Ream Shukairy on writing her debut halal YA romance, The Next New Syrian Girl
"if you like Jane Austen novels, you’re a fan of halal romance."
This post was written by Ream Shukairy, author of The Next New Syrian Girl.
So what is halal romance anyway?
It’s the bashful courtship and painful boundaries in a Jane Austen novel. Or it’s the romantic tension between two main characters over 14 episodes of a K-drama where every glance or brushing of hands is as electric as a kiss. Or it’s those two best friends who can’t admit they have feelings for each other until they finally make it official. Or it’s none of the above. While there are key hallmarks to halal romance, the details are ambiguous. The ambiguous is where the best parts of halal romance can reach out and pull you in.
To write the halal romance in my debut novel, I had to determine a few things. The first: which Islamic or halal boundaries will I not cross while still allowing the characters to express their feelings and form a real relationship? Some argue that romance in general without serious intentions of marriage can’t be truly halal. But I disagree. Don’t we all deserve a little romance? That friendship that feels like there’s something more to explore? If we’re not exploring that there can be something more, then I think we’re missing out on something huge, and we’re perpetuating the narrative that Muslims don’t ‘do’ romance. That stereotype gave us the same old stories of Muslim boys not crushing on Muslim girls or hijabis secretly dating white boys and getting themselves into all sorts of unrelatable trouble. While these are real stories, they were the only representation we were getting for too long, and only one perspective of our love stories.
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Another consideration I came across while writing: How do I express attraction without touch? Well, how did Jane Austen become the master of romance novels that she is when her books were set in an era that physical touch between a man and a woman was taboo? Because if you like Jane Austen novels, you’re a fan of halal romance. Any time I write halal romance, I focus on the relationship first and let the characters’ feelings come through naturally. In The Next New Syrian Girl, the romance is rooted in a friendship sprinkled with just the right amount of electric tension between the characters so readers can root for them. Why leave the inner thoughts and commentary to the readers imagination? We all know what the characters could be thinking, so I added the spice right in.
The most important consideration of all was making my hijabi character desirable. Too often in media, we don’t see hijabis represented as beautiful, and this is simply untrue. As a hijabi myself, I can get in my head about what hijab means and the barriers it creates. And while there may be barriers—and more often we’re the ones who create these mental barriers not the hijab—romance isn’t restricted from us. Rejecting the notion that the hijabi isn’t desirable in a romantic way was my driving force while writing the romance in the novel. Because let’s be real, hijabis are gorgeous, but we don’t have enough stories out there to affirm it.
Lastly, we can’t overlook that halal romance is romance. I find romance is about understanding the other person fully and wholly. It’s about being open and vulnerable with your feelings, and how can you do that if there’s a chaperone breathing down your neck or the all-business-no-fun conversations of a serious relationship? I skirted around the conversations of intentions of marriage or a serious relationship because, well, my characters are teenagers. It’s the story of their first love. I found that anytime I used language that is typical for halal romance, like ‘courtship’ instead of ‘dating’, it felt phony. Because I think Muslims deserve first loves between each other, and dating is just a word that means meeting with a person you like and getting to know them. By writing these stories, I hope young Muslims will have the courage to have their own first loves within the boundaries of their beliefs.
Regardless of my considerations and explanations, halal romance, like any romance, is up to interpretation. Some people hate insta-love; others would call it love at first sight. I call something halal romance, and someone else might not. And that’s totally okay. I hope we can all appreciate the stories that push back against what most of the media says about halal romance. Let’s make ourselves worthy of love in our own way.
Get your copy of The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy here.