When Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 19 years old at the time, set off on her quest for love, she knew two things for sure: First, that her dream guy was John Travolta — and in a perfect world, Danny Zuko would simply appear on her London doorstep — and second, that her family would be heavily involved in the process. As a young British Muslim, Janmohamed began a process familiar to many Muslim girls today: a more modern take on the arranged marriage. She met with numerous suitors and their families, carefully handpicked by so-called "Aunties" (respected, matchmaker-like older women in the community), and spent the next ten years serving them tea and samosas as they came to visit her family. In her new memoir, Love in a Headscarf (out yesterday from Beacon Press), Janmohamed talks about the journey she went on to find her perfect match and how she finally experienced a happily arranged marriage.
Marie Claire: What sets your experience apart from other arranged marriage stories?
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed: I don't necessarily think my story hasn't been told before. But one of the things I wanted to convey in the book is that love and arranged marriage can mean very different things to people. The stories we hear in the media tend to be about forced marriage and honor killings, and those things are wrong, but forced marriage doesn't equate to an arranged marriage and an arranged marriage doesn't equate to a loveless marriage.
MC: What was your family's role in your husband-seeking process?
SZJ: Traditionally, a family would search for a prospective partner by talking to their friends and contacts. Normally this is done through a third party. You would never go directly to a family who had an eligible son and talk to them. My parents would discuss that person with me, and if I thought it was a good idea, we would invite him and his family to our home. The primary driver in the final decision-making was how I felt about him. Was I interested? Did I think I could spend the rest of my life with him? I would take into consideration the advice of my family, but the decision was ultimately mine.
MC: There were quite a few cringe-worthy anecdotes in your book about less-than-ideal suitors — which was the worst?
SZJ: There were two that stood out to me. The first man was someone who was coming to meet me for coffee. That was the first time I was meeting a suitor outside of the home, so it was quite modern of me. I waited two hours for him to arrive, thinking something terrible had happened to him, and it turned out the reason he had kept me waiting was because he had been watching a cricket match! The other one was a dentist I started a conversation with and I thought there was a real possibility that something could happen, but he told me that I would be too short for him to marry. My dad advised me to tell him that women are not sold by the yard.
MC: Did any of the men make a good first impression and then end up being terrible?
SZJ: One of the fantastic things about the arranged marriage process is that you start to see someone's true colors very fast, because the decision to have a long-term relationship with them is made relatively quickly. There was one young man who was introduced to my family at home, and he seemed absolutely perfect. He had all the right education qualifications, his family had come with great references, and he was also quite good-looking. After we met, I didn't hear from him for weeks, and when he did eventually send me an email, he told me the reason he couldn't get in touch was that his house had been struck by lightning and his computer had shut down. I remember thinking, "If you wanted to come up with an excuse, you could have come up with one that was a little bit more realistic!"
MC: Can you tell us about the man you ended up with? What convinced you that he was a good match?
SZJ: We had a lot of shared values about the kind of life we wanted to live together. Something that was really important to me in my search was to find someone I could be myself around. I didn't want to change who I was. I made a list at the beginning of my search, and I must say that he matched up quite well. He's tall, dark and handsome. He's smart and attentive, and we have a lot of similar interests. He wasn't John Travolta, but I told him he looked better than John Travolta, and I am quite sure he believed me.