IASPR2018: Muslim and Middle Eastern Romance

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2018 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of literary academia. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.

Muslims Reading Romance: Bruneian considerations of halal and romance novels. Kathrina Daud (University of Brunei)

Muslim romance – read by both Muslims and non-Muslims

Brunei predominantly a Muslim country, so by interviewing non-Muslim readers, it adds depth to focus groups (for this study).

Brunei has high literacy (over 90%) and in English too.

Small population means bookshelves must be stocked with what sells – and that is romance written in English (rather than Malay).

Bruneian novels began in 2009

  • Very slow start for country with high literacy
  • Latency of English language books
  • Similar to Malaysia and other small Asian nations
  • Aisha Malik writes some, but not available on Amazon
  • Most are English in e-books, Malay in print
  • Insular community
  • Risks of government censorship

Authors use pennames to avoid social critique, eg Aisha Malik is a paediatrician.

Almost all Brunei romance includes discussion about why Brunei should be bigger on a global scale

Risks – the 2013 implementation of Syariah Penol Code

Brunei is a Malay Islam Monarchy (Islam helps legitimise the monarchy, censureship over Islam causes gatekeeping of books)

Halal romance has parallels to Christian romance where the conflict is the belief in core faith

For You I do – teaches young people how to live a halal relationship, written for a global audience, primarily outside Brunei

(Kat Mayo tweet) Jewel and For You, I Do by Aisha Malik are now marketed as sweet romance rather than halal romance. Jewel deals with how halal can work within romance. For You, I Do is more wish fulfilment.

Labelling literature as halal makes it easy to put it away or censure it.

How does it fit against global halal romance (eg She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Love Story)? It is aspirational

Another example, Love, Hate and Other Filters, set in USA and is lighter on religion.

Reading and Writing Muslim Romance Online. Claire Parnell (University of Melbourne)

Over 10,000 books on Wattpad in all genres, and Wattpad has 35 million users per month. Wattpad can fill publishing’s ‘diversity deficit’.

A Muslim’s Romantic Journey by KittyCrackers represents the first big Muslim book on Wattpad. Chapter 1 of this story has over 2500 comments – reading is not passive.

Harlequin sheikh romances

  • Muslim man
  • White woman
  • Erases Muslim women (and is synonymous with their oppression)
  • Identifiers such as skin colour, religion, diet

A Muslim’s Romantic Journey is different to sheikh romance as it includes a Muslim woman, and women are regarded positively.

This story flips the sheikh trope, so that villains are less religions, rather than the highly religious oppressive villains of sheikh romance.

The Kitchen and Beyond: Romantic Chronotope of Pakistani Popular Fiction. Javaria Farooqui (University of Tasmania)

Kitchen literature refers to magazines written in Urdu consumed by women (domestic fiction), the most famous one is Shuaa (a digest which means ray of sun)

Typically these magazines are 290 pages, opening with religious quotes, celebrity interviews, and ending with episodic serial novels (romance or thrillers)

The kitchen carries a symbolic load in patriarchal Pakistani society as a defining point of gender roles

Male critics call these magazines ‘low brow’ and comments are comparable to category romance or soap operas, seen as less valuable than literature (but more popular and the authors make good money).

Farooqui analysed 50 stories:

  • Love equated with heart and home
  • Learning about love via other female married relatives
  • Most stories formed in the space of the kitchen
  • Performative declaration of love usually comes as a poem from hero to heroine

The space/the kitchen is highly gendered. “women is queen of the house, and the kitchen is her territory.” It is also her space to read alone.

In these stories, when the hero invades the kitchen, it is to declare love. Men are mostly absent from these stories, until given to the woman as a present. The stories often have the heroes kitchen at the end as a symbol of her new life with him (and the new kitchens are usually fancier).

Girls of Riyadh and Desperate in Dubai: reading and writing romance in the Middle East. Amy Burge (University of Birmingham)

Sheikh romance silences local women.

Alternative – romance written by Arabic women. It is popular in India, China, Brazil, as well as Middle East.

Desperate in Dubai is a response to sheikh romance, it takes away the exoticism, and gives characters depth. In the chick-lit style of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Al Hakawati doesn’t think sheikh romance is wrong, just undeveloped and stereotypical.

Both of these novels are set in obvious local places, but have global appeal. Neither of them were written for a western audience, but have found that audience.

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