‘Sofia,’ Brammers said, shaking her head and smiling, ‘This is an amazing idea.’
‘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?’
‘We’re not talking about an exposé or anything. Just maybe one chapter involving something 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.