An editor’s point of view: Wahida Shaffi

So tell our readers more about your book? Who is it for and who do you think will be interested in reading it?

The book Our Stories Our Lives: Inspiring Muslim Women’s Voices began as a vision designed to explore the insights and experiences of Muslim women in Bradford. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the project focused on over 100 women from all walks of life between the ages of 14 to 80 – and harnessed media technologies to capture their insights. The aim was to empower women to present themselves in their own words through participatory video, documentary film, audio, oral history/narratives, seminars and the internet. The result is a number of engaging cameos that identify their hopes, aspirations and concerns through their day-to-day activities. Throughout the process of producing the videos and other media material, their voices remained pivotal, un-obscured by too much analysis and interpretation. In essence the book is meant for anyone who believes in the power of authentic voices and stories. From academics and policy makers through to the average person in the UK who wants to engage with the lives of individuals who have helped shape the landscape of Great Britain but whose stories have often been hidden from history.

As editor of the book, what were your hopes for the project? Did it meet your initial expectations?

The vision for the overall project had very humble beginnings. It was a concept that was thought through whilst I was resting in bed one night. The vision later flourished through conversations with other like-minded men and women both Muslim and non-Muslim. All believed in the importance of opening up the spaces for experiences to be shared in creative ways. The project has far exceeded the initial vision but the hope is that people will not only gain valuable insights into the lives of Muslim women, but also realise the power of narrative and the role digital media and creativity can play in reaching out to all sections of society.

Did the women involved have any writing sessions or have their stories been told in their own words?

It was very important for me to work closely with the women featured. Each story was jointly edited with the women and every measure was taken to ensure the women were content with each word that was used. Whilst none of the women were given writing sessions, they were provided with opportunities to go through their individual stories, to make adjustments and ask questions. The process worked on several levels: firstly, the women were clearly informed about the vision behind the book; secondly, the women were interviewed by an oral historian; thirdly, narratives were formed based on the individual interviewee’s own words; fourthly each woman was provided with an opportunity to go through her story: usually I was present and jointly edited the story with the women. In some cases women wanted to alter sections of their story, or grammar in which case every effort was made to accommodate their wishes. I then went back to each woman and worked with a photographer to capture the images for the book. What became obvious from the outset was that the women wanted to share their stories; they were aware that the book would be read widely and were vocal about how their stories were depicted.

Where did the idea for the project come from?

Over the past few decades the UK has seen major demographic, social and cultural changes and Muslims have emerged at the heart of countless critical debates and analysis with particular reference to mainland and global security; cohesion, participation and integration, marriage, immigration and also educational and economic disadvantage. Many of these debates have continued to homogenize Muslim men and women, and failed to represent the rich diversity of opinion within Islam and between people.

It is necessary, in a society where over the years particular voices have been silenced, that we hear authentic experiences that talk to us with genuine openness and critical reflection. In a sense, the idea for the project emerged against the backdrop of all these changes and challenges. My feeling was that whilst there is a need to explore issues, the way this is done should be different. In other words, I wanted to use the art of digital media and story telling as opposed to more conventional research methodologies that often depict stories through the eyes of the researcher. I wanted to do my best to place the stories, words and experiences of the women at the heart of the project. It wasn’t always easy in terms of the time it took to edit both the stories and films. But what was essential was that the women who had given so much to the project were respected.

So much is written about Muslim women but little is often said by them – here you’ve given ordinary Muslim women a voice and captured their existence – how was that experience for you?

Much of the coverage portrays Muslim women as subjugated victims of oppressive patriarchal cultures, with a widespread assumption that they are one large homogeneous group. In fact there are a large variety of Muslim women around the world, from the vastly different cultures of the Middle East, South East Asia, South Asia, Yugoslavia, Northern Africa, and the Southern parts of the former USSR. And the experiences of women in each of these countries is unique to them – just as it is for women in the UK or US.

As a Muslim woman myself and as the editor of the book I have always believed in the power of stories in reaching out to people’s hearts and minds and the importance of capturing history as it unfolds. Growing up in the UK, I have witnessed a number of changes and challenges. I see a number of Muslim women who have achieved positions of influence – in local government, business, further and higher education, charities and other organizations. Women who care about the society in which they live and bring up their children; women who increasingly find a voice together to promote values and who work together to make things happen. I know that there’s a considerable way to go in harnessing the potential that lies at the heart of this change and there is a need to acknowledge that there also continues to be a disproportionate lack of reflection on women’s achievements and experiences. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Muslim women are paving the way forward in new dynamic, challenging and creative ways. For me capturing just some of the women’s triumphs and heartaches was both a joy and a challenge. I was very new to the book publishing world, although I had written articles and the occasional paper, my experience in this area was minimal. I really was fortunate because both The Policy Press and Joseph Rowntree Foundation helped me to understand the process. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and a great many decisions had to be made. From how the front cover should look, to how each page should be structured and designed – it was a labour of love to say the least but worthwhile!

What are your plans for the future – is there a tour planned or other projects that tie in with the book?

The official launch of the book is on October 6th and interest in the book is gaining momentum. I am preparing book launches in Oxford and London.

Our stories Our Lives, edited by Wahida Shaffi is published by The Policy Press.