On Reading Love in a Headscarf

Image source: openlibrary.org

Title: Love in a Headscarf

Author: Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Publication Year: 2009

Genre: Autobiography

Source: I was lent a copy by Amy, who borrowed it from Carina.

So here, in my own words, is the underlying premise of Love in a Headscarf: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single, practicing, devout Muslim woman in possession of intelligence, wit, and beauty must be in want of a husband who has the same qualities. As well as romance. Lots of romance.

The novel is an account of the author’s search for “the One” through highly structured and family and community-oriented means. She also dwells a great deal on how her faith shaped her search for a partner, alongside more general discussions about Islam and being Muslim in the west.

One Amazon reviewer called the book “interesting, but not uplifting.” Their review is a good way to pave way into my experience of reading the book:

For those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, [this book] is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book.

So true. For the most part, this book was depressing. While I enjoyed seeing how the author’s experiences with meeting prospects mirrored mine (having to suffer through men who are inexcusably non-punctual, who hate books and those who read them, who show up simply because their parents forced them into it, who are fixated on matters of height even if it comes down to a few inches, etc.) they simply reinforced my frustrations about the deeply flawed assumptions that have crept into cultural practices surrounding marriage and courtship (or lack thereof) in the Muslim South Asian diaspora. Janmohamed does question some of these assumptions, but not at all in a way that I found satisfying or particularly illuminating.

I did like reading about how the author braved “the instruments of social compliance” designed to keep women in line by doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and buying a racing car. I appreciate the idea of her wanting to be the change she wanted to see. Another really interesting point she brings up is how, in the final stages of the husband hunt, she learns to see men not just as potential suitors, but just as who they are. “Each person,” she writes, “was a delicious moment to be savoured with respect for their humanity.” This healthy attitude is a wonderful way to grow and learn through what can often be a dreary, heartbreaking process of finding a spouse.

However, for a story that is so centred on finding deep, enduring, romantic love, I feel that the book is strangely devoid of it. On the occasions the author feels a deep attraction to a prospective spouse, the rapport between them comes off as fleeting and superficial. The result being: even when she met someone who seemed promising, I couldn’t be less indifferent about what the outcome would be. There are worthy points made about “capital ‘L’ love,” and seeking to be closer to the divine. While they were important and noteworthy, they weren’t particularly memorable for me. (This Altmuslimah review, however, is more appreciative of this aspect of the book.)

I also think the book had tangents into discussions about Islam and womanhood that seemed a bit elementary and intended for non-Muslim audiences who are not familiar with Islam. I could see how it was intended to frame the author’s experience of being a British Asian Muslim woman who wears the hijab, but to me they were just wearisome distractions, parts to be skimmed through just so I could get back to her story of how she finally meets her husband.

I suppose my not wholly enjoying this book largely has to do with my questioning whether the kind of marriage process that Janmohamed went through can always be equated to finding love. As much as I want to believe that parents, imams, and a vicious team of aunties have the potential to find “the one” for you, the whole point of the “one” is that there is something that grows organically with them, a process that I can’t imagine naturally occurring under the watchful eyes of community elders and inordinate pressures to get married. That is why Muslim stories that are not as “by the book” as community leaders would like them to be–honest, conflict-ridden accounts such as those in Love, InshAllah or of Muslim men’s experiences with finding a partner–resonate so much more with me.

I have great respect for Janmohamed’s enacting of the changes that she wanted to see by challenging stereotypes about Muslim women. However, as far as the marriage process is concerned, the changes I think are needed require something much more radical, something that skirts along the edges of conventional, accepted territory. It requires more than a few raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers over what kind of a vehicle a woman drives to the mosque. The system needs more than a poke: it needs a good shake. It starts with an acceptance of the fact that love can take on an unlikely, unpredictable form that our social interactions and suitor screening processes need to make room for so that it may be easier for the single Muslim to fulfill half their deen, so to speak.

Janmohamed’s story is not every Muslim woman’s story, for she is fortunate enough to exercise her agency in a close-knit community she has known her whole life. It is up to each of us to seriously and honestly examine our needs, contexts and values and forge a path to our future partner that works within our systems or in opposition to it.

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How Sarah Got Her Appetite Back

A short while ago, I was happily whittling about my life until my inner world came to a screeching halt. For reasons too complex and private to recount, I was forced to face myself in a way unlike ever before. There was a torch beaming into a dark, cobweb-infested basement I hadn’t let myself think of–much less enter–for a long time.

I had nowhere to hide. I had to contend with a demon, one I had avoided for too long, one that planted itself firmly in front of me and refused to stop tormenting me until I fought back.

And I did. For several days, I walked around ashen faced, prayed with as much conviction I could muster, employed superhuman strength to go out, get some sun, enjoy some company, so I could remain sane. I’d start most days by forcing myself to stomach spoonfuls of cereal so I could make it through without passing out.

Then one day, the pain hit a whole new level, causing me to instinctively plunge down into the emergency supply of supplications. I kneeled over and repeated: “Innalillahi wainna ilayhi rajioon.” Over and over. Then I made the invocations for anguish on a rosary. And as I said it, I felt terrible, so terrible, it could only be rock bottom.

There was nowhere to look but up. So I did.

From some place I did not know existed, something started flowing freely in my thoughts: God is merciful. God is compassionate and He loves me. God is generous, the source of all Good, and will give me Good, Insh’Allah.  

I was stunned, but I kept going. I was also wary that this was just a temporary euphoria, some mechanism to give me relief so I could be prepared for the next wave of pain.

But as the light grew, I recognized the thing that seemed so unfamiliar at first: hope. A voice steadily told me what to do, how to handle myself, how to move on. It was like looking down and realizing that the pain was emanating from a phantom limb. I still hurt. I’m still human. But I finally saw that this trial had not been in vain, and that there was a way forward. I didn’t get absolute answers, but I finally got the sense of direction I needed so badly.

A few hours and some more prayer and reflection later, I felt something else, something on a more carnal level: I was jonesing for a sandwich.

And that was how I started eating again.

“Alhamdulillah” doesn’t really cut it, but it would be a start.

On Reading The Good Muslim

Source: Wikipedia

Note: A different version of this review appeared in Altmuslimah and Muslimah Media Watch

Title: The Good Muslim

Author: Tahmima Anam

Publication Date: August 2011

Genre: Literary fiction; historical fiction 

Source: eBook from library

I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.

The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?

Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.

Alas, it didn’t deliver.

One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.

Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.

What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.

This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?

The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.

While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.

This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.

On Mona Eltahawy's "Painful Places" and the Power of Stories

There is something about the conversation surrounding Mona Eltahawy’s flame-stoking article “Why Do They Hate Us?” that struck a raw chord in me (besides its extremely disturbing and offensive accompanying images, mercilessly dissected by Naheed Mustafa and fittingly called “niqabface” by fellow blogger Huma Rashid).

The unwitting story caught in the storm. (Image source: openlibrary.org)

I’m writing this because Eltahawy opens her piece by recounting a work of fiction, no less. She refers to the opening of Alifa Rifaat’s Arabic short story “Distant View of a Minaret,” in which the main character, after a bout of routinely unsatisfying and mechanical sexual intercourse with her husband, washes up and “loses herself in prayer–so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer.”

Call me a wimp, but I was too heartbroken to read on. I accepted the assumption that the Rifaat’s intention was to pit faith and female sexuality against one another and didn’t consider the possibility that this pitting happened not in the story, but in Eltahawy’s interpretation of it.

So it was to my great relief that the scholar Leila Ahmed took issue with this opening, (in her FP response here and her discussion with Eltahawy here) saying that Rifaat could not possibly share Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.” Rifaat herself identified as a woman who, like the character in the story, lived for prayer. Prayer, as described in the story, isn’t just a form of what Eltahawy calls “sublimation through religion.” Prayer is not just the distraction Eltahawy’s making it out to be: it’s an integral part of the author’s existence, in both good times and bad.

The reason the opening of Eltahawy’s piece broke my heart was that its use of a story to pit faith and liberation against one another. Fiction is a place to expand the imagination. Not to eschew reality altogether, but to chart paths into a different kind of reality, to suggest alternate possibilities. When fiction is applied so carelessly that it is employed in reinforcing prevailing stereotypes and attitudes, it becomes lethal to people’s mindsets. Who can argue what a character “really” feels when she can’t speak up for herself, when she is, quite literally, a figment of the imagination?

What Ahmed alerted readers to is something I want to expand on here: faith and a powerful spiritual inner existence does not feed off of systematic, entrenched injustice, whether it be in the form of misogyny, racism, or any other system of oppression. In light of prevailing stereotypes about Muslim women, it’s too easy to say “Well, of course she has to believe in God, she has to meditate and escape from her reality, look at what a sodden sex life she has!” Sodden sex life or not, the places where women are truimphant–whether it be affirming their individuality through prayer or marching in the streets against tyranny–deserve to be examined on their own terms, not some heinous, monolithic, patriarchal hell they have to escape. Mona Eltahawy keeps stressing how she wants to “shake people up” and “poke the painful places,” but it’s one thing to poke that place, and quite another to aggravate it.

All that said, I do want to thank her for introducing me to the woman who loves to pray so much that she cannot wait for the next one. Her soul-sucking marriage doesn’t make her damaged goods, and does not make her faith any less real. I very much want to long for prayer the way she does.