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“Muslim Women – We Just Can’t Catch A Break.” That’s the pitch line that editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi used to sell the idea of their book “Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.” It’s an anthology of essays about love, dating and marriage written by Muslim American women.
Ayesha Mattu tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that they were looking for stories that were “celebrating our unique context, but doing it in a way that people are able to able to connect to the universality of it.”
The selections include a story of an arranged marriage that turns out to be a love match, one of a lesbian who falls in love with another woman she’d met at a mosque, and Zahra Noorbakhsh’s story of being given a graphic version of the birds and the bees talk by her Iranian-American mother.
As Zahra Noorbakshsh tells Robin Young, “I was really grossed out,” though eventually she came to see the wisdom of her mother’s words. The Washington Post says the book “erases preconceptions of what it must be like to be a Muslim woman in this country.”
An excerpt of the story “The Birds, the Bees, and My Hole” by Zahra Noorbakhsh
Finally. My first year of high school was over, and summer was here. My mother was dropping me off to go to the movies with Jen, Kim, Laura, and Ryan. Wait. Oh, crap, I had forgotten about Ryan! There he was, walking with my girlfriends to the ticket booth. I knew that if my mom saw him, she would never trust me again and would confine me to the house for the rest of the summer.
My parents were so strict that I couldn’t go anywhere without their practically doing a background check on everyone who would be there. Regardless of how chaste the event was, they had to be sure there wouldn’t be any boys present to tempt me down the path of loose women. The thing is, I was a late bloomer and had absolutely no interest in dating—what I knew of it, anyway, based on Molly Ringwald’s characters in John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. Though I could barely admit that I “liked” guys, my days of blissful ignorance about the world of dating were about to be over.
I had told my mom that it would be just my girlfriends and me at the movies. How could I forget that Ryan was coming? There was no adjective in the world that would make my mom see past my geeky, lanky, pasty, computer nerd, Mormon classmate Ryan’s Y chromosome. She was totally going to freak. She was going to remind me that we were Iranian Muslims, not Americans. These lectures always reminded me of when she’d explained to me in kindergarten that Christians believed in Santa and got presents, and we didn’t . . . so we simply didn’t. It just wasn’t fair.
There was no way she was going to let me go to the movies with a man. Ryan was only fourteen, but to my mom, he was a man. He could’ve been eight or forty; it was all the same. When I was in middle school, she didn’t approve of all the “men” exercising with me in gym class. She didn’t like that I was friends with so many of the “men” in my sixth-grade history class, or that girls and eleven-year-old “men” were playing coed T-ball at recess.
As we made our way through parking-lot traffic in our Danville, California, suburb, I strategized about ways to navigate our argument. I could already hear her in my head: Zahra, what do you mean this man is just your friend? A young girl is not friends with a man! It is not right. Mageh Kafir hasti? You want to be like these filthy American ladies who go home with dis guy and dat guy, and blah blah blah…?
This is such bullsh*t! I thought to myself.
I had a pretty good feminist rant stashed away that just might hit home: “Mom,” I’d begin, “you didn’t raise your eldest daughter to stay quiet and avoid making friends or talking to people because of creed or stature or even sex…” Wait, I can’t say “sex.” She’ll flip out. “Gender.” Remember “gender” . . . Forget it. Take the easy way out: Lie. Just lie and say you don’t know him. He’s not with you. You don’t even know whose friend he is.
I snapped back to reality when I realized how close we were to where my friends were now standing . . . without Ryan. I looked around, scanning the crowds feverishly, but couldn’t see him anywhere. Perfect!
“Zahra! Hey, Zahra!” It was Ryan, tapping on my window. “I got your ticket.”
Godamm*t, Ryan, you polite-a** Mormon, I thought. You don’t need to come say hi!
My mom rolled down the window.
“Is this your mom? Hi, my name’s Ryan! I’m a friend of Zahra’s. We’ve got Algebra together. Hey, Zahra, I got your ticket already and saved us seats. You saved me on my math test, so I figured I owe ya. Anyway, great to meet you, Mrs. Noorka-baba-kaka-kesh.”
He shook my mom’s hand, gave me my ticket, and ran into the theater, waving.
Thanks, Ryan. You just ended my summer and any hope I had of a normal adolescence. I couldn’t even look at my mother, so I kept staring straight ahead. I could feel her glaring at me.
“Zahra,” she began.
Here we go, I thought.
“Zahra, are you going to go?” she asked.
“What?” I asked, confused. Was this some kind of reverse psychology?
“Maman jaan, there’s traffic behind me—get your bag,” she complained.
I grabbed my bag, undid my seat belt, and reached for the door handle of salvation.
“Wait,” she said.
F**k! I waited too long.
A spot opened up in front of us, so she rolled in and parked the car. We sat in silence for what felt like forever. What the hell was going on? She didn’t seem mad. I didn’t know what to think or what to prepare for.
Maybe Ryan’s politeness impressed her, I thought. Maybe she’s going to take back everything she’s said about men. Maybe she’s going to apologize for all the times she yelled at me, because she now realizes how great my friends actually are. Wow. I really underestimated my mom. I guess the toughest thing about being the firstborn daughter of immigrant parents is that they have to catch up to you as they assimilate into a foreign culture.
Maybe I needed to initiate this dialogue, to tell her it was okay if she felt bad about all the mean things she’d said before about my guy friends or the “American ladies.”
“Zahra,” she cut me off, “I just wanted to tell you…” She had a distant look in her eyes, but then suddenly zeroed in on me with intense concentration.
“Zahra, you have a hole. And for the rest of your life, men will want to put their penis in your hole. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, who is your ‘friend.’ Even at the movies, maman jaan, wherever—it does not change. Ri-anne seems like a very nice man, but he is a man. And all he wants is your hole. So, I will pick you up here at five o’clock. Have fun, maman jaan,” she said.
I got out of the car and staggered toward the theater. I was horrified and astounded. I have a what?! A hole? Where? Was that what I had missed in sex ed the one day I had the flu? Was I the last girl on Earth to find out about my hole?
I’d never felt so completely clueless about or protective of my body in my entire life. I’d thought I had a pretty clear idea of sex. It didn’t look all that complicated: a lot of kissing and touching and groping and people mashing their bodies together under bedsheets. There were no “holes” in Sixteen Candles!
Suddenly, crossing the parking lot to the theater was like being a scared, limping animal in a wide-open meadow with sleazy holehunters lurking about. I couldn’t look a single guy in the face.
I busted my way through the double doors of the theater and accidentally made eye contact with the concessions guy, who was lasciviously filling up a large swirly snow cone and staring at me. I imagined him halting mid-ICEE, flinging it in the air, and then leaping across the counter, making a beeline for my hole.
I had to find my friends.
I saw Ryan sitting third-row center, with an empty seat saved for me next to him. Nothing about my relationship with him felt platonic anymore. I felt awkward and clumsy. I felt like… like… like I was on a date. Omigod, was this a date? My vision was
blurring. I couldn’t think fast enough.
He bought me my ticket.
He met my mother.
We’re sitting next to each other.
Did he ever really need help with algebra?
I sat through all of Johnny Mnemonic with my jeans pulled up to my waist and my legs crossed tightly together. Every time my legs started to relax and slide open, I felt like I was exposing my hole to the world, and clamped them back together again. The longer I held my legs together, the angrier I became at Ryan. Look at him, all stupid-faced and smiling, sitting there dipping his disgusting hands into the greasy popcorn. This movie sucks. Why is he smiling? He’s probably thinking about holes. Gross! All I knew at that point was that, date or not, he’d better not be thinking about my hole, or I was going to kick his a**.