Love in a Headscarf: A Review

Love in a Headscarf: A Review February 26, 2009

Okay, I’ll admit it. When I first heard the title, my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.

“Not again!” I thought. “Not another book with sad kohl-rimmed eyes peeping out from under a black niqab on the cover and which talks about a poor/ downtrodden/ oppressed (add your own adjectives) Muslim woman who is beaten/ kidnapped/ stoned (ditto).”

But boy, was I wrong.

I heard about Love in a Headscarf: Muslim Woman Seeks the One from its author, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, owner of the fantabulous award-winning blog Spirit21. I met Shelina in the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference last January, and when I found out who she was and what her new book was about, I immediately went online and ordered it from Amazon–where it is, less than two weeks after its Valentine’s day release (ooh-er), already #319 on the bestsellers list and the #4th bestselling female biography. Go, Shelina!

(Here’s a great interview with her in The Guardian, a radio interview with the BBC, and a Q & A with The Asian Writer).

So what exactly is her book about? According to the product description on Amazon:

‘At the age of thirteen, I knew that I was destined to marry John Travolta. One day he would arrive on my North London doorstep, fall madly in love with me and ask me to marry him. Then he would convert to Islam and become a devoted Muslim.’

Shelina is keeping a very surprising secret under her headscarf – she wants to fall in love and find her faith. Torn between the Buxom Aunties, romantic comedies and mosque Imams, she decides to follow the arranged-marriage route to finding Mr Right, Muslim-style. Shelina’s captivating journey begins as a search for the one, but along the way she also discovers herself and her faith.

Basically, a very chick-lit book, only it’s Islamic! And real. Hijab-wearing, London-born, and Oxford-educated Shelina is ‘looking for the One’ (as we all are), only she wanted to do it the ‘traditional’ way, through a *gasp/whisper* ‘arranged marriage.’ A little bit simplistic, but here’s how I once described it:

Family hears of a good guy through their friends or relatives. They ask about him, find out where he works, how much money he makes, where he went to college, and so on and so forth, down to his shoe size if necessary. He meets their criteria. Satisfied, they invite him and his family over for canapés, tea and cake. Guy and girl sit together. Guy likes girl and girl likes guy. They get married, have babies, and they live happily ever after.

‘Arranged marriages.’ In our day and age, the term itself evokes shudders and sounds:

  1. So old fashioned and ‘unromantic.’
  2. So barbaric: a.k.a. forced marriage.
  3. Deeply unsophisticated, uncool, and something to be ashamed of.

But Shelina takes us on a marvelous, topsy-turvy ride, turns those preconceived notions upside down, and shares with us why she chose the route she did. She drags the arranged marriage elephant out into the open, and gives it a thorough airing, breaking it down for all of us. She is honest about the drawbacks of the process and the conflict between the unspoken dictates of culture (“Buxom Aunties’ Rules: “Girl must be younger, shorter, less educated than the boy and pale, homely, and domesticated”) and what she believes her faith advises (look for piety and faith).

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, pictured with her books. Image via website previously mentioned.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, pictured with her books. Image via Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

The book begins with a bang, placing us smack dab in Shelina’s kitchen as her mother prepares the samosas in preparation for the first Family-Blind-Date to Check Him Out. I actually laughed out loud here, fondly remembering my own First Time, and nodded vigorously several times when Shelina’s thoughts and feelings mirrored my own.

With a deft skill that I personally think is genius, Shelina then weaves a tale that manages to keep you hooked: you get her background, some more humorous tales of suitors, a breakdown of Islam in a way that is both subtle and interesting, some more about her life, back to the suitors, on to her ‘spiritual growth’ as a human, and so on and so forth. A very well-spun tale, indeed.

There aren’t a lot of stories out there about normal Muslims and the way we live our lives (the only thing that comes to mind right now is Does My Head Look Big in This?), and that’s why when you come across a book like this, it’s like a breath of fresh air–a book far away from the cliched horror stories and their “I have rejected Islam and am now ‘free’ counterparts. Bonus: It’s not fluffy fiction, but deep and humorous reality.

My favorite part of the whole book? When Shelina is talking about getting up to pray fajr (dawn prayer):

With the thought of having to get up for work again in less than three hours, I searched for a delicate balance between being awake enough to pray and not so awake that I couldn’t go to sleep again.

Just a simple sentence which had me cracking up. And no, I’m not an idiot; it just hit me how this is so, so, so me, and something no heroine in any chick-lit book you’d ever read would be doing (ahem, not that I read any, of course, I only read heavy socio-political texts!). Here, on the contrary, is a heroine you can identify with, whether it’s with her difficulty in getting up for fajr and donning the hijab, or in dealing with ignorant people so set on labeling her they fail to hear what she has to say.

But this story is so much more than Shelina’s ‘dating’ chronicles (so to speak) and encounters with the frogs she had to (metaphorically) kiss before she found her prince–as hilarious and amusing as they are to read about. This is the story of a British Asian Muslim woman, and the journey she undertakes to find out who she really is and how she fits into the world we live in today. A quote from the book I found particularly poignant:

The different cultures, histories, religions and heritages of being a British Muslim woman had made me who I was. Those different strands were not burdens, but instead gave me a unique perspective so that I could see things from many different angles. I could bring together my cultures, my faith and the clear vision that Islam offered to start building a more hopeful future.

This is “our” story–the story of every Muslim woman trying to negotiate between her faith and her culture, her upbringing and the world she lives in. It’s like Shelina has scanned our minds and shone a light into the dark corners of our hearts, finding our deepest hopes and fears and articulating them in a way to show that how, when you get right down to it, we are all wishing and praying for the same things.

It’s a story that is rarely heard, buried underneath the terrible stories about Muslim women the media immediately laps up. It doesn’t fit in with the stories we’re so used to hearing, and that is what makes it a must-read. This is not a Muslim version of Bridget Jones–it is so much more than that. I began reading expecting a easy read with humorous anecdotes of Shelina’s encounters with unsuitable suitors, and instead came out of it a lot more introspective, thinking about gender, community, integration, identity, spirituality, and Divine love.

It doesn’t hurt that the author is a brilliant writer and analyst, who deconstructs issues many of us are are on some level aware of but never really delve into (Case in point: Why some Muslim men are not comfortable with Hijab. Brilliant.)

And although Shelina doesn’t, of course, represent all Muslim women–this is, after all, only her story, but it is a story that every woman, Muslim or not, will identify with. And so will a lot of men, don’t get discouraged by the purple cover!

Kudos to her for a fantastic effort and in presenting a much needed voice to the world.

I’m all inspired now. Off to write my own book.

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