The Asian Writer catches up with Shelina Janmohammed to find out more about why she felt compelled to write her first book, Love in a Headscarf…
As Muslims I think we often focus more on themes such as peace and justice, and forget that the root of all faith and existence is Divine Love, the idea of Rahmah, and that this notion of love and loving compassion is prevalent across all faiths and human beings. I wanted to explore these ideas in a modern and accessible manner. These are extremely challenging themes, and I think readers will appreciate that it is actually quite difficult to convey them in a readable format that is not tedious, plodding or too ‘worthy’.
I knew that I wanted to write a story that would discuss ideas which I was already exploring about British Islam, Muslims and Muslim women, and I thought quite hard about the way that I wanted to write it. Most people who grow up with multiple cultures and narratives will empathise with the fact that life seems to be full of contrasts and contradictions. The most natural way to convey these is through humour, because comedy itself is created out of those unexpected and contradictory experiences. I also felt that humour was the most accessible medium to unravel serious stereotypes and ideas because, as Peter Ustinov said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”
Sometimes Muslims forget that each of us has our own human story to tell, and that we need to create personal and human connections with those around us who are of different faiths or none. For me it was much more important to explore the values that we talk about, than to give them labels and pigeon-hole them. As Muslims we have to realise that we have a universal story to tell. I felt that although this style of writing is different, it is still very true to my ethos and vision as a writer and the issues that are close to my heart. I hope it will reveal a new side of me as a writer.
Your story reminded me of another book I have recently read, Catching a Fish using the Internet, by Nasreen Akhtar, were you aware of potential similarities with other books when you were writing?
When I first researched the market looking for whether similar stories had been told, there was nothing comparable at all. There was a huge gaping vacuum in the story of a Muslim woman who was confident and comfortable with her faith, and actually liked it. I think my book stands quite lonely in that space still, and so I would very much encourage readers to pick it up and explore it in that light.
You go through this whole humiliation process in the book, of having a very sacred major life event, arranged by family and aunties, who seem out of touch with you as a person and your needs. Did you feel obliged to go through that before you set out to find your own partner?
The search was always my search right from the very start. My family were adamant that all the choices that were to be made were mine, and their role was to act as advisor, agent and intermediary. As Muslims, my parents were clear that the choice was to be mine and that they couldn’t force me to marry anyone on their say so, if I didn’t agree. Sometimes I feel that culture imposes itself by putting pressure on young women to say ‘yes’ to suitors through emotional guilt, or in order to protect ‘izzat’, the cultural notion of ‘honour’. I don’t believe there is any honour in forcing a marriage. Nor should we sanction the idea that honour has been compromised when women talk with honesty about the very real experience of wanting to get married, especially when both culture and religion are so enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage.
You make a point of addressing the reader directly in the book, to say these are stories that are unheard of, do you think there is a reason for this?
I feel that stories like mine have gone unheard for too long because they do not fit conveniently into these stereotypes. I wanted the reader to understand the challenges that I faced in bringing a story like mine to the public consciousness, and why it is important that the story was told…I told my tale in order that ‘humour, hope and humanity can once again become part of our story.’
When you were writing this book, what audience did you have in mind? As I read it as a British Muslim woman, it almost sounded too much like you were writing it for an audience not accustomed to these traditional practises, and culture. Is that true?
The tone of the book was written to be accessible for all readers, bearing in mind differences in cultures as well as faith. Process and attitudes vary so widely that I wanted a holistic picture of my experiences. In addition to this, my story is one of self discovery, and it was a necessary part of the fabric of the story that the details were well documented, and reflected on in order that my journey and decisions made sense. For Muslims, I wanted them to gain an insight into the story of a contemporary and how I made sense of what we are taught as Muslims, as well as our time, context and place and the challenges we face. But you’re right to say that I had a particularly soft spot for those who perhaps are not as well versed in Islam as some Muslims. I wanted my story to be personal and human, to be told as it would be to a friend who might not be Muslim.
What did you hope to achieve by writing the book? Was it an attempt to uncover the myths of muslim women being these oppressed, and unheard of voices? Or was it something more personal?
I wanted to convey the universality of experience that we face today, and to explore some of the themes that affect us irrespective of faith. Love is possibly the most widely discussed topic no matter who you are or where you are from. Yet our public discourse on love has been reduced to ‘romance and ravishing’, which leaves all of us reaching for something deeper and longer lasting, but not knowing what that elusive experience is nor how to achieve it. I felt that the different perspectives that I grew up with as a British Asian Muslim woman often shed light on the contradictions as well as the universal truths of human experience, and that would be an interesting and fresh perspective to share.
I was also utterly fed up of walking into bookshops only to be faced with shelves of ‘misery memoirs’ about Muslim women. The covers of the books were unfailingly of black-niqabed women with images of deserts or camels behind them, and blurb that began ‘Kidnapped and sold into marriage…’ or ‘Brought up as a strict Muslim, she escaped from a life of oppression…’. Weren’t there any other stories of Muslim women, I wondered? Didn’t the editors have any other pictures of Muslim women?
The imagery of Muslim women that exists as I’ve described made it essential for me that the book title and cover were particularly striking. I wanted browsers online and in bookshops to look twice at the title and the fashionable independent headscarf-ed woman and think ‘that looks intriguing’, ‘that doesn’t fit with what I’ve seen before’. I wanted it to be subversive and hold editors and publishers to account for their lazy and unimaginative publications about Muslim women that re-hash the same stereotypes instead of bringing us real unheard stories.
What inspired you to tell this story?
The experiences I describe above were my primary motivation, and I had already been asked by several sources to write a book about my experiences. There are very few female Muslim writers, and I felt that writing something from my perspective would be a very important contribution to the discourse about Muslims today. Along with the experience above, I had often recounted some of my personal anecdotes to friends both Muslim and not, to work colleagues and even acquaintances, both male and female. I often had them bursting with laughter finding them utterly hilarious. I also realised how many similar experiences and life choices other people had made and how recounting my own journey had been a source of reflection and inspiration, so I decided weave them into my book.
Tell me about the process you went through from pitch to publication, right from writing the draft, to getting an agent and getting the book published. How did the book come into fruitation?
I wrote the early chapters of the book and then sent them out to publishers and agents who I thought would be interested. I actually got a publication offer within the first week! However, I turned them down as they were a specialist list and I wanted to reach a more mainstream audience. Diane, who went on to become my agent, also responded immediately as she was so taken with the story. “I couldn’t stop reading,” she told me later, “this was my life written in the sample.” I knew she was the right agent for me when I saw that the humanity of my story had reached out and touched her.
Aurum understood the ‘universal’ story that I wanted to tell and were very encouraging about the book’s confidence and humour. I felt immediately that they understood the book and that I could work with them. We had several discussions about the creative content and their editorial direction was to use the search for love as the fundamental narrative storyline for the book to draw the reader through, and to reveal experiences along the way. The quality and structure of the writing went in leaps and bounds as I found my feet as an author.
What did your family make of the book? Were they happy with the contents? Or did they feel somewhat on show?
My family have always encouraged my writing, and feel that I have much to contribute through my words. As readers of the book will discover, I have a very close relationship with my family, and we have travelled together on my personal journey, and the journey I have taken with my writing.
What was the journey like for you, did you ever think you were going to find Mr Right? And what are your writing plans for the future?
I am a born optimist, so I’m always certain that things will work out well. I was clear from the Islamic traditions that all human beings have a pair created for them, so I couldn’t help but be hopeful. For those who want to find out if my optimism is well placed, or if I’m still hoping, they’ll have to read the book!
I can’t wait to get started on the next one, and I’m currently researching a number of ideas before I settle on the final one.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a columnist for EMEL magazine and The Muslim News and regularly contributes to the Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4. Her award-winning blog, Spirit21, is hugely popular. She is a graduate of New College, Oxford and lives in London. Love in a Headscarf is her first book. To find out more visit www.loveinaheadscarf.com