A visit to exotic Whitechapel

A strange article by Jemima Khan in The New Statesman on what she calls “Asian” marriage but discusses mostly as Muslim or Islamic marriage.

Marriage Asian-style is practical, contractual and, to the western mind, deeply unromantic. “The spinster crisis is an issue of modernity,” preaches an energetically gesticulating man in a white prayer cap, jacket and trainers. “Success is the right attitude – no conspiracies, please. Can’t blame Israel.” Cue laughs from those assembled: women in hijabs seated on one side of the wood-panelled hall; men, mostly in suits, a few of them in Arab dress with beards, on the other; chaperones at the back.

The speaker is Mizan Raja, the engaging founder of the UK-based Islamic Travels agency, who also set up the Islamic Circles community network and now presides over the east London Muslim matrimonial scene. I’m at a Practising Muslim event at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. According to the network’s website, the event is held four times a year and is “especially geared towards those Muslims who are actually practising, ie, not a ‘fasiq‘ – open sinner – as defined by the classical texts in sharia law”.

See what I mean by strange? It starts off sounding cheery and vaguely tourist-like, then suddenly veers into the sinister, then reverts to the cheery tourism (Mizan Raja is “engaging”) then goes beyond the sinister into the frankly scary. What are we reading here? A journalistic report on quaint customs in East London or an exposé of theocratic abuses of women’s rights ditto?

Mizan says he is meeting a need for something that is a duty in Islam. There’s someone for everyone: “Even the disabled have needs” and Islamic Circles holds regular events for them. And increasingly, he says, career women are electing to become “co-wives” – in other words, to become a man’s second or third wife.

And the “duty in Islam” is what? Being married? Being married no matter what, including not wanting to be married? Apparently.

Home Office figures show that Muslim men bring almost 12,000 women to Britain as spouses from the Middle East and the subcontinent every year. One reason for this is the perception that women with careers tend to be “a bit lippy” and don’t make good wives, according to Parag Bhargava, a moustachioed natty dresser in blue shirt and sleeveless navy cardigan…

There it is again, the mix of the travelogue and the sinister. “The perception” is clearly that women who think they are people too “don’t make good wives” – which indicates to me that we’re talking about men who don’t make good husbands. Jemima Khan, however, gives no sign of noticing.

For his efforts, Mizan has been spat at in the street and punched by hardliners who believe that free mixing of the sexes is taboo in Islam. “I’m a businessman, not a bloody imam – but I’ve had to marry people when the imam won’t,” he tells me. At least I think he tells me: he refuses to look me in the eye and politely answers my questions by addressing the man to my right.

Politely? Politely? Oy.


  1. says

    A comment left by “Ahmed”:

    Nice article. I’m 36, a single city professional originally from Lahore looking for marriage. No offence but based on my experiences, well educated and well placed muslim women are partly to blame since they are fussy, demanding and want to tick all their checklists. Interestingly, couple of them whom I met two years back are still looking just like me 🙂

    They’re better off single, I think.

  2. says

    The whole thing was shot through with this idea of being “fussy” and “picky” and “modern about wanting to like the person you have to spend the rest of your life with.” Funny funny modern people, wanting not to be miserable their whole lives.

  3. Didaktylos says

    Someone should ask the former Ms Goldsmith (as in James of that ilk) why she is no longer married to Imran …

  4. sunny says

    Jemima Khan nee Goldsmith converted to Islam to marry Imran Khan – the famous Pakistani cricketer – for love. Conversion was a precondition for marriage. They have since divorced. Her father’s wealth and her British passport allowed to her to escape her life in Pakistan. Needless to say she does not notice much wrong in Islam or South Asian marriages.

    What these men want are not partners but glorified housemaids who are given the privilege of having their children. I grew up in India, I know how the patriarchy operates.

  5. S Mukherjee says

    I was just going to repeat what others have already commented on — Jemima used to be married to Imran Khan, and then she ran off with Hugh Grant, didn’t she? So what exactly is her point in this article?
    ‘Spinster crisis…’ Gaaah, there is no crisis, you stupid mullah! Nothing bad will happen if women do not wish to hurry into marriage with someone they don’t like. Oh wait, it is a crisis because then you don’t get your free personal maid.

  6. Brigadista says

    “… women in hijabs seated on one side of the wood-panelled hall; men, mostly in suits, a few of them in Arab dress with beards, on the other; chaperones at the back.”

    The chaperones were for the men, right?

  7. Gita Bradburn says

    People like me only think that someday I’ll also fight for society..that someday seldom comes or never comes… Many Congratulation to India unheard team.

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