Month April

  • Hello Guardian readers!

    Welcome to new readers who have read my article today in the Guardian. I invite you to keep reading below and check out the rest of the site. For my regular readers, my article that was published in The Guardian’s Face to Faith column is here. You can leave comments here at spirit21 or on the Guardian site

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  • Can I be fashionable and Muslim?

    How do I combine my value of modest dress with my human desire to be fashionable? A little voice in my head pipes up and says “I want to be fashionable!” I don’t want to be eyed up for my vital statistics, but I do want to be noticed for my style. Are faith and fashion compatible?

    Picture a Muslim and you probably imagine a rather stern looking long-bearded uncle with a dour expression, or a jilbab-swathed niqab-covered woman. Their clothes will sway modestly in a range of whites or blacks that the colour-naming people at Dulux would be proud of: Unnoticeable Noir or Inconspicuous Ebony for the dark ladies’ attire, Nearly New White or Pious Purity for the men’s dazzling jalabiyas.

    The climax of this style of dress is in Makkah, during the hajj season. I am mesmerised during this period when I watch the swirls of black and white circulate around the Ka’bah, the House of God and the focus of Muslim prayer. There is an elegance to the complementary balance of the two colours, the yin and yang of the male and female. I myself have stood admiring the unfussy clothing of men and women in such mosques, clothing which is equally loose and modest for both genders. I revel there in the simplicity of the fashion which has poise and grace and lends itself to furthering the spiritual quest.

    Back in the mundane world, visiting friends and family, going out to work, participating in community affairs, there is a little voice in my head pipes up and says “I want to wear colour!” or, more surprisingly, “I want to be fashionable!” I don’t want to look ugly, I want to be aesthetic. I don’t want to be eyed up for my vital statistics, but I do want to be noticed for my style. How do I combine my value of modest dress with my human desire to be fashionable? Are faith and fashion incompatible?

    The hijab is certainly not immune to trends. There are square headscarves, long ones and circular ones to name but a few. They come in all colours and fabrics. There is even fashion to be observed in black scarves. They come in two-tone, with embroidery, tassels, diamonds, lace. Selecting the right black scarf for the right occasion from the enormous noir collections of some Muslim women is an art form. Long cloaks are the same: they come in different textiles, different cuts, buttoned, sleeved, sheer with lining.

    Watching women comparing their latest modest cloaks and scarves is an endearing revelation of the glory of humanity. Even the strict unemotional guidelines of black jilbabs, hijabs and niqabs are joyously brought to life by the most modest and particular of women under the God-given healthy desire of human beings to be individuals.

    There is a simple human joy in taking pride in what you wear. Human beings were designed to be clothed. In the Islamic tradition, one of God’s names is Jamaal, beauty, and He loves beauty. Why would He then not love beautiful (modest) dress? Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet, takes his young servant to the market one day insisting that the servant buys a nice shirt. Young people should be nicely dressed, he explains. Out in the Middle East, dashing young men buy their tailored jalabiyas, from Armani.

    I flick through some fashion magazines looking for ideas of how I can fuse the parameters of modest dress with style. I take a promenade round the shops, enjoying my window-shopping as much as the next British woman. This summer looks promising, lots of knee-length floaty dresses that I can team up with a pair of trousers, and a long sleeve t-shirt underneath if required. Some of the prints are big and loud – will they attract too much attention? Some of the dresses look a bit clingy, perhaps making my curves a bit too obvious? Where lies the happy fusion between my spiritual search for modesty and my human desire for aesthetics and individuality?

    The fashion industry wants to expose every insulting bump of my cellulite and every delicious curve with its post-modern lycra look. “The bumps and curves are mine all mine!” I cry. Neither should be up for public scrutiny. They are for me to know and you to mind your own business. I want to reclaim the mystery of being a woman, I want to assert the feminine glamour and grace that are my God-given due.

    The little voice in my head tells me that the fashion industry sucks. A pox upon the limited choice it offers me and its bittersweet style dictatorship! Fashion as fascism? I’m too hooked to the idea of being fashionable to think such a heretical thought. Nonetheless, I sigh helplessly at the black and white choices I’m offered: stylish and skimpy; modest and frumpy; androgynous and depressed. Black jilbab or black mini-skirt? It is a false dichotomy this black or black choice.

    The glossy women’s magazines are the soft gentle face of the fashion police. They create the rules on how to dress and then enforce compliance. The Tehran police in Iran was less subtle. It recently commissioned local designers to come up with ‘trendy’ outer wear for women. The aim was to give women choices of Islamic dress while remaining within the letter of the law.

    The rule-makers are missing the point. They may be able to govern clothing with their laws. But fashion, like faith, is an expression of the spirit.

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  • Muslim woman called "silly little girl" for exercising her own choice

    Muslim women’s choice of clothing is once again in the news. Manal Omar, who describes herself as a “32-year-old, 5ft 10in, professional senior manager for an international NGO” found herself at the heart of a complaint from an Oxford resident to a swimming pool manager. The resident was angered by her choice of swimming wear (which complied with pool regulations). When Omar went to see what the fuss was about, he informed her that he was not talking to her, only about her: “This has nothing to do with you.” He then went on to call her a “silly little girl”. Omar was wearing the equivalent of a wetsuit with a little minidress of swim fabric over the top to meet her personal standards of modesty. I’ve posted about this here, and its proven to be one of my most popular articles, and the swimsuit itself is a big seller.

    The local Oxford newspaper ran a piece worthy of the Daily Mail about how outrageous her attire was and how this country would be overrun by asylum seekers, the end was nigh, we are all doomed, etc. They failed to contact her, and even when she contacted them they didn’t wish to speak to her. So much for good journalism getting in the way of a rabid rant.

    Omar has since published a very eloquent piece in the Guardian about this incident, and has rightly, focused on the way she was totally ignored in this whole matter. She is not debating whether Muslim women should cover or not. She takes it for granted that a woman has a right to choose what she wears. She is highlighting how the very man in question chose to humiliate her and then deny her of her opinion. The pool manager was equally guilty – failing to listen to her side of the story, or even point out that she had been swimming in this attire on many previous occasions. And of course the naughty naughty Oxford paper.

    The press is quick to call women who cover ‘oppressed’, stuck at home, backward. As soon as a Muslim woman disproves this stereotype there is a move to disparage her again, mock her. I wrote about this previously, where Muslim women are caught in this wrong-headed bigoted crossfire, in The War over Muslim Women.

    Here we have an example of an active, successful Muslim woman and what happens? Take away her voice! In fact, the story illustrates the very upside down nature of the debate we are in.

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  • A tribute to my great uncle

    It is not usual for me to write a blogpost on a matter of personal loss, but this week I am moved to do so. My great uncle passed away on Monday morning. He was my last living great uncle. He was a gentle, energetic visionary father-figure of our family, who even in his elderly age could not sit still. His spirit was always driving to make the world a better place. He was the kind of person that everyone knew. Mentioning his name would bring a smile to people that you would never imagined he had even met, let along that he had touched their lives in such a memorable way. In fact he radically changed the lives of many. His energy filled the room, even though I remember him as a small slim man. When he was moved, or felt passionately he would spontaneously create couplets of poetry to describe his feelings. And passionate, innovative and poetic he was.

    The whole extended family across the globe is mourning for his loss, and each tribute I read for him brings tears to my eyes. I did not know him well as he lived abroad, but even the few times that I was blessed to meet him, he has been indelibly stamped on my memory and my heart.

    To his wife, and his children and their children too, and to the whole family and community I extend my deepest condolences.

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  • The empty bottle in the cloakroom

    I’m going to tackle a delicate issue today, but one that needs to be addressed. For Muslims, this post is a message of solidarity, and of coming out and being proud. For others, it is a Public Information Service. Or possibly the solving of a mystery. It is about the empty bottle that stands forlornly in the cloakroom at work, or which your Muslim co-worker inexplicably takes with her to the cloakroom. She goes in with it, she comes out with it.

    Or you might be like me, with a plastic glass, hidden furtively and filled up quickly in the sink and then whisked into the cubicle. Or you could be like some with their handful of water-soaked toilet paper, a make-shift wet-wipe for desperate times. “What will they think if they see me filling up the container with water in the cloakrooms,” I wonder with dread. I usually wait till there is no-one else about before I fill up.

    I often psyche myself up in the cubicle with my glass of water trying to overcome my self-inflicted neurosis by asking, What’s the point of all the signs in cloakrooms that tell you to wash your hands, if your bits are unwashed, I tell myself? Does it get smelly? I try to psycho-analyse my own embarrassment. It’s not me that should be embarrassed with my glass of water, it’s all of those who don’t have water and don’t wash themselves that should be feeling shifty. (then why am I the one hiding my bottle?) Eugh!

    If you are a Muslim working in an office, sharing the same issues, then it’s time to come out and be proud. Yes, we use the water to wash! We like to be clean! The bottle and the glass are our symbols of progress and hygiene. Whether they remain in the cloakroom or you take them in with you, hold them high! Hold them with pride! We are the people who wash!

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  • Happy Birthday to Me!

    Friday 13th April is my birthday! So I’m expecting my faithful readership to come good and send me lots of birthday wishes. Another year older, and another year wiser? I think so. I hope so. I love being spoilt for a day (husband was spectacular in his birthday surprises, well done!) and having an excuse just to do nothing but have fun. In fact, after continuous busy-ness (yes, I’m guilty as charged!) I discovered that it is fun to have fun. I discovered meta-fun!

    On a different note – about the superstitions of Friday 13th, I find it intriguing that these still abound. I presume it is related to the number of the devil, but is that rooted in Christian or pagan lore? Let me know if you have any ideas. Either way, in our post-modern, ‘enlightened’ era it still seems to hold water as a superstition people still have niggling at the back of their minds. I wonder why?

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  • A Muslim By Any Other Name

    “I have now publicly denounced God…I am an atheist at heart,” says Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her writings about herself and her self-proclaimed struggle to reform Islam. “We Muslims must help each other,” she elaborates.

    Muslims reading these two statements side by side may be scratching their heads in confusion. In theological terms, a Muslim is one who states simply that “There is no diety but God, and that Muhammad is His (last) messenger.” The public avowal of these words – of believing in God – is sufficient to be counted as Muslim. The strength of belief and practice that lie behind them is immaterial. To be a Muslim in this sense is black and white, you say that you believe and you are considered a Muslim, or you say that you don’t, and you’re not.

    But Miss Hirsi Ali peppers her writings with the phrase “we Muslims”. She insists that she speaks as a voice from within the Muslim community. As a matter of faith and religion, her position in Islamic terms is quite clear – it is not possible that she is a Muslim since she does not believe in God. But she defines herself as a Muslim by virtue of her culture, ethnicity and upbringing. This, she believes, makes her a Muslim, because the separation of culture and religion in her view is a false dichotomy.

    Irrespective of the clarity of the Islamic criteria for being a Muslim, it seems that the wider community consider such individuals nevertheless as Muslim. More perplexingly these individuals also consider themselves to be Muslim. Perhaps ten or even twenty years ago, nationalism would have been the grounding for identity, and Hirsi Ali would have defined herself as Somalian. Today, she sees being Muslim as a cultural state, not one of religious belief.

    Is being Muslim now a cultural identity? For practising Muslims the only definition of a Muslim is that of the shahadah, but all sorts of voices are now singing at this party and it seems the common denominators of a Muslim are now up for discussion.

    Hirsi Ali, or even a character like Saira Khan of The Apprentice infamy, feel that being a Muslim is not a matter of faith, but rather of cultural heritage. Muslims may have influenced their upbringing, which is why they retain the Muslim nomenclature, but they themselves admit that practice is another matter.

    I relate these examples not as finger-pointing, but to bring to life the fact that opinions on what it means to be a Muslim these days are multi-coloured and multi-faceted. Is it acceptance of the creed? Is it a certain level of declared belief, irrespective of practice, “I’d like to be more practising” or “I’m a lapsed Muslim” (if you can have a lapsed Catholic, then why not…?), or is it belief and a certain observable level of practice? Or is it none of the above? Is it to be a cultural Muslim (whatever that means)? Is it to be born to Muslim parents? Or is it enough just to declare oneself to be a Muslim, and no further questions asked?

    Islam is broad and robust enough to accommodate a plethora of views and the tensions that brings, despite what people may say, and the shrill voices that beg to differ both inside and outside the Muslim community. But it is indeed important that we address ourselves to the issue of what does it mean to be a Muslim? Such a question has inherent theological and human value, but it is critical at this time for other more urgent reasons.

    There is a push to “reform” Islam, in the same way that Christianity underwent a ‘reformation’. And just as the Christian-tinged name suggests, Islam is expected to ‘reform’ in line with modern day Christian-European values. Hirsi Ali, in her role as Muslim-beyond-Islam, is quite open about the motives and loyalties of voices such as hers: “Present-day Islam is not compatible with the expectations of Western states…We will need the help of the liberal west whose interests are greatly served by a reform of Islam.”

    And so the question of “who is a Muslim?” becomes critical in driving the debate and development of any organic changes that come from within the Islamic fold, or more jarringly, any forced changes that are imposed on it. Who is to create change and direct it? Whose voices should be promoted (if any)?

    Genieve Abdo writes thoughtfully in the Washington Post: “The secular Muslim agenda is promoted because these ideas reflect a Western vision for the future of Islam…Everyone from high-ranking officials in the Bush administration to the author Salman Rushdie has prescribed a preferred remedy for Islam: Reform the faith so it is imbued with Western values – the privatisation of religion, the flourishing of Western-style democracy – and rulers who are secular, not religious, Muslims.”

    And so it comes as no surprise when such views are promulgated victoriously in the political arena. The favoured Muslim voices selected by politicians will reflect their own views about which kind of Islam fits best. The politics of which Muslim voices are heard, which are favoured, changes with the wind. Yesterday, in the UK, the Muslim Council of Britain were having tea at Downing Street, today it’s a different flavour of Muslim buttering the scones.

    What does it mean to be a Muslim? It is a deceptively simple sounding question that is laden with complexity and pitfalls. Who should decide what a Muslim sounds like, looks like, what she says, what she eats, what she wears, what values she holds, what she believes?

    Given the current discussions in the political and social spheres we need to ask ourselves these most incongruous of questions. This is not a drive to create an inflexible and exclusivist private members’ club. Quite the opposite. There needs be a common baseline of affiliation and understanding. A little bit of definition and agreement is very liberating as it creates the possibility for shared vision and mutual benefit and understanding. I don’t feel the need to agree with every Muslim out there, and the reality is that I won’t. But as a collection of communities we need to be able to point to the very basics and say, “this is what holds us together, this is the essence of being a Muslim.”

    The clarity of the theological foundation of the shahadah once made the definition of a Muslim simple yet robust. It then freed everyone to have their own opinion. Before Islam and Muslims can engage in any kind of ideological or political evolution, we need to clarify these basics. The stability of the groundwork will then allow a myriad of voices to engage in lively, heated and fruitful debate. As a Muslim, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    This article was recently published in the Muslim News

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