Love in a Headscarf Book Review

31 Jan

book cover

Browsing through the aisles of a bookshop recently (my favourite activity next to actually reading books), I came across a book cover that stood out for its interesting image and title; Love in A headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. The cover image was a drawing of a lady in a headscarf.

What’s the average perception of ladies wearing headscarves?
Traditional? Demure? Suppressed? Oppressed? Archaic?
The headscarf (amongst non-muslims) has many stereotypical connotations, not many of which are positive.

Yet the cover design of a headscarf-sporting young woman challenged all these stereotypes. She looked thoroughly modern and confident, with her bright pink sunglasses, matching lipstick and no-nonsense look.

With both hair and eyes thoroughly obscured, it is rather difficult to project a personality, especially one would think, in a drawing – but this drawing projected the personality successfully; ‘Don’t mess with me! I am a modern young woman, who knows what I want and I am going after it.’

Well, that was a challenge right there from the Muslim lady who wrote her story to the reader, and I took it up. She didn’t disappoint. With sassy humour and charm, she relates the many trials and tribulations of being a young Muslim woman growing up in Britain.

The opening chapter is promising. She is having a ‘good headscarf day.’ You know, one of those rare days when the fabric of the headscarf swathes itself as it should? No? Well, it doesn’t seem much different from the good hair / bad hair days that the rest of us suffer from.

It is especially important to the 19 year old Shelina (of the first chapter) that her headscarf drapes successfully. Like other women fussing with their hair before an important date, her room is covered in a rainbow of colours – of all the discarded headscarves. This is the first time she is about to meet a suitor at her family home – and he might be ‘The One.’ It is imperative that she make a good impression.

Unfortunately finding ‘The One’ is no more easier (or difficult) for a modern, young Muslim woman than it is for her non-muslim peers, and the rest of the book takes us on her journey to find her ideal prince. In the stereotypical media out there, we hear of modern young (mainly western) women’s search for their princes and the eastern and middle-eastern women’s arranged marriages to toads (who never turn into princes).


This amusingly self-searching and revealing book exposes most of these stereotypes as well as re-invents them. It is not only the toads who show up for arranged marriages (although they are there too) and eastern women traditionally brought up, yearn for their princes too.

Hers is not necessarily a revolutionary tale but it is a tale that challenges the stereotype out there of oppressed Muslim girls. Thus her recounting of a happy and loving family home is not unique. But in the plethora of writings out there on surly, fanatical Muslim men who make revolting fathers, brothers and husbands, her off-hand recounting of her father who used to rub his trimmed beard against her cheeks as a child to show his affection, and kept it shampooed and conditioned, so as not to hurt her when doing so, raises a tender chord of resonance.

Stock image of Muslim father and daughter

Stock image of Muslim father and daughter

When only the negative stories are heard, all the positive stories that never make it into the media (because they are ‘normal’ and thus not newsworthy) might as well be for naught. Janmohamed consciously writes about her family, community and religion in order to challenge those negative stereotypes.

In doing so, she gives a glimpse of a community long vilified by non-muslims, especially post 9/11, portraying how they feel, think and act. Muslims have unfortunately become the threatening ‘other’ in too many countries across the world, including Sri Lanka.  For an educated young woman who draws sustenance from her faith and community but is not blind to its faults (as indeed which community is without its faults?), being a practicing Muslim, wearing a headscarf in a western country post 9/11 is  suddenly a consciously brave decision that she has to fight for.

To be who she is, believe in what she does and yet continue her life, which was never a threat to anybody else, as normally as possible is an uphill challenge but she doesn’t shirk from it. In books of this genre we already have Bridget Jones and a horde of lesser known modern heroines. But Shelina Zahra Janmohamed on a similar mission still stands out – because she is Muslim. She stands out not only because her traditional community expects her to go about finding her prince within certain culturally defined boundaries and means, but because she is suddenly the ‘threatening other’ in her larger British community.

The author, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

The author, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

With all our progress in women’s rights, women of the 21st century face some unique challenges. This book is the exploration of the challenges of a 21st century Muslim woman. It is by turns, funny and perceptive, mellow and introspective or irreverent and light-hearted – and for many non-muslims out there, it will prove an enlightening glimpse into where these boxed in ‘others’ are coming from, ideology-wise.

One of my favourite chapters was on her interaction with her most religious suitor. Their conversations on Islam and what it teaches are beautiful, thought-provoking and riveting. Having read many books on what Islam is about, I was yet inspired and impressed by the revelations in this chapter.  Many Muslims who insist that theirs is a religion of peace and tolerance seem to be fighting a losing battle against the stereotype of the Taliban, held against them. This book comes at a relevant time to show the other side without being preachy.

The book falls into the genre of chick lit, but its content is too thought provoking for that dismissive label. This is not a book for just dreamy-eyed young women. Even the elderly, the male sex and anyone in general interested in getting past the stereotype of Muslims prevalent in the world today, would enjoy this book. Take a gamble and read it. Personally I loved it.


One Response to “Love in a Headscarf Book Review”


  1. Women Out of the Frame – A Review! | HerSpace Sri Lanka - May 5, 2014

    […] Love in a Headscarf  […]

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