Level-headed romance

For author Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, the headscarf is about choice, and arranged marriage need not be scorned.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed grew up in a world where it was not uncommon for buxom aunties to make rules about marriage. Among other things, these women decreed that the girl should always be younger than the boy, less educated and shorter. However, as the London-based Janmohamed writes in Love in a Headscarf, her recently published memoir about finding 'the one', the aunties did not mind if the boy gelled his hair to appear taller. Apart from aunties, the cast of characters that populate Janmohamed's book include potential bridegrooms, at least one of whom use "struck by lightning" as an excuse for failing to respond to her e-mails. But while Love in a Headscarf is replete with this and similar hilarious encounters, and comes packaged in a pretty pink cover, it would be a mistake to slot it as just another addition to the 'chick lit' genre.

In the book, Janmohamed attempts to dispel stereotypical notions about Muslim women, who are often seen – particularly in the West – as oppressed creatures forced into marriage, without a mind to call their own. In contrast, her account is that of a Muslim woman who finds her religion to be "positive" and "uplifting", and her quest for the perfect man is in many ways also a spiritual journey. "This seemed a perfect way to make people understand what it was like to be a Muslim woman, through the most universal of stories, which is about love," Janmohamed said during a recent interview at a café in North London. After all, "everybody loves a good story about love." Her search for a husband spanned over a decade, beginning when she was a 19-year-old student at Oxford University, on a "Good Headscarf Day" as she calls it.

The daughter of parents who emigrated from Tanzania during the 1960s (her great-grandparents moved across the Arabian Sea to Tanzania from Kutch in the mid-1850s), Janmohamed seems to straddle her various identities – British, Muslim, Southasian – with ease. When she was young, however, she behaved differently in different settings: at the girls-only school where she studied, the mosque, her home. "I felt very comfortable with various parts of my life," she says. "What I couldn't work out was how to integrate them, so I could be the same person in all aspects of my life. And it took me many years, as I think it does many people, to find an answer to that."

Janmohamed knew she would have an arranged marriage, a concept many in the West consider strange and exotic. "I find that people are really curious about arranged marriage," she says. "But when it's explained properly, they feel a bit jealous. Because as far as I am concerned, an arranged marriage is one where your family and friends are actively looking for a potential boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband – so, frankly, isn't that a great thing?" Therefore, though she grew up swooning over John Travolta in the film Grease and dreamed of marrying him, she was quite happy with the idea that her parents would be introducing her to potential husbands.

Love in a Headscarf describes those arranged meetings with various suitors, some of whom unapologetically turned up late or considered her too short to be a perfect match. At the same time, Janmohamed manages to devote space to weighty subjects such as the position of women in Islam. "I think that it is a shame that, in Asian cultures, which have such a tenderness for feminine spirituality, whichever religious background it is, women aren't given their due," she says. In her book, Janmohamed writes about men who say they will consider marrying her only if she stops wearing a headscarf, a demand she finds offensive. "They were questioning my own autonomy, my own choice," she says.

This Muslim life
After the attacks of 11 September 2001, as a headscarf-wearing Muslim, Janmohamed found herself coming under harsh scrutiny. "I started wearing a headscarf because I thought as a Muslim woman that was the right thing to do," she says. "I was quite happy with that decision, and I felt very comfortable being a British Muslim woman." Growing up and going to school in Britain, Janmohamed says she always had "positive experiences". But post-9/11, she found that, despite being the same person she had always been, people looked at her differently, as if she were to blame for what had happened. As for the discussion about whether Muslim women would be safer not wearing headscarves, Janmohamed says that would have been like deciding to stop taking the Tube, London's subway, in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings in the city. "That would have meant giving in to those who had perpetuated the violence," she says.

These discussions tie into the issue of how countries with large multicultural minorities are still struggling to answer questions about integration or assimilation. In the case of Britain, its colonial past has meant that it has had a longstanding relationship with its minority communities. While Janmohamed says it is important for people to live together, she is against attempts to force communities to abandon their culture or traditions in the name of assimilation. "I dress to respect my faith," Janmohamed says, adding that "dressing modestly is important" to her. But equally important for Janmohamed is her individuality. "The dress should have personality," she says, "because I believe every individual is unique, and one of the great joys of life is that you can express your character through the way you dress and recognise people for being individuals. What I feel averse to is uniformity in dress." For her, it is not just the long, black robes that women don in certain parts of the world that suggest uniformity. After all, she says, even the little black dresses women wear in trendy parts of London can result in one person looking very similar to another.

Janmohamed's take on faith, identity and love seems to have found an enthusiastic audience. "I get at least five or ten e-mails a week from younger women," she says. "Their opening line is literally, 'You have written about my life!' And the inner feeling is that somehow this has liberated them to be able to talk about this part of their life." This is unusual, for as she writes in the book, the Muslim community does not discuss love in public, despite being obsessed with the subject. This has a great deal to do with the perception that love "didn't obey the rules": when the aunties who figure so prominently in her book said that so-and-so had a "love marriage", the subtext was that the person had done a terrible thing. "But if we contextualise it and see that love is about being able to build a relationship that would contribute to those around them," she says, "then we will see marriage as something that's done by choice."

As someone who waited for long to find 'Mr Right', Janmohamed seems to have broken quite a few of the rules set down by the aunties. "There is this very uncanny pressure, particularly on women, that if you don't find somebody, then there is something wrong with you and you are flawed. And I think that is a very Asian culture thing: that if you are not married, then there is something wrong with you, as opposed to thinking, Well, maybe it's just bad luck or maybe the right one hasn't turned up, or maybe there is something wrong with the men. But you can't say all that because that is not allowed." Janmohamed held onto her optimism, however, even when she entered the oftentimes-murky world of speed-dating and online dating. She also learned not to put her life on hold till the chosen one showed up. She travelled, climbed Mt Kilimanjaro and even bought a convertible.

Currently working in the telecommunications industry, Janmohamed has now been married for four years, and finds marriage to be a "wonderful and amazing" experience. (How exactly her marriage came about is detailed in the book.) She is also clear that one has to approach romance with a level-headedness, even if that sounds like a distinctly unromantic proposition. "People don't think clearly about whether relationships have the right foundation to work," she says. "For me, that is why arranged marriages are so important. You can have different ideas about things from the person you are meeting, but at least you have talked about them, and you know where the other person stands."

When she first sent it around, Janmohamed says her memoir generated a significant amount of interest among agents. But a number of publishers were unable to understand that the story was a positive one, sending comments along the lines of 'We think it is really good that you are telling the story of an oppressed woman.' Janmohamed's response to this was to ask whether they had actually read the book. "There is no oppression," she says. "If anything it is about empowerment." Aware that the mainstream view of Muslim women was fixed and narrow, this feisty writer was determined to challenge these simplistic perceptions in her memoir. Her resolve seems to have paid off. Will we see the book being made into a movie next? "If anyone would like to offer me two million dollars, then…" she says, laughing.

~ Deepa A is an independent journalist currently based in London.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian