Love in a headscarf: finding Mr. Right through arranged marriage

In her book “Love in a Headscarf: Muslim woman seeks the One,” London-based blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed offers her readers insight into what it means to be on the hunt for love through arranged marriage. MENASSAT interviewed Janmohamed to find out more about her experiences and how her book is challenging social misconceptions about arranged marriage in many places including the Arab world.
Author and prominent blogger Shelina Jahra Janmohamed

BEIRUT, April 28, 2009 (MENASSAT)- At age 13, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed had romantic dreams and ideals just like any other young adult. Back then, her fantasy was that actor John Travolta would turn up on her doorstep at her London-home and ask her to marry him.

Then, Travolta would “convert to Islam and become a devoted Muslim” for her and they would live happily ever after.

In reality, Janmohamed always knew that her marriage would be arranged by her family and soon enough, she found herself on the quest to find Mr. Right through a series of marital introductions, tangled up with “buxom aunties, romantic comedies and mosque Imams.”

Her recently published book “Love in a Headscarf” (Arum Press, 2009), reviewed as being something in between “chick-lit” and memoir, recounts the author’s personal journey into self-discovery, faith, and love.

Janmohamed’s search for a suitor began in her early twenties as a student in the UK. Despite being a graduate of the prestigious Oxford University, Janmohamed recounts how she was oftentimes judged more on how she served samosas.

The men she was left alone with either declared “undying love” for her or asked her to stop wearing the hijab.

But as Janmohamed says, “faith was important to me,” and she admitted she had no plans of taking off her trademark cherished pink hijab.

“Universal tale”

So what inspired the author to write the book?

Janmohamed, better known as the face behind the popular Spirit21 blog,  says she wanted to write a “universal tale”; a story that sets differences aside and brings people together through the “most universal story of all” - love.

“I am very interested in the questions about what does love mean to us today. How do we find it? And once we've got it, how do we keep it? Sometimes being on the crossroads of cultures and faiths can give you an insight into the constant themes as well as the contradictions we all face, and I wanted to share those with readers. The book is simply one woman's hilarious and entertaining search for love, and trying to reconcile faith, culture and love along the way,” Janmohamed told MENASSAT in an email interview.

Janmohamed is well aware of how non-Muslims often perceive arranged marriage and Muslim women. In her book, she aims to offer a different perspective on the lives of Muslim women – a perspective that differs from what is presented to readers in the numerous “misery memoirs” about oppressed Muslim women released by UK publishing houses.

In an interview with the Guardian, Janmohamed recalls walking through book shops with "shelves and shelves of misery memoirs and all these women in black veils with camels walking in the background and titles like "I Was Sold Into Marriage."

Love in a Headscarf, whose perky pink and purple cover features a stylish-looking woman in a hijab (headscarf) and large-framed sunglasses, certainly decodes the archetypical Muslim woman we read about in the misery memoirs,” Janmohamed said, hoping her book will be an inspiration for other like-minded writers.

“Have you ever seen a book about a Muslim woman that has happy smiling woman on a pink cover? I really hope that my book will herald a whole new raft of stories which express how so very many Muslim women lead their lives and which share the same worries, concerns and hilarious experiences that other women go through too,” she said.

Arranged marriage: advice and differences

When asked her best advice for young women looking to find Mr. Right through arranged marriage, Janmohamed said there had to be a healthy balance between one’s own expectations and those of the family.

“Remember what is important to you, and that you can learn a lot about a person from the way they behave towards you during the process - but remember that you are showing your true colors as well! Be open with your family about your expectations, but also listen carefully to their advice,” she said.

And on the topic of arranged marriage, what is the greatest difference between finding Mr. Right through this process as compared to “regular dating” in Janmohamed’s opinion?

Three things, she responds.  “Process, attitude and timing.” 

“The process means that other people may help you find the person you want to consider - regular dating can be like that too, with internet dating, or friends matchmaking. But arranged marriage also helps to 'check out' the references and background of the person which I think can be helpful. Timing-wise arranged marriages often happen within weeks or months, whereas 'regular' dating seems to veer rather uncertainly to an unknown timescale which could even be years.”

Janjohamed adds that it is the timescale that is tied to the attitude.

“In arranged marriages people's attitude is that both people know that they are considering each other for the long term commitment of marriage right from the start, and that when you get married, you are fully committed to making it work, going into the relationship romantically, but also practically,” she explained.

Then there are of course the critics who dismiss arranged marriages as old fashioned and simply an odd way of finding love. In response to those claims, Janmohamed emphasizes that arranged marriages encompass so many shades of the long-term love formula - “because love is not only about romance.”

“Arranged marriage can fit very well with our ideas of romance, but love is not limited to romance - it grows through sharing and commitment and by doing romantic things. Romance and love are not two exclusive things - they grow with each other,” she said.

Janmohamed says her book has been “universally welcomed” both among Muslim circles and from adherents of other faiths.

“I have had so many messages from young Muslim women who have said 'finally! a voice that represents us' along with very warm coverage from readers who have told me that the book is 'un-put-downable' and they have raced through it beginning to end as soon as they received it.”