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Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi are co-editors of a new book of essays, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Loves of American Muslim Women. Ayesha is a writer and an international development consultant who is writing a memoir about faith and love. Nura is a civil rights attorney who is working on short stories and a screenplay. The authors talk with Sally Steenland about the uniqueness and universality in the search for love among American Muslim women.
Sally Steenland: Let’s get right to the book. You open with two opposing stereotypes of American Muslim women. One stereotype is that Muslim women are oppressed and submissive, forced into arranged marriages. The other stereotype is that they’re hiding bombs under their clothes. The essays in your book completely shatter these stereotypes. What is the most surprising thing that people will learn about American Muslim women from your book?
Nura Maznavi: I think the most surprising thing for our readers, and it was surprising to the two of us, was how incredibly diverse the voices in the book are. There are Muslim women from every ethnicity, race, and background, of different ages and who live across the country. There are orthodox Muslims, cultural Muslims, secular Muslims. All of those voices are in the book.
Ayesha Mattu: Not only were they from very different backgrounds, each had a very unique search for love.
SS: What do American Muslim women have to say about the search for love?
AM: We sent out a national call asking women who identified as American and Muslim to tell us about their search for love. We got hundreds of submissions from women who have complex, joyful, passionate, creative lives. Some speak about their faith in a very direct way. For some it is an underlying current that informs their life. Others talk about how being American affected who they met and who they ended up with.
SS: What are some of your favorite stories?
NM: Two stories really stand out for me because of the way they talk about a difficult issue, which is homosexuality within the Muslim community. Two women in the book courageously wrote their stories. One is a fairly orthodox Muslim woman, Tolu Abida, who writes about being a lesbian and an Orthodox Muslim and what that means. She meets a woman at the mosque and falls in love with her. She talks about negotiating that relationship within her community.
Another story by Najva Sol talks about a woman coming out to her parents. Najva calls herself a cultural Muslim. She no longer practices Islam, but being Muslim is very much part of her identity. At the beginning she refers to her father as a strict Muslim father. It’s just an incredibly moving story where at the end, her father says, “We just want you to be happy.” Those two stories are beautiful in the way the writers talk about a very difficult issue and how they negotiated their love with families and communities.
AM: I would add that I love the opening story by Aisha Saeed, “Leap of Faith.” It’s about a Pakistani-American woman in her early 20s negotiating a semi-arranged marriage. Many people might think that Muslim women haven’t met their partners before marriage; that arranged marriages are loveless. Yet her story takes us deeply into the process. We connect with her on a very empathetic level. And there’s a surprising twist at the end where yes, she does go forward and yes, she falls deeply in love with her husband. So an arranged marriage does not contradict the fact of also having a love marriage.
SS: I’m glad you brought that up because I loved that essay too. And it struck me that the way the parents and family members went around trying to find suitable partners for the women was a version of Match.com, only not on the Internet. You had real people helping you so that your search for a mate isn’t random and you maybe have a better chance of finding someone suitable. It seems that in lots of communities family members are on the lookout for somebody they think might be a good match.
AM: Nura is someone who met her future husband on Match.com, if she wants to speak to that.
NM: It’s interesting. The book is divided into several categories. We grouped women who met their partners online, we have a section where women talk about men they’ve met overseas, and so forth. When we were trying to group the stories, we thought it was interesting to see the various ways in which people might meet their partners. The underlying current for all of the stories was very hopeful—with the faith that the women would meet somebody. There is involvement from family and friends and ways in which everybody tries to set each other up, but underlying all the stories is this thread of hope.
AM: I would add that what connects Match.com or speed dating, for example, is that we make our decisions based on how comfortable we feel with the other person. We make them very quickly in fact. You meet someone for the first time and are looking at visual and other cues to say, “Is this someone I would be interested in moving forward with?”
I think what’s different about the semi-arranged marriage scenario is that you’re not just making the decision to date someone, you’re making the decision to spend your life with someone. That entails having really great communication and knowing yourself extremely well so that you can tell the other person what your values are, what your dreams are, what your hopes are. Instead of dating over months or years, you may only have six weeks or so in which to distill your values and see if there’s a match and if you want to take that leap of faith that we all take at when committing our lives to someone.
SS: When I was reading the essays, I kept thinking of women’s magazines with articles like “Ten Sexy Things to Do” and “How to Find a Man to Take to Bed!” Compared to your book, the magazine articles feel very superficial and not the best way to find happiness. The stories in your book don’t exclude physical attraction, but there’s so much else involved. In a sex-saturated society, how does one navigate a path of more substance and modesty when a lot of popular culture is screaming something else?
AM: What we’ve seen in these stories is that love and sex are not decoupled. They’re very integrated and interdependent, so that when you are looking for one you are also looking for the other. For many of the women, it is a search for a long-term partnership. There’s a negotiation that goes on. I don’t think that’s true for all the writers. But for many of them, there is a sense of, “My search for love is also the search for a love that lasts a lifetime,” and so there needs to be a certain amount of self knowledge and awareness, as well as the willingness to look for deeper qualities in the mate that you’re going to live with for the rest of your life. There are three women in the book who talk about having gone through a divorce and how that helped them understand what it was that they wanted in their life. It’s a process of self awareness that all these women are coming to. It’s not just a search for love, it’s also about self discovery.
SS: The women in these stories are diverse in terms of where they live, the kind of work they do, their age. Some are from immigrant families, some have converted. There is this diversity but also a commonality about the search for love. It’s a very personal book but at times the outside world intrudes: family and national politics, the aftermath of 9/11. How does that affect a relationship?
NM: When I set out to write this book, we were very conscious of the way that Muslim women are portrayed in the media and the stereotypes of Muslim women—and of Muslims generally. Love is not a feeling that is associated with Muslims. We wanted to tell these stories, to show our shared humanity and have our readers connect with these writers on a very personal and intimate level. Issues of bigotry and racism are very real for our writers and are tackled in their stories.
One of our writers is a Bangladeshi-American woman who talks about being disowned by her family for marrying an African-American Muslim man. That’s a very real issue in the community, but it’s not just a Muslim issue, it’s one that all of us share as Americans. For us, it was very interesting to see the ways in which women were talking about very pressing matters that we’re all trying to negotiate as Americans.
SS: I want to ask about any pressure or sense of responsibility you felt in presenting this material. In order to be a book that people want to read, the essays must be honest and authentic, and they certainly are that. Did you ever feel,”I’m not sure I want to say this in public?” If American Muslim communities are feeling a bit under siege, did you wrestle with the tension to be authentic, as well as a strategic sense to be somewhat protective?
AM: Nura and I spent five years working on this anthology, so we had a lot of discussions about many of these issues. For both of us there was a commitment to be as inclusive as we could and to go into the core of very real issues that women in our community are facing. We had, perhaps, a concern that some people might not want some of those stories aired, especially around homosexuality or premarital sex, which are some of the subjects in the book.
We get this question a lot about backlash, yet the reaction to the book has been a wholehearted embrace by most people in the community. Things like racism and sexism we thought needed to be looked at by the community. It feels like by letting the light in, there has almost been a collective sigh of relief, an “Oh, good, let’s start talking about this.” I feel there has actually been an embrace of the stories and maybe a big sigh of relief for both of us as well.
There were occasional days where we thought, “Are people ready to talk about these issues?” And then one of us would tell the other, “People rise to your expectations. They are ready.” And it was true. We put it out there and the faith community has definitely, I think, risen to the occasion and is coming out in force to discuss these issues. Many women are talking about giving the book to their mother, their grandmother, their sister.
They’re saying it will influence how they parent their children because they want to have a more open relationship, so that when their kids face these issues they won’t be afraid to come to them. I feel like there has been a ripple effect and I hope that is going to keep growing. The book is only in its early release right now. It’s coming out in full release on Valentine’s Day, so I think those conversations are going to continue. It’s funny because it’s very serious on some levels, and it’s also like girlfriends are giving this to all their girlfriends and getting together to have a girlfriends book club to discuss it. So it’s also a real celebratory, joyous, “Yes, our stories are finally being heard!” sort of moment.
SS: Were there some essays you decided not to include?
NM: Our choices were based on writing quality and space. But there were no stories where we consciously decided that a certain topic was off limits, so we couldn’t include it.
SS: Do you feel you’ve represented the range of what’s out there or is this the tip of the iceberg?
NM: We tried very hard to reflect the community, but we do recognize that it’s a book with space constraints and we couldn’t put all the stories in there. Every woman has her own unique story and no two women’s experiences are the same.
We don’t have stories in the book about Muslim women who marry outside of the faith community. But there are American Muslim women dating non-Muslim men, and we know anecdotally that those marrying outside of the faith are growing in number. It would have been wonderful to include one of those stories, but unfortunately, we didn’t receive one that would have worked for the book.
AM: I would also add that it would have been great to include Latina voices. From what I understand, Latinas and Latinos constitute a growing part of the Muslim community and it would have been wonderful to have some stories from that community. We’re offering this book as a snapshot. We hope it is just the beginning of many stories that are going to be told.
SS: I was thinking of an interactive website where people can add their own stories. And I imagine as you do readings around the country, people will come up and say, “I have a story.” You could do books themed in various ways. And then comes the movie, and then the TV series.
NM: I like the way you think.
AM: We have some of those dreams. In the fall, we’d like to shift our website into a reader-generated portal where people from around the globe can share their stories on the search for love. We are also hoping that the book will be translated for many different countries, and that there will be international editions. I’d love to partner with local women in the United Kingdom and Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria and learn about the stories of the Muslim women in these communities because race, ethnicity, culture vary from place to place. How are they similar and how are they different? And, yes, we’ve discussed who should play us should there be a movie.
SS: Oh, please tell us!
AM: Well, it would have to be Angelina Jolie.
SS: Of course!
AM: She’s a humanitarian and I work in human rights, so there is a connection, right?
SS: She’s reading your book, even as we speak.
AM: Oh, I hope so!
SS: I love the idea of going global. I love the idea of getting stories from different cultures, of marking the particularities and also the commonalities in the search for love. These stories are so inspired and you’ve given a great gift to all of us. Thank you so much for doing the book.
Both: Thank you so much, Sally.
SS: We’ll include at the end of this interview information about your book tour and where to find your book.
Both: Thank you.
Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi are currently on a national book tour to promote Love InshAllah. The book is available on Amazon and Kindle.
Listen to the interview here (mp3)