Reviewed: The Scope of Permissibility, Zeynab Gamieldien, Ultimo
Campus novels so often involve a coming-of-age: the formative years of young adulthood are spent within the confines of institutions, with their unspoken political and social structures ripe for exploration, particularly those of morality, ethics, gender and sex. University as a microcosm of the broader world is the setting of Zeynab Gamieldien’s debut novel The Scope of Permissibility, which expands the genre to focus on a group of devout Muslim students’ experience of love, life and friendship in Sydney.
Sara, Abida and Naeem belong to the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), a tight-knit body trying to strike a balance between projecting a positive image of their religion that counters widespread Islamophobia, and obeying the tenets of their faith. Unspoken rules that discourage ‘freemixing’ between men and women permeate their interactions. Playing on the title of the novel—‘the oft-repeated Muslim joke that since only the first look was within the scope of permissibility, it was best to use it up on a nice long stare’—Sara and Naeem furtively catch each other’s eyes during MSA meetings. Eventually, a DM puts into motion a passionate yet conflicted relationship between the two, conducted strictly in the private sphere. Unfolding tentatively at first, it accelerates to a point neither of them is prepared for.
On the outer of this clandestine relationship is Abida, Sara’s best friend who notices the latter’s increasing opacity but can only intuit why. Unlike her MSA friends who are mapping their lives around future marriages, Abida is much more interested debating ‘colonialism and feminism and neoliberalism and other isms’. In the ambitious, agitating Abida we see the nexus of sexism and racism meet its apotheosis.
Islam is all-encompassing in Gamieldien’s characters’ lives—every glance, thought, action and decision turns on an axis that revolves around their faith. But even though all three characters are united by their religion, chasms involving race and class emerge. Abida and Naeem are Bangladeshi Muslim, while the white-passing Capetonian Muslim Sara struggles with others’ preconceptions of her and her inability to articulate her fractured background, the result of ‘a British forebear [having] taken what he wanted from his maidservants’. Each occupies a different socioeconomic position, with Abida and Naeem occupying the extreme ends of the spectrum; the former born to a poor family while the latter is ensconced in the trappings of wealth.
Gamieldien’s characters’ coming-of-age is distinct to those of their peers. Conspiratorial glances may be a precursor to a face-to-face date for a non-Muslim person, but for Sara and Naeem, it’s their only mode of contact before they turn to their phones. When they do take their relationship to a more intimate level, the usual bashfulness, joy and exhilaration is present, but so is shame and disgust as they cleave themselves in two to distance themselves from the ways their actions seemingly bring them further away from what they have been taught to observe in terms of their faith.
The beauty of Gamieldien’s writing lies in the way it expertly balances the universality of falling in love, getting hurt and growing up with the specificity of undergoing all these things as a young Muslim person. Like everyone their age, Sara and Naeem are ‘play-acting intimacy without having read the script’. However, their every move is imbued with a sense of urgency, stuck in a cycle of transgression and atonement. As Naeem muses to himself:
They were mindful that the life of this world was temporal and the life of the hereafter infinite, and it showed in everything they did. They didn’t do gap years, and they didn’t go off and try to find themselves or live in a shared house at the age of thirty.
Here, a tale of morality takes shape, although Gamieldien is careful to never confer judgement. Two unions unfurl side by side: Sara and Naeem’s illicit relationship and their classmates Ahlam and Ziad’s culturally-sanctioned courtship. In her bid to become MSA’s third female president, the pious Abida questions the ethics of those she’s squaring off against.
Cautionary tales intersperse the novel: of two Muslim boys who are discovered together and whisked off by their parents; of an MSA member who is expelled after an unproven accusation of terrorism. Within this landscape, all three characters’ choices are arbitrated not only within their own circles, but by the world that lies outside their Muslim community, where the ways in which they conduct themselves invite judgement at best, violence at worst.
Gamieldien’s characters sparkle and thrum with ugly emotions and veracity as they grapple with their own and others’ decisions. The lofty forces of religion as well as seemingly insurmountable cultural barriers and racism overwhelm the characters. Yet Gamieldien’s characters are never disempowered or lacking agency. In her centring of second-generation migrants who are born in Sydney yet feel extraneous to it, the campus novel heaves with new possibilities.