(This review was originally published on my blog A Muslimah Writes)
With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women's love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman's reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs' love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.
Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.
When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying "Aurgh, I don't want to see that!" I chuckled: "So, what, it's okay if white people do that onscreen?" She tried to explain what she felt: "No, but that's brown people. That's us!" Thanks to the media's disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of "our kind" can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself.
I confess that, on some level, that's what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It's one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents' standards. But it's one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one's consciousness. And it's quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.
I, of course, mean that in the best way possible.
Being a single person who's been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah-which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith-means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.
The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection.
1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed's "Leap of Faith" is a dream for any South Asian girl who's had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. "Otherwise Engaged" is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi's yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry.
2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they're not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu's "The Opening" and Angela Collins Telles' "Love in the Andes" both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I'm extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I'm too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen.
3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed's "Punk-Drunk Love," Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol's "The First Time" recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.
4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi's "Love in the Time of Biohazards" is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. "Love at Third Sight" by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love.
5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a "miscellaneous" category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won't easily forget:
Aida Rahim's "Brain Meets Heart" is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn't become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
Nura Maznavi's "Last Night on the Island" I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me.
"Sex by Any Other Name" is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
Asiila Imani's story "Three" traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani's perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
Suzanne Syeda Shah's "Kala Love" is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what-to me-is the real stuff of romance stories.
When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls' side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being `innocent' to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.
At first I wasn't sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn't have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story-be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood-is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.
This collection may be subtitled, "the secret love lives of American Muslim women," but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.