Valentine's Day: Getting past Muslim romance stereotypes

'Love, InshAllah' challenges pre-conceived notions about Muslim women and love

So a good Muslim girl meets a guy through her parents, the only “dates” they have are chaperoned, and sex before marriage? Forget about it.

…Right?

“I’m an unmarried, Muslim non-virgin,” writes Insiya Ansari, a writer from San Francisco. “I’ve said it aloud.”

“And no, I wasn’t married or engaged to be married, or even in an exclusive relationship,” writes Zahra Noorbakhsh, a first generation Iranian-American comedian.

And then there’s Tanzila Ahmed, who has an affair with a Muslim punk rocker with a Mohawk whose band she follows across the country. And Tolu Adiba, who fights her homosexuality, then moves in with a girlfriend, who was herself married to a man.

This Valentine’s Day, peek into the love lives of 25 American Muslim women navigating love and religion in “Love, InshAllah,” an intimate, brutally honest anthology by writers Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. The stories sweep aside stereotypes about subservient Muslim girls entering into arranged marriages and show the myriad ways Muslim women look for – and find – love. (The word “InshAllah” in the book’s title is Arabic for “God willing,” a phrase frequently used by Muslims.)

After successfully pitching their idea at Pitchapalooza 2010, a literary festival in the Bay Area where writers get a few minutes to pitch book ideas to a panel of industry veterans, the pair secured agents and then a publishing contract with Soft Skull Press in Berkeley, Calif.  When they began soliciting submissions from across the US, mainly through social media, Mattu and Maznavi were astonished by the response. They got around 200 submissions, from women with origins in East Africa, the Middle East, the subcontinent, and American converts, with a range of ages, professions, and sexual orientations. And the essays displayed a candor typically unseen in the Muslim community, an openness that surprised even the book’s editors, Mattu and Maznavi.

“I felt like we hit a chord,” Mattu told the Religion News Service.

Adds Maznavi, there “really hasn’t been the space to discuss these issues publicly, and openly and honestly…There’s been a lot of fear in the community – fear of judgment, fear of disapproval, and I think that manifested itself in a lot of self censorship and people not feeling comfortable to talk about these issues, even with very, very close friends.”

By the time submission calls came for “Love InshAllah,” “I felt like women were ready to talk about these stories,” says Mattu.

And talk they did, from a heartbreaking story by Leila Khan about losing her fiancé because he condemned Islam and lumped all Muslims together as terrorists, to a sweet tale by Huda al-Marashi, a first generation Iraqi-American, about adjusting her fairy tale expectations of love when she enters into a semi-arranged marriage.

The book, says Mattu, challenges pre-conceived notions about Muslim women by allowing the women to speak for themselves.

“There are still misconceptions about Muslim women, because Muslim women, their bodies, their lives, have been so caught up in political debate,” she told the RNS. “I feel like this is a way for people to connect with women who are revealing their full humanity.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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