'It's time to say what's good about being a Muslim'

Britain's leading Muslim magazine, Q-News, has a new editor - aged 24 and a thoroughly modern woman
Click to follow
The Independent Online

She sits in a scruffy little office in Wembley, surrounded by piles of paper, bundles of magazines and general clutter, and she vows that soon it will all be different. By the end of the conversation you believe her.

She sits in a scruffy little office in Wembley, surrounded by piles of paper, bundles of magazines and general clutter, and she vows that soon it will all be different. By the end of the conversation you believe her.

At first, Shagufta Yaqub seems an unimposing young woman. Her voice is without edge. Her features are demurely framed by a black Islamic headscarf. And yet at the age of just 24 she has taken over as the editor of Q-News, the leading magazine for young British Muslims.

Which is not just a first in journalistic terms. It is also highly unusual for a woman, and especially a young one, to assume so prominent a role within a religious/ethnic community which is utterly dominated by middle-aged men and where overt sexism seems part of the cultural fabric.

"I'm the average reader, which is probably the only strength I have", she says with unaffected modesty.

Even if that were true it would still make her an interesting character. The average Q-News reader is a young British Muslim graduate in a professional occupation for whom English is a first language and critical engagement with the style and values of the Western world is taken for granted. Where Muslim News is for an older generation of people, of immigrant background, for whom the great Islamic struggles were setting up mosques and shops to sell halal meat, Q-News is about street-drugs, designer fashion, human rights and Hollywood movies.

Shagufta was born in Pakistan, but when she was aged one her parents moved to London, to Brixton. "It was a very hostile environment", she recalls. "We were one of only four or five Asian families, and the only Muslims."

But if in those early years she was desperate to fit in, in her teens it was to the culture of the sub-continent she turned. "As a teenager, you need to find yourself, to express something and I began to develop an Asian identity, with lots of Hindi films and Asian music." Yet there was still a lot she did not understand about her parents' religion. It was at school, studying Islam alongside Christianity and Judaism, that she began to find out about her own religion.

At this point, and at university, her interest was academic. Islamophobia became a good subject of study as part of her sociology and communications degree. "I was pretty wild in those days. College was about freedom. I couldn't see the irony of standing up at a conference and speaking in defence of the veil, when I wasn't wearing one myself."

But then she donned one while staying with a friend in Egypt, and things began to change. One night while she was there she went out into the desert. There she underwent a religious experience. "It was pitch black. The sky looked so mysterious. I felt a tiny dot; a sand storm could have blown up and that would have been the end of me. It made me realise how insignificant my life was and how unimportant were the problems I had."

When she got off the plane in London she kept on the hijab. "The thought of taking it off made me feel quite naked", she said. Since then, she says, her confidence has grown with her faith. "I became a happier person. I was filled with this huge confidence that I had never felt before."

It is a confidence she has brought to Q-News. The magazine was the first Muslim publication in the UK which wasn't linked to one denomination or financed by one particular Arab country. But its preoccupations have been political. With just two issues under her belt that has begun to change.

"I'm thinking of putting a limit on the number of times the word Islamophobia can appear in any one issue", she says. "It is part of the negative sense we have about ourselves, as always victims. It just makes you feel defeated and worthless. It's time to say what's good about being a Muslim, about what it enables us to do, rather than portraying it as a list of don'ts."

The new editor has printed the magazine on glossier paper, with full colour, and is planning to moves its offices to somewhere nearer the centre of London. Already Q-News is carrying more lifestyle pieces,with features on children's books, a Muslim lonely hearts page and with a problem page about to begin.

It will be interesting to see how the country's Muslim leadership will react to the appointment. "Psychologically, it will take the middle-aged men some getting used to the idea that they can be questioned by a young Muslim woman", says Fuad Nahdi, who edited the magazine for its first 10 years and who is now, as publisher, working on improving advertising and distribution systems.

Shagufta anticipates problems with western feminists, too. "If you wear a hijab people assume that you are oppressed. But when I first put on the hijab it felt I was doing something right. It says to people, deal with my intellect, not my body." It is not a view you would find echoed in the pages of Britain's mainstream press - which may explain why among the generation who define themselves as "British Muslims", Q-News is becoming a must-read.