Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Love in a Headscarf (Review)
Love in a Headscarf is a memoir written by award-winning UK Muslim blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, light-heartedly depicting her decade-long spouse hunt. Her fantasy as a 13-year-old of marrying John Travolta (after he converts to Islam, of course) and of finding Prince Charming is juxtaposed with the difficult realities of modern young Muslims in the West trying to get married. All the lectures from the imam at the masjid about marriage notwithstanding, she reports that her community finds itself in a situation of large numbers of Muslim girls being unable to find spouses, with too many of the boys marrying “back home”, seeking marriage primarily for residency purposes, being uninterested in marriage, or being wholly unprepared to be husbands. The match-making Aunties fret over the possibly too-high education levels and aspirations of the girls while the girls fret over the contrast between the Islamic teachings on love and marriage and the cultural realities.
Her tales of potential matches gone wrong are humorous, candid, and disconcerting. From the brother who announces up front he will not consider marrying her because she is only 5’3” but wants to meet her for dinner anyway, to the one who agrees to meet her at 5 p.m. for introductions over coffee, only to show up at 7 because he was busy watching a soccer match on T.V., and who then proceeds to pocket her change from the Dutch-treat evening along with his, to the one who admits that he is only meeting her and her family because his mother insisted it was time for him to get married although he has no interest, Sister Shelina is left to wonder where the “good men” are and why aren’t they interested in her and her friends. Over time, she and her friends begin to contemplate the possibility of never getting married, a fate met with sad clucks, admonitions, and shakes of the head at the masjid.
She goes through a mild rebellion by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, traveling to Egypt with her girlfriends, and buying a fancy car – the kind of car boys, not “good girls”, get - all the while trying to balance her independence against the possibility of ruining her reputation with the match-making Aunties. Initially her searches are entirely traditional, but she gradually expands her methods to include online matchmaking sites and even disastrous Muslim “speed dating” events in London. Eventually, she does meet “Mr. Right” at an Islamic conference, but it appears only perseverance and good fortune or blessings from God, rather than any solution to the marriage problem of the Muslim community, gets the credit.
Love in a Headscarf is a fast, easy, almost frivolous read and would primarily appeal to young women. Janmohamed supposes a non-Muslim audience and addresses it with occasional, generally engaging monologues on why she wears hijab or about her post 9/11 experiences that do not quite fit seamlessly into her theme, but may nevertheless serve to educate. Her delineation of Islam vs. culture is perhaps not always clear enough for that non-Muslim or different cultural-background audience, particularly early in the story, and might create some confusion or monolithic interpretation of Islam and marriage that is not fully warranted. Some, like myself, may be a little uneasy with her implicit depiction of the marriage problem as primarily a male one, but perhaps others will claim she hits the nail on the head. If the Muslim women have some contribution to the problem, she seems unable to get a good grasp on it, aside from blaming general cultural matters. She does not come across as a male-bashing feminist, but all the failed matches in her tales have either fate or men to account for them, with the women merely victims- a fact which becomes wearisome and may even invoke pity or concern for the long list of potential matches whose private conversations with her during the matching process end up aired publicly in this book. Perhaps the men were made anonymous through name and/or detail changes or were fictionalized, but if so, this was not announced, and members of the community the author is part of could likely easily still determine who is being talked about. Although the stories are nothing out of the ordinary, the unflattering depiction of some men left me to wonder if they had been backbitten, which, if true, would be cause enough to avoid recommending this book.
Although this memoir contains humor and seems to be light-hearted, it is not uplifting. To the contrary, for those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, it is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book. Those with plenty of optimism and with time on their side may yet be able to thoroughly enjoy this energetic, youthful true tale.