By confession, as soon as I read the blurb for Ayisha Malik’s debut novel where a British Muslim woman is asked to write a book about Muslim dating I knew I had to read it. The main reason was that as a Pakistani myself, I had never seen or even heard of a book within mainstream modern fiction that had a character like Sofia Khan at the helm.
Within the first twenty pages we learn that she’s called off her prospective engagement plans after being made aware of a hole-in-the-wall situation. The situation in question refers to a doorway which would join the houses of the newlyweds and the in-laws together. And she is having none of it.
Then after a slew of friendly yet ignorant questions are thrown her way by her London publishing house co-workers and bosses (one of whom is ironically called Trumps and asks if she’d be stoned to death for writing), the deal is made for her to procure an “authentic” book about the Muslim dating game.
Thus the quest to get the book written begins with inspiration flowing from all angles, including a try at marriage website Shaadi.com – or in her words, Shady.com.
Malik successfully weaves Sofia’s mission into her daily life, which thankfully has none of the tired stereotypes which have been seen over and over. By these I mean the Muslim girl who has lost herself by becoming “too western” or the ever-classic young woman who is forced to wear a hijab by her culturally backwards parents and locked in her room.
In fact, Sofia’s parents don’t even force the matter of marriage upon their daughter. Sure enough they call her out on her mistakes but they also are a wonderful support system. As for her friends, their struggles to find love while trying to do right by their culture and own hearts serve not only as material for the book but also as genuine, laugh-out-loud and knock your hot chocolate over moments.
Moreover in today’s current political climate where the hijab has been continuously re-appropriated to represent oppressed women within Islam, young Muslim women finally have a character like Sofia who chose to wear it herself without the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The novel does not chart the tale of a woman who rediscovers her faith through writing her own book, instead the protagonist is already fully aware of who she is as a Muslim and goes through life with no apologies for it whatsoever. She may not be the perfect heroine but she never sacrifices what she believes in, even if it means improvising a prayer room at work or almost knocking a racially abusive tube passenger unconscious.
The main thing to take away from the novel is this: just as Sofia Khan is not obliged to conform to expectations, neither are the rest of us.