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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 6: Honeymoons, holidays and heartbreak

    The movies are too often accused on creating artificial dreams about our lives that are neither realistic nor desirable. But on this morning, I thought of the ‘perfect’ honeymoon when couples travel far away to a paradise island and spend their days gazing into each others eyes,into the sea, and eat their dinner on the sand surrounded by candles to the backdrop of the moonlit waves.

    And so, at breakfast this morning it made me smile to see a newly married couple perched on the beach, enjoying their morning meal together. The hotel staff helped them with a selfie. Her feet were painted with henna. Something I had done on my own honeymoon..

    In fact, we’ve seen these special romantic meals set up in many places, perfect for honeymooners. Some set up on the edge of cliffs. Some in the prime spots of restaurants. Some, like this one, on the edge of the lapping waves.

    It reminded me of our own honeymoon – romance in the Maldives followed by adventure in Oman. We looked somewhat longingly at the delight that awaits these couples and their manicured experiences to enhance their love as our own two munchkins run around restaurants in a circle. Or the two year old has a tantrum because the colour of the plates is wrong! Maybe sometime soon our holiday will accommodate more intimate meals again!

    Sadly, our visit to Lombok was at an end I love this island and despite the twenty hours plus to get there, and having been twice, I’d go again. I love its beauty, I love its people. And I don’t know how else to explain it: my heart has found a resting place here. Maybe it is nothing more than just how very lovely it is.

    But my heart which has been busy replenishing itself in this beauty is starting to feel heavy. It was time to depart and we returned to Lombok airport, and small airport but with useful little shops for a quick snack and emergency souvenirs.

    Barely fifteen minutes in the air later, we landed back in Bali. We still have two more days to go, but I’m starting to feel heartbreak already.

     

     

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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 5: Stop the world! I’m taking a break! Lombok edition

    IMG_0013 IMG_0091lombok5Slombok5top and smell the coffee, hear the waves, feel the sand in your toes. We cancelled all our plans and decided to put life on pause and enjoy the beauty in which we are privileged to be immersed.

    First, we had breakfast on a table on the beach. Even the kids seemed to enjoy it. The waves were lapping on the black sand beach. My cappuccino was hot and full of caffeine and I got to try some sweet martabak and serabi, bite-size rice flour and coconut milk pancakes dolloped in palm sugar syrup and dried coconut, little morsels of paradise.

    Then it was all change into swimwear and a chance to enjoy the infinity pool. The two year old giggled with delight non-stop for about eight hours. The six year old wanted to swim and swim some more. The sun loungers were epic – double width, plus hanging as swings. So when lunch time came we ordered satay (or course!) for me and pizza for the kids (would it be anything else?) And we sat round the raised tray with our feed, swinging gently in the sea breeze.

    After lunch, a walk on the soft sandy beach, and this one in Lombok was a mixture of black and gold which was beautiful. The sea was perfectly warm, like a second skin. And the waves were great fun – crashing and carrying us to the shore and back out again. The hotel’s private bay curved round and ended at an area of rocks where the waves came in higher and faster. We got drenched each time, but that’s the fun, right?

    The afternoon was about more swimming, this time in another pool with peculiar glass walls so you could see people’s lower halves, with amusing effects as their upper and lower bodies look separated in the water.

    What can I say: water, sand, sea, waves, sunshine in the quiet, with the sea stretching out in front was what we needed. I definitely wanted more, but a day felt good for nourishing the inner.

    But by late afternoon I was keen for exploration again, and we grabbed a taxi to Sengiggi, the local town, mainly aimed at tourists it seems, but locals visit too.  We snapped some photos of the sea behind us at sunset and grabbed a quick light dinner.

    As always the two year old attracted delight and attention with a nearby table of young Indonesian women offering her balloons and smothering her with affection. The four of them told me they had ridden from Ampesan, on the outskirts of the capital Mataram on their motorbikes. Four Muslim hijabi women. On their motorbikes. I love this country.

    After dinner, time for a walk, and we went past restaurants politely touting – only Indonesians could tout in the most respectful polite way possible. There were shops offering tours to tourists, and souvenir shops. It was dark by now and the kids were tired. Strangely, there were no taxis around, but we did get offered a pony and cart to ride in. In the spirit of adventure, we said yes! The four of us piled in at the back and off we trotted. It was a small space, but cosy.

    As the difficult road wound its way uphill the horse started to gallop. It was pretty terrifying being overtaken by large coaches, or have another pony and cart almost chasing our bottoms. But deeply exhilarating. I recommend it! And so do the kids who had a fantastic ride.

    We tumbled into our room exhausted and happy. Sometimes stopping is the best thing in order to re-start.

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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 4: Lombok’s Gili islands, snorkelling and private lunch

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    gili1Sometimes when you’re travelling, even your very high expectations are surpassed. Or, as my six year old commented after our long but exhilarating day “This was the best day of my life!” Since she is six, I can well believe it’s true. But at much older and more travelled than her I can still agree that this was a real highlight.

    We were collected promptly from our hotel lobby at 830am by a friendly driver and our English-speaking guide Arif. We had a comfy air-conditioned car. And both of them were excellent with our two girls, helping them settle into the car.  Arif outlined the day: a two hour drive to the harbour, where we would board a traditional boat, and then take a twenty minute ride to Gili Nanngu where we would do some snorkelling and swimming.  When we felt ready, we would travel by boat to Gili Sudak where we would have a seafood barbecue lunch, and do more swimming if we wanted. We’d return back to the mainland and be home for 430.

    Spoiler: I’ve never snorkelled! But I had brought along my burkini and my spirit of adventure!

    We’d packed towels, snacks and extra clothes, and the kids already had the swimwear on underneath.

    Two hours for a six year old and a two year old is a long time in a car, but the drive was beautiful. Lombok is green, very green. And it feels like you are driving through real every day life. We first passed through the capital Mataram, a small provincial town with low buildings.  The road then opened up to pass through small village upon small village, with single storey homes with laundry hanging outside, farmers in the fields, and children playing in playgrounds at their schools. It felt like we were really experiencing Lombok, not just as privileged travellers (which we are) but seeing every day life.

    Eventually we reconnected with the coastline and we could see across to islands scattered across the water.

    Our car pulled up at the beach and we all tumbled out in excitement: we had to collect snorkelling gear. We tried on masks for size as well as flippers.  Not the two year old of course.

    Sandals off!

    We padded across the white soft sand with the prickly coral that had washed up on shore. It was time to get into the beach island mood, as we had to walk through the shallow sea water to climb into the katamaran.  It was long and narrow with benches on either side. I gripped the toddler. The six year old wore an oversized life jacket.  The boatsman hoisted the anchor (“He’s like a pirate, mummy!) and the motor whooshed us away. It was glorious!

    The water was silver blue, to the backdrop of green covered mountains and paradise islands. The children giggled. It was hard to feel anything but euphoric with the fresh breeze and visual perfection.

    Gili Nanngu is how you would draw your own perfect desert island: white sand curving round the shore, actually clear water, and a gentle breeze. It has a small basic resort with about forty chalets. I don’t know why but I had been expecting our own private desert island, so the fact that there were some day trippers – perhaps no more than thirty or forty – was unexpected.

    There were several covered platform areas – in the typical Lombok style – where we left our stuff and our guide and boat crew waited for us. The husband and kids were ready to swim in no time, but as I had to change fully into my burkini I went to find the toilets.  It wasn’t great – smelly squat toilets with doors that didn’t close. It’s possible the resort was better, or the café that was signposted.

    But ooh-la-la, the water was exquisite. The perfect temperature. Absolutely clear. You could see the fish swimming around from above the water. The two year old giggled “fishies!” The six year old put on her mask and had a go at snorkelling. And she was off. All our video footage of her from the day is head down, body floating, her observing the sea life.

    So I thought I’d give the snorkelling a go. The first, second, fifth, tenth time I must admit I gagged. My instinct was to close my eyes and either stop breathing or breathe through my nose. But slowly with some concentration I finally managed it and boy, it was amazing! I didn’t want to do anything except swim and watch the fish. Silver ones with yellow tips; schools of hundreds of the tiniest black fish you’ve seen, flat fish… if our snorkelling had been at a higher level the guide would have taken us into deeper richer waters.

    Eventually at 1pm we were hungry and scooped up all our stuff and returned to the boat. From there it was another ten minute ride to Gili Sudak, another small island with perfect white sand beaches and clear waters. We went in our swimwear as we were, the warm breeze kissing us dry.

    We disembarked, our guide and crew helpful as always getting the kids off the boat and across the water. There were tables and chairs set for lunch and we had been advised we’d be eating here so we picked a table with a perfect view across the sea to the next island and settled down.

    Only the guide then came back and told us to follow him. To our amazement we were led to a traditional-style wooden chalet on stilts and were led up the stairs to the verandah. This, we were told, pointing to the private villa, was in fact where we were going to have lunch. The elevated height of the building meant the views were even more spectacular. We also had our own private space. And it was great to let the kids run around.

    There was more – the villa had a large studio inside, with tinted windows for shade and privacy. Inside was a double and a single bed, along with a small toilet, shower and sink. Everything was clean and neat. Even towels were provided.

    Having our own little private home even if it was just for a few hours made all the difference. We could even have had a nap, but of course the lunch and waters beckoned. People can and do stay here overnight.

    By the time we’d explored this wondrous delight of having a place to call our own, the first course for lunch had arrived: a traditional Indonesian soup with egg, sweetcorn and carrot. Boiling hot and utterly delicious. Just as we had finished slurping it down, the second course arrived and this was really an extraordinary delight: freshly grilled fish flavoured with lemon, garlic and turmeric (I think). We had two traditional rattan woven plates, covered with a neat banana leaf and a mound of rice. There was also a bowl of local stir fry vegetables. Everything was fresh (I think the fish was recently caught) and tasted amazing.

    What was great was that for our fussy little children they made up fish and chips which the kids happily munched down. It was also incredibly delicious. You could taste the freshness. And if this wasn’t enough a large plate of freshly chopped fruit arrived. Everything tasted incredible. Everything looked amazing. It’s not an overstatement to say it was practically perfect.

    Then it was off for more mooching around the beach, swimming and snorkelling. The clouds overhead were dark grey and there was intermittent thunder. However we were fortunate that the monsoon did not affect us today.

    As the afternoon passed, we knew that we’d need to eventually leave. I had heard nothing but laughter and delight from the children. From my part I’d learnt to snorkel and eaten a delightful lunch.  And my quota of Instagram perfect photos was beyond full.

    We needed to get ready to leave. With children it was a welcome relief to have a clean private place to dry them off and change them. And of course a clean western toilet to call your own is priceless. We changed, rested and freshened up. We prayed in the room. But then discovered a very cute little prayer area downstairs, on a traditional raised platform with a prayer mat.

    It was time to cast a farewell look at the unforgettable island, before returning to the boat for our final ride of the day back to the main harbour, and onward back to the hotel.

    The children smiled all the way home. And I left feeling blessed to have enjoyed this privilege; and wondering that if this idyllic place is something we can experience here in our lifetimes, then what on earth will paradise be like?

    Today’s trip was organised by Serendipity Travel. All opinions are my own.

    For more photos head to my Instagram page

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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 3: From Bali to Lombok

    welcome to lombokI’ve always had a soft spot for Lombok. After a short visit here in 2008 I couldn’t wait to get back. So today was spent on the journey and then relaxing at our lovely hotel.

    It was a quick hop from the hotel to Ngurah Rai airport, perhaps only twenty minutes. I felt sad leaving the lovely folks at the Bali Nusa Dua hotel who felt like old friends after three days of conference and two of holiday.

    Bali airport has a chilled out smooth vibe and within a few minutes we were through security and into the lounge. There are some good shops. I treated myself to a gorgeous Indonesian silk scarf. And the kids got treated to Kinder eggs – strictly to keep them occupied on the flight.

    A bus trundled us across the runway and we walked up the steps to the flight. It was filled with locals. The flight was short and comfortable. Soon after the seatbelt lights went off, the captain announced preparation for arrival. We were flying Garuda, which meant we had a generous inclusive weight allowance, plus a useful little snack box.

    Lombok is an even cuter airport. We walked in from our plane, collected our luggage and out the other side in about ten minutes.

    We stepped out of the building and the monsoon struck.

    Lombok is much less developed than Bali and the vast green fields and mountains in the distance have a more soothing and homely feel. The mosques have unusual cone shaped domes and the capital Mataram is just a provincial capital with low buildings and much less development.

    An hour on the road reached the sea and from our view on the high up road the sea shimmered silver in vast glory. We passed through the tourist town of Sengiggi with its hotels and restaurants. A part of me wished we were staying here so we could walk along the road and be part of the buzz.

    But when we arrived at our hotel we were not disappointed. It was like a travel catalogue brought to life. Can’t wait to take a dip in the infinity pools.

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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 2: Tanah Lot and Nusa Dua beach

    Tanah Lot temple, Bali | Image credit: Shelina Janmohamed

    Tanah Lot temple, Bali | Image credit: Shelina Janmohamed

    The story goes that a 16th century religious figure Niratha sat on the rocky outcrop island at Tanah Lot (Land in the Sea) and the fisherman down below started coming to give him offerings.  So he told them to build a temple as he felt this was a religious place. The legend says that below it in the waters snakes guard the temple.

    We wanted to see some of the local history, religion and culture, so this was a great choice. The Temple made for a good half day trip from our hotel in Nusa Dua. We passed through Denpasar after a cheeky stop at KFC – entirely at the request of the kids who seem tired of trying very hard to eat Indonesian food and just craved some halal chicken nuggets.  An hour later after driving through stunning rice fields and whizzing through small villages the glorious silver sea greeted us.

    We paid for entry to the compound and found ourselves in a long marketplace. It had all the usual tourist offerings. But also useful things like lots of toilets, ice cream (it was hot, this saved us from cranky kids!) Eventually the walkway descends down the sea through imposing gateways until you reach the black sandy beach.

    Our timing was unlucky, we arrived at high tide so we couldn’t walk to the temple. But the kids had fun on the rocks, and the black sand was unusual. As it was Sunday the crowds were large. And it is also the period of Kuningan festival so everywhere was festooned with yellow cloths and offerings. The other smaller temples were also closed only for worshippers, so we missed out there too.

    But the fresh sea air was invigorating, and a relief from the humidity. And what could beat watching the glinting sea and crashing waves while eating a cornetto with your kids?

    Nusa Dua beach in the cloudy twilight Image credit: Shelina Janmohamed

    Nusa Dua beach in the cloudy twilight
    Image credit: Shelina Janmohamed

    Around 430 we set off again, to return to Nusa Dua and enjoy dinner at the beach.  We took a promenade along the beach front, the golden yellow sand soft, the beach quite quiet and the beachfront hotels and restaurants looking welcoming. With hungry kids we picked the first one – Agendaz, and sat perched on their epic beach beds. I ordered – you guessed it – satay. And boy was it good. Although a light meal for the four of us it was definitely the priciest, but the view was priceless. Nusa Dua might be a bubble for tourists, but boy is it a well-manicured, hospitable and relaxing bubble.

    Then it was straight back to the hotel for an early night – after all further adventures await!

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  • #ShelinaTravels Day 1: Kintamani, Cegakin Rice Terraces and Ubud

     

    Shelina Janmohamed overlooking Mount Batur

    Shelina Janmohamed overlooking Mount Batur

    The days before we started our holiday in earnest had been long and tiring, (I’ll post about AdAsia Bali soon!) and so by the time we set off it was already midday. We’d set our ambitions high: a two hour drive to Kintamani to see the lake and the Mount Batur Volcano.

    The car was spacious and cool.  From our hotel in Nusa Dua, we followed the bridge across the water and through the heart of Denpasar, Bali’s busy commercial centre. The car started to crawl through the terrible traffic. But some while later, the city cleared and the backdrop changed.

    We began winding through the villages with their local stores and altars and temples. People whizzing by on their motorbikes. The lush green backdrop of coconut palms framed the single story buildings and shops which sold the necessities of daily life. Some people sat on the floor chatting, others were busy in their businesses. I peered down the side roads and saw the familiar stone lined Balinese lanes with the green leaves and locals zooming forward on their motorbikes, sometimes alone, sometimes two or three riding shotgun.

    We passed through several villages, and an hour and a half later the road started winding up in height towards kintamani. We could feel it in our ears and the little two year old yelped in pain intermittently.

    At a checkpoint we had to pay an entry fee to enter Kintamani area. We drove past the Geopark which we were told explains about the formation of Lake Kintamani, a modernist interpretation of a pagoda in the signature Bali black.

    The road circles round, and you then get the views across to Mount Batur with its dark grey clouds, and then nestled in front of the mountains in Lake Kintamani, blue and clear, with villages sprinkled around it.

    We had lunch at a restaurant with several layers of terraces prime for the view across to Batur and the lake.

    It was in a surprising area of several halal restaurants, which was unexpected. It did make lunch for us unexpectedly more enjoyable as it opened the whole buffet. At IDR 150K + tax and drinks, it was reasonable given the kids ate free. However, the buffet did run out often and despite assurances from the staff that it would be replenished, this restocking did take quite some time. However, I forgave this because both the Balinese and the Chicken Satay were delicious and I’m a sucker for these.

    For parents to know, there are railings, but I did feel constantly nervous about the children throwing themselves over the side.

    The noise from the crickets and other creatures was incredibly loud, so you do feel like you’re immersed in the natural surroundings, but you might find it a distraction from lunch. The place has lovely little raised tables to sit Asian style. Great for adults but again we avoid so the little one didn’t fall off. I did feel rather envious of the singles who had their coffees and gazed across to the mountains with no fear of fearless children, while they meditated (or perhaps just snapped their selfies.

    Also for parents – the toilets are surprisingly good, they are ‘up’ toilets with sprays and the level of cleanliness was good.

    If we’d had more time we would have headed on further to the lake and to visit the villages, but for a short whirlwind tour the views and the fresh air and seeing the delight on the children’s faces made the long car journey worthwhile.

    Shelina snaps Cegakin Rice Terraces

    Shelina snaps Cegakin Rice Terraces

    We then headed back south towards the Cegakin Rice Terraces. This stunning landscape cut away into the hillside was the highlight for our six year old. She raced passed the tourist shops and we could hardly contain her from descending the steps through the terraces to the bottom and then all the way up to the top.

    At one point a woman in a kiosk demanded a ‘donation’. We shrugged our shoulders as we had already paid tickets to enter and we pointed that out. She blocked our progress. Ticket or donation we asked. ‘Donation’ she said fiercely pointing to a basket of cash. We forked out and proceeded.

    It was hot and sticky, but the beauty of the place was motivational. However, you could easily have spent two or three hours there and we were determined to head on towards Ubud to enjoy the markets, shops but not the monkey forest. Many years ago I was bitten by a ‘cute’ monkey in Thailand and have been wary ever since. In our last trip to Bali in 2008 we did the monkey forest and the little creatures really are everywhere and fearless.

    Alas – or happily – we got stuck in traffic as a result of the Kuningan Festival and its processions which I’ll blog about later in the week.

    And so, by the time we got to Ubud, night had already fallen. The kids were hungry and tired and the markets had closed.

    We parked up and walked into the first restaurant we found. There was pizza and the children were happy.

    We didn’t get to see much of Ubud other than the drive through. But this proved disappointing. In 2008 this was a cutesy, eclectic village with one main street. The town was surrounded by lush green farmland. On this trip all I saw were streets and streets of high end tourist merchandise.  And strangely, a Ralph Lauren Polo shop every few hundred yards. Can anyone explain this to me?

    There was extraordinary Saturday night traffic through Denpasar so we arrived back exhausted. Batur, Kintamani and the Rice Terraces had all been extraordinary.

    With one more day left in Bali before we head off to Lombok, we spent into the night wondering what to do the next day.  I even asked Facebook for suggestions

    What did we do? Check back tomorrow for the details!

     

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  • #ShelinaTravels: Bali and Lombok here I come!

    Bali and LombokThe suitcases are out, which can only mean one thing: twenty four hours to go before the big journey to Indonesia. 

    It’s a ten day trip, covering work, adventure and fun. And just to make things more exciting, but also complicated, I’m a working mum on this trip. The two children and my husband are coming with me.

    When mums are asked to be part of meetings and conferences around the world, I always say go for it! It’s hard work if you take your kids but the rewards are high. My are girls and I love the fact that they see their mother on stage, and know that we all support the women in our lives. (Big up to Mr Shelina!)

    First stop: work

    The first stop is Bali to speak at the incredible AdAsia conference. I’ll be one of the keynote speakers alongside such heavyweights as Kofi Annan, Guy Kawasaki, David Coultlhard, Martin Lindstrom and Charles Adler.

    You can even see my little video for the conference here.

    I think there are over a thousand people attending the conference from right across Asia, so I can’t wait to hear the other speakers and see who I can meet. More on that later in the week as I’ll be live tweeting from the event so you can follow what’s happening.

    Then the holiday begins!

    I’m always super-stressed when planning holidays, especially ones which involve kids. I used to be the adventurer type. I’d book some flights, buy a travel guide and figure it out on the way. There was no such thing as booking hotels. We’d wander in to town, and pop our heads into some hotels to check the rooms and then decide.

    Now, with everything seemingly booked out in advance, and so much choice on the internet, it feels like the only safe choice in order to make sure of getting decent accommodation is to book in advance. I’ve done that thing where you sit the night before with your smartphone checking out hotels. It’s a waste of precious holiday time. So now I try to sort it out in advance.

    But this is stressful. Because it means also sorting out an itinerary. Which means endless research to find the best things to do in the best places. Which sometimes is just much easier when you’re out there.

    I confess that I have always had serious FOMO and YOLO.  If there’s an adventure to be had, especially an unexpected one, I’m the one to take it. If there are people to chat to, I’m the one my friends always complain that is left behind in conversation (but which also lead to good freebies and surprising discoveries).

    But now that I have children, and daily life is bursting at the seams at home with school runs, hectic work schedules and seemingly endless amounts of glitter and playdoh to scrub off the floor, I also want relaxation from my holiday.  If you’d told me ten years ago to book a beach holiday I would have laughed in your face! Mountains, volcanoes, art galleries and great late night food were more my thing. But with a six year old and a two year old, and several months of sleep and stillness to catch up on, I’ve begun to see the attraction of comfortable hotels, sandy beaches and sitting still in one place while someone brings us food and then clears it away again.

    I’ve spent far too much time and stress planning holidays, to the point that I need the holiday itself to recover. There’s so many reviews to read, websites to trawl through for the best deals and so much choice that it actually hurts.

    And then I came across Serendipity Tailormade, a travel boutique that curates premium holidays. It is aimed at Muslim travellers so also factors in halal food and sites of interest to Muslim audiences. The rise of the Muslim traveller is a huge marketplace, I’ll talk about that later during my trip.

    The CEO Nabeel Shariff was a soothing balm onto my stressed working mother’s travelling woes. We had a conversation about what kind of thing we like (adventure, intrigue, comfort, ease, beauty, bearing in mind children’s constraints) and what we didn’t want (too much time spent travelling between destinations, the touristy stuff). And what we really really wanted (a private pool villa!). But most of all, that actually we didn’t know.

    Confession: I went to Bali nearly ten years ago and didn’t enjoy the experience at all. We felt it was overrated and underperformed. Our standout moment was the visit to the ricefields and lunch at a restaurant surrounded by greenery.  So could Serendipity offer us a different perspective?

    A few emails and a couple of phone calls later, I had an itinerary. It looks the perfect balance of adventure, relaxation and child-friendliness. Can travel really be this easy and pleasurable?

    We’ve been given curated choice every step of the way, but just the right amount.  I’m now curious to see if curated travel can live up to this glorious feeling of ease, excitement and anticipation.

    I’ll be posting here, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the coming days, so make sure you follow along to see what unfolds. If you’ve got tips for what we should see, where to eat and interesting people to meet please let us know. I’ll be using the hashtag #ShelinaTravels.

    Let the journey begin!

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  • Shock! Horror! Nadiya, a Muslim woman, might win the Great British Bake Off

    My latest piece published today in The Telegraph

    Nadiya Hussain is the favourite to win this year’s Great British Bake Off and yet her ‘surprise’ success is very revealing, writes Shelina Janmohamed

    Radio Times of Great British Bake Off semi-finalists Nadiya Jamir Hussain

    Radio Times image of Great British Bake Off semi-finalists Nadiya Jamir Hussain Photo: Jude Edginton/immediate media/Radio Times

    I love Nadiya. Millions of people up and down the country love Nadiya. She doesn’t even need a surname anymore. Even Mary Berry loves Nadiya. She’s the face of today’s Britain: authentic, honest, creative, emotional, heartfelt and honest.

    Oh. And she’s Muslim. And she just happens to wear a headscarf. But this newly discovered baking genius, despite being Muslim, isn’t cooking up any kind of shariah flavoured sponge or jihadi cupcakes.

    Not that you’d know it from some of the bizarre comments about the nation’s newest sweetheart, and finalist in tonight’s Great British Bake Off. Now in its sixth series, the finale is tipped to be the most watched TV programme of the year, and Nadiya seems to be the people’s choice for winner.

    Finally, we have a Muslim woman in the national limelight who has not been put there for us to dissect her headscarf/forced marriage/escape from FGM/liberation from Islam/burqa/niqab/jihadi bride status (delete as appropriate).

    Muslim women don’t often get to have their own voices. Or be in control of how their image is portrayed. (Have a glance at the comments below any article written by a Muslim women and discover how much people think we need saving – especially those of us who don a headscarf.) But boy oh boy, Nadiya is fully in charge and has a bit of cheek – not to mention a face of a million expressions and a talent most of us only dream of.

    And this has made many people unnerved. What, Muslim women are people too? And they can bake? Even while they wear a headscarf? Is she some kind of fictional superhero?

    At the kinder end of the tweets and comments, there’s also patronising undertone of surprise that a brown Muslim woman is ooh, such a lovely girl too! That Nadiya, she wears a headscarf, did you notice? She wears a HEADSCARF. She’s a Muslim, did you know? A MUSLIM. She’s a MUSLIM, who wears a HEADSCARF. But it’s OK, DON’T PANIC. She can bake.

    The Great British Bake Off's contestant Nadiya The Great British Bake Off’s contestant Nadiya   Photo: Mark Bourdillon/BBC

    The Muslim women I spoke to have said that it seems to be the very same people who seem to bewail the “Muslamic” [yes, people do say that] oppression of women who are complaining that Nadiya is only in the final in order for the BBC to be politically correct, and nothing to do with hard work and merit. Well to that I say you can’t have your cake and…

    Naturally, there’s a sense of pride among Muslim women at Nadiya’s success; a feeling of finally being represented. But just because we enjoy seeing her on screen and she shares our faith, doesn’t mean we blindly support her. It’s not like last year I went up to all the 60-something white women I know and gushed about how excited they must have been that Nancy Birtwhistle won.

    We need to face up to why Nadiya’s description is usually tempered with references to her religion, clothes or ethnicity, (because she doesn’t bring them up unless directly asked). It’s because so many still have very deeply ingrained ideas of what Britishness means, and it doesn’t include ethnic minorities, immigrants or Muslims. Whilst GBBO’s coverage might seem like just a bit of fun, this same ingrained idea is having far more serious implications that affect people’s life, death and freedom.

    The final three of this year’s Bake Off – Tamal, Nadiya and Ian (Photo: BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon)

    These racialised attitudes infect the Government’s rhetoric – and lead to politicians describing refugees as a ‘swarm’ or talking of immigrants who come to work here and who contribute to the economy as a strain. (Theresa May’s latest speech is a case in a point).

    By limiting Muslims’ collective identity to that of their religion – and then linking us all ominously to terrorism through guilt by association – is how the Government gets away with making schools and universities police our thoughts. It’s how Muslim charities can be ignored at the Conservative Party Conference.

    However, what’s given me huge hope over the last nine weeks of GBBO is that large swathes of British public recognise all of this. The majority of ordinary conversation has focused on Nadiya’s immense talent, her passion,and the way she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s reminded us all that these are the values we hold dear, not the fear mongering about immigrants; the security lockdown on Muslims; the removal of voices; faces and diversity from our landscape.

    Nadiya’s the woman who we’d love more than anyone to be our neighbour and offer to cook cakes for us. That’s why tonight I’m firmly #TeamNadiya – regardless of her religion or headscarf.

     

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  • Sporty hijabs: A mini high street revolution that could help save Muslim women’s lives

    Published today at The Telegraph

    It may seem a small step, but having a major British department store stock sporty hijabs could reverse worrying health trends for Muslim women in this country. Shelina Janmohamed reports

    The new sportswear hijabs for Muslim women

    The new sportswear hijabs for Muslim women Photo: SHORSO.CO.UK

    Asisat Oshoala is one of a growing number of Muslim women on the global sports stage. She has been tipped as one of the top 10 players to watch during the current Women’s World Cup. And at 20 years old she’s a remarkable figure to also have been named as the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. She plays for Liverpool and was the highest female goal scorer under 20 last year.

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    Asisat Oshoala

    In 2012 Sarah el Attar was the first Saudi woman ever to take part in the Olympics. Indian Muslim tennis player Sania Mirza is currently world number one in women’s doubles. Ibtihaj Muhammed became the first Muslim woman to compete for the USA at an international level in her chosen sport of fencing.

    These are fantastic female Muslim role models, but closer to home, the story of Muslim women and sport is less positive. According to Sport England, only 18 per cent of Muslim women take part in sports, compared to around 30 per cent of the female population. Part of this is related to ethnicity – only 21 per cent of Asian women take part in sports, and in the UK at least two thirds of Muslims are of Asian origin. But it’s also a gender issue, as Muslim and Asian male participation in sport does not fall below the average for their sex.

    Just five years ago, the figures for female Muslim participation in sports were as low as 12 per cent which suggests that things are improving, but not nearly fast enough. A number of barriers remain – such as access to facilities which Muslim women feel are sensitive to their needs, misplaced cultural taboos around preserving ‘modesty’ and of course, suitable sportswear.

    sports hijab range has just launched at House of Fraser, finally bringing to the high street the kind of clothing Muslim women who cover choose to exercise in. Soft, flexible and tidy, it keeps hair under wraps whilst maximising movement. Until now, items like the Burqini, and sports friendly clothing have been restricted to online outlets or local independent stores, often created by Muslim women themselves who have found the high street and mainstream brands lacking when it comes to modest sportswear. Other women, outside of the Muslim community, are of course looking for modest sportswear too.

    It’s a small but important step in actively engaging Muslim women in sports. A lack of involvement in sports and health related activities among younger Muslim women has long term implications for health and equalities. Analysis of the 2011 census figures by the Muslim Council of Britain show that Muslim women over the age of 65 feature disproportionately high into the category of bad or very bad health (38.2 per cent versus 16.1 per cent of the overall female population), and disproportionately low in the very good or good health categories (22.3 per cent versus 47.3 per cent). There’s a similar pattern when reporting disability over 65 where Muslim women report that their day to day activities are limited far more than the overall population. (47.6 per cent versus 29.4 per cent).

    This matters because the reduction of health inequality is a one of fairness and social justice. But it also matters because ensuring long term good health is socially and economically the right thing for any community, given a straitened NHS and an aging population.

    The three biggest health challenges for Muslim populations are diabetes, dementia and depression, all of which can be substantially improved through healthy lifestyles and sports.

    The right clothing is very important, but so is creating the right cultural conditions within a community, as well as ensuring access to the correct facilities. For instance, local swimming pools are increasingly offering female-only sessions open to all women.

    Zainab Ismail working out in the ‘Islamic fitness DVD’. Photo: NADINE ABU JUBARA

    There’s a growing cottage industry of Muslim personal trainers, gyms, sports classes and even – bizarrely – fitness videos. Many of these Muslim women talk about how their faith pushes them to take care of their bodies. But they want to fulfil their sports aspiration while maintaining a level of modesty that is important to them.

    This is not about Muslim women segregating themselves off from the mainstream – quite the opposite. They want to be involved in sports just like their peers.

    Sports England launched its phenomenally successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign because a study it commissioned discovered that significantly fewer women than men play sport regularly – two million fewer female 14 – 40 year olds in total. When the women were asked why didn’t exercise, a reason that kept cropping up was their fear of being judged on their appearance, while they sweated buckets. Of course, being judged on a appearance is a challenge Muslim, women know too well.

    If we want to encourage young women – including young Muslim women – to take up sports, the easy availability of decent sportswear is a major first step. However, once we get past the outfit anxiety, we must concentrate on the important bit: the taking part.

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  • Women: Ramadan doesn’t need to be perfect (and neither do you)

    With Ramadan just over a month away, women need to seriously re-consider the cost of creating the ‘perfect’ Ramadan, and why a good Ramadan might be even better than perfection

    Don’t try to do too much in Ramadan
    Customers browse produce at a mall during Ramadan. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )

    You’re probably creating a shopping list instead of reading this. Because with just over four weeks to go until the month of Ramadan you’re already behind on your preparations.

    Freezer full of mouth-watering delicacies for breaking fast, menu planner completed for 30 days worth of early morning meals and invitations issued for large family gatherings? No?

    You’ve already fallen short of the perfection demanded of women to create the idealised Ramadan. Shame on you, modern mother and wife, shame on you! Hurry! You still have time to go and lock yourself in the kitchen for the next month and redeem yourself.

    The pressure to “do it all” that weighs so heavily on women today – to manage the home, nurture the children, mop the brow of husband, to look gorgeous and somehow squeeze in a bit of “me” time for their own pursuits – is heightened during Ramadan.

    We all have rose-tinted memories of our Ramadan childhood, seated around the family table, eating our favourite food under the loving gaze of our mothers. So it’s no surprise that every woman wants to recreate that warm glow for her own family. But the desire for nostalgia together with the demands of daily life make poor bedfellows and the result is up to 30 days of unspoken and intense strain on many women.

    That’s before we even get to women thinking about themselves: fasting is just as tiring for women as it is for men, but there is no chance of down- time. Women are expected to produce iftar and suhoor meals – often of several dishes to make sure everyone gets their favourite – and keep the household running. And what of the spiritual focus that is the underpinning of the month of fasting. Women have precious little time for that either, resorting to listening to recordings while on the go, or snatching a few minutes of prayer.

    As women in Ramadan, we are our own worst enemies. There’s a competition for perfection, and that competition is often against ourselves. We burden ourselves with the need to create the best-ever Ramadan.

    Women must make an active choice. We simply need to re-imagine what “perfection” means. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of good, so let’s aim for a good, wholesome Ramadan. Good food can mean simple, nutritious food. Togetherness means everyone helping out together. Good family moments mean erasing the hunger-fuelled bickering with warmth and affection. It’s about worrying less about what other people think and more about what really matters. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s about rediscovering the true meaning of the month of fasting.

    There are calls for easing women’s burdens coming from a surprising source: religious scholars are often leading the way to encourage families to lower their culinary expectations to better suit the spirit of Ramadan, at the same time as highlighting that women should be given the opportunity for the “downtime” from the rigours of daily life to focus on self-reflection and spiritual development.

    Enjoyment of Ramadan for everyone, especially for women, will come when we find liberation from the tyranny of perfection.

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