Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Love InshAllah" so far! Part I

I finally-- finally!-- got my hands on the "controversial" book called Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.

Since I don't get the time to sit down and read it all the way through (though it's the kind of book that once you start it, you can't get yourself to put it down), I'm reading just a couple of stories a night before sleeping. I knew before I started the book that I'd love it, enjoy it immensely, and recommend it to others, so feel free to think I'm just being biased because I support the mere idea of "telling your story," sharing narratives that normalize you and humanize you, experiences that are shared by everyone else around you but that, because of constant shitty talks like, "Dude, move on!" you're scared of talking about your story because to still talk about it is apparently to show that you've broken apart, that you cannot move on, that you're weak, and so on.

On the contrary, each of the story in this edited volume presents the female Muslim American writer as a strong woman who has not let her heartbreaks break her; in fact, they have empowered her. I'm very much enjoying the conclusion paragraph(s) of each story, because sometimes the writer says something you might not expert her to say. There are no regrets, even though some of the stories are so heartbreaking that you wonder how these girls and women mustered the courage to share such intimate stories in public.

And that's one of the many things that is so commendable about this book and about each of the authors here: they are incredibly brave; they recognize the repercussions of  sharing such intimate stories with others, and they know what they might mean to their families and friends who don't know these things about them, but they speak up anyway. Why do they speak up anyway? Here are some thoughts:

1. We (Muslims) tend to ostracize Muslims who don't see Islam and being Muslim the way we do; yet here, all of these girls/women see things so differently from each other that it would behoove us tremendously to remind ourselves that we're not all the same, and we're not required to be the same. Unity? Great - but we don't have to be the same to be united. And this book shows that powerfully.
2. While not celebrating or promoting "promiscuity" or sexual activities outside of marriage, many of the stories in this book are told by girls and women who have had sex outside of before, but they don't regret it so as to let it weaken or harm their faith: they realize that it does not take them outside of the fold of Islam to do something that most Muslims see as completely forbidden in Islam. It's a reminder to Muslims who believe they have sinned (had sex outside of marriage) that you can remain a good Muslim, that you can continue to love and worship your Creator, and that you are no less or worse than any other Muslim around you just because of that experience. It's a reminder to everyone to look back into their past experiences and embrace them as a part of your life, a part of your individuality, a part of your being--we're humans, we like to experience, we do things that we ourselves might disagree with but we do them anyway because the circumstances we might be in might call for us to do so, but there's no point in regretting anything because what's done is done and cannot be undone. Most importantly, there's always something to learn from your experiences.
3. There are many misunderstandings about Muslims, especially about Muslim women. We are commonly depicted as weak, submissive, oppressed girls who will one day be forced into a marriage with someone whom we talk to and meet for the first time on our wedding day. But how true is this depiction, and for how many Muslim women out there? This book answers this question brilliantly and beautifully. Each writer has a unique story - she finds her man (or, in some cases, her woman) through different ways. 
4. People tell their stories to be recognized, to be heard. We want others to hear us, to know what we've been through. We want to bond with other humans, regardless of their religion and race, because we often connect foremost via our experiences. While our experiences and expectations are often shaped by our religions and cultures, what happens in the case of American Muslim women? Many of them easily identify themselves as American, rightly refusing to have to justify their Americanness or their Muslimness to anyone who is foolish enough to question or doubt them, so their culture is American while their religion is Islam. Are our experiences as Muslim women really necessarily going to be, or are supposed to be, different from our non-Muslim American counterparts? Again, the authors here answers this question strongly.

Does this mean that they want other Muslims and other Americans to see them as "normal" Americans? Not necessarily. To strive to depict yourself as "normal" is to, first of all, believe that you're not normal in the first place. It is to falsely believe that there's a standard, and if you do not live up to that standard, you are not normal. There may be nothing wrong with that standard, but the fact that you're outside of its fold is enough to cause you to feel or be excluded. While we're all haunted by this foolish and false idea of "normalcy," there really isn't such a thing or a person as normal. There are certain fads and trends, yes, and we are expected to live up to them, and the fact that these fads and trends change with time and space should be enough proof that normalcy doesn't exist. 

In the context of the book, however, when I say that it normalizes Muslim women in America, I mean that it (the book) shows very stunningly that they are "normal" people -- normal humans, not just women -- with their experiences and desires and dreams and hopes. Yes, there are a plethora of restrictions on Muslims, both women and men, religiously, but we all, all Muslims, understand and experience and live these restrictions differently. Some view them as mere guidelines with the objective of keeping things under control, others read them literally and ensure that they never cross them under any circumstances, while even more others fall somewhere in between, recognizing that they may have to cross certain boundaries depending on the situations they might find themselves. 

Yes, these women are Muslims; yes, they follow Islam; yes, they have desires and dreams and hopes and expectations; but, no, they are not all the same. They do not claim (or even seem to intend) to tell anyone else how to practice Islam or how to be Muslim. But they looked back into their past, contemplated over a certain experience of theirs that has to do with love, and shared it with everyone else. And they all did a beautiful job.

The writers or the editors nowhere imply that one of the objectives of the book is to encourage Muslims, specifically Muslim women, to do things traditionally considered unacceptable in (mainstream) Islam; it doesn't celebrate the falling-in-love, the having-their-heart-broken, the having-premarital-sex-with-no-regrets, etc. of these women, and it does not promote or encourage it to others. What it does is to share their understanding, expectations, and experiences of what it means to love, what it means to be loved, how to search for love, how to search for a (potential) marriage partner, and what they do/did when their families are "too strict" on them.   

The book's diversity is something I am so grateful for I cannot get over it. I've read only a few stories, but it is already so diverse. So far, it consists of stories told by the following kinds of Muslim American women:
- a woman whose marriage is fully arranged (with minimal contact with the groom before marriage)
- a woman whose marriage is semi-arranged (the couple's union is arranged by families, but they fall in love with each other during the time that they spend getting to know each other)
- a woman who is what many might consider "conservative, traditional, orthodox" Muslim primarily because she wears the hijab (or niqab, the full body-covering?) and takes her piety and attaining closeness with God very seriously and is a lesbian; she falls in love with a married woman whom she meets at the mosque, and this married woman is a niqabi who also turns out to be a lesbian. The latter one eventually divorces her husband, and the two women become partners.
- a woman who simply wants to share her "first-time" (sexual) experience, which, as she warns us in the beginning, was not with a husband or fiance or someone she loved or was dating
- a woman who has dated several different men from the time she was a teenager till now (her late 20s), many of them non-Muslims, until she finally decides that she will no longer marry non-Muslim men--but ends up falling deeply in love with a non-Muslim white American man who eventually converts to Islam and whom she eventually marries
- a woman who has tried (and so far succeeded) all her life to preserve every part of her body for the Muslim man she's going to marry, even when she meets a hot and handsome Catholic Sri Lankan model and trainer who is attracted to her and tries to kiss her at one point but she doesn't let him because she believes she has no chance with him since he's not Muslim, only to reach well into her 30s still single and looking--and regretting not having "made out" with a hot model
- a woman who has been through two divorces so far, with one child, who has lost hopes of finding someone who'll marry her--but who eventually marries a good friend of hers who is already married but whose wife is perfectly all right with sharing her husband with another woman
- and so on

Since I'm enjoying this book a lot and I have not yet finished reading it, I'll add the rest in the second part of this series on Love InshAllah. But so far, I'm really so appreciative of the diversity here. There are Muslims from all parts of the world, including born and raised American Muslims and those who are immigrants. The book includes the stories of the girls we often here about: "raised in a typical--strict--household, not allowed to even talk to boys let alone date them, only to eventually rebel by becoming sexually active." And the stories of convert Muslims and those born and raised as Muslims. Stories of female Muslims whose levels of piety are strikingly different from each other's, none of them seeing or understanding Islam or being Muslim the same way as another.

While all experiences are unique in their own right, they are shared by many people in many different ways. These women remind us that we are humans before anything else, and if not through any other experiences, we bond as humans through our journey of life searching for love, longing for love, and expecting companionship at least at some points in our lives. Some of us wait several decades to find the kind of love we dream of, while others find it rather quickly. Yet, importantly, not all of us looking for love--but it's looking for us, and it happens to find us at a moment we least expect it. 

Currently, we are at a point in time, especially in the publishing world, in which we value narratives of  personal growth. Love InshAllah takes 25 such stories, shares them with everyone else, and reminds us that, as humans, we're really not so different from each other: our struggles, our concerns, our hopes, our dreams, our expectations, our desire to love and be loved by someone we love in every way - they're more similar to other people's than we might think.

And perhaps that's why the word "Secret" is there in the subtitle. I personally don't think including that term was necessary there at all. What is so secretive about these stories? It could actually imply that these stories and experiences are secret in that Muslim women aren't supposed to have such experiences! Yet, these women are telling them so openly, almost all with their real names and their pictures (featured here)--so what is "secret" about them, exactly?

All right, all. Thanks for reading! If you've read it, feel free to offer your insight. (Heck, I know people who haven't read it and who have no desire to read it simply because of the title and their assumption about the authors' and editors' "intention" behind this project ... feel free to speak up if you're one of them, too. It's all good. I'm not here to convince you that my understanding of this book is better than yours or that it's the correct understanding and yours isn't, so it's. All. Good.)


  1. Woohoo!! I want to read the book, like NOW!

    do Indian and American Muslim women share much in common? ;)

    Loved reading it! Waiting for part 2, till then you enjoy reading the book! I need to get one copy for myself.

    1. :D Glad you enjoyed my thoughts on the book, Anonnie! Have fun reading it! And I'd love to hear your thoughts on it as well.

  2. Thank you so much for this insightful and nuanced review of 'Love InshAllah'! You definitely understood our intention to connect people heart-to-heart, beyond political headlines.

    As for the 'secret' in the title, we meant that they are unheard stories: many are not spoken of openly within Muslim communities & are wholly unknown to people of other faiths & backgrounds.

    Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts when you are finished :)

    Ayesha & Nura


Dare to opine :)

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