Unsilencing the truth of desire

February 21, 2021

Diverse perspectives on the chemistry of desire that governs the experience of Muslim women in Britain

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s 2017 novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows turns an intimate gaze on the hidden desires harboured by a group of Sikh widows in Southhall, London. Shackled by tradition, patriarchy and conservative sensibilities, these women are prodded into silence until a creative writing workshop opens the portals to a journey of self-discovery.

It is difficult to determine the impact of a similar exercise conducted with a group of Muslim women. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the prospect of Muslim women writing about their secret desires would invite the ire of conservative elements. Perceptions of the lives of Muslim women peddled by Western propaganda that equates Islam with extremist tendencies are often fuelled by false notions but seldom challenged in mainstream discourse.

Viewed in this backdrop, A Match Made in Heaven seeks to fill a gaping void by rectifying these perceptions. The compilation doesn’t rely on purely sociological insights. Instead, it uses the art of storytelling to present a moving portrait of the private lives of Muslim women. This is a far more effective means of defying stereotypes as it immerses readers in the ‘Muslim experience’ and allows them to understand its intricacies.

Edited by Claire Chambers, Nafhesa Ali and Richard Phillips, A Match Made in Heaven presents a diverse gamut of perspectives on the alchemy of desire that governs the experience of Muslim women in Britain. In their introductory note, the editors categorically state that they want to “unsettle the notion that young Muslims are repressed individuals’’ who can’t recognise or express their desires. Driven by a search for a more authentic representation of Muslim women in British society, A Match Made in Heaven peels back layers of social fabric and examines what lies beneath its smooth surface.

Audacious in their scope, the 16 stories in this book are structured as a crescendo and venture into uncharted terrain without any inhibitions. Although they are connected by a common thread and purpose, the tales don’t march to the same beat; each follows its own distinct rhythm.

Much like the tales penned by the Sikh widows in Jaswal’s narrative, a large number of emerging writers have cultivated their stories during writing workshops for British Muslim women in the UK. These bold, boisterous accounts have been interspersed with the distilled prose that we can rightfully expect from established authors. What emerges is a mosaic that reflects the negotiations women must make to find fulfilment.

Sabyn Javeri’s Marriage of Convenience explores the perilous extent to which cultural expectations can incapacitate people and compel them to suppress their true identities. Assailed by circumstances that are beyond their control, Saeed and Saira face different consequences for sacrificing their desires at the altar of traditions. With heart-breaking honesty, Javeri reflects the absurdity of an arranged marriage in a modern world steered by free choice.

The monotony of marital relationships - especially those that have been imposed on women - surfaces in countless stories in the compilation. In Noren Haq’s poignant tale, titled Rearranged, Sapna escapes the trappings of an arranged marriage to embark on the path not taken earlier. Laced with poetic insight and the spirit of secrecy, Haq’s story ponders the role of missed opportunities and latent passion in our quest for happiness. Other stories tackle the growing lack of emotional fulfilment in loveless unions without resorting to moral policing or a senseless blame game. The women in these stories aren’t portrayed as damsels in distress who desperately need a saviour. They remain cognizant of their choices, challenges and emotional capabilities. Sunah Ahmed’s Moment in Time forays deep into an extramarital affair that is pursued exclusively in the mind. Ahmed’s protagonist Leena is swayed by idealistic notions of love that compel her to view her well-meaning husband as inferior to her ex-lover. Even so, she doesn’t delude herself into believing that she is a victim. Leena has the good sense to acknowledge that her husband or the man who jilted her aren’t her enemies. In fact, it is outmoded social customs that weigh her down and lead people to believe that she is “incapable of safeguarding [herself]”.

A Match Made in Heaven also moves beyond the stereotypical mould of stories where Muslim women must simply reckon with marital discord. The compilation also contains unconventional narratives that depict their resilience against adversity. Ayisha Malik’s Heartbeat delves into the psyche of a woman who writes letters to her two deceased husbands and maintains cordial relations with each of her mothers-in-law. Malik’s protagonist hasn’t been crippled by the doom and gloom in her life and is prepared to welcome another man into her life.

The stories in A Match Made in Heaven aren’t just confined to the private sphere. Many of them spool outwards to explore the political realities of our times. Shaista Sadick’s Boneland examines how a Muslim woman who writes erotica unexpectedly confronts the perils of white supremacy. Building on a similar motif as Bina Shah’s Peter Pochmann Comes to Dinner, Sadick’s narrative deals with the clashes between Islam and the West in an inherently post-truth world. Sairish Hussain’s Waiting for the Bus is a tale of young love that is set against the backdrop of the war in Syria. These stories bear echoes of troubling global realities that have left Muslims in a vulnerable position in the West.

The 16 stories in the compilation have been filtered through unadorned prose that skilfully conveys their essence. Driven by sound narrative arcs and crisp dialogue, these accounts are mercifully devoid of long passages that narrate stories without allowing readers to inhabit them. Each story offers a glimpse into the different means through which Muslim women navigate the complex terrain of love and desire. The compilation should be savoured for its ability to defy static stereotypes and faithfully depict the Muslim experience.

A Match Made in Heaven

British Muslim Women Write

About Love and Desire

Editors: Claire Chambers, Nafhesa Ali

and Richard Phillips

Publisher: HopeRoad

Pages: 284

Price: US$17.19

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Unsilencing the truth of desire: Review on A Match Made in Heaven