Love in a Head Covering
In a 7 July 2018 article on the "changing face of romance" in the Books section of The New York Times, Alexandra Alter notes that there is a "striking lack of diversity within the romance genre…. Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers' varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types". But the growing diversity in romance novels does more than "reflect a broader range of experiences" (Alter). In the cases of Anglo-Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women's romances (the latter not mentioned by the article), the novels, aimed at a mass audience, and employing the tropes and narratives of popular culture, brilliantly reframe the genre by correcting, as it were, mainstream attitudes toward modern love through an engagement with religious devotion.
Often humorous and always devoid of sex (one Australian Muslim woman's novel, in fact, is called No Sex in the City), and consistently foregrounding strong female characters and their close friendships, often over and above their romantic relationships, these romances channel a range of popular texts, universalising the experiences of the protagonists, and making their stories easily accessible to many readers. The women in these "chick lit" romances are as immersed in popular culture as they imagine their readers to be: when Shelina Zahra Janmohamed makes a list of desirable attributes for her groom in Love in a Headscarf (2009), she says, "It had written itself, a collection of words that had travelled by osmosis via Mills and Boon, Just Seventeen magazine and Bridget Jones onto the page in front of me" (66). We discover heroines appearing as twenty-first-century versions of the characters of the 90s television show, Sex and the City: cool, educated, sophisticated, professional, well-dressed, surrounded by their similarly amazing girlfriends, and searching for love. It also so happens that the Muslim Carrie Bradshaws are "hijabis"—women who cover their hair and pray five times a day—whose Mr. Rights are "beardies"—men who have beards and attend the mosque. For the Jewish women, in long skirts and covered collarbones, their desired men study Talmud and wear Borsalinos. And true love comes not through chance but a divine hand: for Janmohamed's character, after a trip to Mecca. In Hasidic Rama Burshtein's 2016 chick flick, Through the Wall (the attendant film version of "chick lit", also engaged by religious romantics), after the protagonist goes to pray over the grave of the Breslov Hasidism founder, Rabbi Nachman, in Uman.
The authors suggest a complementariness between popular ideals of love and faith-based one. "Hollywood rom-coms are certain of true glorious passionate love", Janmohamed notes, adding, "Islamic teachings promise each person a partner to complete them" (5). In Yael Levy's 2012 Crimson Romance, Brooklyn Love, a young woman claims that "Love is for Gentiles", but Rachel, the protagonist responds, "Why can't we have both - the traditions and love?" (10). In the end, the author does give Rachel both: her religious soulmate (bashert), who is also a kind of Hollywood dreamboat, or what we might call Rabbi Right. As neither Muslim nor Orthodox Jewish culture traditionally encourages love matches, however, this apparent merging of mainstream and religious ideals is not an easy feat. In fact, Judy Brown's 2015 memoir, This is Not a Love Story (Brown is the great-granddaughter of the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emes, and of Rabbi Yitchek Meir Levin, the leader of Agudath Israel in prewar Europe and later Israel), revolves around the fear and belief that the author's brother suffers from severe autism because her parents formed a "love match" instead of being paired in a shidduch. To determine the truth of this terrible accusation, the protagonist approaches her grandmother and asks who made her mother's shidduch. At first, she relates, "Savtah Miriam's head swayed. 'Your mother', she said. 'Your aunt. Also your father'." But then she says, "God in Heaven, of course", and Brown adds, "as though her earlier words had been a careless mistake" (310). So perhaps it takes a kind of revisionist history to merge the two.
Ultimately, though, the seeming conflation of the popular romance/rom com and meaningful, religiously-grounded love reveals the latter to be far superior. The happy ending for Randa Abdel-Fatta's Esma in the 2013 novel, No Sex and the City, for instance, both invokes and offers a challenge to the mainstream version of love, underlined by the author's use of litotes in a declaration directed at readers:
Don't get too excited. There was no sparkling sapphire buried in a baked pudding. No getting down on one knee on a twilight ferry on the harbor. No ring presented in a hot-air balloon.
For one thing, how would my parents fit in the hot-air balloon with us? Not to mention that my mother is terrified of heights and not that fond of ferries either.
So Aydin's options were a little limited. He ended up coming to my house (with his parents) to officially propose to me (and my parents). (381)
By marrying Aydin, Esma gets a groom that is like and yet better than any mainstream Prince Charming: he's a committed family man, a virgin, we learn, and he volunteers his time to create a digital storytelling forum for the asylum seekers Esma teaches.
In fact, the women not only get the good guys, but also become them: in Ayisha Malik's 2016 Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, which pays homage to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sofia ditches a plan to write a book on Muslim dating commissioned by her (slightly Islamophobic) boss when she falls for her keffiyah-and-beard-wearing convert-to-Islam neighbor, who helps her embark on a life of activism.
I first began to investigate the connections between contemporary Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women's writing in my forthcoming book, Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture. As I continue to read and think about this emerging genre of popular religious romance, I suspect I will find that there are many overlapping methods employed by Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women writers to universalise their experiences; challenge stereotypes about being victimised and oppressed; present empowered female religious characters; and insist on a "true" accounting of the religion, which is not (like many of its cultural incarnations/distortions) dangerously misogynistic. And perhaps these similarities should come as no surprise: Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women share many of the same concerns in contemporary anglophone societies, and through this body of writing, we can see how they respond in like manner.
This research was conducted while learning about Jewish-Muslim relations in the excellent Woolf Institute online course, Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter. It was funded by BRIDGE, the Birmingham-Illinois Partnership Discovery, Engagement and Education and a longer version was presented at the British Association for Jewish Studies in Durham, UK, 2018.
Dr Karen E H Skinazi received her PhD in English and American Literature from New York University in 2005 and has taught in the United States and Canada, at Fordham University, University of Alberta, and Princeton University. She is a scholar of multi-ethnic, women's, and American literature and has published in a number of journals; her forthcoming monograph is entitled Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture, and it will be published with Rutgers University Press in September 2018. Since moving to the UK four years ago, Karen has lectured in English and worked in educational development at the University of Birmingham. As of September 2018, she will be a senior teaching fellow and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol.
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