In this ground-breaking collection, American Muslim writers sweep aside stereotypes to share their real-life tales of dating, longing and sex. Their stories show just how varied the search for love can be – from singles’ events and online dating, to college flirtations and arranged marriages, all with a uniquely Muslim twist.
When you title a book The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women you would be easily forgiven for expecting saucy sensationalist fiction, especially considering how fashionable it has become to both write and read such smuttiness. When I first heard about this anthology, I was quite unsure what to think myself –books entitled with the likes of ‘lifting the veil’ and ‘behind the burqa’ make me want to violently regurgitate everything I’ve ever eaten.
But of course, it’s far too easy to buy books on a whim when you have the 1-click ordering system on Amazon. And so I did. My curiously clearly got the better of me.
Okay, I lied. I did do a quick Google check for reviews and Love, InshAllah appeared to be far from sensationalist. That’s when I decided to buy the book. I’m honestly not that much of an impulsive buyer (very often).
But, still – if this book is not “playing into an Orientalist fantasy about Muslim women, or a … salacious exposé of our faith community” then why title the anthology in such a way? Editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi explain in the introduction that they “wanted to challenge the stereotypes of the wider audience by presenting stories that are rarely heard”. And the book has certainly generated a lot of attention, perhaps even more than the editors expected. Controversial was certainly a word that popped up numerous times as I read through reviews prior to buying the book. However, after reading the anthology myself, it made me wonder: why exactly is this book so controversial? After all, it’s called The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, not Sex Lives. The image on the front cover of a casual negligée thrown onto rumpled bed covers is certainly indicative of a private aspect of life, but it is also indicative of what is ‘normal’ and universal. These women are not exposing salacious secrets: they are merely retelling their stories of how they found love under the watchful eye of God.
Of course, that’s not to say that – once one has conceded the idea of a Muslim woman being able to talk openly about her private life – there aren’t any controversial stories in the anthology. There are a few quite candid stories that took me by surprise, such as the story of a practising woman who is gay in secret; the explicit account of a punk rocker’s affair with a member of a Muslim band; another woman’s obsession with the burden of virginity.
‘Astagfirullah’ I hear you all shouting. But the editors make an important disclaimer:
We want to be clear that this book is not “Islamic” literature nor is it a Muslim code of conduct or dating manual. It is a reflection of reality. These are all real examples of issues that the community needs to address together, but, often, when they are brought up there is a denial that they even exist.
Like it or not, Muslim American women are saying, these issues exist and refusing to address them isn’t doing anyone any favours.
I do feel that when it comes to discussing Love, InshAllah the controversy over sexuality overshadows many of the other issues that are brought to light in this anthology, which I feel are more prominent in Muslim communties and in more need to enter mainstream discourse, such as the difficulties Muslim women face searching for a spouse, marrying into different race, cultures and even religion, the effect of the generation gap between parents and children, domestic abuse, rape, divorce, reconciling American and Muslim and other socio-cultural identities, faith, polygyny. These are equally if not more controversial issues, not just because they don’t enter mainstream discourse, but more worryingly, they are also swept under the carpet.
Controversial issues aside, what bothers me most about this subject is the fact that Muslim women talking about love and marriage itself appears to be a controversy. Have you ever noticed the hesitation of many Muslim women when discussing how they met their husbands? Unless they are the select few who did meet their husbands in the traditional arranged marriage way, one will receive very vague and sometimes modified accounts of the birth of their relationships. The truth is that the majority of Muslim women in the West don’t meet their husbands in the traditional way, but women still feel like they can’t openly talk about in fear of tainting their character or reputation. The fact that there are very few arranged marriages in this anthology is very telling and reveals a much more realistic view of how women meet their husbands: through friends, at university, online dating, on holiday, even in a bar. These stories show that, contrary to stereotypes, Muslim women from various backgrounds in America are clearly making independent decisions when it comes to love and marriage. I am certain that the same is applicable across the rest of the Western world. It is time Muslim women reclaimed their voices by rejecting the taboo nature which surrounds love and the pursuit of it.
I really enjoyed reading this anthology. I don’t like to use the word ‘page-turner’ since I am such a snob, but I will say that this book is addictive – I’m sure I whizzed through it in only two sittings. It was very humbling to read such candid stories about the search for love: what made these stories so poignant was the fact that for each woman it was not just about finding their soul-mates but also about their relationship with God and how intertwined these two journeys are. ‘Love in the Andes’ tells a beautiful story about fate and faith; ‘Last Night on the Island’ is a hilarious account of a woman’s strength of her faith in face of temptation; ‘From Shalom to Salaam’ recounts the pain and struggle of searching for true love; ‘Love in the Time of Bio-hazards” is a moving story about love in the face of illness.
It’s such a breath of fresh air to read writing by Muslim women discussing something other than hijab or faith – it seems as if these are the only two subjects that Muslim women are free to openly discuss. In Love, InshAllah the editors successfully make clear to the world that love and marriage is a huge part of a Muslim woman’s life and insist that if she has the authority to make her own choices then she also has the authority to tell her story. For this reason I think Love, InshAllah is an extremely important book because it fights for the individual voice and experience of the Muslim woman.