British MC Tanya Muneera Williams is here to change your perception of Muslim women. In an essay in The Independent, Williams details her conversion, and how she defies conventional expectations of what Muslim women look like: “I remember how society responded to me prior to my conversion. I was a girl about town and although I encountered racism and sexism I walked about hassle free, whereas now I face anything from micro-aggressions to complete disdain. For me, this is even more troubling than the overt Islamophobic name-calling on the Internet. That I can put down to bigotry, whereas the small everyday hostility from seemingly normal people speaks of the changing climate in the UK.”
Williams is one-half of the Bristol-born hip-hop duo, Poetic Pilgrimage; she and her other musical half, Sukina Owen-Douglas, made their musical debut in 2002. Eight years later, Poetic Pilgrimage released their Star Women Mixtape, in which the artistic twosome sampled “Satta Massagana,” a prominent reggae track recorded by the Abyssinians, a dedication to staying true to their Jamaican heritage. The single from Star Women Mixtape, “Land Far Away,” was filmed in West London, due to its heavy influx of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. The video, in William’s words, was to “celebrate our Jamaican heritage and highlight the inclination toward spirituality that is naturally cultivated through the use of reggae music.”
Black Muslims, particularly Black Caribbean Muslim women, face erasure in the mainstream, especially in the hip-hop industry. “Sukina (my band member) and I often joke about performing to new audiences and how it takes about three songs before they get over the shock of hijabis running across the stage, telling them to throw their peace signs up,” wrote Williams in a blog post on Huffington Post UK in 2015.
The intersection of Black Muslim women’s concerns remain also relatively invisible in discussions of Islamophobia. Fellow Muslim Safura Salam agrees, arguing for a reclamation of space for Black Muslim women, with the creation of #BombBlackHijabis. “In the conversation about Blackness in Islam and about women in Islam, the intersection of Black Muslim Women’s issues are often ignored. While South Asian and Arab women have many struggles in common, the struggle of the Black Muslim woman is unique. Often, speaking about us makes others uncomfortable. They aren’t sure how to relate. They want to sweep us away under the rug of an Islam that is ‘color blind’.”
Williams directly recalls experiencing discrimination from other Muslims concerning her faith and identity: “The additional element black often means I have to deal with discrimination from fellow Muslims. Despite the fact that Islam has a long history in Africa, there is a pervading idea that Arabs and Asians are ‘The True Muslims’. Although the Koran teaches differently, we are not at a point where enough meaningful dialogue has occurred in order to ensure the text and everyday attitudes of people are in alignment, so racism prevails.” The Koran itself is also written in a percentage of African languages, and the book describes the beloved Prophet Muhammad as beautifully “dark.”
Reclaiming space as an Afro-Jamaican woman for Williams means challenging what feminine self-expression means, as the Western world still views the hijab as a symbol of women’s oppression. “It has been said my hip-hop group Poetic Pilgrimage has feminist tendencies and this is something I am still grappling with. Yes, it’s true there is definitely a theme of female strength and dignity in our music, however since wearing a headscarf as a woman of colour, I am starting to wonder if feminism is really about all women expressing themselves,” she notes. “For every open-minded feminist I meet, there is another who thinks I am oppressed by either my father, or that my husband forces me to wear hijab (if only they knew I’m still on the lookout for one of those and my father is a non-religious Jamaican).”
Prior to her conversion, Williams was raised in Christian home in the 1980s, explaining that Islam was the “furthest thing” from her mind. “I was raised in the church but left because I had questions on race and gender that no one could answer. I was not the typical teen, I enjoyed partying but I would much rather play jazz or reggae in an incense-filled room while discussing philosophy, world religions and the meaning of life,” she confesses. Williams represents an early wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants who are finding solace in Islam. Although Jamaica is predominately Christian in faith, the country is reportedly said to be becoming a haven for Islamic worship.
Although Williams was already on a quest for spiritual enlightenment with the musical creation of Poetic Pilgrimage, it would not be until 2005 that the group’s musical direction would forever become transformed. “What finally pushed me was contemplating the life of Malcolm X and reading a book by Moroccan Feminist Fatima Mernissi. Their journeys to enlightenment intrigued me so much that I wanted to taste what they had. I converted to Islam on 16 June 2005, three weeks before the 7/7 terror attack. Being concerned for the safety of my loved ones, like all Londoners, I did not realize those tragic events would impact so deeply on my experience of conversion.”
With the passing of Brexit, a wave of terror was unleashed in its aftermath, targeting the UK’s immigrants, particularly those with an Islamic background. As women’s hijabis were ripped off their heads on the streets and the burkini ban forbade women from wearing religious garments on the beach, Williams sees hip-hop as being the defiant force to provide empowerment for Black Muslim women, particularly in the Western world.
“A model that really gives me hope for the future is hip-hop,” she says, “this community has always been embracing and inclusive – even the underdog is welcomed as long as they honour the culture. Through this genre my group has been able to break more stereotypes than any government policy. In the spirit of this, the one hope for the UK’s future that I see is an increased diversity of Muslims in the mainstream media. Not just [the] token black, female, disabled, elderly or Muslim voices, but a true reflection of the amazing wealth of experience one religion can include.”