Photo credit: Flickr / User: metrogogo

Shabnam from EastEnders

‘Just an orange juice please’, I said as I fumbled around in my purse for £2.85 to pay the bartender, which quite frankly was ridiculous. I could’ve bought an entire carton of orange juice for £2.00.

I was at the pub with some friends. I was aware that I probably stuck out like a sore thumb: a Muslim girl with a head-covering sipping on some (ridiculously expensive) orange juice, surrounded by people gulping down pint after pint of alcohol and performing renditions of ‘Someone Like You’. It was karaoke night, and judging by their God-awful singing, alcohol was a necessity in the equation.

Initially, I felt like an oddity in the mix of drunk people. I scanned around the room and spotted a middle-aged man and an elderly woman with orange juice too. That didn’t console me. By ‘oddity’, I wasn’t so much considering my choice of beverage as much as the fact I was the only visibly Muslim girl present. There was a small group of Muslim boys sat a couple of meters away from my group, but I only knew them to be Muslim due to a mutual connection through my cousin. From afar, these boys looked like everybody else in the room. In their jeans and t-shirts, they looked like your average group of people at the pub.

Some people may say that I should have foreseen this feeling of singularity and unease at the pub. The local pub isn’t exactly the first choice of social space for Muslim women, let alone Muslim women who wear the hijab. On the other hand, the pub plays a role of vital significance in British culture. Pubs are locations for socialisation, for celebration, and even for marking bereavement.

Coming to terms with your own individuality and its relation to your integration in society is an essential yet difficult process.

I didn’t wear the hijab, not until two years ago.

I grew up in a relatively liberal family who, despite instilling certain religious values and teachings, didn’t really have a concern with how I practiced my religion. Therefore, generally speaking, my parents thought it was more important to teach me not to go around killing people ‘because that goes against the Ten Commandments and God will be unhappy’, than covering my head, (I was a violent child – my brother still has scarring from stitches to prove it).

I didn’t have a supernatural, miraculous experience such as encountering God through Angel Gabriel either. The reason is a lot less dramatic: I simply felt like I was closer to God. Religion, personally speaking, is quite subjective. Different people experience God, or the lack of God, in different ways.

God is an extremely crucial character in my life – think of Leo in Titanic. That crucial. I pray to God a lot, although it may not be in the traditional way. I prayed to God mid-sprint so I didn’t miss my train (this prayer wasn’t accepted though, thanks God), and I pray to God in bed, before going to sleep, for peace in the world (which unfortunately hasn’t been accepted yet either). For me, wearing a headscarf is to symbolise my subjective attachment to God, and to symbolise my religious choice.

However, this being said, the friends I have, and the friendships that I hold, don’t give importance to the differences in our religious beliefs. But that’s the thing about good friendships: you should be equals; despite your religion, despite your ethnicity, despite your sexuality. This is why I didn’t decline an invitation to spend the evening at the pub, because despite what anyone else saw me as, my friends saw me as one of them.

At the pub, we were discussing Beyoncé buying her twins £23,000 cradles (yes, £23,000!!!), when one of my friends said ‘you proper remind me of Shabnam from EastEnders’. I didn’t think anything of it until she spoke again, telling me ‘I love that you’re at the pub like Shabnam… people like you don’t come here… you’re like breaking barriers… you’re like a revolution’ I laughed it off, mentally noting how drunk she seemed with her slurred speech and glossy eyes.

A few minutes later, I began to think about what she had said. Shabnam was seen at The Queen Vic a number of times between 2007 and 2014. Generally speaking, literally everyone in EastEnders spent most of their time in The Queen Vic; whether they were having a quick snogging session or a great ‘Duff Duff’ – worthy argument. The Queen Vic was Walford’s social hotspot for everyone.

[envoke_twitter_link]Muslim women don’t get rightfully portrayed in society and in the media.[/envoke_twitter_link] They’re either oppressed, or a disgrace to their community. However, EastEnders portrays Shabnam in a different light – Shabnam’s a practising Muslim, yet Shabnam, like everyone else, has sex, goes to the pub, and lives a rather typical life, balancing religion with her participation in society.

Many modern Muslim women who have gained fame, or popularity, are seen as ‘breaking barriers’.

Halima Aden, the American fashion model who wears a hijab, was described to be ‘breaking barriers’ when she walked for Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 collection. Similarly, Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American Olympic athlete, who wears a hijab as well, was described as ‘breaking barriers’ for being part of the fencing team.

It then dawned on me: it shouldn’t be about celebrating ‘breaking barriers’.

It goes without saying, that becoming a fashion model, or an Olympic athlete are achievements within themselves, and should be celebrated. Why then, are we celebrating Muslim women ‘breaking barriers’? Muslim women are simply integrating, and being allowed to integrate, into society, doing things everybody else does without ‘barriers’.

Shabnam didn’t ‘break barriers’, Shabnam was simply accepted, and allowed to integrate into society. If everybody else starts accepting every other Shabnam in society, we too, like EastEnders, can build a more diverse (and hopefully less dramatic) community, allowing everybody to achieve and celebrate – just without the barriers this time.