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Love in the age of fundamentalism

Latest news: Muslim women are also thinking about sex.


[Islam] Irshad Manji proclaimed the right of Muslim women to both think for themselves, challenge the power of religion and be a lesbian at one and the same time in the book What is Wrong with Islam ?. Ayaan Hirsi Ali shouted even higher about Muslim women's right to equality and equality in the book Claim Your Right !. Both eventually received more death threats than advertising directories in the mailbox, but the books have sold in millions around the world.

And suddenly the women of Islam were on everyone's lips. The Americans would save them. Europeans would help them. We Norwegians would so deeply integrate them, and there we are really still. The debate storms on, sometimes going forward, occasionally backwards, and quite often around the ring. The paradoxical main impression, given that both Manji and Hirsi Ali are women of Muslim background, could possibly be summed up as follows: Muslim women are silent victims in a society dominated by stingy patriarchs and footwear. Possibly, the exotic, erotic beings are full of repressed sexuality.

But we can still rely on the fiction literature to slightly correct the picture. Three novels written by three Muslim women from three different continents are hereby recommended to anyone suffering from acute simplification syndrome: The Almond of Algerian Nedjma, The Girls of Riyadh by Saudi Rajaa al Sanie and Does My Head Look Big in This? by Australian Randa Abdel-Fattah.

From rape to boundless enjoyment.

The almond, which was recently published in Norwegian, is about Muslim Badra, who is fleeing the Moroccan countryside and a brutal husband. As a 17-year-old, she is married off to 40-year-old Hmed, a man known for providing his future wives – Badra is number three in the series – with a proper dowry and a magnificent wedding. He is one of the village's best parties, "coveted by wise virgins and greedy mothers."

But as soon as the party is over, he reveals his obvious shortcomings of marital tenderness. The wedding night carries more of a rape than romance. Both the bride's sister and mother-in-law need to keep the young bride's legs apart as the marriage is to be completed, and for the next three years, Badra lives in a silent and contained rage. Until one day she gets enough, destiny takes her own hands and escapes to her freed aunt in Tangier. There, she falls wild and uninhibited in the playboy Driss, who over the course of one night wipes out all her thoughts on sex as indifferent duty and replaces them with experiences of boundless pleasure. Soon, Badra has embarked on an all-consuming sexual exploration. And it is so detailed that even the most liberated Norwegians have to blush.

For the author Nedjma – a pseudonym no one has yet managed to reveal – has not only eased the veil, she has removed the whole cord. The shortsightedness we so often associate with Muslim women is completely absent. Here are sex scenes without a hint of shyness, without the slightest hint of embarrassment or shame.

Broken taboos.

Speculative porn, some believe. Literary thought provokes others. In addition, when the author insists that 40 percent of the content is autobiographical, claiming she would have been stoned if her real identity were revealed, it's almost as if the single is heard in broken taboos. In the Muslim world, the book has aroused both cheer and indignation, in the Western world a similar amount of mischief. Muslim women are not doing that? And writing about it afterwards?

Many think the same about Saudi Rajaa al Sani's book The Girls of Ryiadh. It has been compared to the American TV series Sex and the City – a hitherto unimaginable comparison in any context in which Saudi Arabia is involved. Then the comparison also alternates between being insults and applause, depending on who uses it. The controversial novel not only deals with five Saudi friends and their dealings with, among other things, love and alcohol, it also tells about gay teenagers and lesbian love in one of the world's most conservative countries.

Pregnant, divorced and disgraced.

The book takes the form of a series of e-mails in which the narrator's voice updates readers on the lives of their friends Qamra, Sadeem, Mashael and Lamis. The plot begins with Qamra's lavish wedding – she has been advised in advance by her mother not to consummate the marriage on the wedding night, so as not to be stamped as light on the thread. The newlyweds move to the United States, where it soon becomes apparent that her husband has married her – and not the Japanese woman he really loves – just to stave off the hustle and bustle of his parents.

Pregnant, divorced and disgraced, Qamra is sent back home to her parents, who, to protect the family's honor, keep her away from both university education and good friends.

Meanwhile, Sadeem makes the mistake of having sex with her fresh husband before moving in with him, after which he, shocked by her sexual interest, divorces her. The dishonor that divorced a woman gives her few opportunities in the marriage market, and she eventually marries a cousin.

Mashael is half American, and the most daring of women. In defiance of the ban that prevents Saudi women from driving a car, she dresses up as a man and drives to the city with her friends. At a mall, she meets a young man she falls in love with, but his family forbids them to marry because they do not want a half-American to be a daughter-in-law.

Lamis is the only friend who gets a happy marriage because she has let her brain control her husband, not just her heart.

The resentment of the moralists.

Many have wondered if the five girlfriends in the book are based on girlfriends by the author himself. Rajaa al Sanie has never claimed anything other than that the book is pure fiction. But the stories of the five are so common in today's Saudi Arabia, that they could just as easily have been true. Women have little or no real opportunity to gain experience in the love life before marriage – which is almost always arranged. A lot of energy, both familial and political, helps to prevent young boys and girls from meeting.

What has caused the greatest resentment among Saudi moralists is all of Sania's descriptions of young Saudi women who actually want contact with young men, despite all the social barriers that insist to the contrary. In one episode of the book, the friend gang follows a group of boys, who stop in front of a mall. One of the boys offers them 1000 riyals to let him go in with them as a family member. They are duly shocked, but accept without hesitation.

When the book is compared to Sex and Single Life, it is with Saudi standards as a premise. Al Sanie does not write about sex but about emotions. But the consequence is one of the same: While Sex and Single Life were groundbreaking in the US when it came to describing women's relationship with sex in a direct and everyday way, The Girls of Riyadh is pioneering in describing Saudi Arabian women's thoughts and feelings about falling in love , love and marriage. This is hard enough diet in a country where dating is unheard of, infatuation is outrageous and women are not allowed to move outdoors without a male family member as a standout.

The author herself has said in an interview that she never intended to write a book with a political message, but that she hopes it could be the beginning of a change towards a more open Saudi Arabian society.

On the black exchange.

As expected, the Kingdom has banned the book, without having any negative effect on demand. Rather the opposite. Since it was released in Lebanon one year ago, The Girls of Riyadh has topped the bestseller lists, and has been revamped at every book fair in the Middle East. Fourth edition has already been printed. For Saudi Arabians who are unable to buy the book abroad, there are pirated copies on the Internet, and on the Saudi Arabian Black Exchange, the book is sold for ten times the retail price.

The 25-year-old former dental student has had to endure massive criticism and condemnation for her controversial novel, but she also gets support from many teams, some of them quite unexpected: Ghazi al Qusaibi, a renowned Saudi Arabian author and the country's labor minister, writes in the novel's preface that it is "a work that deserves to be read" and that he expects much from the author in the future. On the Internet, people from all over the world are begging the author to translate the book into several languages. At present it is only in Arabic, but an American translation is underway.

Friends and parents.

If the association with an American television series is obvious when it comes to The Girls of Riyadh, it will be served with a teaspoon in Australian Randa Abdel-Fattah's book Does My Head Look Big in This ?. And that in the very first sentence. The novel's Australian-Muslim-Palestinian protagonist, 16-year-old Amal Mohamed Nasrullah

Abdel-Hakim, in a fit of overconfidence, is inspired by Rachel in the TV series Friends and decides to wear the hijab full time. «That's right. Rachel from Friends inspired me. The sheikhs will be holding emergency conferences. "

Amal is an ordinary Australian 16-year-old, interested in friends, fashion, make-up, schoolwork, idiotic teachers, even more idiotic classmates, and – of course – boys. Especially Adam. In fact, this book is a fairly standard youth novel – with one crucial exception: the main character does not complain about the hairstyle, but the hijab.

Amal's parents are skeptical of her hijab-full-time inventions. They advise her of it, contrary to what everyone around her thinks: the teacher, principal, fellow student, random passer-by at the mall. Almost everyone is sure that poor Amal has been forced to take care of strict, conservative parents. And in the middle of it all, the bombs in Bali are slamming, and Islam is suddenly becoming a topic the newspapers must analyze and debate, and something Amal must do.

Tough in the face.

Randa Abdel-Fattah has chosen to make the main character Amal strong, confident and at times quite tough in the face. At the same time, she is vulnerable, insecure and clumsy like most teenagers, and religious or not – you fall in love no matter what. Amal has no difficulty admiring Adam from a distance during the chemistry lessons, nor drooling over him in secret when the two become good friends. It is only when her great infatuation tries to kiss her that everything goes wrong and terribly twisted to explain.

Amal's girlfriends also have to contend with: dieting, character pressure, and marriage pressure are issues this novel treats with the same light, humorous tone as Amal's religious space stars. Here, no solutions are provided, the author merely highlights the joys and sorrows of a Muslim teenager and asks us to look at them a little more closely. They resemble those of any teenager of any religion. What is unique is that no one has ever written an easy-to-read, fun, engaging novel about a Western Muslim teenage girl.

Honor killings?

Does My Head Look Big in This? is loosely based on author Randa Abdel-Fattah's own experiences as an Australian Muslim teenager. Like Amal, she experienced racism and discrimination in her teens because she wore hijab. She was asked to "go home", as if she couldn't possibly be Australian and use hijab at the same time. As a seventeen-year-old, she decided to take off the shawl because she saw how girlfriends struggled to get a job while wearing hijab.

Does My Head Look Big in This? has become a bestseller in Australia and has won two literary awards in his home country. It is scheduled to be released in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany during the autumn.

When Abdel-Fattah tried to sell the script to literary agents, the standard issue was whether it was about honor killing. But her goal was to write a book about a very ordinary Muslim teenager, which might be a bit of a quirk in the stereotypical perception of Muslim women in the West. Not another book in which Muslim women are portrayed as suffering, silent victims of the Taliban or other religious extremists.

Everyday sexuality.

The Almond, The Girls of Riyadh and Does My Head Look Big in This? gives the reader a different and more vivid picture of Muslim women. An image that is easier to recognize than to distance. The critics of the almond claim Nedjma writes straight into a classic Orientalist view of women, where the sexual fantasies flourish just under an erotic veil.

But one could just as easily declare that the book is a feminist struggle script that uses an awakening female sexuality as a means – not a goal – in the struggle for freedom, independence and equality. Common to the three books is that they treat Muslim women's sexuality and emotional life in a very everyday way. The female protagonists are neither particularly exotic nor different. They are primarily women. Muslim is only additional information.

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