More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

Advertisements

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.

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.

A Writerly Duaa for You

The end of April 2012 marks my blog’s first anniversary. I don’t tend to make big fuss on my own birthday, but I’ve developed a ritual for completing an annual a writerly duaa to meditate on what’s happened in the past year, where I am, and what I aspire towards and hope for.

I thought it would be fitting to do such a prayer on my blog’s birthday as well. This time, it won’t be for myself, or even this blog, but for the readers who have tuned in with it, once or consistently.  Because click by click (currently it’s reached over 9,000 views), comment by comment, following by following, readers such as yourself have been the ones who have given back to me. Some of you stepped in for the space of one post, left a courteous comment, and left. Some went out and spread the word about the things I am saying here. Others became deeply cherished friends. I’d like to think that I have started building a community here; a community of people not necessarily brought together just by being Muslim or liking what I say, but for taking it seriously.

Last term, I took a course in which we attempted to undertake a diplomatic analysis of nontraditional documents such as websites, blogs, and wikis. We learned looked at such dynamic documents in light of genre theory, in which genres defined as being rhetorical actions that are responses to recurrent situations. One of the actions of a genre (such as a blog) would be community building.

It’s fair to say that this blog is one of the responses to the recurrent situation of Muslim spiritual displacement. However, you don’t have to feel displaced to read it and identify with it. You don’t even have to be Muslim. One of the most illuminating things I learned from that class is that a community is not about consensus and agreement, but ongoing dialogue about a subject of pressing and great interest. As far as I am concerned, if you’ve clicked through to this blog even once, you have become a part of its community. If you have taken it seriously at all, you are a part of this community. And let me tell you; no matter who you are, it’s a joy to have you here. I wish for you to accept this post as a sincere expression of my gratitude.

I read somewhere once that the secular counterpart of prayer is hope. So I ask the readers who are more secular in their beliefs to take what I’m about to say below as something  I hope for them.

Ya Allah (Dear God),

My readers come in all stripes and colours, and I ask that you accept these prayers in light of what is best for them.

I ask that their affairs be made easier for them, and the good things they seek be granted to them so that they become fulfilled, generous, and content.

I ask that they triumph in their endeavours and that they become proof of the valuable potential of these strange times, not a victim of them.

I ask that they become productive people who are certain of their lives’ purpose.

I ask that their prayers and hopes be heard and addressed, if not then granted.

I ask that their struggle to understand their purpose is met with meaning and reward to give them fulfilling, blissful, enriched lives.

I ask that whatever learning they engage in and whatever experiences they have be a source of much baraka, or bounty.

In the cases where they have been generous enough to accord me respect in the form of their comments, following, and support, I ask that they be given back something multiplied in manifold.

I ask that their families be protected and nourished and be a source of comfort to them.

For those who are lonely, I ask that they form connections to worthy companions.

For those who have companions, I pray that their relationships become better and a source of good.

I ask that they all cultivate a sense of gratitude and greater awareness of their place in the universe.

Ya Allah, give them communities that are a source of good to them and to this world. You have made us social beings–help us connect with others in the most enriching and affirming ways.

Ameen.

All I Know About Blogging I Learned From Here

Several friends ask me what got me to start blogging, and some who have been considering starting one themselves have asked me for advice. This post is a consolidated response to both queries.

Until very recently  I was anti-blogging for several reasons:

  • I didn’t think I had enough to talk about.
  • Even if I did, blogging seemed to require a considerable degree of self-absorption, and the thought of being a person capable of that has always been repulsive to me.
  • I’ll admit it: I was vain enough to worry about other people stealing my content and putting it out as their own.
  • I was wary of criticism, especially criticism founded on some assumption on what I am.

Nonetheless, I tried my hand at blogging a few times, but it didn’t seemed right. Every time I hit ‘Publish,’ I had this feeling that the world was doing me a favor by letting me have my say. Blogging is the thing that all aspiring writers seemed to do, were supposed to do, yet although I was going through the motions, I had no desire to share my work with others. I then stopped and paid it no more heed.

But then a series of things happened that completely transformed my approach to blogging. These things were:

1. Reviving the Islamic Spirit

When some of the most outstanding scholars and speakers are pleading with you to take charge of the ummahs future, it’s difficult not to take that to heart. I attended the RIS convention in Toronto the first and so far only time last winter, which was December 2010.

I went in a feeling a little lost, plagued by the feeling of purposelessness that pins one down when life isn’t dealing them any card of any kind. I didn’t have any grand aspirations. I went because I had never been. I went because it had been a long, long time since I had felt like I was part of a greater community of faith.

But everything those world-renowned scholars said struck a deep chord in me. That 9/11, tragic as it was, gave us an opportunity to show the world what we were really about. That it’s a time for change. That we need to garner courage and define a new, vibrant identity for ourselves.

A lot of people tell me that this enormous uplifting sense of inspiration goes away within days of attending a RIS. For me, by the grace of Allah, that inspiration stayed. It nestled and planted a seed in my brain that shone and started to grow. I knew I had to do something with my weird, idiosyncratic Muslim self. It was just a matter of finding out what that something should be.

2. Gary Vaynerchuck’s Crush It!

As that seed grew, something else happened. Having just found out that I was to be kick starting the ebook program at the small press I was interning in, I looked for ways to learn about digital promotion of the authors we represented. And so I came across and started reading Crush It!

Just a few chapters in, I had forgotten whom I was reading for. The book wasn’t speaking to me as a digital product marketer. The book was speaking to me.

This book lays out the steps to identifying your passion and building a platform based on your contribution to the conversation about it. It’s a guide to utilizing what the digital world has to offer.

I’ve always known the importance of going digital generally. What I realized upon reading this book was that I owed it to myself and the world to start blogging. And, more importantly, my blog couldn’t be arbitrary. I had to find something I was passionate about, something I could spend eons writing and conversing and reading about.

Not too soon after, I realized what it was I wanted to focus on. I had to write about books and faith. Religion and the writerly mode of being. Reading this book made me realize that I owed it to myself to make the most of this passion, and I finally set up my blog and started to publish all the drafts I had been writing. I could no longer be the quiet hijabi who happens to be a publishing intern, or a publishing intern who is a quirky and intriguing supplement to a book-lined office. I was tired of being an exception, of straddling two worlds I loved. I had to make them fuse, even if it was only through my thoughts.

The confidence that stemmed from this realization was staggering, and I was no longer afraid of sharing what I wrote in the vein of this passion. That, and realizing that sharing was just as important as creating, led me to finally set up my blog and publicize it through social media. Am I, as Vaynerchuck would put it, crushing it? Perhaps not. But I now am understanding what it takes.

If you don’t get around to reading this book, know its most important lessons are that you need to:

  • Find something you are very, very passionate about
  • Figure out what you can bring to the table in terms of current conversation regarding that passion
  • Find your form (blog, podcast, and/or video) and start churning out your content
  • Reach out. Join every conversation out there about your subject of passion.

3. Steve Pavlina’s post, How to Build a High-Traffic Web Site (or Blog)

My father forwarded this post to me not long after I started blogging, and I devoured it. Although Crush It! was an excellent guide in its own way, it keeps purporting the idea that the blog should be a means to an end, an end where some publisher comes knocking at your door, where you are called for speaking engagements, where you are officiated as a product reviewer for whatever it is that you love. Much as I respect the entrepreneurial spirit and the ethic of hard work, I’m not the sort of person who is driven by those kind of goals. I needed to be driven by something grander, especially since my area of interest was not quite monetarily lucrative.

Personal development guru Pavlina, like Vaynerchuck, also became successful by virtue of having highly lucrative online content. The meaning he gives to how this process happened, however, is something that greatly resonated with me. I needed to be told that the length of my posts, their frequency, this whole keyword and SEO nonsense, makes no difference in the long run. If content is good enough, if you are passionate, if you have something startlingly unique and timeless to offer, the word of mouth is more than enough.

And a genuine desire to help, to be a source of inspiration and insight, is what really makes one’s authenticity shine through. So does engaging with those who enjoy your content. I love pointing Muslims in new directions and making them think in different ways, but I’m too wary of the messiah complex to think that it all ends there. I have to keep seeking to learn from others. Conversation and meaningful engagement–including highly critical responses to my pieces–add to the process, not take away from it.

Plus, a genuine desire to help is not something that Muslims should have to learn. It’s something that should be driving them anyway. It’s not terribly hard, therefore, to do an Islamic reading of Pavlina’s post and apply it to help beget a spirit of generous honesty and bounty by means of collaboration.

4. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on Nurturing Creativity

Every sentence Gilbert enunciates in this marvelous talk is a polished gem of wisdom. I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but after watching Gilbert speak about the writing process and the terrifyingly high bar she allegedly has set for herself, I found myself gaining a respectful reverence towards her humility, honesty, and sense of humor about her writerly self. I also loved the way she talks about her acceptance of the fact that she may never write anything as good. But most of all, I was struck by the beauty and incredible relevance of her proposal: that we look at the pitifully rare but much-needed depth of creative insight as a kind of miracle, a blessing from some grand, external dispenser of all creativity.

For me, the insights from this talk have become the antidote to the powerlessness I feel when the words don’t come. If they don’t, it’s up to Allah to do what He wills and I strive wait patiently, just as a person of taqwa is to endure with patience any kind of trial from Him.

I may not be a blazing genius or a writer with enough stamina to sustain a novel, but that could not matter less when the writing process is an end in itself. That such a thing was possible has in itself become a source of contentment. Just like one should be humble and simple in the clothes they wear and the food they eat, it really shouldn’t take much for a writerly Muslimah to find her grounding and to savour this process for what it is.

That’s why it’s more than enough to be living in a time where I have an unprecedented ability to be heard, to have even a handful of people read something I have written and have it resonate with them. I have a long way to go, and there are, I admit, things I want with this. But blogging is very much of a process as opposed to a means to a destination. It is a matter of finding bliss in the moment as well as the drive to excel further.

On Angst, Faith, and Family

I came home emotionally raw and weary one day. I thought the house was empty. I called out a big, hearty salaam anyway, the way my mother likes it. Fake it till you make it, like they say.

I went to the room to find my sister studying on the bed. And there was so much bliss in that sight of her sitting there, her books open. I felt like a parched man wandering across the desert who has suddenly come upon a well brimming with clear, cool water.

I was reminded of a scene in the final season of Big Love where Barbara is suffering from a crippling spiritual crisis that strikes at the heart of her polygamist family’s tenets. Things are chilly between her and her husband, and in this scene Bill is pleading with her, asking her what it is she wants. She shakes her head, nearly in tears, paralyzed with the need to be true to her convictions and her loyalties.

“I love my family,” she says. “That’s all I know. I love my family.”

Some days, that truth, that absolute, is so reassuring. It’s the kind of truth a neurotic needs. I put down my handbag and hugged my sister, thinking of Barbara’s words and how Allah has made my family my saving grace, my reprieve from the heaviness of my thoughts.

Alhamdulillah.