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Love: Good For the Gander, But Not For the Goose?

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She is a leading commentator on British Islam, a columnist for EMEL magazine, a regular contributor to the Guardian and the BBC, and author of the award-winning blog, Spirit21. This post originally appeared on The National website.

Janmohamed"It's fine for me to have a 'love marriage'," the male caller to the radio show said, "but I won't accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister."

I was live on the air recently, co-hosting one of the UAE's most popular morning radio shows as part of my invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair.

We were discussing the fiery topics of love and marriage. Calls and text messages came through furiously as this usually private topic was given a forum for public debate.

The notion of "love marriage" is one that carries a note of unspoken and sinful rebellion across Middle East and some Asian cultures. The open discussion of love, even within the sacred boundaries of marriage, is taboo – especially for women. But we do need to talk about it because the ability to love – our spouses, our communities and the Divine – is what makes us human and binds us together.

My presence on the show and the publication of my book, Love in a Headscarf, challenge the prevailing silence.

I don't advocate mass love-ins or the abandonment of the arranged marriage process: quite the opposite. I'm in favour of a structured approach to love and marriage with support and input from families.

Nevertheless, my position on the subject is clear: love is not a four-letter word.

As the hosts of the show, we challenged the caller: "Would you say that your attitude to love and marriage is hypocritical if you can have a love marriage, but your sister can't?" "Yes," he responded. "And what are you going to do to change your hypocritical position?" "Nothing. That's just how it is."

He was not alone in being unashamed of his double standard when it comes to love and marriage for men and women.

Another caller, male and 36 years old, told us his personal story, which initially tugged at my heartstrings. "I'm a divorced father of three, and I'd like to remarry. I think it's important to be open with prospective families about my personal situation, but as soon as I tell them these details, they break off all discussions."

Our societies shouldn't discriminate against those who are divorced or who already have children, especially when they are honest about their situation. But on delving deeper, we found a murkiness in his position.

"I keep being offered girls who are leftovers," he whined. Leftovers? These are women we're talking about.

"I want a girl who is 28, not divorced or with children. I don't want a leftover girl who is 36," he said without shame, just minutes after complaining of his own treatment by women.

The hypocrisy of these two male callers was bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that they were not embarrassed by their positions. As men, they saw love as their right and their privilege alone. They would not permit women the same love, the same life choice.

Forceful text messages came through from female listeners. "If these are the men, kill me now!" one wrote. I can only assume she was joking.

But one message raised an issue at the heart of the debate: "We must make it clear that these attitudes are based in culture, not religion."

To eradicate these double standards, this difference needs to be made abundantly clear. And for this to happen, what we need most is to be able to discuss love and marriage openly and honestly, without fear or shame.

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