Ameera Al Hakawati talks to Randa Abdel-Fattah about her latest novel No Sex in the City, the challenges of being a Muslim woman in Australia, and how she became the self-confident woman she is today.
Chick lit has a bit of a poor reputation. The genre conjures up visions of women desperately seeking men and tends to follow a generic formula: Single Girl with a problem in her life (often a career-related one, but occasionally a family-focused dilemma) goes on the hunt to meet the man of her dreams. There is usually more than one potential partner on the scene, and Single Girl naturally goes for the wrong one. Her heart (or pride) may get hurt along the way, but with the help of her friends she picks herself up. In the process, she picks the right man; her happily-ever-after ensues. The end.
Of course, the more “modern” the chick lit (think Candace Bushnell, not Jane Austen), the more sex in the story. While contemporary chick lit isn’t hugely different from classics like Pride and Prejudice (swap husband for boyfriend, Earl for celebrity, stately home in rural England for rent-controlled flat on the Upper East Side), it is much more salacious than its predecessors. The women are aggressive, the men less chivalrous and their liaisons far more scandalous.
So where does Muslim chick lit fit into all this? Is the phrase in itself an oxymoron? How can a so-called “Muslim” book explore themes of relationships and love while staying within the boundaries of Islam? Not easily, I can say – my own novel, Desperate in Dubai, is definitely not one of them. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s No Sex in the City, however, manages to blend romance, relationships and the single woman’s search for a man, without any sex or physical contact. Okay, so the romance isn’t the heart-wrenching, loin-burning sort – but a relatively devout Muslim girl is hardly going to experience all that pre-marriage, is she?
So while No Sex in the City does have the right ingredients to fall under the chick lit domain, the elements that classify it as “Muslim” elevate it beyond the realm of ordinary chick lit. Yes, the heroine, Esma, is looking for a man. Yes, she makes errors in judgement when it comes to the men who cross her path. Yes, she has fabulous friends to help her through her problems. But as a Muslim, Esma has other challenges to contend with. There’s the huge secret she’s been carrying on behalf of her father – one that could quite possibly destroy her entire family. There’s also her boss, whose actions border on sexual harassment, but are so subtle that she wonders whether it’s all in her mind.
“As a former lawyer, I did a little work with sexual harassment cases and a friend went through a similar thing,” Randa explains. “I wanted to look at the way people’s personas can be contradictions and how they are shaped. It’s surprising how so many strong women I know have been in those situations and they don’t know how to stop it. They treat it as a joke, as they don’t want to be known as a prude or the woman who can’t take a joke.”
I can’t stand the attitude that your life starts with your husband
Sexual harassment isn’t the only theme that Randa has been drawn to because of her friends’ experiences. Esma’s own search for “the one” – the countless meetings with unsuitable suitors – is modelled on her friends and family. Similarly, Esma’s group of friends, who may seem like an unlikely union (a Greek orthodox, a Jew and a Hindu) was Randa’s own circle of friends at university. The three other protagonists are also searching for partners in ways that reflect their own culture and traditions. This fusion of four different religions and cultures adds another layer to the book, reflecting modern friendships in a contemporary world. They are the very sort of friendships often forged during university years, Randa explains.
“The sub-plots in the book were important as I didn’t want the girls to be defined by their search for the one. I can’t stand the attitude that your life starts with your husband. I wanted them to be strong and have careers.”
Then, of course, there’s the theme of identity, which no novel aimed at the contemporary Muslim woman can ignore. Esma, a Muslim of Turkish heritage, often struggles to balance culture and religion with other aspects of her life.
Growing up as an Arab Muslim woman in Australia, Randa is no stranger to the identity issues faced by many Muslims in today’s multicultural world.
I don’t need to define myself according to someone else’s definition
“I wouldn’t say I struggled, but for a short time as a teenager, I did feel confused,” she says. “Religion is what saved me and gave me confidence in myself. Being at peace and my strong sense of faith and spirituality grounded me. Back then, my Muslim and Arabic heritage was how I defined myself, but now I’ve realised that I don’t need to define myself according to someone else’s definition – I don’t have to know who I am every day.”
Randa’s confidence in herself as a woman, a Muslim, an Arab and a writer shines through as she describes growing up in Australia back in the 80s, when the notion of an Australian Muslim identity hadn’t yet developed and the idea of being a “guest” in a host nation was still very much apparent. The Gulf War, Randa explains, was a particularly difficult time to be a teenager in Australia.
“Coming of age during the first Gulf War was a challenge as I was already struggling with coming to terms with my identity. I was like a walking stereotype of a headline. Muslim equals terrorist. Woman equals oppressed. I was exhausted after constantly speaking against such a negative current.”
Despite this, Randa sees her experiences as a source of empowerment and believes they’ve made her much stronger. They have also provided inspiration for all her books, whether for a teenage or an adult audience. Writing, she reveals, together with her passion for social justice and activism, has helped her to become the self-assured woman she is today – with no hang-ups about who she is or where she’s from.
And because of this, Randa doesn’t feel the need to write purely for a Muslim audience or cater to anyone’s idea of what’s appropriate to talk about and what isn’t. No Sex in the City, for example, explores a taboo that is rarely talked about but has infiltrated even the most pious of Muslim homes.
“As a writer, I don’t believe in writing characters that represent only perfect Muslims,” she says simply.
“That’s propaganda, not a story.”
Visit Randa’s website to discover more of her work, including her books for kids and teens
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 Holiday, Celebrate issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play