What’s Islam got to do with it?

If you have been paying any attention to elite media in the past week or so, you are probably aware that the new book “Love, InshAllah (Love, God Willing)” has hit that inky sweet spot that PR agents can only dream about. Click here and go surfing.

The long Washington Post Style piece — written by Laura Sessions Stepp, who once worked the religion-beat for the Post — contains all the key media-blitz elements. Most of all, it introduces one of the front people for the book, a hipper than hip New York performance artist and photographer (or some combination of related skills) named Najva Sol.

What we have here is a familiar story in post-Sept. 11 America, the story of the Muslim daughter gone freewheeling American. Sol is almost too perfect to be real, from a media point of view. The opening scene is “the talk” with her parents, which leads into the story’s summary paragraphs:

She knew what she was going to say; she’d rehearsed her speech. But to her surprise, the then 21- year-old Muslim American discovered her parents already knew it all. They knew “about the drugs and the booze and the girls and the boys, normal by America’s MTV standards but not for an Iranian family that refuses to have a cable TV sully the living room.”

Nobody in her family had talked about sex when Sol was growing up. “My childhood sex talk was, ‘Don’t do it.’ This is where we left off, and here is where we picked it up again.”

Sol … decided to publish her recollections in “Love, InshAllah” (Love, God Willing), a collection of breathtakingly honest accounts of sex and romance by 25 American Muslim women willing to break with the Islamic tradition of keeping their love lives private. Twenty of the 25 stories in the collection … carry the authors’ real names.

“Love, InshAllah” is, in part, an exploration of the tensions that can exist between Muslim parents and their Americanized children. More importantly, it dispels an assumption that, as co-editor Nura Maznavi, 33, put it, “Muslim women are either belly-dancing members of a harem, reduced to body parts that someone else controls, or shrouded in black cloth with no desire and having no sex. The truth is that like all women, we feel and love and have heartbreak.”

The question, of course, is the degree to which there is an “Islamic tradition” — note, a singular tradition — of “keeping their love lives private.” I do not doubt, of course, that this is an accurate description of how millions of Muslim women live their lives. However, it would have been nice to have actually read a paragraph or two about actual Islamic teachings on these matters, teachings that one must assume are worded differently in Baghdad than in Tehran, in Islamabad than in Riyadh, in London than in Paris, in suburban Virginia than in urban Michigan.

If the bottom line is “don’t do it,” then what are the teachings about what women and men are supposed to do, the love lives to which they are supposed to aspire? In other words, and I know this is a question we have asked before, what are the relevant Muslim teachings — perhaps as expressed in two or three major schools of thought — on marriage and sex?

Everyone thinks that they know the answer to that. I am not sure that we do. It seems like rather important journalistic information in a story of this kind.

The details of Sol’s story are told well and with quite a bit of detail. Here is a sample:

She was born in Silver Spring, she said, to Iranian parents who returned to Iran shortly after her birth. When she turned 7, her family moved back to the United States and settled in Rockville, where Sol spent her teen years. Her father, an engineer, didn’t allow her to date or go to parties, but her mother occasionally helped her slip out to visit friends.

Her rebellious nature came to the fore during her early adolescence. On her parents’ orders she was going to a school to learn Farsi every afternoon after regular school, but at 14 she stopped. She also dropped out of taekwondo, at which she excelled, and was expelled from the Girl Scout troop she belonged to, in part because she refused to wear a uniform other members had picked out for a sailing trip.

She visited porn sites on her computer until her mother found out and took her computer away. “But I just want to see what people look like,’” she protested. Neither parent would talk to her about sex, so when her ninth-grade health class took up the subject, she was all ears. “They taught us everything,” she recalled. “That class is the reason I’ve never gotten pregnant or had STDs.”

There’s sex with boys and sex with girls. There are tank tops and high heels, some bare flesh and an escape door to college. There appear to be no prayers or doubts. Does Sol have any religious beliefs? Did she at one point? Do she toss them or let them evolve? Apparently, faith is not relevant in her story.

That may be different in the case of the book’s co-editor, human-rights worker Nura Maznavi.

Co-editor Maznavi said her parents regularly prayed but did not restrict her social life. Perhaps that was because they didn’t have to; the Muslim community in which her family lived insisted that dating was something young women didn’t do. Even kissing was reserved for marriage.

Maznavi adopted those beliefs but they were tested the year after she graduated from law school. In her contribution to the book, she wrote about moving to Sri Lanka and, somewhat overweight, deciding to tone her figure. She spent most of that year working out with Rohan, her “hot Catholic personal trainer.” On her last night in the country, he helped her move the belongings she was leaving behind from her apartment to his, so that he could get rid of them. As a taxi approached to take her to the airport, he attempted to kiss her, and she clumsily backed away.

“It was supposed to happen with my future husband and couldn’t happen now,” she wrote.

That does sound like one implication of an articulated tradition. But what was she actually taught? What was the goal? What is the shape or her faith, now?

In the end, this story leaves us with what one person calls “The Islam of No.”

There’s no question that this in-depth story describes real issues as discussed by real women. The question, of course, is what Islam has to do with any of this. It is hard to challenge the description of the faith as offered by these women. Perhaps there was no room in which to print a sidebar that would offer the other side of this story (and the Style section is not known as a place one finds balance, anyway). I get that. The question for me is whether there was room to even hint at the faith element in these particular stories, the ones that did make it into print in this trend piece.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Gosh. Islam. Bisexuality. Women’s rights.

    A huge faith ghost.

    Zippo. Why?

  • Mike O.

    tmatt, I agree that the story could use some more religious background to it (especially since the book is about the struggles of love against Islamic practice and tradition). Why haven’t more people commented on it? My guess is that it doesn’t involve a hot button issue. It also doesn’t feature someone or something being given unwarrented praise or shame.

    Another thing to factor in is that while this specific story has a religious foundation, the overall premise here isn’t exclusively religious by any means. Even when you take away those religious aspects of the story it’s still the nigh-umpteenth version of “Daddy, I’m not your little girl anymore”, a tale which has spanned every culture and decade.

  • sari

    Gosh. Islam. Bisexuality. Women’s rights.

    A huge faith ghost.

    Zippo. Why?

    The eeuw factor is exceedingly high.

  • John M.

    For me? Not much to say.

    -John

  • http://www.loveinshAllah.com Love InshAllah

    You ask some great questions and as the editors of the book in question we would have loved to see a more nuanced and detailed article too.

    When we collected the stories we asked women to go beyond simplistic characterizations e.g., of being raised in a “traditional Muslim household” and asked them to articulate what that meant, to tease out what was religion, what was culture, etc.

    We hope you’ll read the book as a snapshot of the American Muslim community – the most diverse Muslim community in the world – and the many ways in which faith, love and identity manifest in each of these unique 25 stories.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Like the article on the U of Penn story re the ascetic life (http://www.getreligion.org/2012/02/how-to-live-like-monks-not/) The reporter seems to be of the prevailing U.S. secular-human opinion that a religion is simply a declaration of a deity’s existence, really no more than an ethnic background, and otherwise has nothing to do with one’s life. The girl is Muslim simply because her parents are Muslim, not because she actually professes – much less practices – the faith herself. The hidden agenda behind stories like this seems to be to hold up people of faith as hypocrites and liars, leaving secular humanism as the only true and logical path.


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