Buses roll by outside, the day unfolding in a succession of sirens and shouts, and in her small flat in west London, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is discussing how she came to find her husband. Janmohamed is better known as spirit21, a blogger who has provided a unique perspective on the life of a British Muslim woman over the last three years, addressing issues that range from the political role of Turkey to Jack Straw's comments about women who wear the veil. She is also now author of Love in a Headscarf, a book that hovers somewhere between chick-lit and memoir, as it follows Janmohamed's journey through the process of arranged marriage.
The memoir is irreverent and feminine: perhaps not the most conventional tone for discussing this topic. "I love chick lit," she says. "I noticed when I started reading it that it was very much about 'How do you find the prince?' And what I wanted to do was tell that universal story, but from the perspective of being a Muslim woman."
Janmohamed was always aware that her marriage would be arranged, and is frustrated by the common misconception that such unions bypass the desires of the bride and groom. "The Islamic view on marriage is that the man or woman should make an active choice as to who they want to marry," she says. "And there's no long-term dating procedure, but it's essential that the two people have met, that they've had as much discussion as they like and that they feel comfortable with each other."
Introductions are usually organised by parents and a designated matchmaker, but there was, she recalls, "a lot of frank discussion about what I would want in a partner" beforehand. She credits this with helping her to make an informed choice and teaching her about herself. "You look at your list and you think, 'Gosh, I'm so shallow!'" she laughs, "because it's ·'good-looking, tall, handsome . . .'"
In her memoir, Janmohamed focuses on the intersection between the cultural representations of love and the reality. "The big question I ask is, 'What is love?'" she says. "Because we all watch lots of Hollywood films, and it's always Prince Charming and you live happily ever after. And I still watch them, and I swoon at the hero, and I wish life was like that. But when you come from an Asian background it's different - it's all practical and serious, and if you fall in love at the end then that's very good, dear."
In the book's opening chapter, Janmohamed is introduced to her first prospective husband, and her expectation is that he is destined to be "Mr Right" - that the arranged marriage can exist in tandem with the rom-com. But as her search continues, she begins to recognise the disparity between these two ideas of love. "I think as you grow up and things don't work out as you think they will you get pushed to ask the questions - is my paradigm of the world something that is true? Are we shortchanged today because all we think about is romance? Or is the Asian tradition perhaps too staid?"
Janmohamed is keenly aware of how non-Muslims tend to view arranged marriage and Muslim women in general. She recalls visits to bookshops where she would find "shelves and shelves of misery memoir and all these women in black veils with camels walking in the background and titles like I Was Sold Into Marriage." She smiles flatly. "And the only other stories that we saw were of Muslim women who had somehow broken through this oppression, had decided that Islam was the source of it and had rejected it, and had gone off to be - and the only way to put this is in quotation marks - 'liberated'. And you know, this is a really serious issue, the idea that women don't get to exercise their free choice and are pushed into areas of life that they shouldn't be forced into: that does need to be addressed. But I think it's really important that as part of that wider picture of what it is like to be a Muslim woman there are some positive stories told." She lifts her hands. "I like being a Muslim woman!"
Janmohamed's parents emigrated from Tanzania in 1964, arriving with two suitcases, one son and £75 to their name. Their daughter followed soon afterwards, and was brought up in a fairly liberal north London home, familiar with her parents' culture and faith, while attending a local girls' school and mixing with people from different backgrounds. For many years she kept the three strands of her life - school, home and the mosque - quite separate, but finally began to reconcile them in her search for a husband.
This search began when she was 19 and studying at Oxford. The issue of education was an uncomfortable one, she recalls. Her parents had always encouraged her studies, "but there were people around saying 'Well, just make sure that you're not too educated because the men will be scared of you.'" Still, she stresses, this is another example of the universality of her story. "I think women generally have this idea that they have to giggle at men's jokes," she says, "and can't be too smart and can't make men feel like they don't know enough."
It took Janmohamed a decade to find the man she would marry, but today she hesitates to talk about her husband; she smiles nervously and explains that she doesn't want to reveal too much about the end of the novel. "What I will say is that he went through the whole process like all the others." During the years of her search she was introduced to more suitors than she can even remember, and the book recounts those would-be husbands who most influenced her thinking. "One of the fascinating things is that because the timescale is so shortened, you have to reveal yourself immediately. So within two or three meetings you would be saying, 'What do you want to do with the rest of your life? How many children do you want to have?' And actually I think that's very liberating; you know somebody very quickly.
"So there were men I would meet who were running very late and not think anything of it, not even an apology; and so you would think, 'That person clearly doesn't have any respect for me.' Or people who didn't want to spend any money, and I thought, 'Well, if you're not even going to spend any money to impress me at this stage, you're clearly not going to be very generous when we get married.'" More startling were the suitors who asked if she would consider not wearing a headscarf. "I found that quite shocking," she says, "because I wasn't forced to wear it, I'd taken that choice as an independent woman, and I expected of all the people in the world who would respect that choice it would be my husband."
The discussion of faith in Britain is, she believes, only just beginning. "I think in Britain it has taken a long time to be able to talk about these subjects - in the 60s and 70s it was about race, and you had to be very careful how you framed discussions about race. And now as we come into the 21st century that discourse is about faith. As Muslim women we seem to get stuck in the middle of this - because we look different," she says. "And I get really fed up with reading stories in the papers about how all Muslim women are oppressed. Even when I tell people I have a job and I'm educated and I travel round on my own, people still say, 'Well, you're still oppressed, you just don't know it.'"
"When Islam was first brought here in the seventh century it was extremely radical - which is a naughty word, you're not allowed to say the word 'radical' if you're a Muslim, because it means you're going to blow something up - but Islam was radical because the Prophet Mohammed said women are equal to men, black people are equal to white people, rich people are equal to poor people," she says. "I think Muslims look back to that and say to women, 'Look, you had rights that no one had anywhere in the world!' And that's right, but most Muslim women's lives are not like that. So Muslim women are caught in a gap; they're either told they're oppressed or they're not oppressed. But no one asks Muslim women what they think. And in the grand scale of literature, the voices Muslim women have are very few."
It was this want of a voice that convinced her to begin her blog, while working for a mobile telecoms company. "I started writing because I couldn't find anyone that was expressing a view based on critical thinking," she explains. "There's this view that the Islamic world is violent, oppressed and anti-democracy and all the other stereotypes. And then there's a view within the Muslim community - and we have to be honest about this - that says, 'The west is bad.' But I'm a British Muslim; I'm a Muslim and I'm from the west."
The success of the blog prompted people to suggest she write a book about being a Muslim woman. "And I would think, yes, I must, and it's very worthy. And when I sat down to write it I realised I didn't want to write a story that was 'This is Islam and these are the pillars . . .' People can read that in a text book. I thought I wanted to tell a universal story and the best story to tell is the story of love".
Love in a Headscarf is published by Aurum Press and priced at £10.99
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