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“The women I know aren’t downtrodden”: Ayisha Malik on writing a Muslim romcom

“The one thing I did not want was her ripping off her hijab and finding herself by going drinking and sleeping with people.”

‘Sofia,’ Brammers said, shaking her head and smiling, This is an amazing idea.

‘What?’

‘A book about Muslim dating.’

‘Oh, no. No,’ I said, picking up a chocolate digestive. ‘I’ll gag on my biscuit.’

‘It’d give a fascinating insight into modern Muslim dating and marriage.’

I sighed. Who’d have thought my parents and the publishing industry would share such similar interests?

This is the premise of Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, a novel about one Muslim woman’s attempts to simultaneously navigate the dating and publishing worlds in London. After one too many frustrating attempts to justify her approach to finding love (“After I’d explained about common Asian practice, not only did I feel like a black sheep, but I would have quite liked to be a sheep. Sheep are not judged”), Sofia agrees to write a book about her and her friends’ experiences.

It’s a case of art imitating life. “People were constantly asking me about the Muslim dating/life scene. Yes, we date. No, we don’t have sex before marriage. Yes, I pray five times a day. With all this explaining I thought it’d be easier to just write a book about it.”

Like her protagonist, Ayisha Malik lives, dates and works in London, and a colleague at Random House also recommended she write a Muslim dating book. “There are some elements I’ve taken from real life,” she tells me over coffee in St Paul’s, “but it’s fiction: my life isn’t that interesting!” After a few attempts at writing literary fiction, Malik became increasingly interested in writing a Muslim romantic comedy in the style of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and found the story came to her naturally.

I wonder if the desire to write something light and funny about Muslim women’s experiences was born out of a frustration with seeing so many portrayals of Muslim women as subjugated or unhappy. “It’s partly that, but it’s also just this real discomfort and annoyance that there is so much of this othering of Muslims: ‘Who are they and what do they really think?’ There’s this feeling in the papers and in the media that you don’t actually know who you’re speaking to when you’re speaking to a Muslim. ‘Do they really secretly back Isis? What are their crazy beliefs?’

“Part of the fun of writing the book was just that it was telling people about a very normal Muslim existence and how these bigger issues filter into your life, but they’re not actually that big a part of it. The day-to-day living of being a Muslim is just like anyone else’s.”

The book centres around Sofia’s decision to leave her boyfriend Imran after he expects her to move in with his parents, and her search for a new man, but also spends a lot of time considering the romances of her Muslim friends and family: her sister’s traditional engagement, her friend Suj’s relationship with Charles, a black man, and her friend Hannah’s decision to enter a polygamous relationship as a second wife.

“The Muslim experience of dating is quite diverse, and crazy things do happen, people make strange choices. I needed that variety. And it wasn’t about just a protagonist finding love, it was about the experience of living in London as a Muslim, and trying to find someone as a Muslim.”

While each of these women grapple with their families’ opinions of their choices, they all support each other wholeheartedly. “I wanted women to come across as strong, not oppressed just because they wear a headscarf, not oppressed just because they choose to follow a certain belief system. The women I know aren’t downtrodden. It gets kind of nauseating when you have to read that over and over again. And I wanted them to be relatable characters despite their ethnic or cultural or religious origin.”

There is one notable aspect of modern dating that is absent from Malik’s novel, and, likewise, Sofia’s dating book. In one scene, Sofia is told bluntly by an editor, “there needs to be more sex” so “it’s appealing to a wider readership”.

‘Can I be candid, Sofia?’ Smile. ‘It’s an admirable way of life, really. No drinking, no sex before marriage, up at the break of dawn to pray. It’s really very committed…’ Sounded more like she thought I should be committed. ‘But it’s also a little tricky for people to relate to. And what readers want is something they can understand.’ She twisted in her chair. ‘Of course they want something new and unknown, but really it should also be relatable, you see?’

‘Right.’

‘We’re not talking about an exposé or anything. Just maybe one chapter involving something sex-like.’

‘Sex-like.’

“It’s quite commercial fiction, yet without the normal bits of the whole dating scene included,” Malik admits. Did she experience the same pressures? “I didn’t have them personally, but having worked in the publishing industry I know there’s a certain expectation. I do once remember in passing, someone at Random House saying, ‘Oh yeah, if you could just put a bit more sex in it!’ Subconsciously, maybe that filtered into the book.

But it was important to Malik to focus on this particular romantic experience. “Before I started writing I knew that it was going to be a ‘clean’ book, because it has a Muslim protagonist, and the one thing I did not want was her ripping off her hijab and finding herself by going drinking and sleeping with people. That’s not because it’s not a reality – it happens all the time – but because it’s shown so much that I was very bored of it. I thought, ‘What about all those women that actually choose to live this pretty sedate life?’ That’s part of the strength of a lot of the characters: they know what they want.”

Malik hopes that books like hers will continue to increase relatable portrayals of Muslims in popular culture. It sounds simple, but she insists that “having an array of Muslim characters who are just normal” is still a radical proposal. “I use the term loosely, because they’re not very normal!” she jokes. But in creating a host of characters that are normal in their abnormality, relatable yet individual, Malik is undoubtedly making a difference.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?