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Sense and serendipity

Feature Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of a new memoir on finding modern love through traditional means.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of <i>Love In A Headscarf</i>, at her London home.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love In A Headscarf, at her London home.

Charlotte Kemp meets the author of a new memoir on finding modern love through traditional means. The author of Love In A Headscarf describes a life of contented domesticity. Having just moved from a cramped flat to a house in the suburbs of London, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed and her new husband have still got a lot to do. But the novelty of having a garden for the first time has proved a welcome distraction from the relentless unpacking of boxes, hanging curtains and putting up pictures.

"We had this tiny one-bedroom flat before and now we've got this whole house with a garden at the front and a garden at the back," enthuses the 33-year-old. "We just love sitting out enjoying the sun and feeling grown up. It really feels like this is our home and now we're here, I am excited about what lies ahead." It's the happy ending Janmohamed so longs for in her book - an irreverent, humorous chick-lit style memoir that charts her 10-year quest to find a husband through the arranged marriage process. For its British readers, Love In A Headscarf, which was published in Britain in February and has recently been published here, gives an insight into a process that many in the West view with suspicion. And yet for Janmohamed, there was no question that as a dutiful Muslim, she would find a husband any other way.

She was brought up in north London (her parents emigrated from Tanzania to Britain in 1964), and educated at Oxford University. Her long journey to find "The One" began when she was 19 and still an undergraduate. By her own description, the teenager waiting anxiously upstairs in a dusky pink headscarf, for the arrival of her first suitor was an unworldly, nervous bag of contradictions. Like all her friends at the local girls' school, she had been brought up on a diet of western romantic comedies("At the age of 13, I knew I was destined to marry John Travolta," she notes). This meeting had been arranged by a member of the Marriage Committee, set up to put like-minded families in touch. Moreover, the advice of her "buxom aunties" was forever ringing in her ears: "Nobody wants a girl who is too educated. Then you'll be old and left on the shelf."

The suitor, as it turned out, was nice enough. Indeed, as Janmohamed's mother pointed out, in days gone by, families accepted the first decent proposal that came along. But Janmohamed was confused. "It is a peculiar feeling to talk to a stranger in the knowledge that within a handful of conversations you may decide to marry this person," she writes. "Romance asked: Does he make you tingle? The Buxom Aunties whispered: Is he a good catch? Faith asked: Is he a practising Muslim like you? I wanted a lot of things. I wanted Prince Charming, romantic love and to live happily ever after. I wanted to observe the cultural traditions of finding a husband. I wanted to follow the Islamic ideals of marriage. But what I really wanted was very simple: to make sense of the overwhelming contradictions and tangles facing me as a young Muslim woman."

A steady stream of introduction meetings followed - a doctor, a lecturer, a businessman and pharmacists. None of them seemed to "click", but along the way, Janmohamed started to grow up and work out what she was really looking for. "The more men I met, the more I moved away from that very simplistic idea that you just meet someone, fall in love and live happily ever after. I started to question what love is and I realised that there is far more to it than the romantic ideal," she says.

"I guess as a teenager, I was coming from a Hollywood rom com view - that 'love', whatever that was, would lead to marriage. I was looking for 'the one'. At the time, that seemed at odds with the love story within the parameters of Islam: that two people get married to complete their faith and then they are blessed with love which brings them long- term happiness and an enrichment of faith. "But I started to realise that for a relationship to last, there has got to be some substance beneath any initial attraction. You need to think with your head as well as your heart.

"That really made me understand the strengths of the arranged marriage process. It gave me such an understanding of the way that people interact, and how to understand what lies behind someone's words. You really have to think - will this be a good companion for me. Does he want the same things as me? "It also felt so right that my family was in this quest with me and I really valued their support and wisdom. You get the benefit of several opinions and it's so helpful to have a number of people looking out for potential partners. They wanted to do everything they could to help me find a person that I could find love and contentment with."

Not that her family always got it right. Janmohamed describes one meeting with a good-looking suitor named Samir, a friend of a friend. She recalls: "He took one look at all the books on the bookshelf, which were all mine, and said, 'I hate books and I don't like people who like books.' So that was another dead end." Months - and then years - rolled by. Janmohamed says: "But my friends and I were optimistic. We knew we had broken all the rules by going to university and getting good jobs but we still thought the happy ending would come if we put the time in."

Meanwhile, she experienced first hand a revolution in the match-making scene as the internet started to make an impact - first, in the form of "biodata", a CV-style document used by prospective partners to describe themselves, which is circulated by email between families, and later, through match-making websites such as mysinglefriend.com, which put friends of friends in touch. "To my mind, that is very much in the tradition of the arranged marriage, where a matchmaker looks for compatibility," she says. "What all these changes meant was that Muslim men and women were starting to meet each other independently and not just in their parents' front rooms."

Her first meeting outside the family home was with Syed, an accountant. Another disaster. Her date was two hours late because he couldn't tear himself away from a game of cricket on TV. Even so, she put in the effort to find out what Syed might be looking for in a wife. "Now, I look back and think what on earth was I doing?" she says. "But at the time I felt I had to pursue marriage at all costs, even though my instincts told me that I shouldn't have bothered with someone who didn't even turn up on time."

When true love eventually materialised, Janmohamed's husband (a friend of a work colleague) was still subject to the same processes of family approval. "We still checked out who he was and what his family was like, and they came to visit my family very soon after we met so that we could find out if we were going to be a good match for each other," she says. So why write about such a personal journey? Janmohamed is unequivocal about that. "I was really fed up of people talking over Muslim women," she says. "There was nothing being written about what it's like to live an ordinary life in the modern world, only misery memoirs. And I wanted to give my perspective as a modern Muslim girl going through a traditional process.

"The search for love is universal. Everyone wants to know how other people met their partners. But there is a cultural pressure for Muslim women not to talk about the emotional intimacy that they long for. Since my book has been published, I have had hundreds of emails from Muslim women around the world who have all written to say that when they read my book, they felt like they were reading about their own lives.

"Young Muslim women are going through a period of huge change. We are more educated, we don't want to be submissive wives and yet we want to find love within a traditional framework. I really wanted a companion who I could walk through life with. For me, that is the essential part of the spiritual journey you are on as a Muslim - to learn about yourself through someone else's eyes. "I think all men and women, whatever their faith, should question what love is when they are looking for a relationship. We put so much store in finding the perfect job and the perfect house, and yet for so many, the one area of their life that really is important and can lead to such fulfillment is given very scant attention. People think that an arranged marriage is restricting but so is that constant wondering about whether someone will call you, or angst about the 'C' word - commitment. I think it's good when all those issues are out in the open and discussed before a relationship starts."

Her book ends where her love story begins, on the day of her wedding. Now, sitting in her new home, she says, "I am very happy. People say that the early years of marriage are among the most stressful periods of your life. And there is a lot of change to adjust to. We had to set up a home together, we had to get to know each other, emotionally and intimately, and get to know each other's families and all the time we were both working. But it's lovely to feel our relationship blossoming.

'The way I see it, we are a team rather than two individuals. That, to me, is what marriage is all about." Love In A Headscarf, by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, is published by Aurum Press.

Updated: May 30, 2009 04:00 AM