British blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed wants to tell you a story. Preferably with a cup of coffee – cappuccino, no sugar – and an open mind. In the years since she got married, she spilled her thoughts on Muslim issues and life in Britain into her blog Spirit 21, eventually winning a Brass Crescent Award for Best Blog in 2007, as voted on by readers. Encouraged by the reception she received by this and in the Muslim press, she looked back on her often tumultuous path to marriage and consolidated her thoughts into her first book, Love in a Headscarf, published in March by Aurum Press. In it, she discusses her thoughts on the disparities between how Muslim men and women are treated during the marriage process, a process that has become infinitely complicated by the diasporadic modern Muslim world. Taking her up on her offer (outlined in the prologue to her book), I sat down with her in a West London coffee shop near her home to find out more about her thoughts on the state of Muslim marriage and gender relations in today’s society.
Tell us what brought you to this point, what led you do document your experiences in this book. I take it your life, particularly your path to marriage, didn’t turn out as you’d expected.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed: I was really clear in my mind that I would get married at 21 and have children by 25. That’s what people did, that was the expectation. Even that, perhaps compared to the generation gone before was quite long and lengthy. So I didn’t really know what to expect other than that I’d be visited by potential suitors and, at some point, one of them would click. And we’d get married and have children and live happily ever after.
I think that’s kind of an amalgam of a lot of different ideas – the Asian idea that you reach completion in the sense of achieving your social position when you get married, particularly as a woman. You can’t really have an understandable position if you’re not married – you’re kind of on hold until you reach that.
But also, there’s the lovely Hollywood idea that you’re going to bump into somebody at the bus stop and your eyes will lock and you’ll drop your purse and he’ll pick it up and there’ll be hearts and flowers.
And then also I grew up in quite a religious family and there was an idea that being married was part of the Islamic way of life and that was a good thing. Not kind of a duty, so much, as a positive to help you reach that completion.
So all of those ideas meant that it was something I was expecting to happen quite soon. And I think most people do. You don’t go out on your search expecting it to take 10, 20, 30 years that it does for some people.
There seems to be a disproportionate impact on women looking for suitors than men, simply because men may have more socially acceptable options. Is this something that you perceived?
It took more and more time to realise that. And I’m really curious as to why we found ourselves in this social position where it seems like there are more single women than single men. Although having spoken to men, they seem to think there are lots of single men and no single women. So there’s some kind of dialogue problem going on. I’m not quite sure what it is.
There are some interesting anecdotal studies out there that have been done, particularly in Europe – I don’t know what it’s like in America – where women who are born and brought up here want to marry partners with a similar background, but men are quite happy to go “back home,” which diminishes the pool of prospective partners immediately.
Of course, it’s everyone’s personal choice as to who they marry, but it raises questions to me about the nature of that relationship and what men are expecting from their wives and what women are expecting from their husbands. Certainly in my experience, there was a lot of cultural discussion that goes on with women on not just how to get married but how to be married and how to maintain that relationship and what your expectations should be and about being realistic.
And I always found it really unfair that men never seemed to get that same kind of discussion. When we would go to weddings or mehndi parties or sit around with the aunties, there would be a lot of discussion about being married. But boys never got that. I kind of felt it was very unfair that women had the burden of carrying the relationship and men could kind of just swim along and it would all be fine because women would – I was certainly advised to – give in for the first 2 to 5 years and then it would all be fine.
Love is obviously a big theme in your book – it’s in the title. If you ask a lot of different Muslims about it, you would have a lot of different answers – about what it is and to what it means in the context of marriage. But I can tell you felt it was important to go into this issue of love and what it means.
The reason I put “love” in the title was actually for two reasons. I wanted to have a kind of enigmatic discussion about love in the sense that we mean romantic love or love of your companion. But I also wanted to talk about love that you have for people around you and love of community and, more specifically, love for the Divine – that love of God or the Creator or whatever you want to call him.
As I went through this, it actually opened my eyes to what culture said about love, what Islam said about love, and this really curious idea – the more I searched, the more I realised I didn’t know much about love in the Islamic tradition. I went to a Christian school and the Christian idea was that God is love.
And I kind of felt a bit jealous by that idea. It was like, “Why isn’t my God a God of love?” I was told that the God of Islam was a God of justice and justice is pivotal – which I completely agree with. But it just seemed really strange that God would create all these human beings and then, in the Qur’an, tell them to marry each other because they would find some fulfilment there. And yet, where was this very natural human instinct? This fitra of love somewhere in this great scheme of things?
As I explored more this idea of Divine love, I started to understand that the love you have for your partner is actually part of that greater Divine love. And you need to see yourself through that other person’s eyes to realise where you fit in to the bigger scheme of things. Nobody ever told me that.
It seems obvious when you get to the other end, but when you’re trying to make sense of this really important feeling, of you wanting to have someone in your life, it’s always considered a little bit shameful for girls to talk about the idea that they want to get married. There’s this idea that a woman shouldn’t really want to get married, and yet it’s such a natural human instinct to want to fall in love, to want to be with somebody. And that should be encouraged, but also…
The context of it. Particularly when you’re younger and kind of see movies and read books and love is absolutely everywhere around us. I think we need to kind of reach out and say, “Actually, it’s alright to be in love, it’s alright to feel love, it’s alright to feel attraction towards people, but it’s learning how to moderate those feelings and how to manage them and how to be grown up about how you feel them and how you feel them towards other people.”
And, actually, being married is actually a really, really nice experience. I think most people who have been married and are finding themselves in a successful relationship will tell you that it’s hard work, but it’s actually really, really nice.
There was an interesting quote in your book from one of your aunties who told you that “nice girls don’t climb mountains.” That, to me, summed up both the attitude towards your ambition -if you want to call it that – and this sense that it was a lonely struggle. That, at the end of the day, you can get opinions and advice from as many people as you want, but in the end, it’s a very personal and, at times, lonely struggle to find someone.
I want to go back one step. For me, the journey that I went on was really interesting, and the whole discussion about love and partners and marriage is very interesting because it seems to bring in some very sharp, competing conflicts that we have within us – that you’re British or European or American and kind of want to be part of that culture. That culture is part of you, as you grow up in it, and yet you have these very strong Asian ideas in you as well. And you can be comfortable in that and you have a family like that.
A lot of people – and I certainly was there – start seeing them as clashing. And the best way that you deal with them – the way I dealt with them – is to sort of separate them out so you have homework and school. And you just keep them completely separate and you just don’t tell anybody about them. As you go through life and an intimate experience like looking for a companion, you start to resolve those.
That was the journey that I went on and, when I talk about wanting to fall in love with John Travolta, it kind of epitomised that idea. He was going to become a Muslim – that took care of my Islamic faith – he was going to come to my parents’ house – that took care of the cultural part – and he was John Travolta, you know! Who didn’t want to marry John Travolta when you were 13?
The reason that story really reaches out to people is because it is the fundamental core of who we are as human beings and kind of brings together all those different parts. It’s ok to feel confused, it’s ok to have those feelings, it’s how you work out a resolution that really is the mark of you as a human being.
Although your experience was a personal one, did you see friends of yours go through the same issues and struggles?
I certainly have a lot of friends who are of similar ages who been through similar quests as mine and the book has picked up a very quick following, to my surprise, amongst Muslim women from, actually, a number of parts of the world, who have written to me and said, “This is my life. This is what it’s like.”
For example, a really heartbreaking Facebook e-mail I had from somebody who was saying she’s also been looking for somebody. Her father had passed away, and her brother and sister-in-law are supposed to be looking for her and yet whenever she goes to visit them, they kind of taunt her about being a burden on them, rather than help her look for somebody.
Those are very heartbreaking stories, because if you want somebody to get married, there’s no point in telling them just to accept anyone. You’ve actually got to take some responsibility to help them and not just send any old anyone their way. Which I think was, perhaps, the traditional way. “Oh, she’s not married. Anyone will do.”
But I think there are similar problems among men. They’ve just been less eloquent and lyrical about them than women. I think we need to start to hear from them and what exactly is going on and where they are in this picture.
One of the things that I thought was revelatory in the marriage process is that because it affects people so fundamentally to the core of their life, they really reveal immediately what’s important to them and what they actually believe because it affects them directly.
That’s a very good point.
They will often say things they may not be willing to bear in their own life. It’s very obvious that there are discrepancies in the way that we, for example, say Islam is and the way we behave. It just became more and more apparent to me as I went through the process that what people said wasn’t really true.
For example, this idea that all human beings are equal and we’re all part of one ummah…
It’s easy to say…
It’s very easy to say, but if you’re Asian, you’re not allowed to marry somebody who’s black or Persian or white – and I’m sorry I’m using all these words, but that’s how they’re portrayed. White may be more acceptable, because we have this racial hierarchy.
Or for example, we talk about this wonderful relationship the Prophet had with his wife Khadija. We say, “My goodness, wasn’t it liberated that the Prophet received a proposal from her and they were a wonderful match and he accepted.” And yet, in cultural norms, a woman’s family cannot propose to a man’s family.
Or we say, “Wasn’t lady Khadija amazing because she was older than the Prophet” and we talk about how the Prophet recognised that she was this amazing woman and said, even after her death, that there was no one who could equal her. And yet, it’s impossible for a man to marry someone who’s older than him.
From what you’ve gone though, this process seems to be an accelerated process of learning, if taken seriously. Learning about yourself and, on both sides, revealing who you are. Like you said, it’s the one time where you actually have to put your cards on the table and say, “This is exactly who I am.” If you have secrets at that point, then you’re putting your future marriage at risk.
It does take a certain amount of self-awareness, though. You have to know what you’re saying you are is actually what you are. One of the challenging things is perhaps men are not as self-aware as women. They haven’t been forced to be self-aware. When you go out, you haven’t had cultural pressures to conform, you can kind of just cruise along…
…The blind eye that parents sometimes have towards their sons…
Yeah. When I wrote the book – and this has come back from some of the male readers – it’s not a book about male bashing. It’s a book written as an exploration of myself through these kind of cultural ideas that are around me. But they’re true, and you’ve got to reflect on what’s happened. All those stories are completely true. And how is it that people get away with that? And somehow, when it goes wrong, it’s somehow my fault, as the woman (Laughs).
What about family honor, this cultural idea that the honor of the family rests on the women? Which means sacrificing their freedoms…
I’m not sure it’s so much family honor. If you’re a woman and you do something, obviously you get a reputation very quickly. Whether you agree with the way you are marked, you have to make a decision. Do I want to make a stand about this, but get a reputation and perhaps have doors closed to me for people I could meet? Or do I suck it up and hopefully withstand the pain so that I could get a better choice of people I could meet? And then once I’m married, we don’t need to worry about that anymore. Those are the kind decisions a lot of young women have to make, and I certainly did. Your life is on hold until you get married. And I don’t know why that has to be.
You were allowed to meet suitors on your own, which wouldn’t happen with more conservative families…
Well, this highlights this bigger issue within the Muslim community about how genders interact with each other. There are two very disparate ideas. You can go to work or school and talk as much as you’d like with people who are not Muslim. But as soon as you turn up in your Muslim or traditional sphere, you must be completely and utterly segregated.
One of the challenges is that nobody really learned how to talk to somebody of the opposite gender in a completely natural way. (In extreme cases) you must talk to the sister from behind a curtain and you can only ask her about things related to marriage. I find this really peculiar because there’s a lot of emphasis on women wearing hijab. Let’s take for granted that men are going to be modestly dressed – whatever that means – not that that happens.
So, isn’t the point of that that you’re supposed to be able to interact with other people? You can hear the whispers in the back of the mosque that “these young Muslims interact with each other (on their own) and get married.” You’d think, “Isn’t that a good thing?” And they’d say, “No, it’s haram.” Well, surely if they found somebody and they’re happily married…
Well, there’s the Prophet’s example. Where were the family controls then? Things started out between individuals. It wasn’t controlled by society or extended families.
Yeah, I do think we have a real problem with knowing how to interact with other people. I have a theory in that there’s a verse from the Quran that’s always quoted at weddings about how “Allah created you in pairs.” We tend to individualise that to a single marriage, but actually, I think it reflects our whole society. And if you think about the male species and the female species, they have to live together – that you’re going to create a harmony, a social harmony that’s actually fulfilling and loving and creative and generative in energy.
We need to think of that as the model that we base society on. And if you just separate them, it’s like keeping a husband and a wife separate. Women suffer and, I think, men suffer as well because they’re not getting that kind of completion that they need. You can never have a fully functioning society.
Are you optimistic that in generations to come, this situation will change?
I’m not very hopeful, actually. Because it seems that it’s women who are perpetuating it. That’s what really concerns me. Because all that will happen is that there will be a lot of single women who are older, very well educated, very sharp, very religious. It is heartbreaking. The men who are their equivalents, many of them who are not married, many of them don’t want to marry women of that age. And the mothers and matchmakers are encouraging them.
If the mothers [of sons] are saying, “Well, we’re going to take you back home to marry your wife” or “you can do what you like, if you’re a boy, until you get married. If you’re a woman, you need to maintain your reputation,” then I don’t really see how that can ever change unless there are mothers of sons who are brave enough to change that. And men themselves who are brave enough to change it.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England