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Marriage was a dull and inherently patriarchal institution, but Abida viewed it in the same way as she viewed vaccinations or seatbelts: unpleasant, necessary protections against greater evils. Sara had laughed at this pronouncement and labelled her cynical, but it was true.

It was for this reason that she had resolved some time ago to marry someone her parents had sanctioned. It would have to be someone Muslim and Bangladeshi and educated to university level. She anticipated it would be quick and expeditious, avoiding much of the messiness that choosing a partner based on finite feelings entailed. She prided herself on her lack of sentimentality.

‘Sometimes I think I’m never going to get married, you know what I mean? It’s just so hard to find a good guy.’

Ahlam spoke as she arranged leaflets around the table, placing a stack on Islam and women’s rights under its front Abida leg to stabilise where it wobbled. The wind blew their hijabs into their faces and blew the leaflets onto the lawn outside the library until they weighed them down with various objects: the wrapped chewy lollies they distributed to fellow students, Ahlam’s car keys, a hefty pebble given to them by a sympathetic dreadlocked white boy who was passing by. They had endeavoured to give the stall a professional look, having unfurled the MSA banner stand and placed it adjacent to them, but it had toppled over twice already and knocked Abida’s collarbone as it did. Abida stood in front of the table, took a photo and sent it to Sara with the caption, Can’t believe you chose mechanics of solids over this, before turning back to Ahlam to reply.

‘I honestly don’t think about marriage that much. It’ll happen when it happens, right? It’s all naseeb, fate, all of that jazz.’

‘It’s different for you, though.’ Ahlam smoothed the left flank of her hijab, which was propped up by a concave pearl brooch, smiling over at a lanky girl in overalls on a bicycle as she pedalled at speed through the crowd.

Abida did not ask Ahlam to elaborate. They both understood that there were those for whom marriage and parenthood were aspirations, and then there were those who would get married and have children because that was just what you did when you reached a certain age. Abida would probably get married and have a child or two, but she would not be defined by the enterprise.

Abida would probably get married and have a child or two, but she would not be defined by the enterprise.

She had observed the alternative and thought it distasteful; having six children had subsumed the entirety of her parents’ lives, much like a tumour. Whether it was malignant or benign, her parents seemed reconciled to it, content with whatever bounties Allah bestowed or withheld from them. They were weary and poor, but not angry. She had absorbed the rage they had long jettisoned.

A boy approached the table, oversized headphones over ears, neon blue singlet and shorts on despite the fierceness of the wind.

Wahid had been rostered on for this shift at the da’wah stall, but he had not yet arrived. The MSA attempted to ensure that there was an even mix of boys and girls manning their fortnightly information stall. Instinctively, Abida knew why this was: the girls were there to field all the questions on hijabs and burqas and oppression, the boys to demonstrate that they were unthreatening and not a source of the girls’ oppression. They were there to prove a point, or disprove one, chafing against impressions that had been long solidified. She leaned on the table as the boy in the singlet picked up a leaflet entitled ‘Islam: spread by the sword?’, turned it over and examined it.

‘Do you want to ask us anything? We have heaps of leaflets on all sorts of topics,’ Ahlam said, grinning with all of her teeth in what she deemed to be a welcoming manner. Abida hated her then, hated how she tried so hard to be liked. But the boy gave no indication of hearing them through his headphones, putting down the leaflet and walking off.

Ahlam turned back to her.

‘Anyway, Abida, I’ve been meaning to ask your opinion on something relating to marriage. It’s –’

‘It’s Ziad, isn’t it?’

‘Ummm . . . well, yes. I was thinking about it after the meeting last week and wanted to see what your thoughts were. Do you think we have potential as a couple?’ Ahlam shuffled a pile of leaflets on Islam’s stance on human rights and looked across to the lawn, where they watched a boy in a tricolour pullover remove a strand of grass from his female companion’s hair, their backpacks and notes scattered in front of them.

‘Sure, I don’t see why not,’ Abida said immediately.

‘The thing is, I’ve seen him looking at me but he’s so shy, he’d never say anything to me about it. He’s just not that kind of guy. I think the only way something would happen is if someone else sets it up, but of course I wouldn’t want him to know that I’ve noticed, he’d be so embarrassed. Whoever suggested it to him would have to make it seem like it was their idea.’

Abida was unconvinced by this annotated account of events, and she did not suppose Ahlam expected otherwise. The real conversation lay in what was being omitted and talked around, the harsh truths that decorum would not permit them to acknowledge. At the age of twenty-two and nearing the end of her primary teaching degree, Ahlam was astute enough to appreciate the paucity of suitable candidates and had assessed Ziad as an achievable target. Abida thought it plausible that Ahlam was in love with him, but love in their world did not so much erode common sense as shadow it. There were several points to recommend Ziad: their shared Lebanese heritage, his computer science degree and convivial disposition. That he was slow on the uptake was of little consequence. As it was, Abida approved of Ahlam’s pragmatism. A girl could do far worse than a well-intentioned fool.

Abida thought it plausible that Ahlam was in love with him, but love in their world did not so much erode common sense as shadow it.

‘I’m happy to talk to him for you. I could mention it to him sometime and see what he thinks.’

‘Are you sure you’d be cool with that?’

Abida nodded and smiled. She was pleased at being entrusted with such confidences. It felt adult, weighty.

‘Just leave it with me. But make sure to pray istikhara and see how you feel before jumping into anything. In the end, it’s all with Allah, right?’

‘Of course.’ Ahlam nodded with fervour. She believed in the power of istikhara to steer a course of action, as they all had been instructed to. But Abida was sometimes unsure if she referenced Him with real feeling or because the situation seemed to necessitate it. She said inshaAllah when making any statement pertaining to a future event, mashaAllah whenever cooing at someone’s baby or sharing a photo of a sunset online and alhamdulillah for any crisis averted, no matter how minute. This was what she believed in, but it was also what a girl in an abaya did. She had chosen to dress this way, and with this choice came expectations of behaviour. She could swear and laugh and rage, she could be inappropriate and wild, but to the world she would still be defined by this cloak, this fabric.

Wahid’s arrival prevented any further tête-à-têtes. He wore a maroon t-shirt and black jeans, tiny droplets of water dripping from the gelled bouffant of his hair onto his forehead and down his neck.

‘You’re late, bro. And you’re dripping water onto the table.’ Abida spoke in what she hoped was a suitably austere manner.

She refused to be counted among the many MSA girls who lusted after Wahid, their eyes downcast, their thoughts occupied with how best to induce interest without appearing immodest.

‘Sorry, I had to go pray after class. I just made wudu and rushed off here.’

‘You had hours to do that, bro. If we can manage to be on time, so can you.’

Wahid smiled and placed his hands in his front pockets, chunky thumbs protruding. Abida could not penetrate his reserve, the implacable distance he maintained from girls. She knew that many of the MSA boys were afraid of girls and women. It showed in their inability to conduct a conversation with any modicum of civility. A small handful, like their president, Mustafa, were able to convey both respect and commonplace cordiality. But Abida did not believe Wahid was fearful. She did not trust good-looking people who feigned disinterest in the opposite sex. How could they be, when members of the opposite sex were so obvious in their interest in them?

This is an edited extract from The Scope of Permissibility by Zeynab Gamieldien (Ultimo Press),  available now at your local independent bookseller.