When I worked as a writer and editor for the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) this past spring and summer, lots of stories crossed my desk about the plight of Muslim women and girls in Afghanistan. I learned that girls weren’t allowed to go to school until after 2001, and even today, they face getting a mouthful of corrosive acid thrown at them literally as they walk the road to their higher education. Then there was the Time magazine story about the poor young woman who had her nose and ears sliced off as the result of a dust up with her in-laws.
Finally, whenever I was given the task of selecting photos of women being trained as teachers or starting their own businesses to accompany our marketing collateral on the web, I had to find pictures that didn’t show a woman’s face, or, failing that, the pic had to be carefully cropped to remove any identifiable surroundings. This was in the event that if the Taliban was crafty enough to search our website for people they could prey on, we wouldn’t be essentially painting a target on some poor woman’s head and putting a stop to any progress that the agency had made, however big or small that might have been.
Into this fray comes a book about the experience of a Muslim woman that’s a bit more on the lighter side of things. Love in a Headscarf is a memoir about one British Muslim woman’s heartbreaking and heart-rendering search for her own personal Prince Charming, a process that took about a decade. The book comes courtesy of one Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, a South Asian Muslim (by way of East Africa) living in North London, who is considered to be a leading commentator on British Islam. She is a regular contributor to both the Guardian and BBC, and she was named one of the UK’s hundred most influential Muslim women by the Times of London.
It should be noted that Janmohamed and her family don’t come from anywhere near Afghanistan, so binding her and her experiences to my work for CIDA – where I got to see the absolute worst of the worst in terms of the treatment of Muslim women – might seem like a bit of a stretch. However, her story is partially bound to the paranoia of 9/11, as recounted in one section of the book, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan and a general Western sense of paranoia of all things related to Islam. Her father was roughed up in a supermarket following the event of the fall of 2001, and even Janmohamed herself was pulled aside while getting off of a plane for secondary questioning strictly on the basis of a racial profiling of her surname.
I can’t say that I was above the fray in terms of the treatment of Muslim peoples before my eyes were opened at CIDA. My own father, in the days after the collapse of the World Trade Center, believed that we should bomb every single foxhole in the Islamic world to get those terrorists that had perpetuated that crime. I had to agree with him to a point, so enraged I was as a Christian-raised Westerner who felt that every Muslim person was packing a bomb underneath their clothes. Flash forward nine years on, he’s reading the Qur’an to get a better understanding of Islam, in addition to any book on Afghanistan he can get his hands on, the odd one of which he’s shared with me. Love in a Headscarf will be under the Christmas tree for my dad this year (so shhh, don’t tell him), in an effort to further that bond in educating ourselves about how the other half live. Of course, this is a book of note because it recounts the story of a deeply religious, conservative woman living in Western society, who is conflicted between the sacred world and the secular world. (At one point in Love in a Headscarf, Janmohamed buys herself a sports car, in keeping with her highly liberated, feminist sense of self.)
With this memoir, we get a glimpse into the matchmaking scene in British Islam, which is very different from the usual Judeo-Christian tradition. Finding a partner in the British Muslim community, according to this book, involves all sorts of people, from professional matchmakers whose job is to quickly marry men and women, to family and friends who vet any prospective suitor by inviting him into their homes for conversation and a hearty round of toasty samosas. As Janmohamed paints it, the search for the perfect mate deeply and truly involves an entire society. (This is radically different from my encounters with women, which pretty much involves pursuing the personal ads on Plenty of Fish.
To wit, and I hope this doesn’t give anything away, but even Janmohamed – in a fit of desperation – turns to the Internet and speed dating to find a man at one point.) Particularly fluxing are a group of what Janmohamed called “Buxom Aunties” who are on the sidelines to endlessly fret and tut-tut her choices in prospective suitors. Dating in the Muslim community in Britain, therefore, is a bit of a dance between the demands of what your family might think is suitable and a host of other mitigating circumstances. For one, dealing with the matchmakers is a bit of a challenge. Saying ‘yes’ too soon to any suitor that literally walks into your living room reeks of desperation. Saying ‘no’ paints you as being stubborn and stuck-up. Ideally, as Janmohamed puts it, the thing you want to do is plant the seeds of a relationship into the man’s perspective, making him being the one to respond in the affirmative. If that were so easy, though.
Much to Janmohamed’s dismay, the probable mates line up and quickly get rejected for a bevy of different reasons. One man turns down Janmohamed because she is too short by a couple of inches. Another man winds up being two hours late to a prescribed meeting, allegedly because he was preoccupied with watching a Cricket match. Another disappears off the face of the earth, owing to the fact that he lost Janmohamed’s contact information on a computer that was fried during a lightning surge. And still another turns down Janmohamed’s affections, owing to the fact that he simply doesn’t have the time for a relationship as he’s out to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong.
Despite the mounting dating misfortunes, this is a book that is essentially positioned in the Chick Lit genre, which means (and stop me if this spoils this for you) that true love will find our heroine in the end. In a way, this memoir is written like a British Muslim version of Sex and the City, just without the fashion porn – unless, of course, wearing the hijab can be considered to be just as fashionable as it is spiritual. At one point in the book, Janmohamed makes a bit of a pilgrimage to Egypt and Jordan with a group of friends, which sort of echoes the whole Abu Dhabi trip made in the recent Sex and the City 2. Thus, Love in a Headscarf is a fun, frothy and somewhat fluffy read, excepting some chapters that I’ll get to in a moment, that tries to bridge the continental divide between Islam and the West by essentially mimicking a style of writing that is fundamentally secular.
However, I suffered from a multiple-personality disorder while reading this book. On one hand, it’s an illuminating memoir that shows how modern Muslims live and find love among us, and there’s the aforementioned and particularly affecting chapter, though one that gets in the way of the narrative flow, about Janmohamed’s reaction to the events of 9/11, and the trials and tribulations that she and her family faced in the wake of that horrific catastrophe. On the other hand, I found the book to be rather self-serving and practically screaming of vanity – that the story of Janmohamed’s quest for love brands her as being somewhat “special” and capable of being loved despite some of her physical shortcomings (as mainly pointed out by her Aunties, namely that she might be too dark-skinned and too religious for suitors).
At times, while Janmohamed can be self-deprecating in her humour, she comes across as being a bit condescending towards men. Additionally, the book feels like an overlong blog post, which is probably natural as the author has some experience in that world, which makes it seem superficial. For one, we never get a sense of why some potential suitors – aside from the obvious ones mentioned above – get left by the wayside. There’s little that’s penetrating about what she’s looking for in a man aside from some high-flung ideals that seem perhaps unrealistic, which might lead one to conclude that her ideal man might be a little unobtainable. After awhile, one might get the sense that Janmohamed’s father might be right when he tells her in one passage that she should be less choosy. Had she been, the result would have been a much more compact and possibly more gratifying read.
Ultimately, I felt that perhaps this material might have been better suited as a long-form magazine article. Better yet, it might have been better if Janmohamed had gone out and interviewed other Muslim women for their experiences, which might have brought a certain levity to the tome. Seeing that this is Chick Lit, too, there’s a certain lack of tension to the proceedings. If you don’t know from cracking open this book that it will be some 200 plus pages of looking for the perfect love, followed by 20 pages of finding it, then you probably haven’t read enough Sophie Kinsella.
Still, there’s much to be enjoyed here, and, strangely enough, the best passages don’t have much to do with one person’s quest to find The One. As mentioned above, the section on the author’s reaction to 9/11 is particularly deep and meaningful, and makes one feel a little guilty about the societal paranoia associated with the aftermath of that event. There’s also an early chapter about growing up in a Muslim household, which is particularly enjoyable – if only because it serves as a much needed break from all of the matchmaking craziness. Janmohamed also peppers her narrative with stories and examples of laudable men and women from the Qur’an, which underlines her spiritual connection to finding her perfect partner. In fact, when Janmohamed talks about her faith, the book broadens and becomes a bit deeper than the Chick Lit screed that she has pigeon-holed herself into.
In the end, Love in a Headscarf is a pleasurable enough read, though one may lament that it’s a little too skin deep. It’s well written, though, and it meticulously re-creates the process of finding a match as though one is reading an extensive, quasi-literary diary that Janmohamed has left behind. It can be particularly revealing to non-Muslims about another culture and religion, and it is a recommendable book in that regard. You might wish, though, that Janmohamed had written a true memoir about herself and her life in a Muslim family living in London, for when she delves into that nature, the book actually becomes a whole lot more interesting.
To put it more bluntly, Love in a Headscarf won’t exactly move literary mountains, but if you’re looking for something a little more unusual in the Chick Lit rom-com genre, the book might prove to be elucidating – showing that even between the gulf of different backgrounds, the process of loving and being loved is actually quite universal. For that, Love in a Headscarf might just change your preconceived notions of Islam, which is richly satisfying. Particularly if you’ve been like me and fed nothing but a steady diet of the bad news treatment of Muslim women in Afghanistan.