops where their labour is exploited, or whether that’s in places for example in the west where due to racism, we’re excluded from even having access to education or jobs in the way that we might want to have, or we’re forced to carry the double burden of working and doing child rearing and educating children and protecting them from an education system that is so deeply full of propaganda. And at the same time we worry about having to have enough money to pay bills and be able to have a house etc.

One of the examples I would give is that if you think about something like domestic violence, mainstream media or politicians would like to assert that they want to protect Muslim women from any kind of violence they may face from Muslim men who are assumed to be obviously disproportionately patriarchal and violent, which is simply a racist trope. But even if we were to take that racist Islamophobic narrative at face value, why then are Muslim women not protected? Instead, the only place we are forced to look for help from inter-personal violence is the state or arms of the state, like the police, that in and of themselves also surveil us, treat us as criminals, and bear in mind if you’re a refugee or asylum-seeking Muslim woman as well, they will also treat you as someone to be potentially deported. So if you think about a Muslim woman who calls the police because she’s experiencing inter-personal violence from say a partner, for her, calling the police into her family life puts at risk herself, puts at risk her children – will they be taken away from her, will she be interrogated…

I just give that example because I want us to think about the ways that the experiences of Muslim women show us that for there to be any improvement in their lives, we need to address so many things at once, we need to address why there aren’t better routes to justice in general, we need to address what other alternatives there are to criminalization when dealing with intimate violence, we need to address every manner of injustice, and so, like I said, the only way for the world to be truly better for Muslim women is for it to be transformed completely. Every injustice affects Muslim women, because Muslim women exist in so many different places and ways across the world. So if you ask the question – a world that was safe and just for Muslim women, starting from the moment she wakes up to the experience of stepping outside, to entering the masjid, and everything else in her life.

Plans Ahead

I have a book coming out, like I mentioned, on 20th March 2022, Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia and that, is an effort to really push a new narrative, push against the kind of reductive ideas about Islamophobia that don’t really help us tackle it at all. I’m currently a writer-in- residence at the Leeds’s Playhouse, which is a theatre in Leeds and so I’m doing some work with the theatre. I might end up writing something, I might not. I’m under commission with some other theatres, so maybe I am moving into playwriting more and more. I think we’ll just have to watch this space really.

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