Read Love in a Headscarf Online

Authors: Shelina Janmohamed

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Social Science, #Religion, #Family & Relationships, #Personal Memoirs, #Arranged marriage, #Great Britain, #Women, #Marriage, #Religious, #Self-Help, #Personal Growth, #Love & Romance, #Sociology, #Women's Studies, #Conduct of life, #Islam, #Marriage & Family, #Religious aspects, #Rituals & Practice, #Muslim Women, #Mate selection, #Janmohamed; Shelina Zahra, #Muslim women - Conduct of life, #Mate selection - Religious aspects - Islam, #Arranged marriage - Great Britain, #Muslim women - Great Britain

Love in a Headscarf

To my mother and father for everything
To Maryam and Aamina—Our future
To the One—You know why

Love is the answer at least for most of the questions in my heart. Like why are we here? And where do we go? And how come it’s so hard?
Love has nothing to do with the five senses and the six directions: its goal is only to experience the attraction exerted by the Beloved. Afterwards, perhaps, permission will come from God: the secrets that ought to be told will be told with an eloquence nearer to the understanding of these subtle confusing allusions. The secret is partner with none but the knower of the secret: in the sceptic’s ear the secret is no secret at all.
It is He who created you [men and women] from a single soul.
QUR’AN (6:98)
And one of His signs is that He created pairs for you from amongst yourselves, so that you find peace in each other, and He puts love and mercy between you. In this are signs for those who reflect.
QUR’AN (30:21)


Author’s Introduction

The First Time

Good Headscarf Day







Process Princess


Funny Valentine

Groundhog Day

Only Connect


Plus Ça Change


None of the Above

Six Stages of Self-Pity

You, Not Me

Hijab Marks the Spot

Semiotic Headscarf

What Is It Like Under There?




From a Single Soul, Created in Pairs

The Three Ms of Love: Method, Manner, Meaning

Quantum Theory


View from the Shelf

Marvelous Mary

In My Yin

Epilogue: The Beginning

Author’s Introduction

hubb, amor, pyar.
All these are words in my lexicon to describe something delicious and mundane, irresistible and sublime. Love inspires great actions, absurd choices, and inexplicable consequences. It directs lives and it makes or breaks hearts. It can arbitrate between life and death, and it can connect the body to the soul and join them with lightning. It is the essence of the human condition.

Civilizations do not clash over whether love exists or not. They may differ about what or who should be the object of love. They fight over the same lover. They disagree about how love should be conducted. But love, Love with a capital
, lies deep within every psyche and culture, and fills books with laments and odes in languages and paradigms from the beginning of time. In this modern day, when only what we see is allowed to have certainty, and when scientific data seems to hold the trump card for truth, when only what can be measured exists, love defies all of these strictures and dances joyfully before the eyes of human beings teasing them with the promise of the unknown.

Love has been lost to our generation, diluted to ravishing and romance. We ask it to sustain us on a constant high and we feel betrayed and rejected when the adrenaline rush subsides into comfortable companionable love. We have shackled love by limiting its reign to the arena of candlelit meals and moonlit walks. When we talk of love in public, we have now diminished it. I wish for us to reclaim love for our society as a conscious and connected virtue of vast expanse and immense greatness. We each know inside us that love relates to friends, advisers, parents, and those we live among. It takes patience, dedication, and selflessness. Some, like me, may also feel that it connects them to the Divine, the Creator who has no shape, place, or time, but who simply is.

The likelihood of a Muslim talking about love in public is small. But like most societies and cultures, Muslims are obsessed with it. In fact, Muslim men and women spend a large proportion of their time wondering where on earth to find a partner. Finding that special someone is so critical to the fabric of Muslim existence, that almost everyone is involved—parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, Imams, even neighbors.

Beneath the translucent veils of Muslim women lie beating hearts, dreams of love, imaginations replete with fairy tales and princes, of happily ever after. Hidden behind the often misleading headlines of terror and destruction that are said to be in the name of Islam are Muslims: ordinary normal people who share that one thing that exalts human beings and connects the sublime within us to our mundane lives—that thing called Love.

Muslim women have many stories to tell. Some of these are horrific. The suffering, oppression, and abuse that some women face in the name of religion, but which in reality is driven by culture and power, must never be forgotten and has to be stopped. I feel a double distress, sharing their pain as sisters in faith but also seeing the beauty of my religion misappropriated, misrepresented, and abused to serve inhumane ends.

Stories like mine have remained unheard, as they do not fit neatly with prevailing stereotypes that tell tales of Islam’s oppression or of those rejecting Islam. Nonetheless, such stories are just as crucial to our understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Not every Muslim woman is subjected to a forced marriage, kidnapping, or imprisonment. We are not one-dimensional creatures hidden behind black veils. Many Muslim women, like me, find Islam to be a positive, liberating, and uplifting experience. We love our lives all the more for it. My account is dedicated to all Muslim women, so that humor, hope, and humanity can once again become part of

Muslim women come in many shapes, colors, and flavors, and my story is simply the tale of one woman’s experience. Hidden within my story are the human passions and hopes of many Muslims, both men and women, and of human beings of other faiths and no faith at all, all of whose own searches for love may have been as perilous, heartbreaking, and entertaining as mine.

The search for love is a journey to find many different things. It is the search for a partner and companion, for the excitement of romance. It is also the search for a cherisher, for someone to nurture or someone to be nurtured by. It is a search for meaning, for the knowledge that you have achieved something, for a momentary acknowledgment or for immortality of your name. Love can be the name of the escape from the physical into the spiritual or from the mental into the carnal. The search for love is a resolute journey: to find out what it means to be human, and to share that humanity.

The First Time

Good Headscarf Day

amosas are frying in the kitchen, teetering between perfect bronze and cinder black. My mother is concentrating on the huge pan of bubbling oil, her hair wrapped up in an old towel, her mind focused on those who are about to arrive. They are important guests, perhaps the most important ones yet.

The doorbell rings. I am flicked upstairs with a tea towel. There is panicked scuttling around the house. Cushions are plumped. Curtains are adjusted. The kitchen door slams shut and my father is assailed by a cacophony of shrieking voices: “They’re here! They’re here! Open the door!” The house becomes acutely still. The lilies in the living room stand poised. My father, unflustered, strolls toward the front door and swings it open to face the man who might be his future son-in-law.

This is the first time that my family and I are to be formally
to a suitor. Choosing what to wear has been a struggle. I have to be attractive enough for the man in question, yet modest and demure enough for his family. The contents of my headscarf drawer are strewn colorfully across my bedroom floor in molehills of pink, purple, blue, and green. Each scarf has been carefully draped and pinned in turn, and then analyzed for aesthetics and impact. I choose one in dusky pink silk. The color is soft and welcoming, feminine but not girly. I fold the square silk in half and place the triangle over my hair, pinning it invisibly under my chin and throwing the ends loosely in opposite directions. The fabric delicately swathes itself over my hair and shoulders. Fortunately, I am having a Good Headscarf Day.

My blouse, in the same shade of pink, long-sleeved with ruffles on the cuffs, contrasts with my sweeping cream skirt with frills that trails gently on the floor. The whole family is fussing about what to wear. The first meeting is a compulsory rite of passage. It might be my only meeting. I listen in vain for a deep booming voice to announce: “Now you are a woman.” Nobody says: “Good luck.” Nor does anyone glance proudly and parentally at me, recording my transition from child to adult. I am no different from thousands, millions of young women on the threshold of marriage around the world.

I stand in front of the mirror, staring nervously into my own eyes, trying hard to control my torrential pulse. I inhale then exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. What will he be like? What will I say to him?

I am nineteen and about to step into a world that I have been prepared for since I was a young girl. The weight of tradition, which has rested so pleasantly on my South Asian Muslim shoulders since my birth, has been no less powerful than the innocent delicious wait for Love. Hollywood rom-coms, children’s fairy tales, and Islamic teachings too talk of passion, partnership, and completion, all of them with love at the very center.

The fact that I am meeting my suitor to see if we like each other is considered by some to be unspeakably modern. I always knew that I would meet my husband-to-be this way. Why, then, does my heart pound so violently? The man and his chaperones are coming to Check Me Out, and I, of course, am going to Check Him Out. The balance of Checking Out does nothing to ease my nerves. This is not just Blind Date, but Family Blind Date.

Cilla Black, the longstanding host of the popular show
Blind Date
, which sets up dates for hundreds of hapless singles, smirks back at me from my bedroom mirror. “Will you go for Family Number One, the accountants from London? Or Family Number Two, the clan of doctors from Gloucester? Or will it be Family Number Three, the import-exporters from Birmingham?”

He might be the only Prince Charming I will ever meet, will ever need to meet. And what is wrong with that? I long for my own prince and dream of being part of a loving, “in love” couple. In reality I will most likely meet him through the formal introduction process.

On his visit to our home, he will be accompanied by at least one, if not more, “grown-ups.” Getting to know his family and understanding his background is just as critical as assessing his ratings on the tall, dark, and handsome scales. He and his family will be evaluating me in the same way: a communal date hinging on communal decision-making, and he and I will be the focus of attention.

I look at myself again in the mirror and practice my smile. Mona Lisa or Julia Roberts? I squirt myself with perfume and then collapse in a nervous puff on the floor. I recite some verses from the Qur’an, which will help to steel my nerves and restore me to normal working order. The rhythmic melody and the wisdom of the words make me feel calm. I put a few coins in a special charity box we keep at home, called
, and then straighten my clothes. Putting money toward those who need it is like chaos theory: a small flutter grows and magnifies until the positive energy comes back around to you. I need the good karma at this moment.

The front door opens; my breathing stops. Mr. Right has arrived.

I scamper to the front bedroom to watch the entourage from the window as they park their car. I kneel down so I can peer through the gap between the curtain and the windowsill. I note a grayish-brown Toyota. Or is it a Honda? Does the exact badge on a typical, reliable Asian family car matter? My eyes scan to the couple clip-clopping up our path. The Boy, Ali, walks quietly behind them.

The guests trip merrily through our front door, pretending there is nothing unusual about their visit. Even in the introduction meeting itself, the purpose of the visit remains discreet and unspoken. The house tinkles with small talk. The guests look too innocent, too
to be coming to turn my life upside down. Are they here to extract me from the bosom of my family? I like my family, I am happy here. Why do I have to leave? Their arrival has made me apprehensive. I flap my hands, panic-stricken, abandoned alone upstairs to pace soundlessly while I wait until the appropriate moment to descend into the lair. A girl on a date has to make an entrance. Everyone knows that.

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