Beacon Press: Love in a Headscarf
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Love in a Headscarf

Author: Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

One woman’s hilarious and thought-provoking quest to find love, Muslim-style

When Shelina Janmohamed, an Oxford-educated Muslim living in the bubbling ethnic mix of North London, opted for the traditional “arranged” route to finding a partner, she never suspected it would be the journey of her life.

Through ten long years of matchmaking buxom aunties, countless mismatches, and outrageous dating disasters, Shelina discovers more about herself and her faith. Along the way, she learns that sometimes being true to her religion means challenging tradition, while readers learn much about Islam that may surprise them.
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“A delightful memoir that celebrates spirituality, self-empowerment, female agency, and resistance to cultural (both ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’) dictates on women’s roles and identities.”—Randa Abdel-Fattah, author of Does My Head Look Big in This?

“What a fun glimpse into the courting rituals of a traditional South Asian British Muslim community! Janmohamed’s colorful and often humorous memoir shows us how those of another culture and religion might navigate the search for love, that most universal of themes. Perfect for the bedside table, but enlightening, as well.”—Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thin

“With honesty and humor, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed navigates the complicated world of being a British Muslim woman in our modern society. Love in a Headscarf is a rich and full exploration of her choice to uphold her Islamic traditions, while maintaining her own identity in her search for love and spirituality. Along the way, Janmohamed enlightens readers and reminds us all of our common humanity, with, or without, a headscarf. A thoughtful and captivating read!”—Gail Tsukiyama, author of Street of a Thousand Blossoms

“Her journey is at times hilarious, but also a rare and fascinating insight into what it means to be a Muslim woman.”—The Good Book Guide

“An Islamic spin on the ‘Looking for The One’ genre.”-Harper’s Bazaar

“A gripping and enjoyable read.”—Leila Aboulela, author of Minaret

Love in a Headscarf is a breath of fresh air in the genre of Islam-related non-fiction. Not only is it about Love, but it also exhibits a positive, uplifting and inspiring view of Muslim women. This is a godsend in a time when mass media is plagued with negative stereotyping and an overall misunderstanding of Muslim women.”—Azizah Magazine

Reviews

Review: Teen Voices - November 11, 2010
“Janmohamed weaves humor and emotion in her memoir as she enchants readers with tales of past suitors who didn’t make the cut...This is a beautiful, heartfelt memoir that gives insight into the depths of the author’s soul. It offers insight into her culture and its practices, while making it relatable to any reader.”
Review: HijabTrendz - October 30, 2010
“There is also a lot that appeals to me about Janmohamed. She isn’t just out to get married; she works, buys a sports car, climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro, visits Egypt and goes on Hajj. I can definitely relate to the wanderlust…The book has many moments of wit, especially in relating the descriptions of the “buxom aunties” that set up matches…”
Review: Kirkus Reviews - June 15, 2010
"A forthright, charming tale of unraveling the 'overwhelming contradictions and tangles' of identity."
Review by: Azizah Magazine Azizah Magazine, Azizah Magazine - January 15, 2010
Love in a Headscarf is a breath of fresh air in the genre of Islam-related non-fiction. Not only is it about Love, but it also exhibits a positive, uplifting and inspiring view of Muslim women. This is a godsend in a time when mass media is plagued with negative stereotyping and an overall misunderstanding of Muslim women.”
From chapter one, “Good Headscarf Day”

Samosas are frying in the kitchen, teetering between perfect bronze and cinder black. My mother is concentrating on the huge pan of bubbling oil, her hair wrapped up in an old towel, her mind focused on those who are about to arrive. They are important guests, perhaps the most important ones yet.

The doorbell rings. I am flicked upstairs with a tea towel. There is panicked scuttling around the house. Cushions are plumped. Curtains are adjusted. The kitchen door slams shut and my father is assailed by a cacophony of shrieking voices: “They’re here! They’re here! Open the door!” The house becomes acutely still. The lilies in the living room stand poised. My father, unflustered, strolls toward the front door and swings it open to face the man who might be his future son-in-law.

This is the first time that my family and I are to be formally introduced to a suitor. Choosing what to wear has been a struggle. I have to be attractive enough for the man in question, yet modest and demure enough for his family. The contents of my headscarf drawer are strewn colorfully across my bedroom floor in molehills of pink, purple, blue, and green. Each scarf has been carefully draped and pinned in turn, and then analyzed for aesthetics and impact. I choose one in dusky pink silk. The color is soft and welcoming, feminine but not girly. I fold the square silk in half and place the triangle over my hair, pinning it invisibly under my chin and throwing the ends loosely in opposite directions. The fabric delicately swathes itself over my hair and shoulders. Fortunately, I am having a Good Headscarf Day.

My blouse, in the same shade of pink, long-sleeved with ruffles on the cuffs, contrasts with my sweeping cream skirt with frills that trails gently on the floor. The whole family is fussing about what to wear. The first meeting is a compulsory rite of passage. It might be my only meeting. I listen in vain for a deep booming voice to announce: “Now you are a woman.” Nobody says: “Good luck.” Nor does anyone glance proudly and parentally at me, recording my transition from child to adult. I am no different from thousands, millions of young women on the threshold of marriage around the world.

I stand in front of the mirror, staring nervously into my own eyes, trying hard to control my torrential pulse. I inhale then exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. What will he be like? What will I say to him?

I am nineteen and about to step into a world that I have been prepared for since I was a young girl. The weight of tradition, which has rested so pleasantly on my South Asian Muslim shoulders since my birth, has been no less powerful than the innocent delicious wait for Love. Hollywood rom-coms, children’s fairy tales, and Islamic teachings too talk of passion, partnership, and completion, all of them with love at the very center.

The fact that I am meeting my suitor to see if we like each other is considered by some to be unspeakably modern. I always knew that I would meet my husband-to-be this way. Why, then, does my heart pound so violently? The man and his chaperones are coming to Check Me Out, and I, of course, am going to Check Him Out. The balance of Checking Out does nothing to ease my nerves. This is not just Blind Date, but Family Blind Date.

Cilla Black, the longstanding host of the popular show Blind Date, which sets up dates for hundreds of hapless singles, smirks back at me from my bedroom mirror. “Will you go for Family Number One, the accountants from London? Or Family Number Two, the clan of doctors from Gloucester? Or will it be Family Number Three, the import-exporters from Birmingham”

He might be the only Prince Charming I will ever meet, will ever need to meet. And what is wrong with that? I long for my own prince and dream of being part of a loving, “in love” couple. In reality I will most likely meet him through the formal introduction process.

On his visit to our home, he will be accompanied by at least one, if not more, “grown-ups.” Getting to know his family and understanding his background is just as critical as assessing his ratings on the tall, dark, and handsome scales. He and his family will be evaluating me in the same way: a communal date hinging on communal decision-making, and he and I will be the focus of attention.

I look at myself again in the mirror and practice my smile. Mona Lisa or Julia Roberts? I squirt myself with perfume and then collapse in a nervous puff on the floor. I recite some verses from the Qur’an, which will help to steel my nerves and restore me to normal working order. The rhythmic melody and the wisdom of the words make me feel calm. I put a few coins in a special charity box we keep at home, called sadaqa, and then straighten my clothes. Putting money toward those who need it is like chaos theory: a small flutter grows and magnifies until the positive energy comes back around to you. I need the good karma at this moment.

The front door opens; my breathing stops. Mr. Right has arrived.

I scamper to the front bedroom to watch the entourage from the window as they park their car. I kneel down so I can peer through the gap between the curtain and the windowsill. I note a grayish-brown Toyota. Or is it a Honda? Does the exact badge on a typical, reliable Asian family car matter? My eyes scan to the couple clip-clopping up our path. The Boy, Ali, walks quietly behind them.

The guests trip merrily through our front door, pretending there is nothing unusual about their visit. Even in the introduction meeting itself, the purpose of the visit remains discreet and unspoken. The house tinkles with small talk. The guests look too innocent, too nice to be coming to turn my life upside down. Are they here to extract me from the bosom of my family? I like my family, I am happy here. Why do I have to leave? Their arrival has made me apprehensive. I flap my hands, panic-stricken, abandoned alone upstairs to pace soundlessly while I wait until the appropriate moment to descend into the lair. A girl on a date has to make an entrance. Everyone knows that.

I stop abruptly and berate myself. Don’t I want to fall in love and live happily ever after? This man might be my Prince Charming. He might sweep me into a world of roses and Cinderella ball gowns. Will I feel tingles and fall in love with him at first sight?

I know four facts, which I have categorized into “important” and “uninteresting.” That he is an accountant and twenty-three years old is important to know. That he is a “nice” boy and from a “good” family I find uninteresting. At nineteen these facts are irrelevant to my simple desire to fall in love.

I hear scuffling in the living room as everyone settles in. I creep quietly down the stairs and sit hidden so I can hear what is being said. They spend a few minutes discussing family ties and origins and assessing if we have any relatives in common. Asians talking about families is like English people talking about the weather: a safe preamble that can be pursued endlessly. Beneath the pleasantries it also provides critical clues about your conversation partner. What is their background, their history, their reputation?

The two parties converse until they find a mutual relative. Asian languages are well-suited for this purpose, having specific names for complex relations, making it quick to identify an obscure relative. I can identify my mother’s sister’s husband’s sister in two moves rather than the four required in English, or my father’s brother’s wife’s mother’s sister’s mother-in-law’s sister’s husband in three moves. Both sides are earnest in their desire to find a relative or friend that links them. A buzzer then sounds and a voice calls out, “Bingo! You have a match.”
Authorís Introduction

One: The First Time
Good Headscarf Day
Samosas
Safura

Two: Hyphenated
Innocence
Kulcha
Intertangled

Three: Process Princess
Biodata
Funny Valentine
Groundhog Day

Four: Only Connect
Waiting
Plus «a Change
Lightning

Five: None of the Above
Six Stages of Self-Pity
You, Not Me
Hijab Marks the Spot

Six: Semiotic Headscarf
What Is It Like Under There?
E-veil-uation
Anti-repressant

Seven: Love
From a Single Soul, Created in Pairs
The Three Ms of Love: Method, Manner, Meaning
Quantum Theory

Eight: Multiversal
View from the Shelf
Marvelous Mary
In My Yin

Epilogue: The Beginning

  • Read an interview with Shelina in Elan Magazine


  • Read an interview with Shelina in Muslim Link


Contents

About the Book

An Oxford-educated Muslim living in Northern London, Shelina Janmohamed just wants to find the right man-the kind of man with whom she can share her life and her faith. But when she begins her search, using the traditional route of an "arranged" marriage, she has no idea how much growth and discovery the next ten years will bring.

This humorous and insightful memoir offers a relatable look into the struggle to find "the One," while also bringing to life one person's spiritual quest of "seeking divine love through the medium of worldly love." Through colorful anecdotes and thoughtful introspection, Janmohamed showcases a life balancing on the cusp between modern feminism and traditional faith.

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Praise

"Janmohamed enlightens readers and reminds us all of our common humanity, with, or without, a headscarf. A thoughtful and captivating read!" —Gail Tsukiyama, author of Street of a Thousand Blossoms

"Janmohamed's colorful and often humorous memoir shows us how those of another culture and religion might navigate the search for love, that most universal of themes. Perfect for the bedside table, but enlightening, as well." —Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing

"A delightful memoir that celebrates spirituality, self-empowerment, female agency and resistance to cultural (both 'Eastern' and 'Western') dictates on women's roles and identities." —Randa Abdel-Fattah, author of Does My Head Look Big in This?

"Her journey is at times hilarious, but also a rare and fascinating insight into what it means to be a Muslim woman." —The Good Book Guide

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About the Author

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed graduated from New College, Oxford, and has become one of the UK's hundred most influential Muslim women, as named by the Times of London. In her role as an influential commentator on British Islam, she is a columnist for EMEL magazine, and a regular contributor to the Guardian and the BBC. Her blog, Spirit21, has won several awards, including the Brass Crescent Award for Best Blog. Janmohamed lives in London and has appeared on numerous British television networks.

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Questions for Discussion

Writing Strategies

  1. Identify the main themes in this book. How did Janmohamed's treatment of these themes challenge, enhance, or illuminate your understanding of them and of yourself?

  2. Janmohamed uses many creative devices to make her points, such as writing imaginary conversations in script form, making lists, etc. How does this affect your reading of the book? How do these devices contribute to the author's voice?

  3. Janmohamed uses many pop cultural references (John Travolta, Pride and Prejudice, Disney) as well as humor ("Fortunately, I am having a Good Headscarf Day." (p. 3)) throughout the book to describe her thoughts and/or expectations. How did these references enhance or detract from your reading of her story? What do you think was the purpose of this strategy, and did it succeed?

Society and Tradition"

  1. Janmohamed defends the Muslim strategy of arranging marriage when she writes, "By [the third meeting] you should know if he was the one or if she was your wife-to-be. And really, truly, having spent intensive sessions with them, and armed with details of their life, family, intentions, reputation, and aspirations, why wouldn't you know?" (p. 24). How do you feel about this logic?

  2. As Janmohamed describes the Buxom Aunties, "They were loud and powerful and rang with the legacy of thousands of years of tradition and heritage. Who was I to disobey their laws?" (p. 13). Do you face similar struggles within your own family traditions or cultural heritage? How did Janmohamed's feelings on this matter change as she grew throughout the book?

  3. When Janmohamed describes her meeting with her first suitor, she asks, "Don't all relationships begin with a simple conversation to find out about each other, whatever the setting? Is this any different from chatting with someone in a bar, club, or restaurant?" (p. 17). What do you think?

Faith and Values

  1. Janmohamed mentions on page 36 that "setting faith over tradition…informed [my mother's] approach to life." This theme of faith vs. tradition appears often throughout the book. How does it influence Janmohamed? Can you think of some examples of times when she struggled with contradictions between the two? Do you ever find yourself struggling similarly?

  2. When describing her grandmother, Janmohamed writes of her "radiant energy," her ability to be "always content," and her "calm demeanor." She attributes these characteristics to her grandmother's "constant consciousness of God. She was always with her Creator, always thinking of her Sustainer, always connected" (p. 103). Do you find that a similar connectedness to something you believe in brings you such happiness? If not faith, then what?

  3. On page 156, Janmohamed asks, "What was the point of a social value if it wasn't practiced out in society?" Do you find yourself hiding any of your values from society? If so, why? Does that change your perspective on what you believe?

Stereotypes

  1. Throughout the book, Janmohamed struggles with "not being traditional enough for 'traditional' men (and their mothers) and being too 'boring and religious' for 'modern' men" (p. 121). How does she learn to reconcile this struggle? Have you ever struggled with a similar paradox?

  2. On page 128, Janmohamed discusses how she began "thinking about the discrepancies between what people say is Islam and what Islam actually is." She then realized that "if we can see discrepancies, then it is our duty as thinking human beings to challenge them." Do you think this book has helped her to challenge these discrepancies? What have you learned about the difference between what you thought was Islam and what it actually is? Do you consider the author a trustworthy source of what Islam is?

  3. In response to the idea that women cover themselves so men aren't sexually tempted, Janmohamed mentions on page 155 that she "felt quite offended on behalf of men by the idea that they were sex-crazed monsters." Do you think men and women stereotype each other equally? What are some instances when you've found yourself stereotyping the opposite sex?

Gender

  1. On page 164, Janmohamed realizes that she thinks she is a feminist. What does that term mean to you? She writes that she "wanted to contribute to the social discourse about gender and equality, but Muslim women who wore the veil by choice…were not allowed to have a say….I was an inadmissible feminist." Do you think that is true? If so, how does that affect your perception of feminism?

  2. Janmohamed explains that "Wearing a headscarf didn't mean denying your physical femininity; it just meant celebrating it in the private sphere" (p. 151). How do you feel about this explanation? What do you define as your physical femininity and what are your beliefs about where and when to conceal or celebrate it?

  3. What are some instances of gendered double standards Janmohamed points out throughout the book? How does she deal with them? What are some double standards you face in your own life?

Love, Marriage, and Dating

  1. Janmohamed points out on page ix that "in this modern day, when only what we see is allowed to have certainty, and when scientific data seems to hold the trump card for truth, when only what can be measured exists, love defies all of these strictures and dances joyfully before the eyes of human beings teasing them with the promise of the unknown." What do you think allows the concept of love to endure more than other unknowns?

  2. On page 54, Janmohamed writes, "Love and marriage were like, well a horse and carriage. Or was that a carriage and a horse?" What does she mean by this distinction? How does this compare to your concept of love and marriage? Which approach do you think makes the most sense?

  3. On page 65, Janmohamed reveals her list of requirements for a potential mate. What are the requirements on your list? She tells of her father's rule that people should accept anyone with at least four of six desirable traits. Do you think this is a fair assessment? What do you think Janmohamed's list would look like by the end of the book?

Personal Growth and Experiences

  1. Janmohamed realizes on page 241 that "Each person represented a path to God that I could not have seen on my own individual journey." Can you think of some unlikely examples of people who may have opened up new paths for you on your own personal journey?

  2. Throughout the book, Janmohamed describes the wide range of suitor disasters she experienced. What are some of your crazy or disastrous courting stories?

  3. On page xi, Janmohamed tells us that "The search for love is a journey to find many things." According to her, what are these other things, as she discovers in her search throughout the book? What are these other things for you?

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Links

www.loveinaheadscarf.com—The official Website for the book.

www.spirit21.co.uk—Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's blog.

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More from the Author

emel magazine

The Guardian

The National

The Times online

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Author Suggestions for Further Reading

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? (Pan Macmillan, 2005)

Aboulela, Leila. Minaret (Bloomsbury, 2005)

Al Aswany, Alaa. The Yacoubian Building (American University in Cairo, 2005)

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice

Coelho, Paulo. i (HarperOne, 1993)

Elton, Ben. Blind Faith (Transworld, 2008)

Esposito, John, & Mogahed, Dalia. Who speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (Gallup, 2008)

Gordon, Mick, & Wilkinson, Chris (eds.). Conversations on Religion (Continuum, 2008)

Hai, Yasmin. The Making of Mr Hai's Daughter: Becoming British (Virago, 2008)

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (HarperOne, 2002)

Nizami. Layla and Majnun (Shambhala, 1979)

Orwell, George. Why I Write (Penguin, 2004)

Yassin-Kassab, Robin. The Road from Damascus (Penguin 2009)

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Love in a Headscarf

ISBN: 978-080700080-9
Publication Date: 10/12/2010
Pages: 272
Size: x Inches (US)
Price:  $15.00
Format: Paperback
Availability: In stock.
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