Recent University of Birmingham undergraduate finalist Mu’minah Iqbal takes a closer look at Muslim women’s romance writing and genre.
The conventions of the romance genre are subject to change when different lived experiences engage with it, therefore genre cannot be considered universal. Jayashree Kamblé, Eric Murphy Selinger and Hsu-Ming Teo argue: “The genre’s primary drive is to imagine ways that romantic love and desire…may serve as a path to self-fulfilment, and, increasingly socio-political equality” (p. 3).
However, when Muslim protagonists and authors engage with the genre, they expand the scope of romance fiction so readers can also learn about a new culture through an accessible and popular genre. Muslim romance stories diverge because they are explicitly engaging with political issues; Muslim women find themselves in predetermined discourses about their agency and fiction is an opportunity to voice how they view themselves. Hence, an essential component of Muslim romance is to educate its readership, a feature that is not usually seen as central to the romance genre.
In this post, I will be looking at how Muslim women’s romance books differ from typical romantic conventions in how they engage with the global, Islamophobia and genre. To illustrate my points, I will be using the example of Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Aiysha Malik to show how it becomes evident that genre is not universal but is still accessible.
Muslim protagonists in romance books take on the challenge of countering orientalist myths about Muslim womanhood. Shahnaz Khan argues: “Muslim women have to negotiate … orientalist and Islamic discourses” (p. 465), indicating how Muslim women are subject to a harsher degree of stereotyping by Western society which makes their interaction with the romance genre unique. Thus, Muslim romance is dissimilar from traditional Western romance as it bears the burden of representation.
Authors of Muslim romance are also often engaging with and confronting patronising stereotypes about Muslim women. In this way: “Western desire to see beyond the veil” (Taylor and Zine, p. 3) can be challenged through the introduction of ordinary yet complex Muslim protagonists. This shows that a variety of Muslim women exist: like Sofia Khan, a hijab-wearing publisher from London. The emerging sub-genre of Muslim romance can thus help prevent Western readers from fixating on reductive and harmful caricatures of the oppressed Muslim woman.
Muslim romance books can help to minimise Islamophobic discourse by offering a more representative version of Muslim womanhood which is familiar but distinct. The Western Muslim protagonist therefore becomes both an insider and outsider. Whilst Sofia Khan is technically a British and Western love story, the protagonist encounters many preconceived notions about her agency as she is also Pakistani and Muslim. Ayisha Malik has the task of disarming her readership with witty humour that is “Quintessentially British” (Chambers, p. 83) to indicate to readers that Sofia Khan may be more relatable than they first assumed. However, we are reminded that the types of issues she faces and how she handles them will differ because of her social identity through the inclusion of issues exclusive to Muslim womanhood.
The “transcultural work” (Ommundsen, p. 108) performed by popular fiction helps to normalise aspects of Muslim women’s lives such as praying in the work place, wearing a hijab, ‘halal dating’ and Islamophobia. Whilst these issues seem trivial to Muslim women, they are not trivial to Western readers. Transcultural work is not straightforward as it highlights both the similarities and differences of the Muslim woman’s experience but overall does allow for a more authentic and complicated presentation of Muslim womanhood.
The romance genre is less politically charged and allows for more genuine depictions of Muslims. However, Erin Young suggests: “the [romance] genre has been and continues to be racialised” (p. 526) as the default protagonist is a Western white woman who is afforded privileges that Muslim women are not. Therefore, Muslim love stories flout romantic conventions and reinvent them to fulfil their dual purpose.
For example, Catherine Roach proposes: “romance as a religion of love” in her Nine Essential Elements of Romance. As Muslim romance stories are so focused on actual religion, there is no place for this concept. I would argue the purpose of Muslim romance fiction is to show that religion is compatible with Western life and does not dampen the romantic experience. In Muslim romance, the idea that “Romance leads to great sex” (Roach) is omitted to resist orientalist tropes about closeted Muslim women’s sexual desires. Instead, these tropes are replaced with elements of Chick lit which introduces aspects of modern Muslim life such as the importance of familial, platonic, cultural and religious affiliations to reveal the normality of Muslim women’s lives that is taken for granted in traditional romantic protagonists.
Ultimately, genre is not universal because Muslim protagonists deal with unique questions of identity and stereotyping which are absent in traditional romance books. Whilst a primary aim of romance is self-fulfilment, Muslim romance seeks to educate in a lighthearted way. The inclusion of issues pertaining to Muslim womanhood inevitably subvert expectations of the romance genre and allows authors to provide a positive insight into the ordinary lives of Muslim women.
Chambers, Claire, ‘Sexual misery’ or ‘happy British Muslims’? Contemporary depictions of Muslim sexuality, Ethnicities, 1 (2019), 66-94
Kamblé, Jayashree and other eds. ‘Introduction’ in The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2020), pp. 1-24
Khan, Shahnaz, ‘Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space’, Signs, 23 (1998), 463-494
Malik, Ayisha, Sofia Khan is not obliged (London: twenty7, 2015)
Ommundsen, Wenche, ‘Sex and the Global City: Chick Lit with a Difference’, Contemporary Women’s Writing, 2 (2011), 107-124
Roach, Catherine M., ‘Nine Essential Elements of Romantic Fiction’ Romantic Novelists’ Association Blog (2014) https://romanticnovelistsassociationblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/nine-essential-elements-of-romantic.html [Accessed 10 March 2021]
Taylor, Lisa K. and Zine, Jasmine ‘Introduction: The Contested Imaginaries of Reading Muslim Women and Muslim Women Reading Back’ in Muslim Women, Transnational Feminism and the Ethics of Pedagogy: Contested Imaginaries in Post-9/11 Cultural Practice ed. by Taylor, Lisa K. and Zine, Jasmine (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 1-21
Young, Erin S. ‘Race, Ethnicity and Whiteness’ in The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction ed. by Kamblé, Jayashree and other eds. (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2020), pp. 511-528
Biography: Mu’minah Iqbal is a recent undergraduate finalist on the BA English and History programme at the University of Birmingham. This post is adapted from an assessment submitted as part of the third-year English literature module, Muslim Women’s Popular Fiction.