In the United States, there are a lot topics that pop into one's head when the word "Muslim" is mentioned. The issue of their love lives usually is not usually one of them…
Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women may help change the way the general public thinks of Muslims. Like the recently published I Speak for Myself, these stories portray American Muslim women as they are, entirely relatable human beings who go through the same life experiences as most other American women, albeit with religion and culture sometimes thrown in the mix.
Love, InshAllah, the idea of which came from the minds of co-editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, collects stories from American Muslim women from all walks of life. From the website:
"Romance, dating, sex and – Muslim women? In this groundbreaking collection, 25 writers sweep aside stereotypes to share their search for love and speak openly for the first time about love, relationships, sexuality, gender, identity, homophobia, and racism."
I read the book and was quite amazed at the wide range of voices represented in the narratives. There were stories about falling in love, heartbreak, stories about everything working out perfectly, and, unfortunately, stories that didn't have the happy ending we all hope to see. I have to admit, there were even a couple of times where I had to step out of my comfort zone. In the end though, I appreciated the honesty of all the stories and I learned quite a bit about my fellow Muslim sisters.
I had a chance to interview Ayesha Mattu over email recently about Love, InshAllah. Ms. Mattu blogs at Rickshaw Diaries and has had her writing featured on such sites as Huffington Post and Religion Dispatches and was kind enough to answer my questions on Love, InshAllah:
Can you tell me a little about yourself and your co-editor Nura Maznavi? How did you two meet?
Nura & I met six years ago, through a mutual friend who had arranged a weekly halaqa. We were both living and working in San Francisco at the time and hit it off right away.
Why did you two set out to create this book? Why now?
We were chatting over coffee one day about how we didn’t see ourselves reflected in the media or pop culture. There were no nuanced depictions of the many intelligent, opinionated and funny Muslim women who are our friends. To take just one example, the mainstream and Muslim media tended to focus on arranged marriages and matchmakers when it came to Muslim marriage. While those were certainly true stories about how some Muslims were meeting their life partners, they were leaving out many of us who met our partners in other ways.
Though much has been written about Muslim women, little of it has been written by Muslim women ourselves. We decided this was a wonderful opportunity for us to tell our own stories. And what better stories to share than love stories, which have a universal appeal?
As for why now: It was time for us as Muslim women to see ourselves reflected in the culture around us. We also felt that the community was ready to have the conversations that the stories touch upon, including: sexuality, racism, homophobia, the stigma of divorce, and more. Muslim women have been waiting to have these conversations for a long time, and are so ready to engage with each other. We have complex, joyful, passionate and creative lives. We are ready to share that with the world and, in so doing, help to create a more inclusive, compassionate, and respectful dialogue within families and between communities.
Was there any topic at all that was deemed too "out there"/taboo for this anthology?
No. Our first commitment was to the literary quality of the stories, and then to trying to do justice to the racial/ethnic diversity of the American Muslim community, as well as the full spectrum of religious practice (from orthodox to cultural to secular).
Many of us spend our lives speaking to people who share the exact same views as us, and many books written by Muslims only speak to one segment of the community: either the orthodox, or cultural or secular members. We wanted to bring all of those voices together in one space to showcase the amazing plurality of the community. We wanted to help create a big tent that includes diverse and divergent voices, thus making it impossible for Muslims or non-Muslims to depict Muslims as a monolithic group.
Can you tell me about some of the stories that didn't make the final book? Was there any story you wished could have stayed in the finished product?
We received hundreds of submissions from across the country (as well as interest from other countries and from men wanting to share their stories too). Narrowing that down to 25 stories was difficult, and we understood that even with our commitment to diversity, there would be stories that could not be included due to space constraints. We offer these 25 stories as a snapshot, as a beginning, not as the only possible portrait of the vibrant lives of America’s six million Muslims.
Some stories that we wish we could have included are those dealing with mutaa, the rise and impact of emotional or physical extramarital affairs even in more orthodox Muslim communities, the challenges of remaining single into one’s 30s and 40s (or beyond), and women choosing to marry non-Muslim men. 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.
On a personal level, I wish we had received submissions from disabled women and their search for love. They are so often forgotten within our faith community. In many Muslim communities any sign of a medical condition severely impacts the marriageability of that woman.
I’d also like to pose a question to our leaders, readers and faith community: Who else are we leaving out? ‘An ummah isn’t an ummah if it leaves some people out’ or behind.
Have you received any backlash from the Muslim community regarding Love, InshAllah? Overall, how have Muslims felt about this book?
There seems to be an expectation from Muslims and non-Muslims that there will be a backlash, but there hasn’t been.
We believe that most members of the community are mature enough to have the conversations that this book will evoke. Many women readers in particular have reached out to us to say, “Thank you for making me feel less alone, less isolated”; “Thank you for making me see that wanting to be loved is a normal human desire”. Many women look at this as a hopeful collection, one that shows they don’t have to leave their Muslim identity or community behind even if they go through periods of doubt or challenges. That faith is a lifelong journey, and that there is space for them.
Many women are using this book as a tool to start conversations they have never had been able to have before with their parents and grandparents. I know of many mother-daughter duos who are reading this book together and parents who are using it as a way to understand what their children might face growing up and how to maintain a meaningful engagement with them. That is one of my greatest wishes – to see this book as a way to bridge the generational gap, and to parent from a place of love and openness instead of fear.
As a parent and an aunt to young nieces and nephews, I want us as a community to be very cognizant of the fact that when we are providing a moral framework to our children to, for example, save sexual intimacy for marriage, that we are doing it in a way that does not create a revulsion, division or shame within them regarding the normal desires and emotions that they will experience in adolescence and beyond. Love is a normal desire and part of what makes us human. It is also part of both our Western and Islamic heritages, whether the story is about Elizabeth Bennet, Majnun, or any of the 25 women in this anthology.
What do you perceive the contribution of this book to be?
We wanted to challenge the stereotypes of the wider American audience by presenting stories that are rarely heard, in Muslim women’s own words. Within the faith community, we wanted to help create a space for Muslim women to share their lives honestly, across the full range of their experiences. We hope these stories start conversations within families and between communities about the similarities that bind us together, while recognizing and respecting the differences that enrich us.
With articles in the Huffington Post and New York Times and a high ranking of the book in the women's studies category on Amazon.com, are you surprised by all the attention? What do you make of all of it?
Muslim women have been a source of fascination and intrigue for centuries. Our bodies and lives have long been politicized by our own faith community and by other communities. This anthology is a way to reveal our plurality and humanity in our own words. We’re not surprised by the interest from Muslims and non-Muslims. We believe that people of all backgrounds are tired of the politics of fear and are eager to connect with other in meaningful ways. These stories provide a way for us to connect with each other in a very intimate way. Who or what we love reveals a lot about us, and is at the core of what makes us human.
Do you intend to use Love, InshAllah as a platform for any other projects?
Later in the year we plan to open up our website (www.loveinshAllah.com) to readers from around the world to connect with each other and to share their own search for love. We also hope that Love InshAllah will be translated into different languages to reach a wider audience.
Eventually, we would love to see local editions of the book come out with Muslim women in different countries telling their own stories. We chose to focus on American Muslims because that is our context, but we know that race, ethnicity and cultural issues vary from country to country. It would be fascinating to see the similarities and differences between Muslim women from the UK to Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia and beyond.
What would you tell people about why they should read Love, InshAllah?
First, because these are wonderful, provocative and moving stories in their own right. They will make you laugh and cry. Men & women will recognize parts of their own experiences in many of the stories. Whether you are a Muslim being brought up in a specific ethnic/racial community, or you are a non-Muslim who has never met a Muslim woman in real life, this book will give you a window onto many different lives and perspectives. In the end, readers will connect with the search for love, because we are all seeking to love and be loved for who we are.
Looking back at the process from creating Love, InshAllah, from asking for submissions to compiling the stories that made it in the book, what have you learned about Muslim women?
How very unique Muslim women are. Each of the over 200 submissions we received had a strong, unique perspective and voice. Each woman is an individual and, thus, painting 1.2 billion Muslims around the world with one brushstroke is impossible. We hope this leads to a more nuanced understanding of Muslim women inside & outside of the faith community.
Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women is published by Soft Skull Press. Check out www.LoveInshAllah.com for information about contributors and book signing events.