June Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

‘No sex please, we’re British!’ seems an anachronism now, even in the Isles but the play written and performed in the Great Britain of the ‘70s typified an era of prudish attitudes towards intimacy and sexuality among the Brits, consummately shattered through the media in the quintessential comedic fashion that is so characteristic of British humour.

But in the ‘nation of Islam,’ even love (the non-platonic variety between a man and a woman) is no laughing matter; don’t even mention sex! It is not surprising, then, that in several stories that appear in the book Love, InshAllah — The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, love between a single man and a woman is seen as haram — forbidden, a transgression. But this does not prevent the book from exploring themes like intimacy, sexuality and even homosexuality among American Muslim women.

Featured on its pages are: a Muslim convert who struggles to make peace with her religious beliefs and her homosexual preferences; a “quintessential California desi punk girl” whose road trip with a Muslim punk band, and amorous encounters with a band member en route, is nothing less than a pilgrimage; a twenty-something virgin with designs to lose her virtue and a self-declared “unmarried Muslim nonvirgin.”

These are just some of the women you meet in Love, InshAllah — an anthology of 25 stories about ‘the secret love lives of American Muslim women,’ compiled by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi.

Some of these stories reinforce stereotypes of the North American Muslimah, at least for a South Asian reader. Others are revelatory in dispelling myths and misconceptions about North American Muslimahs held among fellow North Americans. Either way, together, they all paint a colourful and very real canvas of the plurality that exists within the universe of the American Muslim woman. She is no longer a monolith, carted off to a distant homeland to be forced into an arranged marriage with a total stranger or throwing caution, and religion, to the winds to shed her chastity well before her wedding night. She is, in fact, happily embracing marriage with a virtual stranger because she feels a connection. Or, struggling to maintain her virginity while succumbing to love and dealing with social pressure.

While it is heartening to see American Muslim women emerge from ‘behind the veil’ to share the intimate details of their romantic, sexual and spiritual lives — and the conflicts between them — I have no doubt that these experiences will resonate with middle class, urban, educated Muslim women anywhere. Indeed, these are the struggles of the modern-day Muslimah wherever she may be. Information technology has brought America to the world, particularly the urban middle-class and upwards in almost every corner of the globe. There are as many, if not more, jeans-clad girls and women on the streets of Delhi as there are in New York City. In embracing American populist culture, they have had to deal with the conflicts created by that culture invasion.

It is these conflicts that are given a voice in the book, through a range of authors and their unique personal experiences of love, longing, desire, intimacy, sexuality, fulfillment, joy and heartbreak.

The book’s cover is provocative — a slinky red negligee lying on a pristine white bedsheet — as are the words “secret love lives” in the subtitle. In the words of the editor-writers, the latter generated a controversy in which they were “accused… of playing into an Orientalist fantasy… [and] writing a salacious expose” of Muslim women. While the stories are by no means sensational in the American context, the perception regarding the book’s authors and editors as agents provocateur among the Muslim audience is not at all unexpected. Will the book generate a constructive dialogue within the Ummah in North America? Or will it only generate criticism and condemnation? I am with the editors in hoping that it does the former.

Though it may be quite a while before sex becomes a laughing matter, perhaps books like this one may enable Muslim women to love without self-censure.

This book review was originally published in the June issue under the headline “Sex, Please…” Look out for the latest issue of Newsline at newsstands across Pakistan.