As a Muslim woman of South Asian descent, now living in the U.S., I have to admit that I have a certain curiosity about how Muslim women live in other parts of the world. I long to know others like me – yet unlike me: do they go through the same struggles as I do? What about married life? Do they use matchmaking applications or matchmaking aunties or both? Until now I had more questions than answers.
Enter “Riding the Samoosa Express: Personal Narratives of Marriage and Beyond”, a collection of essays by contemporary Muslim women in South Africa. Released in 2015, this compilation includes 27 essays by Muslim women who sit on all points of the spectrum: devout, non-practicing, young, old and everything in-between. The contributors’ list is a veritable who’s who of accomplishments. Co-editor Zaheera Jina is a PhD in mathematics, while other writers include psychologists, business owners, poets, and pharmacists, to name a few.
More than the essays, the collection of women is itself a testament to the varied nature of that elusive thing which western, as well as traditional Islamic, interpretations attempt to squeeze into a neat little box: the Muslim woman.Riding the Samoosa Express is an account of love, marriage, loss, and identity. While the bulk of the essays focus on marriage, they approach it in its varying stages: before, after and even during.
The first section in the collection is titled “The Road Towards Marriage” and it is here that the term “samosa express” originates. I never knew that Indian tradition requires unmarried girls to hand-make samosas for prospective bridegrooms and their families when the latter come for the infamous “interview.” Since many Indians are settled in South Africa, the experiences of many of the essay writers correspond to this often humiliating and always stressful process of filling, frying and presenting samosas in the hope of a marriage proposal. But make no mistake, while the rituals these writers carried out might be traditional or subservient in nature, these women themselves are far from it. The first essay sets the tone for the iconoclastic attitude with which many of these writers took on the marriage process. The writer explains how her father, sick of her feministic tactics, complains that she is tarnishing the family’s standing in the community. This gripe only fuels her independent personality further and she chronicles how she goes on to break each and every tradition her family and community have ever held dear, all for the sake of feminism, equality and common sense.
Then there are the writers who are not visited by the samosa express. These are tales of courage amid sorrow, hope amid disappointment. One writer receives no marriage proposals because of extreme eczema, while another finds her “happily ever after” only to lose her love to an untimely accident. Through it all, these women retain their sense of humor. One self-deprecatingly writes: “…. As a Memon girl of twenty-three I was nearing my sell-by date…” Another regrets baking heart-shaped cookies for a suitor because they have “desperation written all over them.”
The essays are also replete with secondary characters—nosy aunties, anxious mothers who complain of having sprouted premature white hairs because of their independent, unwed daughters, and my personal favorite, brothers who barge into private meetings between a girl and her suiter and bluntly ask if the young man likes rotis “because my little sister can’t make them to save her life.” Those are well-intentioned but maddening characters we all know and love in our own lives, but then there are also fathers who support their daughters, mothers who babysit past their prime, and the entire gamut of relationships that we Muslim women have, whether we live in India, South Africa or the United States.
The second section of the collection is titled “Identity” and here contributors write about the experiences and people who have shaped them. This section is a rich discussion of professional lives as well as global political events that reoriented these writers (moments like the fall of apartheid in South Africa or the attack on 9/11). The conflict between career and marriage is a reoccurring theme throughout this section, . In one essay the writer talks about her postgraduate education: “I had adopted a PhD baby, a baby who kept me up through the nights of intellectual thoughts and days of unanswered questions; who I carried around swaddled in my brain; and who came with me into my marriage with Suleiman.” How many of us face the same balancing act?
The third section in this book is titled “Marriage and Beyond” and it shifts the collection’s tone from the seriousness of forming one’s identity to the lighter everyday challenges a wife faces, like cooking traditional foods. It is still peppered with heavier experience though, such as divorce, widowhood, miscarriage and depression. One essay, a love letter from a mother to her daughter, reads, “You are you, not me. You will never be me and I will never be you. But that’s okay. You will forge your own dreams and carve your own path through life as I have done.”
Reading this collection, I laughed, I cried and by the end I was at ease. Muslim women are vibrant and courageous, willing to accept tradition yet balance it with their own ingenuity. Some of these stories are written as fictional tales – although they are no doubt true – others are narrative essays with religious overtones. Some quote the Holy Qur’an, and others quote Khalil Jibran. Some write about the hijab, others about extra-marital flirtations. It is just the right mix to please every kind of reader.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, law enforcement trainer and author of the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. Visit her website at www.saadiafaruqi.com or follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.