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Love in a Headscarf, by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.

February 9, 2016

Love in a Headscarf, by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.  Beacon Press (2010), 272 pages.

4 stars
A memoir about what it means to be an articulate young Muslim woman seeking to adapt to life in England, to marry, and to deepen her faith.

Shelina Janmohamed was born and raised in London. After graduating from Oxford, she has become a leading figure seeking to improve understanding of British Muslims. Devote and liberal, in this book and in her life, she explains her religious tradition to non-Muslims and works within her community to preserve the core of Islam while adapting to life in Britain. She has written for The Times, The Guardian, The National, The Muslim News and Emel magazine focusing on Islam and current affairs. She has traveled throughout the Middle East with the British Foreign and Commonwealth office and organized events for young British Muslims, such as the annual ‘Eid in the Square’ event which is held in Trafalgar Square. Her blog, Spirit21, has received a variety of awards.
Janmohamed does an excellent job of explaining how she and her family have negotiated the difficulties of being both Muslim and British. She is committed to wearing a headscarf as a matter of modesty and identity, but she also chooses to be fashionable and professional. For her family and community, the Islamic faith is something very different from that portrayed in western media. Rather than supporting terror, it is based in all-consuming love. It is also a faith that is compatible with other religions.   Repeatedly, Janmohamed identifies God as all loving, and all compassionate, a God of peace.

Practices around Muslim marriage and family are central to Janmohamed’s book. She states clearly that Islam is based on the fundamental equality of women and men and calls for Muslims to reconsider their contemporary gender roles.   Her faith instructs her that marriage is necessary; there is no option of remaining single or choosing a same-sex partner.  Among Muslims, union with the opposite sex is part of a person’s spiritual journey. Marriage is assumed to be a matter of family and community concern, rather than a personal choice. Love is assumed to take place after marriage, not before.

Janmohamed describes her own journey to find the right man which began when she was 19. At first she was part of the traditional visits of young men and their families to “view” her as a prospective bride. Because her family was moderate, she and the prospective husband were able to chat away from paternal involvement. Not a helpless victim, she was allowed to refuse a somewhat acceptable match. More visits ensued, and eventually she was allowed to meet carefully vetted men in public places to see if they were compatible. It was years, however, before she met the man she chose to marry. Her story could be instructive for other Muslim women seeking husbands who want advice on softening the demands of their tradition. However, I was troubled by her sense of the necessity of marriage and by the pattern of meeting men with the sole goal of deciding if a marriage was possible.

Love in a Headscarf is written in an upbeat manner even when dealing with serious matters like spiritual growth. I am glad to recommend it to both Muslim and non-Muslim readers.
For a more in-depth discussion of historical and contemporary Muslim women, I recommend the books of Leila Ahmed; A Border Passage (her autobiography), Women and Gender in Islam (her scholarly history), and A Quiet Revolution (her account of women’s roles in today’s Islam).  Links are to my reviews.

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