It is a universal truth—although not universally acknowledged—that we all share the desire to love and be loved for who we are. We see ourselves reflected in love stories, regardless of how far removed in time and place they might be from our lives. The perennial popularity of period romances—“Downton Abbey” anyone?—shows that beneath the robes or corsets, the heart flutters in ways that we instinctively recognize even today.
From Elizabeth Bennet’s unexpected feelings for a man she initially detested to Majnun’s love at first sight, stories about the search for love may be amusing, heartwarming, or tragic, but always resonate across the ages and across the world.
Despite the universality of love, the path to union is strewn with obstacles specific to time, place, culture and religion. It was this realization that inspired us to compile Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, the first anthology written by Muslim women about their search for love.
Chatting about it over coffee one day, we reached the same conclusion: The sensational stories always make the news—the forced marriages and the child brides—but nowhere in the discourse about Muslim women did we see reflected the reality of the funny, joyful, or poignant love stories of our families or friends. Many stories have been told about us as Muslim women, and it was high time we started telling our own.
If we asked our contemporaries to speak of their love, whether won or lost, what would they say?
To find out, we issued two national calls asking women who self- identified as American and Muslim about their personal experiences with love or heartbreak. Did their religious identity play a role in their quest for love? Did ethnicity, sexuality, race, or class affect their search for a partner? Did family and friends help or hinder the process?
The response to the calls was overwhelming. Word spread across the Internet and people forwarded the call to friends, family, college groups, literary listservs, and on Twitter and Facebook. Before we knew it, we were flooded with hundreds of stories.
We were amazed at the range of the submissions, and selected stories first on their literary merit and then on their ability to reflect the disparate experiences and cultures of the estimated six million Muslims in America, the most diverse Muslim community in the world. While this collection is not exhaustive of American Muslim women’s experiences, we have tried to include compelling and provocative narratives that represent a snapshot of our community.
The women of Love, InshAllah are the daughters of immigrant parents, as well as women whose roots in the U.S. go back for centuries. They are single, married and divorced. They live in small towns and big cities across the country, and they reflect a broad range of religious perspectives, from orthodox to cultural to secular. Although many books have reflected either the orthodox or progressive views of the community, rarely has the breadth of practices and perspectives been highlighted in one book.
These women’s real-life stories play out against a backdrop of the realities of modern American life, especially post-9/11 American life, where issues of race, religion, gender and culture sometimes make for a volatile mix. This includes dealing with the intimate involvement of family and community, attitudes towards pre-marital sex, and taboos on interreligious or interracial relationships.
Some of the writers may live their lives in ways that seem surprising or unorthodox. We strove to gather stories that illuminated the wide range of lifestyles and choices American Muslim women make. In so doing, our hope is that this book challenges stereotypes that Muslims have about each other, including assumptions about religiosity and morality based solely on whether or not a woman adheres to outward religious rituals or practices.
It is also our hope, that regardless of our differences in practice and outlook, our faith community will rise to the occasion by offering more compassionate and respectful intra-faith dialogue. For too long, there has been a denial or covering up of the complexity, doubts, or mistakes that co-exist alongside the joy, creativity and spirituality in our lives. Many of the issues raised in this book, such as women dating/marrying outside the faith, homosexuality and racism, have either been ignored or used to judge and ostracize, resulting in women’s disengagement from community and faith. We hope these stories will enable us as a community to better address these pressing issues and help support women (and men) in dealing with them while maintaining both their personal connection to Islam & and their identity as Muslims.
We live in heady times, where the lives of Muslim women play out against a backdrop of geo-political shifts. Here in America, we are witnessing the literary coming of age of the American Muslim community and it is our hope that this anthology will serve as a precursor of the many stories yet to come.
(Photo Credit: Love, Inshallah)
Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi are co-editors of the anthology, “Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” (Soft Skull Press).