Saturday, 23 of May of 2015

The War Over Muslim Women Must Stop

My weekly newspaper column published in The National today.

The war over Muslim women continues to rage, as though we are a territory to be owned, a missile to be deployed in the vested interests of others, and as collateral damage in a cosmic conflict.

If you open Western newspapers and there is a story about terrorism, you will find our picture next to it. If you read justifications of military action in Afghanistan, it is our “liberation” that is cited. If societies where Muslims live as minorities are failing, our niqabs, our economic inactivity, our supposed segregation is to blame. But also, if you listen to Muslim religious leaders we are responsible for being the buffer before a wave of catastrophic western evil. Our headscarves are the sandbags holding back the fire of western feminism. We are told that our fight for rights is a bid to destroy family and society.

This war is constant with no benefit to us as Muslim women. We are dispensable in the war effort but also required to be first in the line of fire.

In the UK this week, a police campaign was launched encouraging Muslim women to inform on any menfolk they suspect of joining the war effort in Syria. The British government is concerned about Muslim men who will become radicalised in Syria and then return to the UK. No mention of those who go abroad to join other armies.

Video entitled "A Mother's Thoughts On The Crisis In Syria"

The campaign is part of the UK government’s wider Prevent strategy that has been running for the last several years, targeting Muslim communities in the bid to fight terrorism. It is a widely discredited programme that invested money in deprived Muslim communities with the goal of averting them from terrorism. The flaw in the logic of course was that, as in all communities, just a handful inhabit a criminal fringe. And like all communities, if the authorities start to view an entire community as one collective homogeneous mass with only one defining factor – being a potential terrorist – then there can never be a relationship of trust with authorities.

Muslim women find ourselves on the sharp end of this demonisation. On the one hand we are nothing but meek, oppressed, submissive. The subject of veiling – whether it is niqab or hijab – is constantly on the radar. Political leaders and influencers talk about women “forced” to cover, needing “help”, and being “liberated” by embracing “secular” values.

Suddenly we Muslim women have the burden of responsibility to “save” everyone. Suddenly, we have been co-opted into spying on husbands and sons. Before the accusation is levelled at Muslim women that we share responsibility for society’s safety like anyone else, I want to be quite clear: we are not so stupid that we can’t work out right from wrong. We already work to safeguard our own families from any misguided sense of violent heroics. Already, we are under scrutiny as potential terrorists, presumed guilty. And now, if Muslim men do take part, then we Muslim women will be held accountable. We are both victim and criminal.

In this campaign, we don’t hear about Abbas Khan, who went to Syria to help as a doctor in the humanitarian cause. He was kidnapped and killed. It is his mother spearheading the campaign to find out what happened to him.

When Muslim women raise their voices for access to education and employment, or autonomy or rights, we are rarely listened to. But as weapons against the other, suddenly we become significant. I’ve had enough. The war over Muslim women must stop.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at

This week I’m going to Live Below The Line in support of eradicating poverty

Live Below the Line is a global campaign spearheaded by UNICEF and which I’m taking part in with Made in Europe.

More than 1.2 billion people around the world have just £1 each day for food and drink (and that’s adjusted for local prices!). Just £1 per day. Unbelievable, I know.

So this week, along with other participants and campaigners, we will be living on £1 per day as well to gain and share an insight into what this means. And yes, there are people in our own localities and countries facing this.

I’m doing the campaign with my husband, so we have £10 between us to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days. You can see the ingredients we have selected here.  The total came to £10.01.

If you feel moved to participate, please do sign up, we’ve just started today. Alternatively, you can sponsor me and your donations will go to Made in Europe’s campaign against poverty.

Wish us well, and wish our prayers to relieve the actual poverty facing those around the world. I’m conscious that at any time I can eat anything I like. That’s not so for 1.2 billion people around the world. It’s a sobering thought.

My ingredients for Live Below The Line

Happy British Muslims, the nomakeupselfie and what viral campaigns tell us about society

The trend for happy dancing alongside Pharell Williams’ song may seem harmless, but it raises deeper questions for Shelina Jamohamed

My weekly newspaper column for The National.

Armageddon was almost upon us this week as a video was released in the UK with the hashtag #HappyBritishMuslims. The four minute film is part of a global trend creating videos overlaid with the singer Pharrell William’s hit song Happy.

Happy videos have been produced around the world – most big cities appear to have spawned one. But this one, tied explicitly to the identity of being Muslim, created a stir and generated nearly 1.5 million online views. The creators of the video say their aim is to show “British Muslims are just as happy” as anyone else.

The shock of seeing actual real-life happy Muslims nearly broke the internet, as a social media storm debated whether it was true Muslims really could be happy, whether critics of the video were by definition unhappy despite legitimate political, religious and social concerns.

Some felt there was no need to dance along to the insistent beat; that Muslims did not constantly have to demonstrate how “normal” they are. In fact, critics went as far as to liken the video to segregation-era Minstrels who were forced to perform for their white masters’ entertainment. There is undoubtedly pressure put, in particular, on minority Muslim populations to constantly prove their patriotism, and normality.

Other critics felt that the very essence of the video was contrary to their principles as Muslims and “proving” they could be happy didn’t require those principles to be compromised. They pointed to the problematic sexualised pop culture of chart music. These critics were quickly labelled as “unhappy” about fun and accused of not accepting difference of opinion and variation. A happy video sure generated a lot of unhappiness.

Outside of the Muslim community, the video was very well received – look! Muslims! Happy! Dancing! Normal! Who knew?

The intense fury of the discussion has now waned, and so both supporters and critics of the campaign should reflect less on what was wrong with those who opposed their view and more about what is wrong with our social mores that the core concept was so headline grabbing.

This year, a social media campaign called #nomakeupselfie encouraged women to take photos of themselves without make up to raise awareness of cancer and in the process raised £2 million (Dh12m).

Like the Happy British Muslims video, this generated huge controversy. But the same question arises for both campaigns: why were they considered so “different” and “daring”? Why should being without make-up be so subversive? It can only be so if society’s default expectation is that women should wear make up.

Why should being a happy Muslim be such a radical idea? It can only be so if society is conditioned to see Muslims as inhuman, and “other”.

The participants of these campaigns are not the root of the problem. We are. The campaigns and participants are just symptoms of wider social wrongheadedness in which we must all share responsibility.

There’s definitely something wrong with us if women need to be airbrushed in real life. There’s something wrong with us if human beings who happen to be Muslim need to prove they are normal and can feel happiness.

Social media is useful for highlighting social problems. But it’s our attitudes that need fixing. If we can do that, then I for one will be happy.

Eat pork or starve, say French politicians. Are we back in the Spanish Inquisition?

Belated posting from last week of my weekly column in The National.

France’s far right leader Marine Le Pen is offering Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren an impossible choice: eat pork or starve. Her extremist party, the Front National, has just won local elections in 11 towns around France. Schools that fall within these districts are proposing not to offer alternatives as they currently do when pork meals are served.

“We will accept no religious requirements in the school lunch menus,” said Ms Le Pen. “There is no reason for religion to enter into the public sphere.” Obviously this will affect both Muslim and Jewish children, as well as any children of Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians. But it’s the Muslim angle that gives Ms Le Pen the notoriety and headlines she craves.

Her hate-filled world is simplistic: pork versus halal, secularism versus food choices, France versus Muslim. All of them are false dichotomies to tap into the electorate’s growing wave of anger at mainstream political parties that don’t appear to be listening, and a distressing rise of extremism aimed at immigrants. The Front National, like other European extremist parties, is trying to hide its racism by pretending it is religion they are targeting. But the veneer is thin.

Europe is veering alarmingly towards the extreme right. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came to prominence in 2011 in the wake of austerity measures. In 2012 its spokesperson, MP Ilias Kassidiaris claimed the Holocaust did not happen. It is easy to dismiss such parties as fringe lunatics, but their proximity to power is cause for anxiety.

In France, the Front National is the third party. In Greece, a video last week showed the Prime Minister’s chief of staff leaking classified information to the Golden Dawn spokesperson.

Ms Le Pen’s school meals remarks are a modern echo of Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat pork!”

There is another, more disturbing, European historical echo: the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted Muslims and Jews who either fled Spain or were forced to convert to Christianity. To verify whether these “conversos” really had changed, Inquisitors would roam around their homes while meals were being cooked to ensure pork was used. Aromas were vetted and even rubbish was inspected to police pork consumption. The Inquisition was one of the most shameful episodes in Europe’s history, and yet, here we are again, with the same rhetoric of forcing pork down people’s gullets.

Ms Le Pen says her move is about “saving secularism”, a thinly veiled and despicable attempt to hide her hatred. Will forcing vegetarian children to eat pork save the secular state? And who knew that the French constitution enshrined food choices for its citizens? (Although if any country was to do this, it probably would be France.)

Like many who hide their hatred of Muslims under the guise of opposing halal, kosher food – which is prepared the same way – is not in their cross hairs.

France has no problem making money for itself from halal. According to the USDA, about 10 per cent of France’s annual meat and poultry exports are halal.

Ms Le Pen’s directives about what schoolchildren eat should stick in everyone’s throats. Her words have nothing to do with the relationship between the state and the citizen and everything to do with igniting hatred. We’ve been here before during the Inquisition, as during the Nazi era. Let’s learn lessons from history and avoid a hate-filled repeat episode.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali offers a simplistic and dangerous view of Muslims

This article was published yesterday in The National as my weekly newspaper column.

More than 12 years on from the events of 9/11, and the subsequent failed global “war on terror”, the false dichotomy of being “with us” or “with the terrorists” is still proclaimed without embarrassment.

This week, it was the turn of Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Hirsi Ali was scheduled to deliver a speech on the anniversary of the attacks at the Boston Marathon while receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University, which is located just outside Boston.

Somali-born Ms Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure. She fled to the Netherlands and claimed asylum on the grounds of persecution and escaping a forced marriage.

There she became actively involved in politics and was elected as a representative on the back of a far right rise in popularity against Muslims but she left the Netherlands for the US after it became clear that she had lied on her asylum application.

Over 80 members of Brandeis university faculty sent a letter to the school’s president demanding the withdrawal of Ms Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree invitation “owing to her virulently anti-Muslim public statements”.

In response, Ms Hirsi Ali published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Reflecting on the anniversary of the Boston Marathan bombing she managed to tie together the Boston Marathon, jihadists in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, a driving ban in Saudi Arabia and sexual assault in Egypt.

There was no mention at all of Chechnya, from where the bombers hailed, and the political problems there. There was no analysis of how the violence in Syria and the global political vested interests that spur on the killing is different to the social and political pressures on women in the Kingdom.

For Ms Hirsi Ali, Muslims are all the same. And for her, Muslims are the problem.

Of course, there was no mention of a global epidemic of violence against women, gun crime in the US, annexation in the Crimea or Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. If she had mentioned them, we could be talking about working across borders and boundaries to tackle global scourges. But no, in Ms Hirsi Ali’s world, all violence is due to Muslims and all Muslims are violent.

Ms Hirsi Ali’s analysis is both simplistic and dangerous, painting Muslims as all the same. She sees no variation. When she said Islam “must be defeated” she was asked if she meant “radical Islam” and her simplistic approach is clear: “No. Islam period.”

This makes her popular for those who cannot fathom the possibility of nuance among Muslims, 1.8 billion people who take Islam as their compass.

She legitimises hatred through a back story of “escape” from Muslims and “liberation” by the west. Yet the contradictions are already there in her own life story. Her own father was opposed to FGM. It was she herself who dropped out of further education despite her father’s insistence she continue. When she wanted a divorce, she got one without issue.

I’m loathe to give Ms Hirsi Ali publicity, but this idea that “all Muslims are the same” is dangerous and must be tackled head-on. Homogenising and dehumanising people is the foundation for hatred. Among 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, variation and differences of opinion exist. How ludicrous to paint them all the same.

That ‘joke’ about violence? It’s not funny.

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National published yesterday.

If you saw someone being punched black and blue, or beaten to death in the middle of the street, you’d never hesitate to say it was violence. The perpetrators should be locked up and made to pay for their crime. Any bystanders cheering on the murder, we’d also hold to account for their depravity.

Yet if we take violence out of the public space and into the domestic sphere, it becomes a joke about who rules the roost, and how gender wars should be played out.

As a teenager, I overheard the following “joke” being shared between men and women. “What should you do if your dishwasher stops working?” The answer: “Slap her, and she’ll start washing again.” Did you laugh?

The punchline fulfils the comic’s rule of subverting our expectations: we were thinking about the dishwasher as a machine.

It also plays on the gender stereotype that if women aren’t working in the kitchen, then a bit of violence is fine. After all, that’s a woman’s job, and if she’s not doing her job then what should she expect but a whack in the face?

In case you laughed, let me help you: this was not funny, because the idea that women should be beaten is not funny. We’re duped into accepting that it’s funny because it plays into the gender war stereotypes. This doesn’t mean those who laugh are all bad people. But if you do laugh you should be keenly aware of how “jokes” can transmit the idea that violence is acceptable and by telling the joke or just laughing at it you are condoning its acceptability. Violence is never acceptable under any circumstances. Not even as a joke.

Such jokes are so rooted in our psyches as “just a bit of fun” that if we do challenge them we are accused of not being “chilled out” or that we can’t see “the funny side”. But we’re all familiar with the adage “never a truer word than said in jest”.

Just as problematic are jokes about violence against men. The Times of India is showing a photo taken at a fancy dress competition. A little boy is dressed up with bandages and blood stains on his head and arms. He’s got a big black eye and wears a sign saying “I argued with my wife”> He won first prize. I’ve seen women posting up the picture indicating how funny they think it is. LOL! They exclaim.

That’s a funny costume, right? Don’t mess with your wife! We should take the funny side of it and chill out, right?

Wrong. It’s worth repeating: violence is never funny.

We wouldn’t laugh if a black child wore a sign saying “I picked a fight with a white boy” and there would be righteous outrage if a beaten girl wore a sign saying “I argued with my husband”.

If women think it’s funny because it gets back at men who commit domestic abuse, think again: it simply reinforces the idea that beating women in the home is fine. Besides, men can be victims of domestic violence too.

We must all – both men and women – be vigilant in stamping out “jokes” that perpetuate gender stereotypes and violence. Telling jokes might seem harmless, or just a bit of fun. But every implicit acceptance of abuse helps it to flourish.

To tell the joke is to be the bystander who cheers on the public brawl. It creates the environment for violence, and in the end someone will always get hurt. Don’t be the cheerleader. And definitely don’t be the one who thought it was funny.

BBC Radio 4 discussion: Islamic feminism

This morning I was on BBC Radio 4 discussing Islamic feminism.

If you can access BBC iplayer, you can listen to the discussion here, at 38 minutes into the recording

From MH370 to HarassMap, the power of the digital crowd

This is my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National.

The mysterious case of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has gripped the world. How could such a huge area be scoured for clues?

DigitalGlobe, a US-based satellite imaging company, came up with a way for us all to get involved in the search through crowdsourcing, where we can go onto their website and review detailed image files from their five satellites and tag anything suspicious. They will then use an algorithm to assess which regions are getting more tags than others.

They’ve taken a problem of vast proportions and are harnessing the power of the digital crowd to solve it. It shows the digital crowd has qualities that can be put to good use: mass resources, global connectivity and immediacy. It can address problems of a macro nature through the micro actions of individuals. It’s the digital world in one of its finer moments.

In 2010, Harassmap was set up in Egypt in response to the high levels of sexual harassment faced by women there. The incidents are reported and mapped using mobile technology.

In such situations, those who have been subject to unwanted advances or even sexual assault may suffer it so often that they feel compelled to get on with their lives. Alternatively, they may not know who to tell, and not want to spend large amounts of time in police stations when not only might nothing come of it but they might be told it is they who are the source of the shame.

Being part of the digital crowd can help individuals feel part of a bigger movement, where they see how speaking out, regardless of the barriers, can lead to seemingly insurmountable social problems being resolved.

The work of HarassMap highlights the digital crowd’s power when it comes to on-the-ground events. Volunteers often show the map in places where harassment had been reported and share eyewitness accounts. People are often shocked when they realise how common harassment is on their own streets.

The power of the digital crowd does not stop there. Crowdfunding first took off as a phenomenon in 2006 by raising finance through a wide range of investors. The digital crowd in this case becomes the resource as well as the impetus for creativity and results, bypassing traditional financial and corporate gatekeepers.

By pooling individual needs together, the digital crowd can benefit its individual components in a way that is not possible offline. MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer world-class learning to millions who cannot access it through conventional education due to geography, time, or finances.

The dynamic changes from the traditional one of a teacher instructing the class to one in which individuals are required to engage with other students as part of the learning experience via virtual spaces, with huge impacts on the future of education.

Of course, the digital crowd also has its dark side, such as disgusting revenge sites where intimate pictures are posted and others where groups promote distasteful views. Normal etiquette also seems easier to forget online when it turns nasty.

The study of crowd psychology has existed for nearly 200 years but we need to learn about the digital crowd’s ability to be a power for good, having already seen it harnessed in unimaginable ways. As Gustave Le Bon, the 19th century author of The Psychology of Crowds, tells us: “The improbable does not exist for a crowd.”

British Muslim women don’t need the West’s version of feminism, OK?

This article was published today in The Telegraph.

As a charity bids to boost feminism among Muslim women, Shelina Janmohamed asks why British female Muslims would want to join a feminist movement born in the West, which asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door

Malala Yousafzai fights for gender equality - but would she describe herself as a feminist?

Everyone loves Malala Yousufzai, right? Fearless, inspiring and courageous, she is the kind of female icon that asserts the need for women to have justice and rights – arguably a ‘feminist’ viewpoint – and which has won the admiration of western feminists.

Whatever your opinions of Yousufzai, one part of her core identity rarely discussed in feminist circles is that: she’s a proud Muslim and sees her faith as a driver for the change she preaches. Yet the feminist movement as we know it today, born in the West, asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door. Want to join the feminist club? Then you’re asked to leave the world view that inspires you, makes you want to be a better person, and abandon the very principles that drive you to fight for justice and rights for women.

I understand why many feminists in the West might have this knee-jerk reaction: religion has often been co-opted by the powerful to hang on to their privilege and oppress women, and the European religious context where feminism was born was part of the movement’s formation.

This rejection of women of faith is a symptom of a core problem the feminist movement faces today: that it has come to embody only the concerns of white, middle-class women from the West. Everyone loved Sheryl Sandberg when she told us to ‘Lean In’, but some say her self-help guide was aimed at a handful of already highly-privileged women. Working class feminists rarely get a look-in.

And the same applies to women of faith and colour. And for those at the intersection of multiple oppressions being a feminist means a struggle to fight all forms of oppression.

The idea of Muslim feminism or Islamic feminism isn’t just contentious for secular feminists and the historic feminist movement. It’s equally contentious among Muslims, some of whom argue that it focuses on individuality, diminishes men and the family and works to eliminate God-consciousness from society.

Stuck in the middle of this furore are Muslim women themselves – who may or may not label themselves as Muslim feminists – but who nonetheless are working tirelessly to improve the conditions for (Muslim) women.

To this backdrop, a new project has been announced by Maslaha, a UK based social enterprise that is part of the Young Foundation that aims to improve social conditions within Muslim and minority communities. project sets out to introduce ideas of feminism to Muslim women. It is being described as ‘new’ and ‘pioneering’.

Simply put, this is to deny the long and ongoing history of activism to improve the social conditions and justice afforded to Muslim women. My great grandfather would never have called himself a feminist, but he was in some ways. In a society where male babies were consistently privileged over female babies, who some considered a disappointment of birth, he only ever gave celebratory gifts when girls were born. My grandfather sent his daughters to school on bicycles to ensure they were safe, but for a girl to be on a bike was considered shameful. He rejected that.

Some Muslim women make it into our headlines like Yousufzai, or Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman who also clearly stated Islam as a core driver of her work, and who proudly wears her headscarf. The vast majority remain unheard of, working on the ground, inspired by their faith.

I’m pleased that there is an additional resource to talk about Muslim women’s work in the global justice movement. But its impact is less about engaging Muslim women in an internal community discourse that can fuel the discussion around the realities of Muslim women’s lives, in a way that is meaningfully rooted in the faith that they wish to uphold. It is more an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and in-built biases.

Muslim women don’t need to or even want to be accepted on sufferance, a kind of ‘we’ll let you into the club even though you’re wrong’. Rather, women’s rights movements need to accept input as a two-way street.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women and is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She can be found blogging at and tweeting @loveinheadscarf

Note from author: unfortunately due to word count issues the following paragraph could not be included:

Others have argued that feminism is simply the women’s wing of the western imperialist movement. Current examples  cited to support this argument are how improving women’s rights was shoe-horned post-facto into the reasons for the war in Afghanistan; there are questions asked why Yousufzai’s shooting by the Taliban gained such worldwide coverage, whilst the women killed by drone strikes in the same region do not; and why a group of white women like Femen gains more coverage than the millions of Muslim activists around the world who are day to day pushing back the appropriation of women’s rights

Manly myths and women temptresses: Our histories are filled with heroes, but why are so few of them female?

This article was published on March 8th on the occasion of International Women’s Day, in The National newspaper.

The heroes that fill the stories of our cultures and histories have thousands of faces, but why are so few of them female?

In a land far in the future, it is women who walk the streets freely and without fear, and men who are locked up at home. Welcome to Ladyland, a sci-fi utopia contained in the story Sultana’s Dream, written by an Indian Muslim woman, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, and published in a 1905 edition of the Indian Ladies Magazine

In the mythic Ladyland of Sultana’s Dream, men failed to defend the kingdom from invasion, so the women stepped in to do so. The condition was that men had to be confined to their homes for honour and liberty. Thinking there was no hope of the women’s success, the men did so without protest. The women approached the battlefield with mirrors and concentrated sun-rays on the enemy, who found the heat unbearable and fled. And since then, the men remained indoors.

A hundred years later, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, the story of Ladyland continues to unsettle us. Its heroes are female, women form the standard of acceptability and success, and men are simply adjuncts to salvation and safety.

We’re not used to female heroes. Our grand myths – the ones whose narratives shape our societies and cultures – are in general framed by the male archetype. Myths help us to make sense of the world, and more importantly of our place in it. Hidden within the often supernatural events are the values on which we have constructed our social order. The heroic characters that inhabit the mythical worlds help to reconcile us to our realities, and establish the patterns for our lives.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell argued in a seminal work that hero stories across cultures and histories are essentially the same story with the hero passing through the same 17 stages. His theory of the “monomyth” was titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The theory of the archetypal hero’s journey has gained huge traction among modern-day story writers and literary analysts. George Lucas is the most famous proponent, using it as the basis for Star Wars.

However, Campbell’s monomyth of the male hero has come in for criticism, with complaints that it whitewashes the female hero from its description of our grand archetypes. But supporters of the male monomyth claim that since the great myths stem from history when men were dominant, it is natural that the stories will focus on men. Women only exist in the 17-stage hero’s journey as temptresses or goddesses.

When a rare female hero occurs, she is overshadowed by the grand male narrative. Occasionally, female heroes are allowed to exist, but only within limited spheres. They can be mothers, they can be concerned about homes and children. Their stories can be about marriage, love, romance and fashion. The heroines must be svelte, beautiful, softly spoken and kind. Think of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Even as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, a seeming exception to the rule about heroes being male and that women seek husbands and love, and in their failure to achieve this turn into tragic figures. Their “superpowers” are beauty, romance and chastity.

Even when a rare female hero arises, she is often sidelined as an example only for women, not for men. Female stories gain traction as fairy tales, trivialised and dismissed as stories for children, not grand enough to be part of the canon.

Why should we care about whether abstract myths are centred on male or female heroes?

We need to care because myths shape what we see as “normal”. They tell us who is significant – men – and who is dispensable – women. They give us guides to navigate our world, and a map drawn without women makes them invisible. They show us the received wisdom on which our society is built, and the received wisdom of myths is that men matter, and women are obstacles. They give licence to men to challenge society, and for women to be hidden. Most importantly, they filter down into our day-to-day policies and behaviours, establishing the male as the norm.

Hollywood reflects the idea instilled in us by myths that male ­heroes are for everyone, and female heroes are just for women. Women are not given grand heroic roles that can be embedded into our social psyche. On the rare occasion that they are, and they become successful, there is shock. Thelma and Louise is one of the rare – and successful – examples of the female journey, both metaphoric and real.

Overturning myths can unsettle our ideas of what is normally accepted as “right”. Sultana’s Dream challenges notions of where intelligence lies, or who should own the public space and why.

Gloria Steinem’s notorious piece on “If men could menstruate” subverts the prevailing norm that the standard body is male and women’s bodies are an aberration. At the same time as tackling the stigma of periods, her subversion addresses the stereotype of women’s complaining nature, and makes an important point about who gets to allocate resources and how day-to-day policy is set. Men, she quips, would brag about their periods. Periods wouldn’t be considered unnatural and dirty. Sanitary supplies would be free. Women would be excluded from complicated fields of study such as philosophy and maths unable to comprehend them without the innate sense of rhythm men would have from their menstrual cycles.

Funny, of course, but consider a more real and fatal example of this. Heart disease is seen as a man’s problem. But the biggest threat to women in a country such as the United States is also heart disease, but gender bias means aggressive treatment is pushed for men more than women. Diagnosing symptoms is biased in favour of men. Men usually experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack. Women may have a tendency for pain just under the breastbone, or complain of abdominal pain, indigestion, difficulty breathing, nausea and unexplained fatigue. Misinterpretation of women’s symptoms means women remain undiagnosed, meaning their first heart attack is often fatal.

We need to normalise the female journey by having more female ­heroes. We need to equip young men and women with an understanding that authority, knowledge, quest, bravery and wayfaring can be learnt and practised by both men and women. Our heroic archetypes must encompass women so that the daily struggles of women can be considered ‘normal’, and treated with respect, and the challenges can be addressed in an equal way to those of men.

There is frantic activity all around the world attempting to backfill the missing female heroes from our collective histories. Recovering the lost stories of powerful, inspiring and iconic women is a crucial first step. In recognition of International Women’s Day in particular, there will be lists of powerful and influential women published to highlight women’s achievements and to inspire upcoming women to take their place on the platform of heroes.

Our modern-day stories told to us in books and films must be braver in casting female protagonists. Writers and producers must take responsibility for stories aimed at both men and women about the heroic female and her journey.

Our myths tell the story of who we are, and we are not a world that can tolerate any longer the invisibility of women. Our grand myths need to stop eradicating and start celebrating women.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at