Writing about Muslim characters, Muslim women in particular, must be one of the trickiest subjects to write about. Especially in this specific time when everything about women in Islam seems to be dissected, probed and questioned.
No matter the conflict or the aspirations of the protagonist. One thing stands out immediately: she is Muslim. Hence, she is different.
Anything these characters do or say, their mistakes as well as their accomplishments, is somehow already tainted as a result of a preconceived misunderstanding on the part of a large portion of Western readers. These readers (and writers) through no fault of their own, have certain notions firmly etched in their minds – Muslim women DO so and so, they do NOT do so and so, etc.
What a challenge then for a writer to sift through all the information and capture the authenticity of a Muslim character (not necessarily Arab) in stories or novels.
I was raised by a Muslim stepfather, married a Muslim and have numerous Muslim friends. But even as a Muslim convert myself, I have agonized over the protagonists in my novel.
Could I permit the scarf wearing convert Muslim, a seemingly perfect mom and wife, to engage in a torrid affair? So what if she is Muslim or not, one would ask? Aren’t these characters just as eligible of a true portrayal? Why are Muslim women represented as downtrodden, lower class citizens? Why is the fact that they choose to wear a veil seen as a sign of oppression by many?
Stories of women faced with choices are universal. Love, hate, jealousy, envy, sex and passion exist in a Muslim character’s world just as they do in any other. What I mean is that it does not always matter if a woman wears a headscarf, is married to a Muslim, or is a pious five-times-a-day praying woman – she still might sin. She can be exposed to temptation and may consider giving in to it. She can experience passion as well as a murderous rage, and she might bear no consequence for them at all.
Recently I was asked to write about my Muslim daughter’s choice to wear a veil and my feelings about it. The article was published in InCulture Parent and then the Huffington Post. From the responses I received, both from Muslim and non-Muslim commentators alike, it was clear that my point was sorely misunderstood. Where I meant it to be a heartfelt mother/daughter story, it was turned into something ugly…
The strangest thing about this was how the Muslim female commentators responded. There was anger as well as derision.
So, how can you as a writer tiptoe around the issue without offending someone somewhere, yet stay true to the purpose of your story?
I read about a well-known female author who came under extreme condemnation for inaccurately depicting aspects of Islamic faith and rituals in her novels. It got me thinking how difficult it must be for a non-Muslim writer, especially when you get venomous backlash for making even the slightest mistake. Here are some points to consider when embarking on writing about this apparently delicate matter.
- Research. Especially if you are not a Muslim author, try to garner as much information as possible about the Islamic faith. Would a character pray at dusk? What would be the required attire for prayer? Would they use their right or left hand when eating by hand? Does a Muslim woman attend the mosque during her menses? Why do many Muslim women not wear nail polish? Such apparently trivial details can make a huge impact if cited faultily.
- Forget what the media has been telling you, if you can. Read the Koran if you have to. Read Muslim women writers and their illustration of women. A good example is Leila Aboulela’s novel Lyrics Alley, which addresses the issue of multiple wives.
- Make your own conclusions. If there is a Muslim woman in your story, TRY to think of her as you would about any woman from anywhere.
- Muslim protagonists feel jealousy, whether their faith tells them that their husband is allowed to marry 4 wives or not. They experience (gasp!) sensual encounters with male characters.
- Women are fundamentally the same. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim, they bear and love their children. They wake up at night to feed the baby. They mourn a parents’ loss. They cry and they laugh, whether wearing a veil or not.
- And in the end, all characters, Muslim or otherwise, can die.
Zvezdana Rashkovich has been a contributor to Women Writers, Women Books. You can follow her on Twitter, @SleeplesinDubai. Read her blog, visit her website, and check out her novel, Dubai Wives, on Amazon.