Negotiating the Boundaries of Islam in America with Love

Cara L. Burnidge

As the nation continues to discuss the Islamic identities of the Tsarnaev brothers and if/why/how violence shapes religious and ethnic identities, I'd like to turn toward quite a different discussion of American Muslims, by Muslim Americans, about their own experiences and identity. 

Love, Inshallah: The Secret Lives of American Muslim Women is a co-edited book that contains twenty-five stories written by American Muslim women about their own loves lives. Confronting the stereotypes of arranged marriages, veiled bodies, and asexual personhood, these authors assert the uniqueness of their gender, ethnic, national, and religious identities. Unveiling what they consider to be too long hidden, these authors complicate the stereotype of a single, monolithic female Muslim and/or American Muslim identity by focusing on an immaterial reality: love. (An apparently popular topic, as NPR's Terry Gross recently interviewed Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World).

The only criteria for participating in the volume was that authors self-identify as both American and Muslim. In addition to various regional perspectives, Love, Inshallah includes a spectrum of religiosities, women who are devout and women who self-identify as "secular" but retain their cultural identity to Islam. This book includes women who waited to have sex until after marriage and those who did not (both happily and regrettably so), who's parents arranged their marriages and those who refused; it also includes queer voices, those who identify with pride and those with a feeling of shame or regret. The authors note that the stories do not encompass every Muslim American woman, but, as they've said to several media outlets, they hope it's a start.

The vignettes in Love, Inshallah support recent sociological studies that suggest American Muslims, particularly those in their youth, negotiate their identity between their American and Muslim roots as they feel like they fully belong to neither. For instance, Najva thought to herself, after her parents admitted they had been reading her blog for years, "they know about the drugs and booze and the girls and boys, normal by America's MTV standards, but not for an Iranian family that refused to have cable TV sully the living room" (116). Or Hudi who wondered if the man her parents arranged to propose to her would kneel "like an American boyfriend" (107). And Taz who "had punk-rocked, prayed, loved, moshed, laughed, skated, cuddled, rocked, touched, kissed, and cried" in an epic Muslim punk wedding weekend (73). 

What drew me to this book was the effort made by the authors to relocate American Muslim women's identities outside the hijab. For American Muslim women, internal struggles of faith and identity are often made external through the materiality of the hijab--wearing a hijab separates them from mainstream American culture, but it also solidifies a place in Muslim culture. (And vice versa when women chose not to wear a hijab.) As the editors, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, explain in the introduction, "Muslim women--we just can't seem to catch a break" (ix). Stereotypes abound as non-Muslims assert their opinions of Islam's shortcomings for women, and as the greater Muslim community seeks to normativize certain performances of religiosity and femininity. As a result, the editors contend that the twenty-five stories included are "a reflection of reality" (x), in their universal search  for the immaterial and the differences in conceptualizing and actualizing it.

Praised for its candor by the Huffington Post and lauded on discussion boards by anonymous Muslim women for the bravery of the authors in putting their private lives "out there," Love Inshallah succeeds in opening conversations about topics usually kept hidden. While these stories written by American Muslim women certainly expand notions of feminine Islamic identities and, perhaps, challenge stereotypes, I am drawn to the ways that they also implicitly participate in drawing new boundaries for "authentic" American Islam, a trend in the history of Islam in America explained well in Mahmood's Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Noticeably absent from this volume, for instance, are stories of veiled women who happily or unhappily lived their lives according to stereotypical "Islamic" behavior or, as many disgruntled GoodReads and Amazon reviewers noted "standard" Muslim lives. Bloggers and readers from conservative communities have noted their frustration at the lack of religion in Love, Inshallah. Too many of the stories, they say, embrace active sexual lives prior to marriage; too many stories condone homosexuality and bisexuality. By talking about the subjects alone, some readers expressed their distaste for the loss of "proper" boundaries of Islam. Clearly, much is at stake in the placement of women's bodies and their self-description in private and public.

While I do not have anything at stake in how believers define "proper" Islam, I am interested in the way in which this book and others are tools for cultural and religious debates. The clear elephant in the room is the subject of Muslim men. Together these stories point to a distinct cultural moment in which Muslim American identity could be based not in the perceived terror of Muslim men, but the diversity of Muslim women. The editors quite consciously--without stating so directly--construct a positive image of American Muslim men. For example, mothers, not fathers, come across as overbearing, potentially limiting the social and sexual lives of their daughters. As much as this book is about letting American Muslim women speak for themselves, it is also about re-constructing the American Muslim man. It should come as no surprise then that the sequel to this work is a similar volume written by and for American Muslim men. I look forward to reading it and the continued conversation about Muslim American bodies and their immaterial realities.

Love, Inshallah can be followed on Twitter: @LoveInshallah


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