Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Review: A Marriage Proposal by Samira Hingoro

A Marriage Proposal by Samira Hingoro

I purchased this book directly from the publisher using the link above. The order was fulfilled properly.

Abu Iman (literally “Father of Iman”) Talib, his wife Ummu Iman (“Mother of Iman”) and their five daughters, Iman (19 years old), Aisha (17), Huda (the vain one), Noor and Maryam (10), evaluate Khaled’s (26 years old) marriage proposal to the eldest daughter, Iman. The author’s overly didactic, ideological voice is Iman. Every other character, who has not achieved Iman’s level of worship, dedication to religious activism and reliance on the direction of the Qur’an and Sunnah, cannot see the obvious fact that the suitor Khaled is unsuitable. When Abu Iman Talib runs into Khaled’s purchasing beer at the local convenience store, he is forced to reject his marriage proposal.

I reacted strongly against this story for the following reasons:

1. Overly rigid gender roles foisted upon the individual members of the American Muslim family.
2. A simplistic resolution to a complex issue. Rather than address the issue by having an honest discussion within the Talib family, the father “catches” Khaled buying a beer.
3. A completely unreasonable portrayal of economic life.
4. The process of marriage proposals does not include speech between the potential spouses.
Muslim women live a Byzantine harem life, with plotting and factions.
5. The perpetuation of the multazim (practicing, literally “restricting oneself”) vs. the “non-practicing” Muslim distinction.
6. Parents appear as idiots, since they can’t actually have an honest discussion with their children.
7. The inaccurate portrayal of the Muslim virtue of hayaa` (shyness, shame, self-consciousness).

Being overly “didactic” (Intended to instruct, morally instructive, inclined to teach or moralize excessively) and “ideological” is an aesthetic criticism which may or may not be a problem for the reader. Far more dangerous is the book’s portrayals of proper roles for Muslim men and women.

Abu Iman has an unspecified career. Every night he is home (i.e. not traveling and not working late) and goes to the masjid or watches a little TV. While there are few descriptions of the family’s living standard, their house appears to be spacious because there’s a living room where guests are hosted and each daughter has a separate bedroom. Ummu Iman works a part-time job (for extra money for her daughters’ marriages). Tell me, how many careers can afford that kind of lifestyle, or more precisely, even if Abu Imran was blessed to be able to make enough money for that lifestyle, how many other Muslims could do so, if the Talib family is to be considered a model for U.S. Muslims? And, I forgot, the girls all attended private Islamic schools.

I grew up with one brother and no cousins around, so perhaps I’m missing something, but should a Byzantine “harem” life be held up as “normal” or, God forbid, “normative” for a North American Muslim family. Iman’s parents don’t tell Iman about the potential suitor before he comes to their home. The mother has a favorite daughter, the one who is most interested in fashion and maintaining her appearance. When Noora discovers that her sister Huda is talking on the telephone with a boy named “Bill” (the evil Anglo-Saxon, no doubt-it would have been better if the name was Ja`far), Iman and Noora “handle” the situation by concealing it from their parents and deciding to pay more attention to Huda by taking her out more. When women get together, they talk about clothing. They’re occupying space and consuming good air.

Even the fiqh issues presented are, in my mind, extremely bad examples. Maryam relayed how an elderly Muslim woman, in front of other people, chastised another Muslim woman for praying while wearing nail polish. Iman instructs her sister that a woman’s wuduu’ is invalid if done while wearing nail polish, and it is improper to embarrass a person. I’m no advocate of nail polish, but could not the author have selected a more important question for the characters to discuss?

The second fiqh issue regarded Iman’s refusal to talk with her suitor. She would insist that he should only talk with Abu Iman, her wali (woman without Muslim relatives does not need wali) (second definition of wali). While that is certainly a permissible way of doing things, it most certainly is not the only way Muslims are permitted to do things.

Iman’s first encounter with Khaled was actually a near car accident. Hijab-wearing Iman took a wide turn and Khaled, in his red, shiny sports car, had to swerve to avoid hitting her. He yells from his car window, “Jesus Christ! Watch where you’re going! Take that thing off your head so you can see, for Christ’s sake!” (pp. 4-5) Her sister Aisha, reading the signs of the dinner invitation to Khaled and his relatives and eavesdropping on Khaled’s aunt’s conversation with Ummu Iman, reveals to her unobservant older sister Iman the real purpose of Khaled’s visit.

[Iman] hoped for someone with whom she could grow spiritually-someone who loves to help people and be active in the masjid. Whatever little she had glimpsed of Khaled seemed contrary to that. The thought of leaving matters to Allah
subhanahu wa ta`ala seemed so comfortable and soothing. (pp. 21-2)
There are several other encounters, each one demonstrating further Khaled’s and Iman’s incompatibility.
Now this suitor Khaled, a successful Chicago attorney, is supposedly motivated by his belief in Iman’s naiveté, thinking that he could mold her into a good corporate wife. Aside from the believability of this presumption, had Khaled spoken with Iman 15 minutes, he would have realized how misguided this belief was.

My objection to this whole marriage proposal is Iman’s pretending like hayaa' and tawakkul prevented her from refusing Khaled from the beginning. It was only when her father decided that the marriage proposal was not suitable that the official “no” was issued.

These supposedly good Muslims, the Talib family, aren’t straightforward enough to facilitate the rejection process. I would much rather know in 15 minutes that the marriage is not going to work out than hang around for 1 day or 1 week or 1 month. These people would have driven me to drink beer!

The story does a good job of encouraging Muslims to consider religion as the primary virtue in a spouse. The story does a poor job of describing what a 19-yr old woman’s plans for marriage might be (or for that matter a 26-year old man) and describing a respectful, honest way of bringing two people together.

If the author would allow me to rewrite her story, let’s change Khaled into a more typical U.S. Muslim professional. He doesn’t drink alchohol. He does his salaat, but will delay it past time for convenience’s sake. He probably drives a Camry (how many can afford a Porsche, but if he can, I say more power to him!). He probably would not yell at a Muslim woman for wearing hijab, although he might have trepidations about her having “rigid” thinking.

In this more realistic situation, you have a conflict between genuine Muslim values:
1. The emphasis on religiosity in choosing a spouse.
2. The other desired qualities of the spouse-well-mannered, hard-working, wealthy (earning enough money to support a family) and attractive.
3. Respect to parents by agreeing with their recommended spouse

Then a dialogue or correspondence between Iman and Khaled could illustrate the difference between the “average/slack” Muslim Khaled and the “multazima/practicing/strict/sincere” Muslima Iman.

Finally, I think the idea that the child Iman is a better Muslim than her parents is not a picture that Muslims should attempt to promote. At age 19, I knew I was perfect, and over the next 15 years I learned things about myself which have changed that opinion. What often seems to a 19-year old, raised on a few texts and inspiring halaqas but no life experience, as weak compromise, is probably a wise way of handling a difficult situation.

For those of you who have read this book, let me know what you think. I feel like the author is well-intentioned, and I hated to write these negative things about the book.

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