Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed (thoughts)
Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed came up in my search for ‘Beacon Press’ in the library’s catalogue. As it was an ebook, I could check it out right away, but I wasn’t sure. The cover and title didn’t make it seem like a me book. However, my interest in reading more diverse nonfiction, my enjoyment of the movie Arranged, and my trust in Beacon Press made me decide to give it a go. And I’m so glad I did!
Janmohamed is a British South Asian Muslim (how’s that for a mouthful?): she’s a professional, feminist, independent woman with deep affection for her culture and family, and a religion that’s woven into her everyday life. As the rest of her life slotted into place, though, her search for a husband wasn’t quite so easy: despite using the traditional matchmaking process of her community, it took her a decade to find the right one. This is a memoir of her experience on that search, but as it spans her from age 19 to 29, it’s also a middle class coming of age story as Janmohamed searches for her true identity amongst competing philosophies and traditions.
I love the common sense tone of the book, with a lot of wry humour, but most of all I loved how Janmohamed talks about Islam. She references the Q’aran frequently, and explains how important her beliefs are to her, and how her relationship with God grows during these years, without ever sounding preachy. Her feminism leads to her frank acknowledgement of the sexism she encounters, but she also consistently looks at how Q’aranic ideals of equality have been twisted by different cultures. As someone interested in progressive Christianity, but who shies away from a lot of what Christianity has stood for, I found a marvelous example in Janmohamed.
It was also simply fascinating to see how the search for a spouse changes when you know from the very first meeting that the man is interested in marriage and has the approval of your family and community. In some ways, that made things different, as there’s not as much need to play coy, and people can talk about a possible future right away. And yet, in Janmohamed’s frustration at how various men behaved, in her community’s urging of her to ‘not be too picky,’ and in her and friends’ increasing dismay as the years go on and the pool of available men inexplicably shrinks, I found more similarities than differences. As an aspiring spinster, none of this affects me personally, but that just made following along that much more fun!
I really loved reading this, in case you can’t tell: it was on the lighter side but still intelligent and intriguing. Don’t judge it on the cover and title! So often it’s easy to read scholarly books about religion, but to see it lived seems less frequent. Especially by a woman! Even those who aren’t religious themselves will likely enjoy this peek into another culture, and of course readers who love memoirs should definitely get to this.
My only real quibble is that for all of her feminism, and a few brief discussions of racism, Janmohamed seems curiously oblivious to homosexuality. Especially as one of her reasons to get married is her religious belief that men and women were made for each other, I would have liked to see her at least touch on love outside the hetero-normative range. I’m also curious about what liberal Muslims have to say on the topic.
That aside, Love in a Headscarf is a smart, moving, funny work that makes culture blending look joyful (and deserves a better cover and title!): in her reconciliation of her progressive, liberal views with the best aspects of her traditions and culture, Janmohamed sets an example for us all. I only wish she’d written more books, and I definitely see myself returning to this one in the future!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Data: a Love Story by Amy Webb : another memoir about the search for a husband by a 21st century feminist, although where Janmohamed is driven by Islam, Webb is driven by math and algorithms. I found parts of this eyebrow-raising and cringe-inducing, but I also found it a funny, enjoyable read.
- The Great Theft by Khaled Abou El Fadl : if you’re interested in what the Q’aran teaches vs what some extremists preach, Fadl lays it out beautifully in this book (which could also benefit from a better title). Readable, fascinating, and one of my favourite books from last year (so of course I didn’t blog about it. sigh).
- The Translator by Leila Aboulela : I love the way Aboulela writes beautiful novels about love and Muslim women in the West. I think this would make a fabulous duet for those who enjoy matching fiction and nonfiction reads.