Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel A Place for Us takes its title from the song sung by the star-crossed lovers in West Side Story (which in turn borrows its plot from Romeo and Juliet.) But the novel is as much a story of the East as of the West – and of the clash between a family that’s trying to reconcile two very different cultures.
Fatima Farheen Mirza
Set at a wedding that reunites a partially estranged Indian-American family, Mirza’s novel explores the tricky line between familial loyalty and personal freedom – a line that is all the more difficult to navigate for the Muslim women in the book. The novel is just one of many recent fiction and nonfiction works by Muslim women detailing the struggles and rewards of trying to find a place for themselves in the modern world. For more voices, check out the following books.
The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman
To all appearances, Daisy Khan was the embodiment of the American dream: born in Kahsmir, she immigrated to the United States with her family as a girl and went on to have a successful career in architecture. But something was missing, and when Khan visited a Sufi mosque, she found the key to unlock her true calling. Khan became a leader of her religious community, working to end genital mutilation, child marriage, and the recruitment of girls into ISIS. Her memoir will inspire you.
A Memoir in Books
Some signs of the repression of Muslim women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes can be obvious, such as the mandatory veils women must wear in public. But other acts of repression are less visible, but equally restrictive, such as the prohibition against reading Western literature. For two years, teacher Nafisi gathered a group of women to read banned Western classics like Lolita in her house in Tehran – a radical act of defiance and expression of faith in the power of the written word. Her memoir recalls her students’ bravery and strength in the face of increasing political oppression.
Written in the form of emails from the narrator, this novel describes the lives of four contemporary women living in Saudi Arabia, all of whom are trying to find love and personal freedom in the face of government repression and censorship. Just as the women must battle a culture that keeps them largely separated from men, the book had to fight to win a readership – it was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia before becoming an underground bestseller on the black market. It’s now been translated into several languages, including English.
The Story of a Childhood
This graphic memoir tells the story of a turbulent time in Iran’s recent history through the wise and perceptive eyes of a young girl who lives through it. Growing up in Tehran, Satrapi watched the overthrow of the Shah, the success of the Islamic Revolution, and the outbreak of war with Iraq. Her parents taught her the history of both her country and her family, and her personal, child’s take on events, paired with stunning drawings, create an indelible portrait of a nation in the throes of change.
At first, this novel, which won France’s most prestigious literary prize, would appear out of place on this list, as the titular nanny is not Muslim. But the author, Slimani, grew up in Morocco before moving to Paris, and the mother who hires the nanny is of North African descent as well. Though a shocking crime propels the plot, tension also seeps in from the cultural clashes between the well-to-do mother, who wants to trust the nanny implicitly without being drawn into her life, and the nanny, who both covets and resents her employers’ privilege. Set against the backdrop of the culture wars that have rocked France in recent years, this novel depicts the way that even the most personal acts can have political reverberations.