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Non Fiction

Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

“At the age of 13, I knew I was destined to marry John Travolta. One day he would arrive on my North London doorstep, fall madly in love with me and ask me to marry him. Then he would convert to Islam and become a devoted Muslim”.

Torn between the Buxom Aunties, romantic comedies and mosque Imams, she decides to follow the arranged-marriage route to finding Mr Right, Muslim-style. Shelina’s journey begins as a search for the One, but along the way she also discovers her faith and herself.

Shelina began her search in her early twenties she was face-to-face with similar demands in a series of marital introductions at her home. Despite being an Oxford graduate, she was judged more on how she served the samosas than her (strong and often wilful) personality. The memoir chronicles at least 20 such encounters (I wasn’t counting, but there are many!). The decision was made both ways. She rejected a few proposals. There were men who rejected her for being too short, too educated and an outrageous request for her to stop wearing headscarf for a year. One lied that his Internet modem is struck by lightning, therefore he couldn’t reply her emails. Another runs an hour later than agreed time for a date with her, preferring to watch his cricket match; also one who took her out and made her pay for dinner.

Shelina became so desperate in her search towards the end that the writing was bleak and depressing that I thought perhaps she might grab someone off the streets and coerce him to get married this instant.

Reading the book also made me think about “arranged marriage”. The thing is the marriage is not actually arranged, Shelina is quick to say that such unions do not bypass the desires of the bride and groom, there is a space that is opened for the potentials to get to know each other, however there is to be no long-term dating procedure.

Introductions are usually organised by parents and a designated matchmaker, Shelina is very clear in what she wants: a man who has a stable job, religious, of good character however she also gush about wanting partner who is good looking, tall and handsome and she exploded in laughter to know despite the best intent, we all fall prey to physical attractiveness.

Janmohamed is constantly in battle with her religious South Asian community’s ideal and the Hollywood’s western brand of love and marriage. While Hollywood sells the appeal of love and then marriage, the Muslim women seek marriage first, and hopefully, love later.

In between the search for the One, Shelina wrote about her workplace colleagues, about her expedition to Kilimanjaro, to Jordan and to Hajj. Despite doing what liberal women normally do, Shelina could not find fulfilment until she finds the one who could complete her. (sigh, does it has to be that way?)

No doubt more of feminist myself, this book made me consider the merits of an arranged marriage.

  • “Love and relationships were everyone’s business because they affected everyone. Besides, parents had more experience and wisdom form life, which was helpful in making a better decision.” – page 26.
  • There is no beating around the bush. You can ask your potential at the very first meeting about: ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life? How many children do you want to have?’ And Shelina thinks that’s very liberating; you know somebody very quickly.
  • At least you know who are the men interested in finding a partner and ready to settle down, instead of meeting those who only wants to muck about. The mosque holds a folder of these potentials with introduction of their backgrounds.

Translated to Indonesian Language

Shelina ponders the cultural complication of finding a partner to what is outlined in her faith:

The rules from culture and faith seemed to be at odds with each other, but separating them out was nigh on impossible. As I was growing up I didn’t realise how different, even contradictory they were.

The Islamic guidelines created an aspiration for an achievable utopia for relationships. They seemed so simple and straightforward: find a good, decent man, get married and God will support you by injecting love and mercy into your relationship. The principles embodied the importance of respecting and love people for who they were, not their superficialities.

Cultures, which had a strong hand in dictating reality, appeared to be quite different from relation in the cut-throat world of bagging a partner. The match-making process stretched back into the cloudy indefinable roots of cultural myth, which no one could untangle or clarify. The process was the way it was just because it was the way it was. You could not deny it was down to earth: get the interested parties together, conduct an assessment, make a decision. Everyone concerned wanted a positive outcome: a good solid marital match, two happy families. And not to be entirely forgotten: a happily married couple.

A lot of these cultural practices are as it is said cultural heritage. It has very little to do with religion. The first wife of Prophet Mohammed, Khadijah, said to be 15 years older than the prophet, initiated the marriage proposal herself.

Rating: 3.5/5

What I like most about the book: It’s frank and honest. A heartbreaking tale of a Muslim woman seeking love. It provides a fresh perspective on a hidden world that we don’t normally hear much of. I appreciate the attempt to inform about the religion of Islam and clarify the misconception about diminished Muslim women’s right, which contravenes every principle that Prophet Mohammed S.A.W preached. Her effort to nudge her culture in a more enlightened direction, while at the same time offering an insight into the life of a British Muslim woman is commendable. Her prologue and introduction of love is beautiful and inspiring. Some parts of the books can be hilarious too.

What I like least about the book: A book that hovers somewhere between chick-lit and memoir or religious lectures, and ended up feeling dishevelled. The memoir might have been improved with better structure, instead it reads like a collection of blog posts. It can appear preachy as well. The book draws interest because it is one of its kind but it doesn’t flow very well. I blame it on the editor because Shelina speaks so well (see videos here).

Paperback. Publisher: Aurum,  2009.  Length: 267 pages, Setting: Contemporary Britain. Source: Library. Finished reading at 10 January 2011.

About the writer:

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed writes columns for EMEL magazine and The Muslim News and regularly contributes to the Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4. She is a commentator on radio and television and has appeared on programmes including Newsnight and The Heaven and Earth Show. Her award-winning blog, http://www.spirit21.co.uk, 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 a graduate of New College, Oxford. She lives in London. Love in a Headscarf is her first book.

Janmohamed’s parents (of Indian ancestry) emigrated from Tanzania in 1964, arriving with two suitcases, one son and £75 to their name. Their daughter followed soon afterwards, and was brought up in a fairly liberal north London home, familiar with her parents’ culture and faith, while attending a local girls’ school and mixing with people from different backgrounds. For many years she kept the three strands of her life – school, home and the mosque – quite separate, but finally began to reconcile them in her search for a husband.

To see videos of Shelina’s interview with Sky News and CNN, click here.

Love in the Headscarf website


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


16 thoughts on “Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

  1. Wow, lovely review! Where I live, arranged marriage is as common as rice. No one bats an eyelid really – there are varied stages to it – I know friends who didn’t speak to each other till the wedding night, there are others who were more liberal and the opportunity to explore each others interest through a few conversations BEFORE saying ‘yes,’ and there are others who have to say ‘yes’ first, then try and get to know the person. I am not sure the system is my cup of tea, frankly, but it seems to work here – albeit in a ‘ I never expected much from marriage apart from the good man, good kids bouquet, so what you don’t expect, you are not disappointed with.’

    Posted by Soul Muser | January 15, 2011, 2:49 am
    • Hi Soul! Thanks. Funny you said it, because when I was writing the review in the context of the Muslim culture, I knew the South Asians practice the same. What you don’t expect you don’t get disappointed, that is mostly true. I felt the more marriage is seen as be all, end all, the raison d’etre of the whole universe and life, the more the women feel desperate or needy to keep their marriages work, even when it turns bad.

      Posted by JoV | January 15, 2011, 1:24 pm
      • Haha, JoV, I wish I can take this sentence of yours, “I felt the more marriage is seen as be all, end all, the raison d’etre of the whole universe and life, the more the women feel desperate or needy to keep their marriages work, even when it turns bad,” and frame it somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s how it is here. We often joke here that even we were to become the President or Prime Minister, people around would be like “ah, that’s fine, but when will you get married!”

        Posted by Soul Muser | January 15, 2011, 1:40 pm
        • Soul, LOL.. ha ha ha it’s so shallow isn’t it? I felt there is more to it to a woman’s life than breeding and serving the households (I say households, because it includes the husband, the children and the in-laws and then the extended families and then the uninvited guests!).

          I suggest just get a cotton bud and stuck it to your ears before you hear another “but when will you get married?” or retort, “Actually I don’t want to. I just want to live my life!” 🙂

          Posted by JoV | January 15, 2011, 2:17 pm
  2. I’d HIGHLY recommend the movie Arranged if you’re curious about arranged marriages! It’s a great watch and provides a lot of food for thought. 🙂

    If I ever decide I want to be married, I’m sure I’ll wish that there was more of an ‘arranged’ structure in my culture. It seems like ‘dating’ has such a different focus.

    Posted by Eva | January 15, 2011, 3:03 pm
    • Eva, thank you for recommending this! I’ll go check out the library’s catalogue for the DVD. 😀
      It’s not a bad thing to have the ‘arranged’ structure. Getting both sets of parents’ blessing is one, but it also ensures some level of background checks before both couples are introduced. I once suggested to my colleague about arranged marriage, when she, as a devout Christian, was afraid that her good looking son will be hounded by unsuitable girls! lol.. I said even the rich and the upper class has some form of arrangement for their offsprings, so the Kennedys marry girls from their father’s influential friends, and the Rockefellers probably do the same etc.. it’s a way to sustain their power circle and marriage of two reputable “families”. So why not try it? My colleague thinks it’s a great idea. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 15, 2011, 4:51 pm
  3. This books sounds like a rather interesting read! I used to have a really good friend who was muslim… then we drifted apart as she entered an arranged marriage and I continued a carefree student life. I guess reading a book like this would give me a better insight in what it is like not being able to choose your own partner. It is, like you say, not just a negative thing.

    Posted by Chinoiseries | January 15, 2011, 8:03 pm
    • Hey Chinoiseries, thanks for dropping by. Sometimes we have our blind spots about other people’s culture and a lot of times some practices sounded so far fetched and I wonder if we are living in the same planet! But all it takes is a book like this to really get out head around what happened and how it works and what women who complied to the practice feels about it. The author did not say she can’t choose her partner, in fact she has the right to say No, while saying yes to introduction rituals and capitalising on the streams of recommendations of potential men coming from her community. Which is not a bad thing really, the bane (or boon?) is that there is no longer term courtship involved.

      I wish the organisation and writing was a little better though. As it is, the book feels like scribbling and fragment of notes.

      Posted by JoV | January 16, 2011, 11:10 pm
  4. So the author is of Indian ancestry, is she? And that’s where she get the “arranged marriage” culture from? I don’t think arranged marriage comes from Islam, it’s more cultural. Indonesia has the biggest muslim population but I rarely hear about arranged marriages (though I know it happens a lot in Middle East). I know a couple of Indian friends/acquaintances whose marriage was arranged by the parents. In fact I think most Indians do. I always find it fascinating that it still happens in this 21st century for highly educated people who have spent a long time overseas. But it seems to work well for them (my female colleague said she’s happy), so who are we to disagree? 😉

    ps: The Indonesian translation caught my eyes! But I don’t think I’ll read the book. Pursuit of love/man for life fulfillment is not my favorite topic.

    Posted by mee | January 18, 2011, 10:45 pm
    • Mee, yes it is more cultural rather than it being a religious practice. Therefore it is not always right to think that Muslim women has no right over their own destiny, when some non-muslim women are probably going through the same marriage ritual. I agree it is not for us to say we agree to it or not, it is what it is, it is a culture a group of people practice.

      LOL pursuit of love / man is not my favourite topic too, but I’m curious about what her perspective would be. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 20, 2011, 9:02 am
  5. Wonderful review, Jo! I also enjoyed reading all the comments too – especially SoulMuser’s comments on the finer distinctions between the different types of arranged marriage and Eva’s comment on the interesting advantages of arranged marriage.

    I also like the way the book describes the practical advantages of arranged marriage – for example the background checks that happen and how both the potential partners get to know each other from the values perspective during the first conversation.

    I love the picture of Shelina – she looks so stylish and I love the colour and the match between her scarf and her shoes 🙂 When I went on a holiday to Egypt a few years back, my friends told me that everyone in Egypt will be wearing the hijab or the burkha. When I came back from my holiday, I laughed at my friends (with a bit of contempt) and told them they had no idea! I also told them that the kind of colourful scarfs and dresses that women in the Middle East wear is amazing and the style that they display is wonderful and one has to see it to believe it!

    Thanks for the wonderful review! I am going to add this book to my ‘TBR’ list.

    Posted by Vishy | January 23, 2011, 6:43 am
    • Vishy, I love watching women with colourful headscarves and all. Women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco all wear colourful clothes and headscarves and it’s very trendy. You are so observant Vishy. 🙂 I don’t blame you, those Arab women are very eye catching.

      Wow you have been to Egypt? I would love to go there one day. It must be an awesome experience. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 23, 2011, 11:00 am
      • I have passed through Malaysia, but haven’t really been there. I would love to visit sometime. I would also love to visit Indonesia and Morocco.

        Egypt is a wonderful place! So many historical treasures! I got a statue of Nefertiti which is made of moonstone and glows only in the dark – it is so beautiful! Hope you get to travel to Egypt one day 🙂

        Posted by Vishy | January 24, 2011, 8:10 am
        • Vishy, I want of those statue too! Nefertiti that glows in the dark, how awesome is that! I hope so too, going to Egypt is one dream list checked in my life and it should happen soon!

          Posted by JoV | January 24, 2011, 12:38 pm
  6. Great review, loved the bits you pulled from it too. Really makes you think about arranged marriages doesn’t it?

    Posted by amymckie | August 29, 2012, 12:54 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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