On Reading Love, InshAllah

Title: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: January 2012 

Genre: Romantic creative nonfiction 

(I made that up, but it sure beats “Women’s Studies”!)

Source: eGalley from editor

With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women’s love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman’s reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs’ love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.

Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.

When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying “Aurgh, I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled: “So, what, it’s okay if white people do that onscreen?” She tried to explain what she felt: “No, but that’s brown people. That’s us!” Thanks to the media’s disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of “our kind” can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself. 

I confess that, on some level, that’s what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents’ standards. But it’s one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one’s consciousness. And it’s quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.

I, of course, mean that in the best way possible. 

Being a single person who’s been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah–which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith–means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.

The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection. 

1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” is a dream for any South Asian girl who’s had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. “Otherwise Engaged” is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi’s yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry. 

2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they’re not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I’m extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I’m too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen. 

3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol’s “The First Time” recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.    

4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards” is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love. 

5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a “miscellaneous” category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won’t easily forget:

  • Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn’t become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
  • Nura Maznavi’s “Last Night on the Island” I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me. 
  • “Sex by Any Other Name” is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
  • Asiila Imani’s story “Three” traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani’s perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
  • Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what–to me–is the real stuff of romance stories. 

When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls’ side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being ‘innocent’ to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.

At first I wasn’t sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn’t have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story–be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood–is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.

This collection may be subtitled, “the secret love lives of American Muslim women,” but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.

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On the Ethics of Reviewing: A Report, A Response

Professor Linda Hutcheon recently gave a talk at the Toronto Public Library discussing the ethics of reviewing. Since I have a fairly unconventional approach to reviewing books, I was very interested in what she had to say. This post is a (not very brief) summary of Hutcheon’s richly nuanced and insightful talk and my response to it in relation to the book reviewing I do on this blog.

Hutcheon began by discussing some prolific novelists’ takes on reviewers and the reviewing process.

  • Virginia Woolf makes the distinction between critics and reviewers by saying that “The critic dealt with the past and with principles; the reviewer took the measure of new books as they fell from the press.”1 For her, this inevitably meant that the critic took their role much more seriously, whereas reviewers were pressed for space and were often in a hurry, not lavishing the kind of effort and dedication required for in-depth commentary. Hutcheon pointed out, however, that reviews were anonymous at the time that Woolf penned this essay, and it was afterwards that reviewing became professionalized.
  • According to George Orwell,

The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash . . . but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. . . . The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.2

  • Kurt Vonnegut famous for saying that “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”3

Hutcheon then proceeded to lay out three broad categories of reviewers, defining them in ways that ranged from the highly practical to the highly amusing:

The executioner is the destroyer of reputations and of sales. They undertake conscious or semiconscious search-and-destroy missions sand establish their reputations by what they like or dislike.  Anonymity on the web makes this easier. “Less ethically defensible,” Hutcheon qualified, “but easier.”

The louse is a small, but still nasty and irritating threat. “Lice” include those who don’t put much effort into the review, at times merely recounting the book’s plot. The louse can also be a narcissistic replacer who insinuates that they could have written something better, or makes the review about themselves rather than the book. (Guilty as charged?) The most serious kind of louse, according to Hutcheon, is the one who claims fairness but carries some hidden agenda or conflict of interest.

The star maker is the reviewer who prides herself in discovering big names, often continuing to advocate for them. This is the place where reviewing and fan cultures overlap.

All in all, reviewers function as what Hutcheon elegantly calls “spokespeople for values of a community.”  They’re jurors rather than judges, and they are creators of educated taste.

Taste, a quality good reviewers are presumed to possess, is a curious thing that is not necessarily innate. To shed light on the qualities that comprise such an aesthetic sensibility, Hutcheon cited David Hume’s theory of taste. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character.”4 To this list, Hutcheon says she would add another important quality: a deep love for the art form being reviewed in order to “root the authority they claim to have as reviewers.”

Hutcheon said that as a professional literary critic and an amateur restaurant critic, she has an increasing interest in the revolution that reviewing is currently undergoing. She believes that there is is a consensus on the fact that people who follow and read reviews want the book reviewer to be as knowledgeable about books as, say,  a restaurant reviewer is about cooking.

But what are we to make of such a standard today, the heyday of crowdsourced reviewing, a day when when one can be a reviewers simply by virtue of having read a book? We now have the faceless sea of thousands of reviewers on Amazon and reviewing sites such as Goodreads and Librarything. The economic viability of professional reviewing is, well, no more: professional circulations are now scrapping their dedicated review sections, laying off full-time reviewers and contracting the work to freelancers.

Another phenomenon that’s come to dominate reviewing is the “positive cult of personality” of the reviewer, such as popular celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. Celebrities in any field are not only allowed to air their personal opinions; those opinions are validated by audiences because of their celebrity status. While this in itself is not a negative aspect, it still affects demand of expertise in the professional reviewer.

Publishers are now recognizing that respected and established bloggers are perhaps better vehicles of communicating the worthiness of a book than printed advertisements. However, Hutcheon notes that bloggers serve more of a “narrowcasting” rather than “broadcasting” function. The latter can be done only by means of a reputable and a widely-circulated periodical.

Now we get to the ethics part, or what I like to call the ‘shoulds.’ Recognizing that “all reviewing can coexist” while catering to different needs, Hutcheon believes that

  • Reviewers have a responsibility both to the reader and to the work, so they must ensure that their review is about these things and not about themselves.
  • Reviewers should acknowledge the place they are coming from. I take this to mean that since some degree of bias and one person’s certain experiences of a topic inevitably shape a review, the reviewer should be cognizant of that bias and address it however possible.
  • Brevity, cogency, speed, and wit are especially important in electronic book reviews.
  • The book and writer should be given the benefit of serious consideration as opposed to the benefit of the doubt.
  • The most valued reviews are those that provide added value about the author or subject(s) of the book.

So where does this leave me?

Do I have the credentials to do book reviews? I’m not quite sure an undergraduate degree in literature suffices, since literary theory can often cloud one’s discussion of a book’s subject matter. And I certainly don’t read, quantitatively, nearly as much as I should. Although life can feel awfully strange when I’m in between books, my love for books is not as deep as my love for worthy content. I’d rather read one obscure book and be changed by it for the better than read twenty bestsellers and have them not affect me at all.

I don’t give negative criticism for the mere sake of it. I feel a deep personal obligation to balance honesty with a sense of humanity and connectedness both Muslim and non-Muslim writers. If I find something outright bad (as in the case of Empire Falls or Twilight) I would usually put a two-sentence review on Goodreads, and leave it at that. Most ‘bad’ books aren’t worth my attention, and I’ll be the first to admit that if I find myself tempted to do an especially incisive review of a book I didn’t like, I’m far more likely to be using the book as a punching bag for other personal issues I am wrangling with. So tempting as it is to do negative-adjective packed, nuanced critique of why a certain character or plot line doesn’t work, I have to remind myself that I’m not in the business of breaking hearts or spreading misery. I also have to remind myself that karma can be a real bitch.

What I will freely and unashamedly take credit for is that I always honestly acknowledge the place I come from. I am guilty of making the books about me and sometimes meander into topics only tangentially related to books, but by doing so I try and demonstrate how a reader–in my case, a female Muslim who considers herself a global citizen–reads books and is changed by them.

A blog, while lacking the “broadcasting” element, serves as an excellent way of  exploring such a phenomenon. Since I’m not accountable to anyone but myself, I can “review” whichever way I please. And I daresay that those who read and follow me do so not just because they are interested in the books I review, but because they value my insight.

So perhaps I’m not a reviewer in the strictest sense of the term. I don’t really do justice to the book on its own terms. I cannot help but wonder, though: am I a changing breed of a reviewer, or am I something different altogether?

On (my lack of) Muslim Feminism

Although this blog is about faith in strange times, I somehow made it this far without talking about the looming elephant in the room: Islam and feminism.

The thing is, when it comes to Muslim feminism, I’m a bit of a coward, me. I knowingly and actively partake of the benefits feminism bestows upon me while skirting away from the feminist label itself. And here is why: while I wholeheartedly love and am thankful for feminist theory in itself, being specifically a Muslim feminist opens up a host of negative connotations that I simply do not wish to be associated with.

Yep. Told you I was a coward.

Because I don’t adhere to either essentialist notions of Muslim femininity or the idea of female imams or praying when one is menstruating, I wonder if there’s a place for me somewhere in between. I realize I’m posing my own framework by denoting extremes and thinking that there’s a “middle,” but that’s how I see it.

Muslim feminists have tirelessly repeated themselves in saying that their stance is based on the premise that the Quran addresses men and women equally. I, of course hold that stance. And I also greatly admire the conscious efforts undertaken to talk about prolific Muslim women in a way that has not been done earlier due to prevailing patriarchal structures. I even acknowledge that historically and culturally-entrenched male privilege is something very real, and a serious force to be contended with in the realm of the Muslim community.

What I have a problem with is the notion that Islam needs to be redefined and the Quran needs to be reinterpreted in light of feminist ideals. I am very skeptical of apologetic tendencies about the parts of faith that are unpopular. I find feminism liberating in terms of negotiating with my South Asian cultural baggage (Now, why on earth can’t I dance at my brother’s wedding?) but I just don’t see it working in terms of my internal faith. I am more in favor of conversations that confront the unpleasant realities of Muslim practice and their legal bases.

The extent to which “Muslim feminism” doesn’t compute for me recently became profoundly clear when I noticed how glad I was to read a piece in favor of the motion that Islam is incompatible with feminism. Although reading responses to the piece (especially those at Muslimah Media Watch here and here) made me rethink some of the nuances of Taabba’s argument, a part of me was still glad that someone managed to take the unpopular stance and at least attempt to address what is unsound about reconciling the two in any way. The part that resonated with me the most was the idea that

Islam is not feminism, just as feminism is not Islam. . . Each has its own foundations, epistemologies, methodologies, worldviews, discourses and paradigms. This means that, while they have the potential to overlap at times, they cannot be coherently merged into one another without fundamentally compromising one or radically expanding the other.* The push to merge Islam into feminism is akin to trying to squeeze an elephant into a birdcage; either the elephant will be killed by being forced into such a narrow entrance, or the birdcage will have to expand so significantly that it would no longer be recognised as a birdcage.

*(my emphasis)

Tabbaa’s finer points about feminism being based on a “Godless” postmodernist discourse were much better handled in the MMW responses, and my philosophical theory is too rusty to be able to comprehensively respond to their arguments. What he says in the above paragraph, however, gave me the disembodied feeling of seeing an idea that I before had never been able to put words to.

It’s like how belief in God operates as a light switch: it’s either there, or it isn’t. No amount of scientific rhetoric about evolution and the origin of the universe can make a believer stop believing. Similarly, no amount of exposure to feminist approaches to Islam is doing anything to change my core belief and uneasy feeling that the two schemas are not fitting nicely in my way of thinking. I wish I could do a better job of explaining why, a way that builds on the paragraph above, but the task proves just as difficult as explaining why I believe in God.

So this is me coming out as a pseudo-feminist who–at least for now–is eschewing the “Muslim” label. I have a deep respect for the profoundly intelligent women at MMW and my personal Muslim feminist idol, Wood Turtle, and that respect comes from the fact that they are doing what I am not made to do. They give me a much-needed way of seeing the Muslim community. They provide tools for thinking that are direly needed in order for Muslim women to actualize themselves as meaningful members of the Ummah.

But for me, that is where it ends. I take what they offer and run. I don’t agree with the complete version of the way some Muslim feminist scholars envision the roles of women and, by extension, Muslim community to operate, but I do think that their critiques can result in much-needed changes in our ummah: the expansion of prayer spaces and including women in the same hall as men, having more women deliver lectures (not sermons, but lectures) and talks in the mosques, having more women like Ingrid Mattson who are leaders in our communities.

I am more than open to–and even love–reading Muslim feminist discourses while knowing that I don’t subscribe to the entirety of what they purport in terms of affirmative action. So perhaps Muslim feminists operate for me the way Taqwacores did: I can’t create or even entirely endorse their idealized universes, but I can laud the spirit of what they do. Just like I’m glad Taqwacores exists, I’m glad that Muslim feminism exists.