“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.
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.
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.