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On Reading Love in a Headscarf

May 27, 2012

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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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2012 2:52 am

    Sarah, you’ve inspired me to write my own love story. It’s 2:39 am and I am not sure where and how I’ll get it published. Plus, my fifteen month old, not yet weaned, is going to be waking me a few more times before fajr. 🙂 See, what you’ve made me do! Kidding. Anyway I wanted to let you know you’ve inspired me. Please do talk more about what sorts of “shake ups” you envision in the process.
    wassalaam

    • May 28, 2012 9:55 am

      I’m delighted to hear it, Sabah! Inspiration always hits at the strangest (and most inconvenient!) moments, doesn’t it? I really look forward to your progress so do keep me posted 😀 Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. May 28, 2012 7:12 am

    I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy it more, but yes, it may be more suited to a non-Muslim. Some of the parts that you skimmed over more were more interesting to me, I suppose because for me it was new. So true about the search being depressing if you think about it – and in the end it was an organic process of meeting him so to me, I saw her whole organized search as being more about her growing and learning than even about finding that romance, in the end.

    You make a good point, too, about how her ‘challenging stereotypes’ weren’t that radical – costly and not things an ordinary person would really be able to do either! I really enjoyed the take-away part you mention at the end though – that we all have to examine our own needs. A good one for any of us, no matter our religion.

    • May 28, 2012 10:02 am

      Actually, my not enjoying made the reviewing process a very unique challenge. I also really appreciate having this book as a contrast to the books I did like: they help me understand myself a lot better. Thanks again for lending it to me!

      Haha indeed, it seemed that her employers were especially generous when it came to vacation time 🙂 She was also certainly better off than her married peers who had children and couldn’t just pack up and travel at a moment’s notice. It’s sad that she didn’t talk about that being in a good in itself: it seemed like those things were just her way of passing time until she got married.

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