American Muslim Women Lift The Veil On Love Lives

Love InshAllah features personal essays from 25 women of different backgrounds and circumstances. Fans of love stories are curious and fascinated, but critics say the collection is salacious and sensational. Host Michel Martin and the book's contributing editor Ayesha Mattu discuss these stories of faith, love and the will to open up.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll find out more about some of the stories we covered this week, and we will get your comments. That's BackTalk. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to talk about faith and love - more specifically, women of faith talking about love.

This might be an old story for some, but for American-Muslim women, talking about such deeply personal matters in public has been taboo until now. There's a new collection of deeply moving - and to some, provocative - essays called "Love, InshAllah," - or love, God willing - "The Secret Love Lives of American-Muslim Women."

Joining us to talk about the book and why it's raising eyebrows, contributing editor Ayesha Mattu. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

AYESHA MATTU: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just read a little bit from the introduction to the book that you and your co-editor wrote: (Reading) Muslim women. We just can't seem to catch a break. We're oppressed, submissive and forced into arranged marriages by big, bearded men and - oh, and let's not forget, we're also all hiding explosives under our clothes. The truth is, like most women, we're independent and opinionated, and the only things hiding under our clothes are hearts yearning for love. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Muslim women, even those - especially those who have never met one. As American-Muslim women, we decided this was an opportunity to raise our voices and tell our own stories.

So that, I think, gives you a sense of kind of what you're trying to accomplish, but there are those within the community who are offended, you know, by this. Could you talk a little bit about that? Did you anticipate that reaction? And what do you think of it?

MATTU: Honestly, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. We've received very little negative feedback. Most Muslim women, especially, are so ready to engage with each other. They're so ready to have these conversations. I think they've been waiting for a long time. The one critique that we have received is that this is not an Islamic book. And we actually do address that in our introduction, where we talk about how we're not offering this as a theological treatise. We're not saying this is a code of conduct, or definitely not a dating manual.

We're really offering it as the lived realities of American-Muslim women, and we'd love for the community - and we believe the community will rise to the occasion, moving from judgment or ostracizing members for perceived bad behavior to a more compassionate, respectful and inclusive conversation.

MARTIN: So you have essays from 25 women who come from very different circumstances, races and perspectives. Can you just give us a sense of the range of experiences that these women talk about?

MATTU: Sure. Just to highlight a few different stories, we have one called "Punk Drunk Love," which is about a young Bangladeshi-American woman who takes the quintessential American road trip odyssey in search of self-discovery and - in the pursuit of love.

We also have "Leap of Faith," which follows a young American - Pakistani-American Muslim woman who, within the span of six short weeks, meets a man on the recommendation of her mother and decides to marry him - so, sort of American arranged marriage. And yet the unique twist in that is she actually falls madly in love with her husband. And so it's this - it really challenges the stereotype of arranged marriages being loveless marriages, or only for duty.

MARTIN: I just have to jump in just to say that it opens in a very - in a way that I think a lot of people would recognize if they were having that conversation with a friend. It's a friend - just the author of the piece is telling a friend that she's about to get married, and the friend is saying: What? Really? Six weeks? You've known him six weeks? Do you need me to come get you? Do you need - kind of lowering her voice: Do you need me to come get you?

I'm speaking with Ayesha Mattu. She is the contributing editor of a new book, "Love, InshAllah" - or love, God willing - "The Secret Love Lives of American-Muslim Women."

And the stories run the gamut, including yours. Your own story is included in the book, and it talks about finding your husband in an unexpected place. And even though he was not a Muslim, he helped you find your way back to Islam. Talk a little bit about that, if you would, briefly.

MATTU: Yes.

MARTIN: I do want to talk about some of the other essays before we let you go.

MATTU: You know, I was sort of raised with what I call the Islam of no, which was very rules-bound. But it wasn't until much later after college that I discovered this very joyful, passionate, creative and beautiful Islam through the mystic poets of Islam, like Rumi, Hafez, Waris Shah. And that enabled me to start coming back. And I'd sort of made this vow in my story, which starts two weeks after 9/11, this very tumultuous period in my life and all Americans' lives.

And I'd made this vow that I'm not going to date any more non-Muslim men, and I very seriously sort of walk into a club thinking that. And then I meet my husband, who at that time was non-Muslim, and I fall in love with him and negotiate this journey of faith and love side-by-side and sort of come to the conclusion that, not only is God loving and merciful, but he has a real sense of humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How about that? I tell you, one of the essays that I found - I don't know how you reacted to it - found a little bit heartbreaking was a woman who is a very observant - and she would say, in her words, describe conservative Muslim woman - who is gay.

MATTU: Yes.

MARTIN: Who knew that she was gay when she converted to Islam, and has been searching to find someone. Her main wish was for a partner who is as observant as she is. And her struggle to reconcile her faith...

MATTU: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and her interpretation of her faith with her sexuality is very profound. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

MATTU: Yes. It's such a moving story. It's actually one of my favorite stories. It's called "A Prayer Answered" by Tolu Adiba. And she's a devout orthodox African-American woman who goes to her local mosque and, in the course of being there, meets another woman who's also very devout, and falls in love with her, and how - she takes us through her journey of: How does she reconcile or struggle with her faith and her sexuality?

And what I like about a lot of the stories - and this one included - is there aren't necessarily neat, bow-tie answers at the end. You know, they're not all wrapped up and presented with happy endings. Some of the stories have tattered and bleeding edges, and they sort of leave it at that because that resolution isn't necessarily there, but the door to that conversation has been opened.

MARTIN: Ayesha Mattu is one of the co-editors of the new book, "Love, InshAllah" or love, God willing - "The Secret Love Lives of American-Muslim Women." I think we'll be talking about this again. I'll be interested to hear what additional reactions come forward as the book has been out longer. So, hopefully, you'll come back and see us.

MATTU: That would be great. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: She joined us from our NPR studios in New York.

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