This article was just published in this month’s EMEL Magazine.
A woman is not usually called Muhammad. So imagine my surprise when the BBC rang me up to ask if I was interested in appearing in a documentary called “My Name is Muhammad“, to explore the lives of different Muslims in Britain.
“Do you have a strong relationship with your surname?” she asked. “Not really, other than it being my father’s name. But I do have a bittersweet relationship with my first name, does that count?” I am a firm believer that individuals can and do have a relationship with their name, and although Shelina is pretty and memorable, I felt sad that it didn’t have any spiritual, religious or wisdom-oriented influence. I only discovered the fact it did, and its meaning latterly in life. Shelina is “full moon.” Perhaps I could aspire to the notion of reflecting beauty and light?
I had always longed for a name taken from the Islamic tradition, and so when I started writing, I adopted ‘Zahra’ as my middle name, in honour of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. As though my unwieldy seven syllable name wasn’t already long enough.
Which reminded me when I spoke to the BBC producer of one strong experience I did have about my surname: “It’s a pain to spell on the phone, with all those letter Ns and Ms.”
I had in fact had had the opportunity to change my name to something far more manageable when I got married – one of those names that sounds like a modern celebrity brand. (I’ve always hankered in
particular for a one-name recognition). However, in homage to the Islamic tradition of women keeping their names when they get married, I stuck to my own polysyllabic identifier. It always struck me as strange that women still change their surnames when they get married – after all, this tradition originates from a time when the surname reflected whose property a woman was, and she changed it to her husband’s name to show she was now his belonging.
Muhammad is the second most popular name in Britain today, second only to Jack, registered under 14 different spellings. This does not include cultural variations like the Turkish Mehmet or the Mamadou of Senegal. The name’s popularity is unsurprising given how dear Muslims hold their Prophet. Also, Islamic tradition advises that one of the parental responsibilities is to give their child a good name.
I remember fondly my all-time favourite email campaign invitation which lobbied for the standardisation of the spelling of ‘Muhammad’ so the ummah can finally be united under the banner of one lexicography. I failed at the first hurdle, my own name being the culprit. Muslims ought to focus on more important things than squabbling over which transliteration is right. The answer: none of them, it’s an Arabic name, so. Instead, let’s move on to fighting prejudice, Islamophobia and discrimination against the name itself and the people who hold it.
For example, a study by the Department for Work and Pensions showed that racial discrimination occurred for those applying for jobs with just a name suggesting they were from an ethnic minority, rather than white British. For every nine applications sent by a white applicant, an equally good applicant with an ethnic minority name had to send sixteen to obtain a positive response. In the current time of high unemployment and recession it is a particular worry that a name like Muhammad along with other such names can restrict employment opportunities.
Of course, whilst I have not seen statistical evidence on profiling by name, anyone who has the name Muhammad or similar will give you plenty of anecdotal evidence that they have been singled out and pulled aside for questioning or investigation while travelling.
And yet whilst holding the name of the Prophet in such high esteem, Muslims appear to have a peculiar relationship with it, the name being more than its meaning. The case of the Sudanese teddy bear named Muhammad was the most peculiar demonstration of this. The children chose to name their bear Muhammad, presumably indicating a familiarity and endearment with this name by attaching it to something that they loved. Yet this was considered by some to be an ‘insult’.
In my opinion, an insult to the name Muhammad are criminals like Mohammad Sidique Khan who kill innocent human beings. To honour the name is to live its meaning, like Muhammad Ali who stood up as a man of conscience.
As a (Jan) Mohamed, I’ll be trying my best to honour it too.
You can watch the documentary here:continue reading
I was travelling in the Gulf last week, and came across this advert in Duty Free. I was pleasantly see a beauty product being advertised without a hundred acres of bare skin and perfect curves, instead it was offering something less in your face and more mysterious. It was that thing of less is more. In addition, I thought it was a successful piece of brand creation – stylish and classy, without the sexualisation of so many other campaign images. Whilst the bottle has a retro feeling, the look of the model is extremely modern – perhaps a hint that ‘old-fashioned’ ideas of modesty, are not so old-fashioned after all? I wondered if this was in deference to Middle eastern culture, but after some research online, it seems to be the mainstream global image for this particular brand. It makes a refreshing change – well done!continue reading
I’m extremely excited to announce that Arabic language rights for Love in a Headscarf were sold this weekend to Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. They are a great outfit based in Qatar built as a venture between the awesome Qatar Foundation, and the fabulous Bloomsbury Publishing (of Harry Potter fame) in the UK.
We’re in the process of working out the details, but it should be available in Arabic later this year, 2010.
Now, our big challenge is working out a great Arabic version of the title – any ideas?
P.S. I should add that I met the wonderful Nigel Newton, who is the CEO of Bloomsbury. I asked him for some advice on establishing yourself as an author once your first book is out, but alas I was forbidden from sharing his extremely wise words. Suffice it to say, he inspired me with great confidence that he and his team at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation publishing will take great care of Love in a Headscarf.continue reading
This morning I’m off to take part in The Big Read, which is a world record attempt to get as many children reading with an adult as possible. It sounds like a lot of fun, and a great way to get children to realise that reading is enjoyable, and can be both a private and a shared experience.
Here is the blurb from the press release about trying to get 3000 children involved:
Over 35 schools across London and from as far as Reading and Croydon will participate in this unique event, which seeks to highlight the importance of literacy, locally, nationally and internationally.
The world record attempt will involve authors, teachers and some special guests reading from Roald Dahl’s classic ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to the assembled children. Celebrities taking part include journalist, Victoria Brittain, BBC London presenter Asad Ahmed and Hedy Epstein, an 85 year old holocaust survivor.
A special guest appearance will take place by John Stephens who worked as part of the special effects team on what turned out to be the cult film, ‘Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’
Reverend Jesse Jackson, is lending his support to the BIG Read. At a forum at the House of Commons on Friday, 26 February 2010, the Reverend Jackson stated: “I support the BIG Read because if you can read, you can reason. Reading is like a light to your brain. It takes you out of darkness… Literacy liberates. Reading and reasoning are forces for change, for the good”.
I certainly echo what the Reverend says – reading is absolutely fundamental. But also, once a child matures, making sense of what you are reading, and thinking critically about it – and realising that you too have something to say – is pretty important too.
Thus spake the blogger who discovered much later than she ought to have that everyone has a voice, and everyone should express it.
Having said all of that I’m looking forward to reading the part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chews the chewing gum and turns into a big purple blueberry.
Update: The results of the event are in – and it’s a world record! There were 3234 participants (including me) who broke the world record for ‘the most children reading with an adult’.
If you wanna be the best and stand out from the rest you gotta be a record breaker. No matter what the test if you become the best you gotta be a record breaker. Record breakers are headline makers and they are the top of heap!