For The Guardian’s Comment is Free
Love is in the air, floating under burqas and hijabs. Muslim women are in love. And, you know, doing what lovers do. Wahabi guys, best look away. Now.
Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women is a collection of 25 modern Muslim love stories. They aren’t fictional, they are personal accounts of what happens when you meet someone and fall in love – only you can’t really fall in love because a) your parents will go crazy and b) you’ve been told it’s against your religion to fancy someone.
The book, which was officially released in the US on Valentine’s Day (it’s available on Kindle, and will be published in March in the UK), has been compiled by two Muslim women – Ayesha Mattu, a civil rights lawyer, and Nura Maznavi, a human rights consultant. The friends dreamed up the idea five years ago while joking about what a Muslim dating movie – now there’s an idea – would be like. They turned to Facebook to ask American Muslim women, of all backgrounds, to send in their love stories. The ones they liked best made it into the book.
This isn’t a book review, but it’s worth mentioning some of the stories that stand out, because they show a side to some Muslim women that most people don’t think about.
There’s the story of a convert who believes fervently in God and is also a lesbian living with her burqa-wearing partner. Political activist Tanzila Ahmad has a wild affair with a member of a Muslim punk band. Zahra Noorbakhsh shares the hilarious story of her mother’s sex talk (“You have a hole. And for the rest of your life men will want to put their penis in your hole”) and the disappointment of losing her virginity to a boy called Dean. There are also tender tales of falling in love via semi-arranged marriages and what it feels like when your mum tries to set you up with some aunty’s son.
Some Muslims say there is no need for this book. Some worried it would be a “salacious exposé” of Islam (some stories reference pre-marital sex; there are two lesbian stories). One of the negative reviews on Amazon says: “This book is not meant for nor is it any reflection of any practising Muslims … I’m not sure what purpose this book serves … This book is not befitting to have Allah in its title.”
Pre-empting another point of view, some readers may argue it’s annoyingly anti-feminist because it reinforces the myth that the focus of every woman’s life is to find a man; that writing about emotional or sexual experiences isn’t empowering. But of course it is. For a Muslim woman, surrounded by stereotypes of silence, forced marriages and oppression, how can it not be?
There has rarely been a space for a Muslim woman to talk openly about sexuality, heartbreak, love or lust (only one other book, Love in a Headscarf, comes close but not quite). These are things that “good” Muslim girls don’t “do”.
But life can be a balancing act for a modern Muslim woman, negotiating different cultures and pursuing romance within the confines of her faith – it’s the Muslim woman’s marriage predicament Comment is free has talked about before. So many western-born Muslim women are struggling to find the one. So it’s cheering, heartening, to read how Muslim women, like all women, make choices, sometimes make mistakes, but work it out in the end. Sure, these women struggle with their faith sometimes. It doesn’t make them bad Muslims. It makes them honest.
On another level, to read the words of Muslim women, written on their own terms, who have taken ownership of their bodies and created their own identity, without feeling ashamed of what others might say is brilliant and uplifting – plus it shows there are some funny, incredibly thoughtful and great Muslim female writers out there.
When I got married, the imam at my London mosque told me that when love enters your heart you must cherish it and never let it go. And it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or religion to believe in that. Love, InshAllah is not asking for religious judgment of the women it features and nor is it reflective of every single Muslim woman in the world; it’s just a book, but one with stories that very much deserve to be told.