In new book, Muslim American women tell their own love (and sex) stories

February 12, 2012

Najva Sol remembers her anxiety three years ago when she arranged to meet her mother and father in a Rockville coffee shop to reveal a truth she had been keeping from them. She knew what she was going to say; she’d rehearsed her speech. But to her surprise, the then 21- year-old Muslim American discovered her parents already knew it all.

They knew “about the drugs and the booze and the girls and the boys, normal by America’s MTV standards but not for an Iranian family that refuses to have a cable TV sully the living room.”

Nobody in her family had talked about sex when Sol was growing up. “My childhood sex talk was, ‘Don’t do it.’ This is where we left off, and here is where we picked it up again.”

Sol — now making her mark in New York and San Francisco as a photographer, artist and performer — decided to publish her recollections in “Love, InshAllah” (Love, God Willing), a collection of breathtakingly honest accounts of sex and romance by 25 American Muslim women willing to break with the Islamic tradition of keeping their love lives private. Twenty of the 25 stories in the collection, which comes out on Valentine’s Day, carry the authors’ real names.

“Love, InshAllah” is, in part, an exploration of the tensions that can exist between Muslim parents and their Americanized children. More importantly, it dispels an assumption that, as co-editor Nura Maznavi, 33, put it, “Muslim women are either belly-dancing members of a harem, reduced to body parts that someone else controls, or shrouded in black cloth with no desire and having no sex. The truth is that like all women, we feel and love and have heartbreak.”

The result is a book that erases preconceptions of what it must be like to be a Muslim woman in this country, a book that strips off the traditional trappings of Islamic womanhood to expose the special strengths and vulnerabilities that lie beneath.

The idea for the book surfaced in a conversation between Maznavi, a civil rights attorney, and her co-editor, Ayesha Mattu, a human rights consultant. Sipping coffee in San Francisco, they were chatting about the comedy “50 First Dates” and wondering what a similar movie about Muslim women would look like.

“In America, the word Muslim can bring to mind politics and national security,” Mattu, 39, said in an interview. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to connect with us on a personal basis, to let them know we are more than just eyes behind a burqa. Love is the great connector.”

The two women put out a call for submissions using professional networks, Facebook, Twitter and personal blog sites. They received more than 200 entries.

* * *

Last week in a French coffee shop in Northwest Washington, Najva Sol described the tumultuous years that led to her decision to contribute to “Love, InshAllah.” Sipping butternut squash soup, she looked as if she had stepped off the cover of Elle. She wore a pale blue oxford shirt that peeked over the neck and cuffs of a gray argyle sweater. White suspenders crossed her shoulders, attached to black pants. Her long, curly black hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and held in place by a small, brownish-gray Borsalino fedora.

She was born in Silver Spring, she said, to Iranian parents who returned to Iran shortly after her birth. When she turned 7, her family moved back to the United States and settled in Rockville, where Sol spent her teen years. Her father, an engineer, didn’t allow her to date or go to parties, but her mother occasionally helped her slip out to visit friends.

Her rebellious nature came to the fore during her early adolescence. On her parents’ orders she was going to a school to learn Farsi every afternoon after regular school, but at 14 she stopped. She also dropped out of taekwondo, at which she excelled, and was expelled from the Girl Scout troop she belonged to, in part because she refused to wear a uniform other members had picked out for a sailing trip.

She visited porn sites on her computer until her mother found out and took her computer away. “But I just want to see what people look like,’” she protested. Neither parent would talk to her about sex, so when her ninth-grade health class took up the subject, she was all ears. “They taught us everything,” she recalled. “That class is the reason I’ve never gotten pregnant or had STDs.”

She was 15 when she first had sex with a boy — an experience that left her feeling “like I was a land to be conquered.” She was running with what she calls “a multicultural crew” and constantly arguing with her mother over the revealing clothes she wanted to wear. She started storing her tank tops and short skirts and high heels in her school locker, along with her makeup.

“I was drinking, having sex and lying to my parents back then,” she said. “I began to realize I needed to get out of here, grow up.”

She discovered a book at the school library called “Colleges That Change Lives” and realized that if she wanted to get into one of those colleges, she had to begin studying hard. She did so, raising her GPA from a 2.0 to a 3.8. She started a book club at school, became editor in chief of a literary magazine, and began a creative writing class. At 17, she fell in love with a boy named Alex; they dated on and off for three years, even after she headed to college at New York’s New School and entered into a relationship with a female dorm mate.

By the end of her third year at the New School, she had accumulated enough credits to graduate. In the fall of that year, over the Thanksgiving holiday, she met her parents in the Rockville coffee shop.

That’s when she revealed to them that she had had sex not only with boys but with girls.

* * *

Some of the parents described in “Love, InshAllah” were religious and rule-based; others not so much. Co-editor Maznavi said her parents regularly prayed but did not restrict her social life. Perhaps that was because they didn’t have to; the Muslim community in which her family lived insisted that dating was something young women didn’t do. Even kissing was reserved for marriage.

Maznavi adopted those beliefs but they were tested the year after she graduated from law school. In her contribution to the book, she wrote about moving to Sri Lanka and, somewhat overweight, deciding to tone her figure. She spent most of that year working out with Rohan, her “hot Catholic personal trainer.” On her last night in the country, he helped her move the belongings she was leaving behind from her apartment to his, so that he could get rid of them. As a taxi approached to take her to the airport, he attempted to kiss her, and she clumsily backed away.

“It was supposed to happen with my future husband and couldn’t happen now,” she wrote.

As she entered her 30s, Maznavi said in an interview, she couldn’t believe she wasn’t married. She had been engaged for two years before her fiance broke it off. She is now engaged again, this time to a man she met on Match.com. But she still thinks occasionally about that last night in Sri Lanka and what might have been.

Mattu said she was raised being taught what she referred to as “the Islam of No.”

“My parents were nurturing,” she said in her interview, “but there were no sleepovers, no school dances, and I could talk to boys only at the mosque.”

She started asking questions about her rights as a young woman and was told she had very few. At first her parents said, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” Later, the wording changed to, “Our family doesn’t do this kind of thing.”

Mattu found little compassion and love in Islam until she discovered mystical poets such as Rumi and Coleman Barks. She savored their poetry as she entered Clark University in Massachusetts, where she met her soon-to-be husband.

She was sitting on a bar stool when she saw a handsome man dancing gracefully by himself. As he moved to a spot at the bar near her, she leaned over and fed him a line:

“Hello. I couldn’t help but notice that we’re wearing the same shirt.”

They were not actually wearing the same shirt, and she was immediately “mortified” by her inane pickup line. He was interested in her, though, and introduced himself as Randy. They started dating. Eight weeks after they met, she was sure she would marry him. He was not Muslim, however, and it was with some trepidation that she called her father to say she had met someone she wanted to marry.

Her father, who had met Randy only once for a couple of minutes, requested that he study Islam and “consider converting,” which he did. The young couple married 11 months after the night they met at the bar and today have a 2-year-old son.

Would she have married him if he hadn’t wanted to convert? “I don’t know,” she replied. “It would have been a struggle.”

* * *

For Najva Sol, the turning point in her relationship with her parents, she believes, was their frank conversation that afternoon in the coffee shop. She could be a good daughter, a good person and queer, she told them. Couldn’t she?

Their answer surprised her. “My mother’s eyebrows are furrowed and her mouth is slack,” she wrote in her story. “My father’s eyelids crumble like ancient ruins. Lips move and sounds come out. Yes, they say, you can be.

“It’s the tone parents use when their kid single-handedly causes the soccer team to lose the state championship. I am not a star player, but they will sit in the bleachers for my team. . . . For 15 years, I have been afraid there is not enough room in my parents’ hearts, in my family, my Iran, or my religion, for my truth.

“Who knew how elastic parents can be?”

Stepp is a former Washington Post staff writer.

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