Read Love in a Headscarf Online

Authors: Shelina Janmohamed

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Social Science, #Religion, #Family & Relationships, #Personal Memoirs, #Arranged marriage, #Great Britain, #Women, #Marriage, #Religious, #Self-Help, #Personal Growth, #Love & Romance, #Sociology, #Women's Studies, #Conduct of life, #Islam, #Marriage & Family, #Religious aspects, #Rituals & Practice, #Muslim Women, #Mate selection, #Janmohamed; Shelina Zahra, #Muslim women - Conduct of life, #Mate selection - Religious aspects - Islam, #Arranged marriage - Great Britain, #Muslim women - Great Britain

Love in a Headscarf (10 page)


I wanted someone sharp and quick-witted, who could challenge me, whose conversation would stimulate me. And surely an intelligent man would want an intelligent woman like me?

I carried on chewing the end of my pen, and then added “someone I can talk to
” The most important part of everything was a connection, a communication.

Muslim Man Travolta was beginning to take shape in my mind, and as he materialized I found I liked him even more than I had before. In the process of formulating my wish list for my perfect man, my father’s most famous marriage phrase was coined. They were wise words, completely unheeded by the arrogance and optimism of my youth. “If you have six things on your list that you are looking for, then if you get four, that is very good. You will never get everything.” But how to know which four would be enough? Why shouldn’t I demand a full quotient of six? Why shouldn’t everyone? “Four out of six,” he repeated earnestly. His heartfelt and well-meaning advice was pitted against Harlequin, Hollywood, Bollywood, and countless “They Lived Happily Ever After” princess stories.

I focused myself on defining my list of six. I had included eight items on my list of essentials, but the first two didn’t
count. I was left with the six must-haves that would guide me for the journey ahead: practicing Muslim, within the right age bracket, involved in the community, happy for me to wear hijab, intelligent, and someone I could talk to.

But I wanted more, craved more, desired more, needed more, deserved more. I should have it all!

From a practical point of view, I told myself that giving a more specific list would make Mr. Right much more identifiable, more likely to exhibit the characteristics that were important to me. I rationalized the additions to my list by categorizing them into a non-mandatory section.



Oh, yes, it crept back onto my list. Even Islamic guidelines said you should “fancy” your spouse!

University educated

This would be a good indicator of shared experience, shared language, shared communication. It wasn’t a must-have but I was convinced it would be a good foundation.

Born in or lived in the UK, Canada, or United States of America since they were at least eighteen

I was presented with boys from all over the world, especially from “back home,” which for me was East Africa, but might also include India and Pakistan. I certainly would meet men from all over, but it occurred to me I was more likely to connect with someone with whom I shared some context. Having grown up in the UK, I felt I had a different understanding and expectations of being married, of being a Muslim. I wanted someone who would be in harmony with that, not with whom I would spend the first years of my married life trying to adjust. It was worth noting that this criterion also meant that I would avoid those simply looking for a British passport. I wanted to be a wife, not a ticket to citizenship.

Has a social circle; does more than just work and play soccer

I came to be shocked at how many men this simple clause would exclude.

I was dreaming by now and let my imagination, my hopes, and my heart run away.

Interested in reading, traveling, and generally a charming, interesting person. Wants to change the world and make it a better place. Vision and some sparkle. Cool and hip. Oh, yeah, rock on!

I sighed. There he was, my perfect man. I wanted to just will him into existence. My heart told me that
of course
such a man was out there waiting to be found. My head wondered how he would be discovered. I held back on making my list longer. The voices of the Aunties in my head told me to rein in my desires. A girl should not be so demanding. How shameful!

I was fortunate. My family understood my description and were eager to cross-check their findings with me. It felt like we were a team working toward my happiness. I couldn’t imagine looking for the most special person in my life without their support and encouragement, and they wanted to put all their resources into finding the person who would contribute to me living a happy and fulfilled life.

Their wisdom and experience forced them to temper my optimism with a dose of reality. They had read through my list and they had feigned seriousness about how they were to find this angelic hero.

“Are you expecting a man to fall from heaven into your lap?” my parents had asked. “Perhaps you could find him for sale in Woolworths,” they teased me.

I pulled a mock face of horror. “You couldn’t think of somewhere more upmarket?” I gasped. “What about made-to-measure from Harrods or Harvey Nichols?”

“We got
from Woolworths,” they reminded me, laughing affectionately. That was how they had explained where babies came from when I was a very young child, and the joke had stuck. “Woolworths would be a good match.”

Partners do not come made-to-measure. My parents’ description of Prince Charming being off-the-peg was much more accurate. There would always be something on the list that he would lack. But which qualities would I be willing to give up? When my father said “pick four qualities,” how would I know which two were dispensable? I refused to accept that I should downgrade my selection standards, so his wise and fatherly advice fell on deaf ears.

The search threw up the dentist from Birmingham, the doctor from South London, a lecturer from Bristol, various IT consultants, businessmen, pharmacists, and other unmemorable professionals. They were defined by the jobs they did. The higher up the professional rankings the matchmakers judged them to be—which didn’t always reflect reality—the more they oohed and aahed in honor of the prospective match.

The community liked pairing up well-labeled people. When certain engagements were announced it was like drawing numbers at bingo. “Two doctors, how lovely, what a good match.” “Two dentists, how nice, they will set up their own practice together.” “They are both so fair and good-looking, they will have such white and handsome children.”

On the whole, I would be the one to say no. The family generally presumed that the boy would take a shine to me. “Who wouldn’t?” asked my mum. “You’re beautiful, intelligent, nice, religious.” I would blush. “You’re my mum, of course you’ll say that,” I would laugh at her. Every so often, it was I that would be turned down, and we would furrow our brows in surprise.
Why would anyone turn me down?
In this competitive world of finding a partner, modesty was a dispensable quality.

Funny Valentine

aith and religious practice were an integral part of my life. I had been brought up as a Muslim from birth and nurtured within a Muslim household. I prayed, fasted, and gave charity. I read the Qur’an, wore the headscarf, and did my best to look after my family and community. In short, you might describe me as a practicing Muslim and one that was happy to be so. My life was centered around my beliefs and on the efforts to be a good human being as seen through Islam.

The choices that were made for me as a child were based on an Islamic ethos as understood by my parents. Their Islamic principles guided them toward trying to live a good life and helping themselves, their children, and their community to succeed in the here and now, materially as well as spiritually. Belief in a Creator, and a life after death, underpinned these ideas.

Even as a young child, I learned to exercise choice based on these principles. Some were specific to being Muslim. Instinctively I knew I shouldn’t eat pork or bacon, as this was forbidden by Islam, and I understood by the time I was four that I shouldn’t eat sausages at school. They were made of pork. I also refused the shepherd’s pie on the grounds the meat was not
The rice pudding I rejected on the grounds that it was disgusting.

Other principles were common between Islam and other codes of personal morality, such as caring about others, giving charity, and respecting elders. The more I read, the more I listened and the more I learned, the more Islam seemed to offer a holistic view of the world that made sense to me. It was concerned about my life and about showing me how to be happy. So despite the fact that I was born a Muslim, I made an active decision
to be a Muslim
because it was a faith in which I truly believed. It offered me peace and direction in a world that felt overwhelming and confused. It inspired me to excel, explore, and discover. It pushed me to investigate myself and everything around me. It encouraged me toward success, which could be measured in affluence as well as contentment.

Islam has rules. Once they are part of your life, you don’t notice them anymore. But is our understanding of the world around us and its rules governed by the time we live in? The inhabitants of the Middle Ages were convinced the earth was flat. Einstein changed our view of Newtonian physics. Didn’t that mean that our current understanding of the world was likely to change too?

I didn’t start from the premise that the rules were archaic. The basic principles of being good, standing up for equality and justice, and being kind and compassionate were sound. Instead I started to question which areas had become fuzzy with culture, power, and misinterpretation. Human beings like to twist things to meet their own selfish ends. They would mutate beliefs for their own benefit and then claim this was the Truth. It was the challenge of the fresh eyes of each generation to reexamine and revisit the truth of the principles that were accepted as universal.

I found it exhilarating that every part of my life was important and significant enough to warrant spiritual guidance. The delicacy and complexity of the layers of meaning and hidden depths hinted that a microcosm lay inside me, waiting to be discovered. I learned about the map of my esoteric world through Islam. Through parables, sayings, and teachings, the landscape of a human being and her soul was described. I needed a partner to accompany me on this journey, and if I was to have a traveling companion, he would need to share the same map as me. How else could we journey on the same path?

My first Valentine’s card was from a man who was not a Muslim.

I found it pinned to the door of my university dorm room early on the morning of Valentine’s Day. I ripped open the envelope and devoured the contents. Inside was a handwritten poem, penned with traditional calligraphy. I read it slowly and then smiled. The poem had humor, rhythm, and perfect rhyme.

Even though there was no name, I knew straight away who had sent it. I was very flattered. He was an intelligent, charming, and generally well-liked young man. How delightful that someone could like me enough to send a Valentine’s card with a poem he wrote himself!

Powerful emotions can be evoked with the turn of a phrase, an expressive manner, the run of elegant words that conjure up an image, or a feeling. Poetry was the ultimate path to seduction, and I was vulnerable to its magic spell like generations of women before me. I often thought that this was why the Qur’an was composed of poetry and poetic prose. Poetry is designed to inspire love, and Islam is about falling in love with the Creator of the Universe. The Arabic is simple and rhythmic and has layers of meaning that reveal themselves to you each time you return. The seventh century Arabs were so taken aback by the elegance and mystery of the words, they called the Prophet Muhammad a magician. They recognized the power of ideas and eloquence to seduce the soul and create a revolution.

I saw the sender of my Valentine’s Day card later that day. He was sitting with a large group of mutual acquaintances out in the garden, including my circle of close female friends. It was a beautiful early spring evening and the night sky was clear and full of twinkling stars. I walked along the gravel path, admiring the snowdrops and crocuses beginning to poke their heads bravely into the world. I had spent the afternoon smiling quietly to myself, wistfully imagining what might happen. The romantic teenager in me had sprung into life and asked the same questions I had asked at the age of thirteen about John Travolta. Was he interested? Would he become a Muslim? As always, the prerequisite was that he should be a Muslim. But the sender was nice, I thought, and I should explore these enormous questions of faith, belief, and soul and see where we found ourselves. Even with the careful boundaries of modesty in place in our interactions, we could still talk. We could still see where life would take us.

I walked toward the group. I felt that courtesy demanded that I should acknowledge his actions. It must have taken much courage on his part to express his feelings. And of course the little voice of romantic destiny kept whispering, what if … what if … what if… he becomes Muslim?

“Hello,” I said to him.

“Hello,” he answered.

I smiled.

“Finished your essay?” he asked seriously.

“Thank you,” I answered incongruously.

“Thank you? For what?” His lips curled up cheekily at the edges.

“The card.”

He grinned. “Will you have a cup of tea with me then?”

He knew I was different, and I think he liked that. He knew that I didn’t drink alcohol, that he couldn’t take me to the pub for a drink. He also respected my modesty and at the same time saw past my hijab to the person I was. Through later years I came across many Muslim men who were put off by the headscarf. It was something they just couldn’t get past. They couldn’t see
or want me for who I was. All they saw was a walking book of religious rulings, a miserable turgid caricature. But here was a young man, not Muslim, who was drawn to

“I’m sitting out here right now, aren’t I?”

We both smiled nervously, and silently enjoyed the night, surrounded by our friends, as the chattering around us carried on.

I looked up at the sky, breathless from the sheer beauty of the stars. It was magnificent and indescribable. I wondered what lay beyond. But these were just physical things. What then was the Creator? Unimaginable, incomprehensible in majesty, the ultimate aesthete for creating these extraordinarily beautiful universes. I forgot that I was in company, and was lost.

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