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Seeking, losing and finding 'Love, InshAllah'

Photo by David Campbell/Flickr (Creative Commons)

How do American Muslim women navigate love, culture and identity?  KPCC's Yasmin Nouh gives us a glimpse in this Q&A with the co-editor of a new anthology of Muslim women's personal stories.

"Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women," is an anthology of 25 love stories told by American Muslim women from different backgrounds – black, white, Arab, converts, lesbians, Sunni, Shia, South Asian. Editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi say they compiled them to dispel stereotypes that Muslim women are generally repressed, forced into arranged marriages, or live loveless lives dictated by men.

Each tale is more than a simple love story, with complex underlying themes that these women face as they navigate hybrid identities while searching for a sense of belonging as Muslims - and as the children of immigrants, in many cases - in the United States.

In one of the stories, for example, contributor Tanzila Ahmed follows a Muslim punk-rock band on their cross-country tour. A self-proclaimed Desi (meaning of Pakistani or Indian descent) punk rocker, she ends up having an affair with one of the band’s members. An excerpt:

I had fallen in love in the best way – with a boy, with like-minded people, and, maybe most important, with being honestly and truly myself. I had found a family that was cut from the same contradictory cloth and going through the same blasphemous struggles as I was. I had found myself, and I had let myself go. I had punk-rocked, prayed, loved, moshed, laughed, skated, cuddled, rocked, touched, kissed, and cried.

It wasn’t just a story about my falling in love with a guy, or following a band, or going on an adventure. It was about love, punk, and punk-drunk love. People who got me, really got me, and all that I came with.

Co-editor Nura Maznavi, herself the daughter of immigrants from Sri Lanka, discusses how the book got its start, what she learned along the way, and what the reaction to it has been so far.
M-A: What inspired the idea of “Love InshAllah”?

Maznavi: My co-editor Ayesha and I have been friends for many years. About five years ago, over coffee in San Francisco, we were chatting about how so much has been written about Muslim women, but very little of it has been written by Muslim women. Nowhere in the discourse did we see reflected the funny, independent and hilarious Muslim women we know. We wanted to change that. We decided to ask women to write about the search for love, because love is a universal emotion that resonates with everyone.

M-A: In the book you feature love stories told by American Muslim women of all different backgrounds - Sunni, Shia, black, white, lesbians, converts, Arab Americans, South Asian Americans. What was the purpose behind this? And what was the biggest challenge for you throughout the process of collecting such diverse stories?

Maznavi: We really wanted to shatter the stereotype held by many that Muslim women are a monolith - that we are all submissive, repressed and lacking agency over our lives. We thought that by showcasing the diversity of the American Muslim community - the most diverse community in the world - we could start to engage in a conversation that is more compassionate and empathetic, where each Muslim woman is seen for herself with a unique story to tell.

Editing was the most challenging and most rewarding experience of all. We spent a lot of time supporting our writers in taking their stories to the place of honesty and vulnerability that resonates with readers. And, through the process of editing, we developed wonderful relationships with each writer.

M-A: What surprised you most from the entries you received for the collection?

Maznavi: How very different each story was! Over the course of almost five years we received over 200 submissions, and no two were alike. Even if the women came from similar ethnic or cultural backgrounds, each woman looked at love and the search for love in a different way, in her own personal context.

M-A: What’s your favorite story from the book? Why?

Maznavi: Even though all the writers are of a different ethnic background than myself, and many of them practice their faith in different ways from me, there are elements of each story that I identify with. In all the stories there is an underlying theme of hope that I find compelling. That said, the story I keep coming back to is by Suzanne Shah, a Bangladeshi American woman who writes about falling in love with her husband, a black American Muslim. She writes with raw honesty, grace, and profound faith about the difficulties she’s faced in her life, in particular about her family’s disapproval of her interracial relationship, in a way that is quite moving.

M-A: What kind of impact did this book have on your life, and your spiritual journey?

Maznavi: This has been an extraordinary and life-changing experience. I feel so lucky to have worked on this book with one of my best friends, Ayesha Mattu. We both quit our day jobs at the end of last year to turn our full attention to the book. We’ve been working on this project for so long that we were both a bit nervous about how it would be received. It’s been extremely gratifying to see that it resonates with so many readers and opening up discussions in families and communities.

For me personally, this project has been incredibly empowering and spiritually uplifting. I’m an American Muslim woman and have, at times, felt frustrated about the way that Muslims, particularly women, are perceived - both within the Muslim community and the larger public. I am proud to be part of this courageous group of women who have shared their lives and loves to help us all connect on an intimate and personal level so we can recognize our shared humanity.

M-A: In the introduction you say that a reason for writing this book was to dispel stereotypes about Muslim women for the non-Muslim public, but there are stories in the book that touch upon issues like homosexuality and sex, generally considered taboo topics of discussion within the Muslim community. Is this a book geared towards the Muslim community, too? And if so, how do you navigate these waters? Has there been criticism and how have you dealt with it?

Maznavi: Within the Muslim community, there has not been the space for women to discuss their love lives in an open and honest way. There is the fear of shame, disapproval or judgment. Our hope is that this book allows an opening for women and families to start having important and necessary conversations about some of the issues touched on in the stories - sexuality, racism, homophobia, gender, divorce - so that we can support each other in some of these challenges and have women maintain a connection to their faith and communities.

The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. We have been so moved by the outpouring of support we’ve received from family and friends, and from our readers, especially as we’ve had the chance to connect with them in person during our book tour. We think that Muslim women have really been waiting for a book like this - a book where they see themselves and their lives reflected.

There have been some who have said that this book is not Islamic literature, and we agree with that. We state in our introduction that this book is not theology or an Islamic code of conduct. Rather, it is the lived reality of Islam in America through the lives of these Muslim women.