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Fatima M, a student of community psychology, conducts halaqas (religious and social discussions) with teen and preteen girls in local masjids, where adolescent challenges are informally discussed. “We reach out to one other, reminding ourselves that desires, and love are a part of life, our aim is to navigate it in the most halal and healthy way possible,” adding that “Muslim society perpetuates that guys have desires, but girls don’t.” Many American Muslims face a double minority status due to their ethnic and religious backgrounds. The strain takes an intense emotional toll on the youth as they try to balance a fine act between the rigid demands of the faith, and influences of the culture that surrounds them. Community leaders and grassroot volunteers have identified that honest and healthy conversations are the need of the hour.
Every great cup of coffee has a story behind it, goes the Starbucks adage. And, sometimes a great story has a steaming cup of coffee behind it. A coffee shop chat between lifelong friends turned into a riveting discussion that paved the path for a trailblazing book: Love, InshAllah.
Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu were exasperated by the portrayal of Muslim women in the media. They could not recognize themselves (or any Muslim woman they knew) in the quiet and submissive portrayals of Muslim women in popular culture. The friends sought to alter this perception.
In Mattu’s opinion, “Muslim women are too often defined and limited to their headscarf (or lack thereof) or seen through the lens of national security. Our private narratives include a broad spectrum of family, professions, academics, hobbies, volunteerism, and more. It’s time our public narratives began reflecting that multiplicity too.”
According to the Muslim Tribune, “a study conducted by Dr. Ilyas Ba-Yunus, a sociology professor at State University of New York, found an alarming increase in divorce rate among Muslims in North America reaching 31%.” Aneesah Nadir, President of the Islamic Social Services Association, believes that the core reason behind the increasing rate of divorces is that expectations are not discussed prior to marriage. “Ninety-nine% of marriages in the Muslim community are conducted without any counseling, unrealistic expectations and no conversation regarding these expectations,” says Nadir.
Islamic Social Service Association is at the helm of “the healthy marriage covenant” initiative, which advocates that imams enforce mandatory premarital counselling or advisement, before a couple ties the knot.
Nadir feels that “We’ve seen too many broken marriages and bad relationships. This protocol is long overdue.”
“When parents choose a spouse for their children, ‘back from the home country’ it causes added challenges, due to different cultural values, different philosophies, and different expectations.” She notes that “the lack of support system for the spouse who comes from overseas intensifies the situation.”
Nadir believes that parents need counseling themselves. Often the parents struggle with the level of involvement in their children’s lives.
Love, InshAllah is an attempt by Maznavi and Mattu to begin the conversation. Conceptualized and edited by the duo, it is an anthology of stories by 25 American Muslim women who share their personal experiences with affairs of the heart. InshAllah signifies the Islamic belief that everything happens by the will of God. The stories are connected by a common thread of love, desire, passion, or lust, but defining this collection as “love stories” or “women’s studies” would be limiting its genre.
Through love stories, the editors opened up conversations on topics that are generally swept under the rug. Issues like bigotry and racism, interfaith relationships, polygyny, homosexuality and premarital relationships that plays out with varying intensities in Muslim households.
I talked to Maznavi and Mattu, co-editors of the anthology, about the objective behind the book. Maznavi is a writer, a Fulbright scholar, and a civil rights attorney, who focuses on federal policies that target the American Muslim community. Ayesha Mattu is also a writer, editor, an international development consultant and was selected “Muslim Leader of Tomorrow” by the UN Alliance of Civilizations. She has worked in the field of women’s human rights.
“The objective of the book was to change the narrative of Muslim women both within and outside the Muslim community,” stated Maznavi adding that “even within the Muslim community, there is a stereotypical notion of how a good girl behaves.”
“We’ve had people across the breadth of the country—people of various faiths—reach out to us, struck by the vulnerability of the stories. These stories resonated with them as they’ve grappled with similar issues. People gifted the book to their sisters, moms and aunts to keep the conversation rolling,” beams Maznavi.
Maznavi said that the feedback from the Muslim community was largely positive. A few voices of dissent argued that the book was un-islamic in discussing private issues on a public medium.
“Our response was, ‘Love, InshAllah was not put forward as an Islamic book, this is not an Islamic dating manual, it is a reflection on the lives of American Muslims,’” said Maznavi
On her own chapter in the book, Mattu prefaced her story with a reference from the Holy Quran. “‘Al-Fatiha’ means ‘The Opening,’ and is used as a spiritual metaphor throughout my story. Sometimes an opening appears in our life, which leads us onto a new and unexpected path, as it did when I met my future husband.”
Having been raised to believe that Islam was a religion of “No,” which had no place for joy or creativity, questions, or doubts, Mattu aspires to create an “Islam of Yes” for herself and her children. “Love, creativity, joy, and hope are our Islamic heritage and birthright. The reclamation of these qualities begins from an understanding of our rich global histories as well as a recognition of the diversity within the 1.6 billion Muslims today. Within our diversity and divergence, lies our strength and creativity—the essence of yes,” said Mattu.
The book explores the journeys of the women trying to walk the line between cultural norms and personal choices as they traverse through dual identities, generational gaps, coming of age, bigotry, and self-actualization.
Each story throws a powerful lens into the women’s lives and through her, into the community’s psyche.
The characters in the book are not painted in stark black and white strokes. Their realistic multi-hued depiction highlights layers of vulnerability beneath tough facades.
The Muslim father who read the Quran every morning and spent his nights out dancing; the mother who dishes out a feast for her visiting daughter’s Catholic boyfriend, but refuses to meet him; the teenager who makes a pact with God for his blessings as she sneaks out of home at night. The stories illustrate the clash of inner desires versus cultural identity that prevail in most immigrant cultures.
“A Journey of Two Hearts” recounts the author’s tomboyish childhood in an atheist hippy household, and her spiritual quest that leads to conversion to Islam. Her submission to the new faith comes with a price, her future with her non-Muslim husband.
In “Kala Love” the writer, a daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, encounters racism and disownment by her mother when she falls in love with an African American Muslim man. Painfully aware of her community’s disdain for her dark complexion, she is disinterested in desi men since she cannot be part of another family that looks down on the color of her skin. Her story is a powerful portrayal of grace and incredible faith in the face of devastating tragedy.
The writers come from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and profess varying religious devotion. Their accounts are not formulaic love stories; these stories are sincere, engaging, and heartrending, which end in happily ever-afters, unrequited yearnings, second (and even third) chances at happiness. The book does a commendable job of dispelling misconceptions about arranged marriages, inhibited hijabis, and gay Muslims.
“We are not quiet, we have desires, we are complicated, educated American Muslim women,” says the protagonist of the chapter, “Even Muslim Girls Get the Blues.”
Maznavi believes that “there is often a dearth of secular voices in Islam, for example, Islam in America is presented as an immigrant religion.”
The public response to the book has been tremendous. The book has caused a ripple effect of discussions on these issues within families, among friends and in the media. It received media coverage by all the major newspapers and media outlets.
“When we zeroed in on the stories for Love, InshAllah,” explains Maznavi, “our first commitment was to the literary quality. We looked at engaging and compelling stories, but we also wanted our book to do justice to the diversity of the American Muslim community—the most diverse Muslim community in the world. We’ve reflected that diversity in terms of both ethnicity, and religious practice (orthodox, cultural, secular).”
The authors have followed up on Love InshAllah with a second book, Salaam, Love, where Muslim men share their side of the love equation.
Zenobia Khaleel is a stay at home mom who dabbles in a lot of adventures (and misadventures), and is passionate about writing, traveling, acting, direction and community volunteering. Some of her articles have been published in The Hindu and The Khaleej Times.