If you can imagine Bridget Jones as a young Muslim woman navigating the minefield of 21st century dating, then you can picture Sofia Khan doing the same, but with a cultural twist, in Sofia Khan is Not Obliged – a wonderful first book by Ayisha Malik.
Mix dating pressure, body image, an ancient culture, family expectations and more with romance, internet dating with a difference and religion.
I was expecting chick lit with a twist, but instead, I got a powerful, insightful and completely unputdownable read. What made this book so compelling is that Sofia, the educated, 30-something protagonist is a ‘hajibi’, that is she chooses to wear a headscarf covering along with her trendy western attire. She observes Muslim religious rituals such as daily prayers, Ramadan and also abstains from premarital sex and alcohol.
Already we have a conflict with current contemporary 21st century values, but Sofia is an immensely likeable heroine. Living in post-Thatcher Britain within a strong Pakistani family unit, she is both vulnerable and transparent in her search for a suitable husband.
Will he be the worldly American Muslim Naim whom she meets whilst searching for biscuits in the supermarket? He is handsome and eligible, he is also very keen, but is he really available? Or what about her ex-fiancé Imran, the only problem being that she would be expected to live with her in-laws, and that would be intolerable. Also, he is boring. Then there is Mr Perfect whom she meets online. He is utterly gorgeous and looking for a good, fervent Muslim girl to become his wife (and to breed) so why does he look disconcerted when she catches a glimpse of him going into a particular nightclub?
Along with her chorus of Muslim girlfriends, both contemporary dating and marriage are discussed within the context of a second generation Muslim woman living in an adopted culture. Whilst maintaining some of the attributes of their faith, they also must live within the framework of a society which is not always accepting and understanding. One girlfriend controversially decides to become a second wife, another is a model who cannot tell her family that her boyfriend is black. Another accompanies her to Muslim speed dating which is a disaster. Sofia’s friends are a useful tool to have conversations with about Muslim dating dilemmas. After all, it is a completely new field to navigate, since arranged marriages are losing favour.
Her family attempt to arrange a suitable suitor but he is a ‘beardie’ and a ‘fundo’, (that is, having a long beard is considered very devout on a man, and a ‘fundo’ is a fundamentalist so married life would be very religious) In fact, marrying a particular type of fundamentalist Muslim man meant you basically married his family as well. I found it delightful that the characters have their own kind of language to humorously describe the people of their own culture.
Sofia’s family are less religious than her, but we a privy to many of their customs and rituals. Sofia’s sister marries, along with the festivities involved, and the same is expected of her by their parents. The family structure is complex, with uncles and aunties ever ready with good advice on marriage. Sofia escapes into her work and is commissioned by her boss to write a ‘tell all’ chick lit novel about the perils of Muslim dating. Sofia approaches her research with gusto and navigates a whole gamut of relationships which all come with expectations and challenges.
She examines her own inner life, her beliefs and her questions about love. She is honest about her failings and seeks reassurance from her friends. She sneaks the odd cigarette and binges on chocolate. Is she expecting too much in seeking Mr Right? Does he even exist or is he right under her nose? Is he even of her faith and her culture? The book cleverly weaves a darker side of racist British culture throughout when Sofia is called a terrorist by a man on a train. She is deeply hurt and bewildered by this verbal assault. But not all of her non-Muslim relationships are challenging. She is completely accepted in her workplace and even builds a strong friendship with her good looking Irish neighbour Connell.
This book is both perceptive and sensitive to an already established culture adjusting to retain the basic tenets of their beliefs within a dominant culture. Will she be obliged to marry someone suitable or can she marry of love? It is hilariously funny in parts, but deeply sad and introspective in others. I personally had never considered the female Muslim voice from the perspective of within her own culture. Sofia’s voice is funny, sad, honest, real and completely believable. She takes us on a journey beyond the veil which can so depersonalise the Muslim woman into an anonymous cypher, and thus allows us into her inner thought processes. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful but entertaining book and look forward to more of Ayisha Malik’s writing in the future.
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, by Ayisha Malik, is available from Dymocks.
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