For her latest poem, Shades, the British-Sudanese spoken word poet created a self-portrait with facial drawings that resemble a plastic surgeon’s markings on their patient.

“Keep up-to-date with a world that creates insecurities then feeds them to its people,” reads a line from the poem underneath her face. 

“I created this image in the style that is usually found in billboard advertisements,” Asma tells The New Arab

“The intention was to create a level of irony because the words are against consumerism and almost speaking to you in the same way advertisements do.” 

The images she uses on her social media create a background story and context for the poem itself.

Her poem in its entirety is divided into three parts: the first part discusses how the white woman is viewed a pinnacle of beauty and how non-white women are pressured to look more European by society and white feminism. 

The second part is about how capitalism is fuelling insecurity in women for profit and the third is about rape culture.

For Asma, her decision to refrain from makeup was not a political one, it was simply because of her lifestyle and upbringing. 

“Growing up, at home, I wasn’t exposed to much makeup. I don’t remember my mum wearing much makeup other than kohl (a form of eyeliner) and I didn’t wear any myself because I barely felt insecure. I also didn’t like wearing it out of convenience because I was always playing sports.”

It wasn’t until Asma entered the public eye and entered the world of social media she saw what was expected of her to look like as a woman.

“I felt insecure after seeing girls on Instagram highlighting how I should look as a woman. I was pushed into the same pressures I was up against.”

I was pushed into the same pressures I was up against

“I also feel like a lot of the time people alter their looks to fit Eurocentric standards of beauty,” she adds.

“In Sudan, this is especially the case because people use makeup to appear more Arab or Western than to enhance their own African features.”

Skin bleaching

It isn’t only trends that are being used with makeup and plastic surgery that is concerning, according to Asma. Seeing black people bleach their skin across the world is a trend that is especially concerning to Asma.

“I remember watching a documentary about skin bleaching and a woman said she bathes her children in bleach to give them a better life – the family were African American; I was horrified,” she said.

In Sudan, skin bleaching is also a problem because people aspire to reach the Eurocentric standard of beauty.

“It’s scary the extent people are willing to harm themselves to look white,” she added. Skin bleaching poses a lot of health risks, including cancer.

It’s scary the extent people are willing to harm themselves to look white

Girls can’t play sports

Looking a certain way is not the only expectation that Asma has experienced. As a female, Muslim, hijab-clad athlete who spent time in both Sudan and the West, she has experienced an array of discrimination. 

Both in Muslim communities in the UK and in Sudan, playing sports as a woman comes with its difficulties.

“We’re expected to be at home and to be ‘feminine.’ Anything that goes against the norm is deemed as masculine,” Asma explained.

“We’re expected to be slim and have nice bodies but exercising as women is frowned upon and in some cases forbidden.”

She described a situation when her team was asked to vacate the sports hall at university for male teachers:

“I went to visit a girl’s only university in Sudan to play basketball. The sports hall was one of the only places we were able to play sports when I was in Sudan, but male teachers still asked us to leave out when we were still playing.

“They have the privilege to play sports anywhere they want, but they still wanted to steal our space.”

Islamophobia and hyper-sexualisation of women athletes

In 2017, Asma was a part of a campaign that succeeded in lobbying FIBA, the international federation for basketball, to lift a ban on hijabs. Prior to the ban being lifted, hijab-clad Muslim women were made to choose between their religious dress and the sport they loved.

“At one point, when I was discussing the ban, someone asked me why I even need to play basketball because I would be picking between my religion and basketball – as if I even should have to pick between the two,” Asma said.

Someone asked me why I even need to play basketball because I would be picking between my religion and basketball – as if I even should have to pick between the two

She also described how men seem to include themselves when it comes to women’s sports.

“We don’t want them to sit down and watch us, we need more spaces where women can play sports without being under the male gaze because of how much they sexualise us.

“They talk about how sports make women less modest, but they’re supposed to be focusing on the ball, not the woman’s body.”

Despite the difficulties, Asma refuses to believe that Muslim women are giving up on their fights against sexism from men of all backgrounds and faiths, Islamophobia, racism and Eurocentrism.

“We Muslim women are more aware than ever, and we find value in our careers. We don’t want to give up our careers for a husband. This isn’t what Islam teaches us.”

Diana Alghoul is a British/Palestinian journalist at The New Arab and lifestyle blogger. 

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh

The New Arab MeetsClick on our Special Contents tab to read more on our ever-growing archive of interviews

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