Thursday, October 3, 2013

Guest Post: Author of Painted Hands - Jennifer Zobair

When I talk about how I came to write a book about two successful, professional Muslim women in Boston, I often say that it started with a drug test in Michigan. I’d just left my law firm job for an in-house position at a robotics corporation and, as many companies do, they required a drug test as part of the hiring process. I reported to the appropriate hospital for the test, with my big, blond hair and tailored black suit, and proceeded to answer the perfunctory questions—name, address, date of birth— from the twenty-something male registrar. When he got to religion, I said Islam.

 Without missing a beat, he replied, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

 Despite research showing that Muslim women in America are highly educated and high-income earners, the stereotype of the oppressed and foreign woman persists. This “otherizing” is what allowed that young man to be so surprised to learn I was a Muslim. And it’s what informs too many narratives about Muslim women in this country.

 My novel is about the kinds of Muslim women I know—smart, opinionated, warm, confident. Because I married into a Pakistani American family, many of the Muslim women I know happen to be South Asian like my two main characters, Amra and Zainab. In many ways, the book is about their experience as second generation Indian and Pakistani Americans and the ways they navigate their bicultural identities. For example, they don high-end western clothes as they scale the corporate ladder, but can still rock a gharara or a sari at South Asian weddings and parties. Zainab, who is a brash, beautiful campaign strategist, even wears a red lehenga to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, causing Amra to ask if her attire isn’t “too ethnic.” Part of this might be because Amra is a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, and law firm culture is notoriously conservative. But politics is, too, and Zainab’s sartorial choice probably has more to do with her confidence: In this as in all matters, Zainab is radically and unflinchingly committed to being herself—a very American and very South Asian feminist.

 The novel explores Indian and Pakistani culture, to be sure—there are descriptions of food and clothes and wedding traditions like how brides typically wear red and have their hands “painted” with henna before the ceremony. But for immigrants of any generation or background who happen to be Muslim, there are points of departure from other immigrant stories in a post-9/11 world, and I’ve tried to capture that in this novel. What does it mean to be a Muslim in America, or a woman—even a feminist, as my characters and the author certainly are—in Islam? Who is a “real American” and who gets to decide? And how do you maintain your dignity when so many people stand ready to vilify you on the one hand, or pity you on the other, based on your religious affiliation?

 Of course, Painted Hands also explores issues many non-Muslim women can relate to as well. My characters balance high-powered careers and the desire for a family. They are attracted to compelling and complicated men. They confront the glass ceiling, the pressures of the western beauty myth, and the fissures even close friendships face when people change. At the heart of the story, then, is that whatever our roots, whatever generation of “immigrant” we happen to be, our struggles and triumphs are strikingly similar. There are differences, of course, and I hope Painted Hands illuminates a bit about what it’s like to be Muslim woman in America. But I hope it also shows that universal truth the brilliant Maya Angelou spoke of in her poem “Human Family”:

 I note the obvious differences 
between each sort and type 
but we are more alike, my friends 
than we are unalike

Thank you to Jennifer Zobair for this excellent post about the characters in her novel, their immigrant stories and the universality of that experience.  Her first novel is Painted Hands (my review).


  1. I knew many Muslim women when we lived in Auburn and discovered that they're as diverse as those in other religions. This book sounds so good!

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  2. Immigrant literature is fascinating as it combines so many themes - tradition vs modern, gender issues, religion, etc. Sounds like a good book.

  3. Love the sound of this book. I think I will be able to identify pretty well with the characters of this book. I'm going to have to give it a try.