Immigrating to a new country can be terrifying. With the hand of your significant other, transitioning into a new ‘world’ should be less scary right? But what happens when you get to this new place and your spouse forces you to not only abandon every aspect that you once were but to internalize this new questionable way of thinking? “Every one of them is better than
us” is what you’re now told by your lifetime partner (Aboulela 4). You’re now forced to internalize this concept that you must respect total strangers because their very way of being is simply just ‘better’ than you (Aboulela 4). Could you imagine your partner forcing you to alienate the very way of life that the two of you lived in unison until that very moment? When in a foreign place, one relies on their traditions and cultural norms for comfort. In Leila Aboulela’s “The Ostrich”, published by Intangible Publications in 1997, she highlights the complexity of British multiculturalism through the narrative of Sumra – a young, female, Sudanese-born student that studies abroad in London.
In “The Ostrich”, Aboulela documents the journey of Sumra and her Sudanese born husband, Majdy, as they migrate from their home in Khartoum to the United Kingdom to study abroad in London. The journey of Sumra and Majdy epitomizes British multiculturalism in several aspects. Aboulela uses both the past and present recollections of Sumra to narrate her and her husband’s transition into British society. At the outset of both this narrative of Sumra and Majdy and contemporary British reality, there are acts of hate within London targeting not only Muslim immigrants but those of African descent. Sumra recalls on occasion when Majdy would “point out the graffiti for [her] … ‘Black Bastards’ on the wall of the mosque, ‘Paki go home’ on the newsagent’s door” (Aboulela 4).
Within the United Kingdom, racism evidently plays an active role in the daily lives of immigrants, particularly of Muslims and of people of African descent. British sociologist, Ali Rattansi, concludes that the introduction of French legislation to ban the full veil in public, “confirms that Europe is in the grip of an ‘Islamophobia’ that is as pernicious as the anti-Semitism that engulfed Europe during the 1930s” (Rattansi 127). In Leila Aboulela’s “The Ostrich” zooms in on the complexity of British multiculturalism.
Aboulela highlights how being ‘multicultural’ in the United Kingdom is paradoxical. As both an immigrant of color and a Muslim in the United Kingdom, Aboulela emphasizes how assimilation and adaptation force immigrants to lose their sense of self. As a result of their loss of identity, these particular immigrants that make the UK ‘multicultural’ is forced to internalize racists ideologies as the process of assimilation requires them to understand and cooperate with the racial hierarchy of the UK. The short story of “The Ostrich” narrates Sumra’s opposition to assimilating and adapting to British society.
The characterization of Majdy highlights the need for immigrants in the UK to internalize racist ideologies as a survival mechanism. Evidence of Majdy’s embodiment of racist ideologies occurs through his actions when he demands his wife to remove her veil for the comfortability of everyone else in London. Sumra recalls:
“He dislikes if I walk a few steps behind him, what would people think, he says, that we are backward, barbaric. He sneers at the Arab women in black abayas walking behind their men. Oppressor, that’s what people would think of them. Here, they respect women, treat them as equal, we must be the same he says” (Aboulela, 2)
The asyndeton and alliteration of the words ‘backward’ and ‘barbaric’ highlight Majdy’s realization that the aspects of their Muslim identity will be viewed as problematic by the residents of London. The absence of conjunction between the two words used to describe Khartoum, Majdy and Sumra’s home, dramatizes the bitterness in which Majdy now feels towards it. The negative connotations of both ‘backward’ and ‘barbaric’ suggest Majdy’s opposition to the cultural way of life in which he and Sumra shared their entire lives. By ‘sneering’ at the woman in a black abaya his sudden distaste of his people and culture. In reference to his own cultural practices, Majdy speaks negatively of them, yet in contrast, he speaks highly of British culture and traditions. The use of ‘respect’ and ‘equal’ highlights Majdy’s approval of the British. By suggesting that he and Sumra ‘must be the same’ highlights that Majdy’s loss of identity in exchange for acceptance into British society. Unable to hide the physical evidence of his biological identity, Majdy relies on the erasure of the aspects of his Muslim identity in order to become less controversial for the people of Britain. He believes that the whites of the UK are inherently ‘better’ than both himself and Sumra. Majdy recognizes that in order to gain the acceptance of whites, that he and his wife must abandon their cultural and religious norms, for the sake of societal, British survival. This is why he demands that his wife not wear her veil out in public. He acknowledges the Western interpretation of the relationship between Muslim women and their veils as a sign of oppression and victimization, further adopting this concept to justify why he thought that his wife should no longer wear it.
This Western interpretation of the Muslim woman and her veil is further analyzed by Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communications at the University of London, Milly Williamson. Milly Williamson published “The British Media, the Veil and the Limits of Freedom” in 2004 in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. Within this article, Williamson examines how Britain utilized media to present immigrants, specifically Muslims, as a threat to their national security. Williamson centers her research around the blatant Western disapproval over Islamic cultural norms such as the wearing of the veil for female Muslims. Williamson analyzes the history of the veil’s symbolism within the UK. Williamson notes that during the War on Terror, the veil was symbolic of the “oppression of Muslim women and was a sign of victimization. However, today the veil symbolizes a refusal of Western modernity and is perceived as a dangerous threat” (Williamson 65).
Williamson continues, “The veil was presented as (1) a refusal of ‘our way of life’; (2) a sign of our excessive tolerance; (3) evidence that Britain is suffering from the tyranny of a ‘culture’ imposed by a minority, and; (4) linked to the threat of terrorism. By 2000 the predominant theme was that the veil is a refusal of ‘our way of life’, which in turn was part of an erosion of the ‘British way of life’” (Williamson 66)
This Westernized interpretation of Muslim women and the symbolism in which the veil represents are the exact racist ideologies that have forced Majdy to abandon his cultural practices. In conjunction with this key claim, Williamson emphasizes the discomfort of the veil in terms of British society. Williamson notes that given the societal disapproval of the veil, Muslim immigrants within the UK are “perceived as a dangerous threat”, for it symbolizes ‘a refusal of Western modernity’. The fact that British society only accepts immigrants willing to modernize Westernly, is evidence that in order to assimilate into British society, one must abandon their cultural norms and customs for the sake of the UK’s comfort. As a result, Majdy urges his wife that they ‘must be like them’ (Aboulela 2). In other words, immigrants are allowed access to the UK, but they must follow the British way of life if they ever hope to fully adapt. Given this notion, Majdy links the success of his assimilation and adaptation into life in the UK by “imitat[ing British people] to prove that though [they] are Arabs and Africans [they] can be modern too” (Aboulela 2).
The idea of integration within British society is analyzed in Shane Brighton’s essay “British Muslims, multiculturalism and UK foreign policy: ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’ in and beyond the state”, published in the International Affairs Journal by Blackwell Publishing Limited in 2007. Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the University of Sussex, Shane Brighton, analyzes the British attempts to use ‘integration’ to reshape multiculturalism within Britain to combat terrorism. He notes that the
“the idea of integration is in many ways the foundational concept within multiculturalism. It supposes a need to acknowledge and manage relations with – rather than efface- culturally distinct communities” (Brighton 5)
based off the Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary sought to make explicit in a speech to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in 1966. This here highlights that although the UK suggests that integration is the key to having a successful, multicultural society. Granted, the idea of integration is supposed to construct a bridge so that immigrants in the UK can easily transition into British society. However, what is failed to mention is the fact that in order to transition successfully into British society, an immigrant must obey the Westernized, modern standards. As a result, if their cultural norms and practices are oppositional to Western modernity, then they’d be viewed as a threat and further ostracized. Because of this Majdy believes that “they can forgive you for your ugly colour, your thick lips, and rough hair, but you must think modern thoughts, be like them in the inside if you can’t be from the outside” (Aboulela 5). Shane Brighton suggests that integration is the ultimate goal of multiculturalism. Within British society, in order to successfully integrate forces, it’s multicultural to abandon their cultural norms and practices in exchange for their Western modernity.
Within “The Ostrich”, Leila Aboulela examines the complexity of British multiculturalism by using the narration of Sumra to provide insight into multicultural immigrants transitioning into the UK. Aboulela highlights that in order to be an
immigrant in the UK and to successfully adapt, a sense of their identity is loss in exchange for acceptance in society. In other words, ‘multicultural Britain’ is not technically multicultural because, in order to be accepted into British society, one must fit in by being having Western modernity.
Works Cited List
Aboulela, Leila. “The Ostrich.” Intangible, Intangible Publications, Inc., 1997
Brighton, Shane. “British Muslims, Multiculturalism and UK Foreign Policy: ‘Integration’ and ‘Cohesion’ in and beyond the State”, Internal Affairs Journal, Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2007
Rattansi, Ali. “National Identity, Belonging and the ‘Muslim Question.’” Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 119-142.
Williamson, Milly. “The British Media, the Veil and the Limits of Freedom” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Koninklijke Brill, 2014