Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is marketed generally as a Muslim Bridget Jones, and it’s not a bad descriptor, if a little reductive. Personally though, I found Sofia much more relatable than dear old Bridget – and, believe me, I adore Ms Jones – but maybe that’s due to Sofia’s penchant for one too many chocolate Hobnobs (something I myself am partial to) despite my/our better judgement.
“I tried! I did! But what normal human being would ask another human
being to live with a cohort of mother, father, brother and sister-in-law with two children, complete with a sister and brother-in-law and three children next door,
and a hole-in-the-wall joining the two houses?
(Just writing that sentence about so many people confused me; imagine living with them.)“
Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is the diary of the eponymous Sofia Khan, a 30-year old Londoner who works in publishing and just happens to also be a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab – something which a man on the Tube takes exception to, rather loudly, earning Sofia’s brilliant comeback “Oi, terrorists don’t wear vintage shoes, you ignorant wanker!” Such a comeback displays the tone and wit of Sofia Khan but also illustrates how unafraid Ayisha Malik is of discussing the prejudices that many Muslims face, even in twenty-first century London. After regaling her publishing colleagues with a story of how her would-be fiancé expects her to move in with him, his parents, and the literal hole in the wall of their home, Sofia inadvertently becomes the spokesperson for the Muslim dating scene in London, and begins writing a book on the subject, amidst her crazy household, constant questions of when she’s getting married, and a gruff, bemused Irish neighbour.
The great strength in this book lies in Sofia herself – she’s smart, she’s witty, she’s incapable of keeping her mouth shut when she shouldn’t speak and not opening it when she really should. The story is conveyed through her engaging voice via blog and diary entries, with sprinklings of her draft “Muslim dating book” along the way, and this personal form helps to create an intimate link between the protagonist and the reader that can only be achieved through this first-person confessional form. Likewise, the prose contains a bit of code switching which, although novel at first, soon becomes just another part of Sofia’s strong narrative voice – and she certainly likes to use that voice.
“Angry-looking, tattooed next-door neighbour witnessed Mum trying to loosen my scarf to at least show that I have a reasonably long neck. He looks exactly like the type of person to tell me to go back home – even though he knows where I live.
But no one ever said racists were sensible.”
The wider cast of characters, including well-meaning-but-nagging relatives, a much-too unattainable suitor who bonds with Sofia over Lemon Puffs, the ex who pledges to move out if he’s given a second chance, and a string of unsuitable Muslim men, are a delight. Each is a unique but believable character and chimes in a different perspective on Sofia’s woes of dating. Her group of friends, in particular, are all wonderful – even if, at times, you do want to shake some of them roughly by the shoulders to get them to make the right decision. In the end, all resolved as neatly and lovely as I wanted, and I had a real moment of connection with Sofia which resulted in pride and joy complete with a hearty “YES, SOFIA!” when I felt she made a brave, big step. PS- Conall is a delight, keep an eye on him, he’s a grower.
“Note for book: The best way to get rid of a person is to act as if you don’t give a shit. The person you’re trying to get rid of will believe it and, one day, you will too.”
Something must be said for the context of this book – the emphasis on Muslim culture and expectations regarding dating and love. I found the Islamic family background to be authentically portrayed (or so I assume given my prior experience with my Muslim friend’s family) and although religion isn’t the main focus of the book, it’s definitely a driving factor. Sofia completes daily prayers, something she is sure earns her a funny glance or two from her secular co-workers when they spy her arse in the air, and she adheres to the general cultural, familial and religious expectation regarding courtship and marriage. It’s not that her faith is at all shoved in your face, as a reader, but rather it just happens to be a factor which shapes her character, but isn’t the only characterisation. She may be a Muslim woman, but that isn’t all she is reduced to, and that is a testament, I think, to Ayisha Malik’s intentions for the book, to portray a genuine, independent, twenty-first century woman whose dating options just so happen to come with their own caveats due to her faith, just as dating in London does.
“But it seems that this is life. The yellow brick road is paved with babies and just too many questions about the ‘M’ word…”
Wonderful, witty, and genuine, Ayisha Malik’s début is authentic, heart-wrenching at times, and as delightful as her protagonist who, by the way, is certainly not obliged to do anything for you or to be anyone else for you than simply herself.