Hijab lit

hijablitChick lit can be really good. It can. I remember a novel called The Temp, by Serena Mackesy – god knows her name is forgotten now, but her book perfectly captured the restless insecurity of early-twenties working life. It’s a forgotten classic of commercial fiction.

Now the blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has written a chick-lit novel from the perspective of a Muslim woman.

Janmohamed is better known as spirit21, a blogger who has provided a unique perspective on the life of a British Muslim woman over the last three years, addressing issues that range from the political role of Turkey to Jack Straw’s comments about women who wear the veil. She is also now author of Love in a Headscarf, a book that hovers somewhere between chick-lit and memoir, as it follows Janmohamed’s journey through the process of arranged marriage.

Janmohamed was always aware that her marriage would be arranged, and is frustrated by the common misconception that such unions bypass the desires of the bride and groom. ‘The Islamic view on marriage is that the man or woman should make an active choice as to who they want to marry,’ she says. ‘And there’s no long-term dating procedure, but it’s essential that the two people have met, that they’ve had as much discussion as they like and that they feel comfortable with each other.’

As an old-fashioned romantic I tend to feel it’s best to marry someone you fall in love with but if arranged marriage works for you then, hey, what the hell. But while Janmohamed’s book sounds original and interesting, the author herself comes off as shallow and stupid. Listen to this:

During the years of her search she was introduced to more suitors than she can even remember, and the book recounts those would-be husbands who most influenced her thinking. “One of the fascinating things is that because the timescale is so shortened, you have to reveal yourself immediately. So within two or three meetings you would be saying, ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life? How many children do you want to have?’ And actually I think that’s very liberating; you know somebody very quickly.

‘So there were men I would meet who were running very late and not think anything of it, not even an apology; and so you would think, ‘That person clearly doesn’t have any respect for me.’ Or people who didn’t want to spend any money, and I thought, ‘Well, if you’re not even going to spend any money to impress me at this stage, you’re clearly not going to be very generous when we get married.’

Well, I can tell you that I pay for all the food and drink when I date. Still, the author has a new perspective on the whole arranged marriage experience that is undoubtedly worth looking into. But then Janmohamed seems to think that she speaks for all Muslim womanhood:

Janmohamed is keenly aware of how non-Muslims tend to view arranged marriage and Muslim women in general. She recalls visits to bookshops where she would find ‘shelves and shelves of misery memoir and all these women in black veils with camels walking in the background and titles like I Was Sold Into Marriage.’ She smiles flatly. ‘And the only other stories that we saw were of Muslim women who had somehow broken through this oppression, had decided that Islam was the source of it and had rejected it, and had gone off to be – and the only way to put this is in quotation marks – ‘liberated’.

So… erm… these women are lying? And do we really need those quotation marks? Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born into an impoverished Somalian tribal community where she was subjected to genital mutilation and forced marriage: now successful, independent and working in America. Does anyone doubt that this is a night and day difference?

In fact, if you read Infidel it’s clear that Hirsi Ali cared deeply for her family, especially her tragic sister, Haweya, who said that freedom ‘is like being in a room without walls.’ But in one way Janmohamed is right, people do tend to view Muslims as a monolithic bloc, faced with the same culture and situations in Tipton as in Tehran.

Yet the Muslim experience is different everywhere. Every life is unique. It is worth noticing, though, that there seems to be one trend: people from the developing world tend to be harder on religion.

The writer Paul Berman suggests that the difference between [Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji] may be due to the fact that Ms. Manji was raised in the warm, liberal, welcoming precincts of British Columbia, where religion could be a comfort rather than a burden, where pluralism was an assumption, a fact of life. (Ms. Manji was kicked out of her Islamic religious school for asking too many questions, but before that she had been cared for at a Baptist church, and at age 8 even won its Most Promising Christian of the Year award.) Ms. Hirsi Ali’s early years, by contrast, consisted of dictatorship, war, patriarchy, genital cutting, confinement and beatings so severe that she once ended up in a hospital with a fractured skull. Ms. Manji offers her own support for Mr. Berman’s conjecture: ‘Had I grown up in a Muslim country, I’d probably be an atheist in my heart.’

The inference is clear – faith is best appreciated at a distance.

So, before you call me a ‘liberal imperialist’, ask yourself: is a second-generation, Oxford-educated, middle class London Muslim any more representative of the ummah than a white, Oxford-educated, middle class London atheist?

To finish off, here’s Janmohamed on the history of Islam:

When Islam was first brought here in the seventh century it was extremely radical – which is a naughty word, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘radical’ if you’re a Muslim, because it means you’re going to blow something up – but Islam was radical because the Prophet Mohammed said women are equal to men, black people are equal to white people, rich people are equal to poor people[.]

To be fair, I consider ‘radical’ an honourable term – and I hate the fact that it’s been hijacked by vicious clerical imperialists and reactionaries. As for the Prophet’s mission of equality, clearly something has been lost – yet again – in the translation.


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