Month August

  • My Ramadan

    [Somewhat belatedly] Here is an article I wrote for The National’s magazine about ‘My Ramadan‘. It is part of a series of interviews with Muslims from 14 different parts of the world. It’s definitely worth having a look at for it’s breadth, and also some of the glorious pictures – from as diverse places as Pakistan, Rio de Janeiro, LA, East Jerusalem and the UAE amongst others.

    image courtesy

    My first memories of Ramadan are as a child during the long days of late summer in England. The fasts stretched from just after 2am, when the first light of dawn began to peep through the night sky, till 9pm when it finally set. This Ramadan will be the same.

    I was too young to fast then but old enough to know that something magical was happening in these 30 days. ‘Normal life’ came to a stop, and everyone was swept up in the excitement and focused on praying, reading the Quran and of course, food.

    Barely five years old, I’d be packed off to bed at eight in the evening so I’d be fresh for school the next day, and as a result I missed out on participating in the family ritual of iftar when it got dark. Then the family would break their fasts with dates.

    There was a prayer that they always recited as they bit into their first morsel: “Oh my Lord, it is for You that I fasted, and it is with your sustenance that I break my fast.” It was a reminder that whether eating or not eating, everything was from God and for God.

    The weekends were a different matter. We went to the mosque to break our fast with other families. Plates of dates and kettles of tea and coffee were served and then the congregation would rise together for the ritual evening prayer, Maghreb, before sharing a meal. It is this community spirit that is one of the great highlights of Ramadan. People fast together, pray together and eat together.

    By the time I was old enough to fast, Ramadan fell earlier in the summer, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. By now it was June, the longest and probably hottest days of the UK calendar. But I thought nothing of it. I went to school and took part in athletics classes in the midday sun, running in the heat without water.

    The rules for fasting in Ramadan are laid out in the Quran. I often reflect that, with today’s body-obsessed society, spending 30 days focusing on the inner rather than the outer doesn’t seem such a bad idea. It’s my morning coffee I miss most but if Ramadan proves anything it’s that addictions can be broken. I find the first few days difficult as the body adjusts. I start to realise how many hours of the day are dedicated to preparing, consuming and tidying up after meals. I also realise how much of my day is filled with frivolities. I feel liberated, as life becomes unexpectedly more productive, resulting in more time for contemplation, spiritual reflection, and even the odd nap. In fact, each breath of the person who fasts is considered worship, awake or asleep.

    One of the great cultural traditions of Ramadan is the big evening feast, with special foods. But I feel it is better to stick closely to the usual meal patterns, with just the odd treat here or there. After all, one of the philosophies of Ramadan includes empathising with those who have less than us. That’s just not possible if you are eating more than usual, with special treats. Strangely, some people put on weight during Ramadan.

    The hardest part of fasting, is “fasting of the tongue”. No more harsh words, anger, gossip. It’s easier said than done, especially when you haven’t eaten all day. I write the words “Be Nice” on my hand to remind me.

    The first day after Ramadan is the festival of Eid. Even though I am filled with excitement and achievement there is a tinge of sadness as the month of Ramadan is over.

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  • Love in a Headscarf launches in India and climbs to number 4 (update: now at number 2)

    Love in a Headscarf was launched in India at the end of July as the first title of the new imprint Amaryllis, which is part of Manjul Publishing.  They came up with this snazzy cover, which was designed to be vibrant and modern to appeal to the competitive Indian market, and stand out from the usual crowd of memoir.

    Sanjana Roy Choudhury, Head of Publishing, Amaryllis, said that “We plumped for Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf for our launch, to make people sit up and take notice. There were a few typical literary titles we could’ve launched with, but this was special. It’s a light but sensitive portrayal of the modern British-Muslim woman” .

    After less than four weeks in the market, the book is already at number 4 in the bestseller list!

    The book has garnered some great coverage. Elizabeth Kuruvilla wrote a feature in Open Magazine talking about “Revolutions in a Headscarf”. And I was in conversation with Nawaid Anjum of the Asian Age who went on to write about “A Muslim Woman’s Quest.”

    The Mail Today (which I believe is related to the UK’s Daily Mail) said “Move over Bridget Jones, and makes space for Elizabeth Bennett in a hijab.”

    And AllAboutBookPublishing, (a bi-monthly trade journal exclusively dedicated to book publishing industry in India) in an article entitled ‘The act of writing is very courageous’ called the book ‘unputdownable’ (shelina says: what a great word).

    Mid Day ran an interesting feature on ‘Writing from behind the veil‘ asking “why Islamic writing in English, especially by women, is piquing reader interest” looking at the journey to getting Love in  Headscarf published, and other books that are sharing a diversity of Muslim women’s stories.

    For those of you following the international editions of Love in a Headscarf, the next one will hopefully be released in the USA in the Autumn.

    Postscript [31/8/10]: This lovely review from (Daily News and Analysis) begins: ” Scarves were once about fashion. Today they’re all about politics. The headscarf is fiercely contested territory with diametrically opposite meanings ranging from ‘oppressive’ to ‘liberating’ depending on who is standing on the soapbox. Which is why Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s chick-lit cum memoir, Love In A Headscarf is more provocative at second glance.”  and then… “Its wholesome worldview cuts through the hullabaloo around the hijab issue by presenting the simple testimony of one woman’s faith in modern Britain.”

    Postscript [14/9/10]: The book has climbed to number 2 in the Bestseller list. And a number of other publications have carried news and reviews. The Wall Street Journal’s India blog writes that “Love in a Headscarf wows India“.

    Women’s Web calls it “an anabashed tribute to Jane Austen”

    The Hindustan Times says the book gets it “spot on” when it comes to how women feel.

    The Times of India (linked here to the mobile site, couldn’t find the main one) says the book has a “delightfully engaging style” and even calls parts of it a “scream”.

    The Hindustan Times reviews the book again (I guess they liked it?) with the headline in the paper itself: “A rollicking ‘love’ story of a Muslim woman who does not believe in playing by the rules.” The review concludes: “Spunky author, important book, and a good read.”

    The Deccan Chronicle in an article called “Shakti ‘swa’roopas” (formidable unflinching women) nominates 9 women who exhibit this spirit, and lists me and Love in a Headscarf as one of these 9 under “humour” saying: “This author has questioned the double standards in religion with her trademark humour. [She] found liberation through her successful blog Spirit 21. Lacing her provocative questions on gender imbalance in society with humour, she has entered a shark infested bastion with a weapon called wit. ” I’m in high profile company with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Fatima Bhutto.

    The reviews keep coming in. Here’s one from The Organiser(which says it was set up in 1947 and that it is widely quoted in the Indian Parliament and read in 54 countries) that describes the book as ‘light-hearted’ with ‘a hilarious twist giving an insight into what it means to be a young British Muslim woman.’

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  • Has Ramadan become just another brand to be exploited?

    This article was published yesterday in The National in the UAE.

    This weekend, like many millions of Muslims around the world, I will be making my preparations for the Islamic month of Ramadan. The month’s ethos is one of spirituality, centring around 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk, during which time eating and drinking is prohibited.

    Food does, however, remain important throughout the month, and iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day, is a time for thankfulness, togetherness and sharing.

    The natural result is that preparations include shopping for food to stock up cupboards in anticipation of delicious meals shared with friends and family.

    And so it is evident that even while trying to navigate the frugality of Ramadan, that Muslims, too, are consumers – people who hand over money in exchange for goods that meet their needs.

    I’m an advocate of the needs of Muslim shoppers being given as much attention and care as any other consumer. After all, Muslims need to buy products – including food. And their specific needs and aspirations are just as important as those of any other consumer. And the money of Muslim shoppers is just as good as any other money.

    When it comes specifically to Ramadan, the commercial world has been quick to make money out of a seemingly untapped commercial opportunity. Already, TV soaps, produced to last the exact 30 days of Ramadan, are extremely popular and lucrative. And Eid has become an increasingly commercialised celebration, starting to head towards the same kind of gift-oriented festival that Christmas has become.

    Even in Britain, one of the demographic segments that Tesco’s “World Foods” product line specifically targets is Muslims. In catchment areas with a sizeable Muslim population their stores carry well-laden “Ramadan” aisles. Is this is a helpful service by Tesco, being sensitive to the needs of its Muslim consumers and finally recognising their commercial worth, or is Tesco, like many companies and traders round the world, guilty of the commercial exploitation of the month of spirituality?

    Has Ramadan become the ultimate brand to be exploited? And will companies do anything to get a share of this lucrative market?

    Roy Michel Haddad is the chairman and chief executive of the Middle East and North Africa region for JWT, a global advertising agency. He is clear in his mind that Muslim consumers are just as varied in their needs and aspirations as any other consumer. They just happen to be Muslim. In fact, in his opinion, “There is no Muslim consumer, just a consumer who we have to respond to his wants, needs and desires.” He adds that anyone who looks at Muslims as a commercial opportunity must be wary of assumptions that Muslims can be blanket grouped together.

    In Haddad’s mind, however, there is one clear exception where all the vast diversity of Muslim consumers becomes unified – Ramadan. In fact, he asks provocatively, “Does the Muslim consumer exist beyond Ramadan?” And it’s true that Ramadan is exceptionally unifying throughout a diverse Muslim world. There is a cohesiveness of purpose, timing, and behaviour, which rarely exists at any other time.

    You might be cynical and argue that using Tesco as an example of a company that sees Ramadan as a commercial opportunity is not relevant because it is a brand that is not Muslim, and therefore doesn’t understand the communal and devotional spirit of Ramadan. Your cynicism might lead you to state that while such big brands as Tesco couch their products in the cuddly marketing language of “meeting customer needs” and “being sensitive to cultures and aspirations”, at the end of the day they are just interested in growing their bottom line.

    But what about those companies around the Muslim world that appear to be acting in far more exploitative ways?

    Holy Ramadan, Batman! It's the deal of a lifetime!

    Earlier in July, Al-Riyadh, the Arabic newspaper, reported that two trading companies in Saudi Arabia had amassed stockpiles of key food stuffs. According to Khaled Al-Homaidan, an economic consultant, the aim was to “hoard essential commodities [and, thus] create an artificial price rise in the Saudi market in the coming weeks prior to Ramadan.”

    In Karachi, the prices of sugar, pulses, red chilli, and ghee have climbed ahead of a meeting between the government and wholesalers to fix rates for the month of Ramadan.

    Despite the fact that Qatar has ordered fixed prices for the second year running during Ramadan across 156 food and non-food items, the Peninsula newspaper reports that people fear that retailers may increase the rates of other commodities to make profits. In addition, they are concerned that prices will rise gradually before Ramadan to ensure that the frozen price is already high.

    In Bangladesh, the commerce minister has asked MPs to keep a watchful eye on profiteering during Ramadan by monitoring how goods are distributed from the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh to local dealers. But the risk is that this simply gives politicians the power to decide which dealers gain access to stocks, which, of course, is not without its dangers of corruption.

    In the UAE, the Ministry of Economy is warning that it is consumers themselves who must be vigilant against price manipulation and hoarding. This is despite the fact that it has warned suppliers they will face legal action if the price of basic food items is raised.

    That shoppers need to exert their commercial power is a constant theme across countries where companies and brands seem to be taking a profit-oriented approach to Ramadan.

    According to Al-Homaidan, the customer can play a decisive role in combating greedy traders. “Consumers should be more selective and should boycott products whose prices have increased exorbitantly,” he said, adding that they must increase their vigilance in order to protect their rights and be careful not to become victims of such exploitation.

    And people power is important in upholding the spirit of Ramadan. When the Malaysian tourism minister announced “the first ever Ramadan Summer Festival featuring food, shopping and other fun-filled activities” to attract Middle Eastern tourists, the Consumers’ Association of Penang was “outraged”, adding that Ramadan “is not a tourist product but a sacred month of spiritual enrichment”. They called on the tourism ministry “not to worship tourist dollars”.

    There is certainly a line to be drawn between companies and brands truly serving the needs of Muslim consumers, and those that are out to exploit them. And this is a line that Muslim consumers themselves must patrol.

    Defeating commercial exploitation is about using the weapons that hurt commercial entities the most – by hitting their bottom line, by holding them to public account and by threatening the reputations on which their brands are built.

    Only if Muslim consumers truly believe in the spiritual values of Ramadan and work hard to uphold them for at least this one month of the year, will such abuse come to an end. Otherwise Ramadan will become victim to the very exploitation and material obsession that it sets out to eradicate.

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  • Be the change

    This article was published in the latest edition of EMEL Magazine.

    People often ask me, “Did you always want to be a writer?” I answer that I didn’t know that I was a writer until I made it happen. People also ask me – particularly young women – how they can make an impact on the world? “I want to make a positive change,” they explain. “I want to be a writer.” But behind any headlines or book titles, what you need most is the will to change, and a belief in yourself. Of course, you need to learn how to create the change and you need to be persistent; keep on trying to make the change. You need the intention to engage in making change, simply because it’s the right thing to do. If the outcome is positive, then so much the better, but as long as you’ve done the right thing, that’s the most important part.

    Like many teenagers, I went to school struggling with the questions of, ‘who am I?  What’s my identity and what is the meaning of my life?’ I was confused about how I fitted into life – I was Asian, Muslim, and a woman at a very typically English school. I lived three very separate lives, and I was three separate people.

    My father has always taught us that education is the most important thing, and it is this fundamental principle that has helped to lay the foundations for who I am, and how I struggled with and resolved my inner conflicts. He would repeat the saying to us:  “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” So with his encouragement, I applied to Oxford University for my undergraduate studies, and I was accepted.

    Power to the Poster (designed by Taylor Myers)

    When I arrived as a student in this new environment, I found that when I learnt to be confident in myself as one person, to live all my lives in balance; sometimes more as one, sometimes more as another, then I felt truly happy and I felt that I could engage more directly with the world. I had a clearer picture of who I was, and I had a clearer picture of the world that I wanted to create.

    I learnt an important point: don’t be afraid to be you. Just do things your way. Be a pioneer. In fact, don’t just not be afraid – be confident in what you have to offer the world – because only you can offer it. You are unique, you can see the world in a way that no-one else can, and it is your responsibility to live up to the blessing of being unique. The best thing that you can possibly be is you.

    The famous Spanish artist Salvador Dali explains how he realised this same point, when he said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since: I wanted to be Salvador Dali and nobody else.”

    After university, I created a career in marketing for the mobile and internet industry. I worked on some fascinating products and designed things like the world’s first pay as you go internet service.

    During this time, September 11 happened, and it changed my own life as a Muslim woman from something that was very private, to a matter for public discussion. Everyone felt that they had a right to talk about me because I was a Muslim. Everyone felt that they had the right to attribute ideas and beliefs to me which I did not have, for example that I was a terrorist.

    In 2005, I got asked by a local community paper to write a short article. So, I wrote the piece and discovered that I really enjoyed it. And I realised that when you enjoy something, and you have some raw talent, it is a duty to pursue it. So, I did something very surprising – I asked for a column, and my wish was granted. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. The column turned into a blog called which led to writing a book, ‘Love in a Headscarf’.

    Change can only come if you say the words. Change only comes if you make it happen.

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