A Match Made In Heaven: British Muslim women on love and desire
Sex, in Islamic communities around the world, is expected between a heterosexual married couple, therefore anything else has become taboo.
Now in 2020, with the global Islamic community becoming increasingly conservative, accompanied by a dizzying rise in Islamophobia, the "oppressed Muslim woman" has become an overriding cultural stereotype, while at the same time a target for real-life hate crimes. Our sexual desires are seen to be alien, as if they don't align with our beliefs.
Yet with offensive, narrow-minded assumptions come both responses and art. Match Made in Heaven: British Muslim Women Write about Love and Desire is an anthology of stories by authors such as Ayisha Malik and Shelina Janmohamed and edited by Claire Chambers, Richard Phillips and Nafhesa Ali.
The debut title gives space for Muslim women to talk and write about desire and relationships in a way that's still deemed inappropriate for them to do so, both in and out of their Eastern and Western communities.
|The debut title gives space for Muslim women to talk and write about desire and relationships in a way that's still deemed inappropriate for them to do so
Sometimes representation doesn't have to be ground-breaking and alternative to hit home. It can be familiar and scripted by those who have lived those similar experiences.
From a fictional story on finding out your husband is cheating on you, or pesky aunties who know everyone else's business before you do, to "marrying for convenience" i.e. knowingly marrying a queer man in order to lead a "normal-looking" life (something that's a lot more common than we talk about).
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When gobbling up Match Made In Heaven, as it's such an easy read, these British Muslim writers, largely from the South Asian diaspora, paint characters I'd recognise from my personal life. The protagonists vary in each short story, as they would do in reality, when it comes to their approach to Islam, their cultural and religious roots as well as their first, second and third generational thinking.
The voices range from young women who struggle with old school values when blurred with Gen Z mindsets to widows who are about to get married for the third time. The British Muslim identity hasn't been boxed in to one in order for these stories to come alive.
"So often I found that in mainstream media, even in life really, Muslim women are looked at, we're stared at and yet we are rarely the object of someone's desires. Within this short story, I really wanted to flip the gaze, what happens when Muslim women look and stare and desire?" says Afshan D'Souza-Lodhi, whose short story, Acid Reflux, as D'Souza-Lodhi describes, is about "an acid attack survivor who is used to people staring at her but not really seeing her".
When asked about the experience of writing about the romantic lives of Muslim women, especially stories that are deemed taboo within Muslim societies such as Muslim women who are part of the LGBTQI+ family, the writer responds, "I don't think I really read romantic stories featuring Muslim women and so this story was my way of giving myself everything I wanted in a love story, including a bit of dark humour. I just wanted us to be loved, feel loved and love freely without judgement."
|These stories aren't exaggerated for the purpose of making Muslim women's trauma sellable, they tell it exactly like it is for Muslim women right now|
And it's not just romantic stories which feature Muslim women in the mainstream which are missing - it's stories by Muslim women for Muslim women. Though these stories aren't always comfortable to read, and in some cases could be deemed stereotypical, for example in Tears and Tantrums which explores the trials and tribulations of staying in a marriage with someone who wants a co-wife, they aren't exaggerated for the purpose of making Muslim women's trauma sellable. The short stories tell it exactly like it is for Muslim women right now.
As referenced in the introduction, Match Made In Heaven follows the Quranic idea that romantic matches (or pairs) are made in heaven, yet also alludes to matchmaking in the community as combustible: "A battle of wills in which harmony does not always prevail".
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That means there's also space for the stories that aren't always tied with a bow at the end. This was the case for Ayisha Malik's short story Heartbeat, where the reader is left unsure if the protagonist, Beenish, is a romantic or a potential murderer of her last two husbands.
"My story explores the darker side of love and disappointment: how the unfulfilled desire for romantic and sexual satisfaction can be a catalyst for extreme actions and harnessing one's own power," says Malik.
Yet what we also experience in the book are all the forms of love Muslim women can experience and grant. Shelina Janmohamed writes Love Letter, dedicated to her daughter on the kind of love she is made of. Shaista Sadick writes in her Boneland short story about a copywriter who pens Islamic State (IS) and terrorism-inspired erotica - something that's uncomfortable for her white, left-wing, privilege-understanding, allyship-debating, husband. In Mariam Naeem's Her Trials and Sufiya Ahmed's Tears and Tantrums, both protagonists ultimately experience how liberating Islamic divorce rights are for women.
Though initially unsure about how I felt reading a book by Muslim women that had also been edited by non-Muslim women, A Match Made In Heaven is well-rounded. A collection of stories that shows Muslim women in all of our different lights, the good, the bad, the many in-betweens but especially the ones that are rarely explored publicly. It's truly a relatable, life-affirming and nuanced read.
Tahmina Begum is a freelance journalist and editor.
Follow her on Twitter @tahminaxbegum
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