Month September

  • I am not my job

    This article was published in the September issue of EMEL Magazine.

    There have been many days that I have wanted to declare my liberation from being an office slave. I have often envisaged – as many people do – after yet another ridiculously inane meeting, or an unreasonable weekend request to put together yet more Powerpoint slides, to stand up and yell the words “I quit!”

    However, there is also something of the ice queen in me that has planned and re-planned a stroll into the manager’s office, a handing over of a crisp white envelope with the merest hint of a smile, leaving my badge on the desk and then a victory walk to freedom to rousing applause from my colleagues, out of the building’s front door.

    I’ve never done it, and it’s not just because I still have the mortgage payments for the dream house and the dream garden, and the dream car parked in the drive, although the irony is not lost on me that my dream lifestyle is trapping me in a nightmare job. No, it’s not just about the money.

    My job is who I am, and defines everything about me.  And if my job defines who I am – well, who would I be without it?

    You think I’m wrong about how our jobs define us? Well, picture all those parties or tedious networking events…

    “What is your name?” asks the stuffed shirt. And this is always, always followed by “and what do you do?” as though your job

    is your entire life definition.  Even dating and marriage are governed by the rule that we define ourselves by our jobs. Bagging a doctor, lawyer or investment banker – although maybe not so much the latter during the current recession inspired by the collapse of the banking sector – let’s admit it, we still envy those with ‘proper jobs’ and in the Asian background I come fr

    om, job status is everything.  It carries little weight to be an artist, philosopher, journalist, thinker or scholar.

    We do bring it on ourselves. I think Office Slavery is like Stockholm syndrome. We’re trapped, but we fall in love with the idea of having the status, and definition – not just in the eyes of others, but in our own eyes. It’s hard to put ourselves under scrutiny, but we should ask ourselves the question – not ‘what am I?’ but, ‘who am I?’ and even ‘how am I?’ thinking about our behaviour towards others.

    Instead of the narrow definition of our job titles, we should want to free ourselves.  Of course, I don’t mean to instigate a plague of resignations being handed in as you all arrive at work this morning.

    As a person of religion, work is a must.  The example of the Prophet Muhammad is clear – you can’t sit around and wait for others to serve you. But ‘work’ doesn’t have to mean activity that is rewarded financially. It doesn’t need to predicate an individuals worth on how much income they derive, and how much ‘growth’ they pump into the economic system. If anything, that reduces the worth of a human being to their income generating potential.

    But the current financial climate needs to instigate some deeper thinking within the Muslim community about the purpose of work. Is it for money and wealth? Do economies need constant ‘growth’? What are the responsibilities of corporate entities?

    In my mind what is important in addressing the purpose of work is to see it not as an end in itself, but a component of developing the self and society. Yes, it helps to put food on the table – but that doesn’t need to be just our own tables. Yes, it makes us productive members of society, but such a perspective broadens out the meaning of work to include housework, childcare, poverty relief, artisanship and so many other occupations.  Work also lets us learn about ourselves by exposing us to challenge and people, as well as developing perseverance, endurance and a sense of self worth and dignity.

    I’m simply asking the question: what about actually living life? Living life as who we are, to fulfil our dreams and aspirations, to be better human beings. We should own our jobs, and not the other way round.

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  • My Life in the Alternative World of Spam

    This column was published yesterday in The National UAE

    Today, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, wrote to me. At least that’s what it said on the e-mail that I found in my spam box.

    Courtesy of

    Despite the austerity measures that the government has recently announced, he is giving me an ATM card with a £5,000 (Dh29,000) daily limit. I can collect it from the foreign secretary William Hague by e-mailing back a copy of my passport. Alarm bells ring: shouldn’t they have a copy already, them being the government?

    Blog Blaster promises me two million hits on my blog. The US ambassador to Nigeria is just waiting, yes waiting on tenterhooks, to give me $5 million if I accept delivery of a package. And if you’re too small, too slow or just too obsessed with the opposite gender, there are a whole range of drugs and stimulants out there for you, along with eye surgery, or losing weight at better prices than you could ever imagine. There are even a dozen suggestions on how I can work less but earn more.

    I think I’ve become addicted to spam.

    In this universe, I could live the sensational life of James Bond with overflowing bank accounts, happiness and love, and those crucial better looks. This is a slick world that increasingly entices me to dip into it every day to see what unimaginable thrills the mere click of a mouse could bring me.

    I’m beginning to think that the version of Shelina that exists in the Alternative World of Spam is a far more exciting and glamorous one.

    This glorious spam world is not without social conscience. It is in fact a God-conscious, spiritual arena.

    I received a heartfelt plea to help release $17m dollars which a woman’s deceased husband had put aside for the establishment of an orphanage. She exhorts me, in the Bible’s words, that “Blessed is the hand that giveth”, and that she doesn’t want her “late husband’s efforts to be used by unbelievers and greedy individuals for selfish and ungodly purposes”.

    The Spamiverse is not religiously exclusivist. I also get requests to help with dying men’s wishes to build mosques and Islamic centres, and humanists who want to save cancer patients. Or humanists and Muslims in collaboration wanting to solve the world’s HIV problems. It’s a very creative, community-minded and tolerant place.

    courtesy of

    I cast my eyes over all the spam messages and feel warm and fuzzy at the world’s possible perfection. Life is good in the Matrix-like universe of the Spambox, assuming we believe the superficial messages and fail to look deeper.

    However, to accept at face value and click through the nefarious links would be hugely dangerous, and the illusion would be shattered. Don’t click the links, whatever you do. Your bank balance will be drained. Your computer will be infected. Don’t be fooled by the sweet words.

    Spam is all the evils of today’s illusory airbrushed world rolled into one. It feels personalised, but it’s not written just for you. You are just a commodity to be parted from its cash and self esteem. It promises impossible outcomes, appealing to the worst in human nature of greed and vanity.

    Spam doesn’t only exist in your spam box. Those TV ads? That billboard across the street? That political rhetoric? You didn’t ask for it – it just arrived in your life.

    If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. That piece of wisdom is the best, and only, thing to be gained from dipping into your spam. And that piece of wisdom applies to real life too.

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  • No harm in being brief, but don’t forget to think

    courtesy of coolfunnyshirts

    This was published as the first of my weekly columns in The National.

    “Just make sure you’re not boring,” was the advice my boss gave me as I stood up to deliver my first ever presentation to the company directors. I was an over-enthusiastic trainee, trying to impress my superiors.

    “Right, Not-Boring” I repeated, having no idea how to achieve this nebulous goal. My topic was the creation of network computing technologies in the consumer and small-enterprise markets. My chances of success were slim.

    The lights dimmed and the slide projector came to life. When none of the 30 attendees fell asleep, I felt I’d achieved a small victory (the low expectations of a graduate trainee). I’d employed jokes, self-deprecation, and created a bond with the audience about my subject matter curing insomnia. These had certainly helped. But you’d be surprised how tough it is to be Not-Boring.

    The problem of course is not we, the protagonists. We – of course – are extremely interesting. It’s the audience that’s the problem: short attention spans. Apparently the modern brain has been mangled by the internet.

    An Oxford University expert recently warned that constant computer and internet use may be “rewiring the brain”, shortening attention spans and causing a loss of empathy. Does your partner spend more time with their iPhone or BlackBerry than with you? That’s because you talk too

    courtesy braintraining101

    much, but the phone delivers bite-sized chunks of electronic joy. Do you feel as if your friends will attend to your emotional needs only if you can express your feelings in a Facebook status? That’s the fault of the internet.

    In short, short is good, in today’s world.

    “If you can’t say it in 140 characters,” say the Twitter-philes, today’s avant-garde lovers of brevity, “then it’s not worth saying at all.” Perhaps they have a point. Consider a number of famous phrases from various spheres. Religion: “There is no god but Allah, Mohammed is the (last) messenger of Allah”, 68 characters. World events: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, 57 characters. Gender relations: “You don’t love me anymore, cos I’m fat, all because I gave birth to your child! I’m looking after the baby and you’re after those floozies!” 139 characters. On reflection, you can get a lot of marital whining into one Twitter message.

    Brevity has its value in getting rid of unnecessary verbiage. Text messaging, Twitter and even the relatively mundane TV ticker have revolutionised the way that we are able to source vital information, or stay in touch with those who are dear to us.

    These benefits have overshadowed the important fact that we still need to deliver complex ideas in speech and print, and engage in conversation, oratory and writing – skills that are slowly being eroded. We still need to ignite people’s passion and humanity to create change, and it is the eloquence of speech and text that can do this.

    I’m not part of the brigade whining about the loss of traditional thought processes. To the contrary, I believe that our brains should be best adapted to the environment in which they operate.

    What I do mourn is the detriment to our attention spans, which leads to the loss of the pleasure of listening to a well-crafted speech, the capacity for deep thought or the escape into imagined worlds when reading lyrical text.

    So when you are faced with your next challenge to be Not-Boring, my advice would be this: remember, it’s not just what you say, nor how succinctly you say it. The magic comes from the craft you employ, and the way you convey your ideas.

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  • Support Love in a Headscarf and cast your vote

    Dear friends, and readers of spirit21,

    Earlier this year, my book Love in a Headscarf was nominated as part of the Big Red Read, a book festival being held in London. Readers are encouraged to cast a vote for their favourite book from the nominations, and one will be declared the winner!

    If you enjoyed Love in a Headscarf, I would ask you to show your support by sending your vote by email to: The deadline for votes is tomorrow, Saturday 18th September.

    You can learn more about the festival, and see the other books that have been nominated, here. (although obviously I’d prefer you to vote for LIAH) :)

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  • The Pink Abaya Club, or, what is the colour of freedom

    Belatedly, here is an article I wrote for The National.

    One of the first decisions I made when I set up my blog about being a Muslim woman was that the colour black would be nowhere in sight.

    In Britain, like many other European and American areas, black is the colour that typically defines Muslim women, a shorthand way of denoting our supposed anonymity and oppression, and a lazy way to instil fear and pity about us in equal measure.

    It was time for people to see Muslim women as individuals, with their own personalities and stories, so, I chose the colour for my blog that was in my mind the furthest away from black – pink.

    Illustration by Pep Montserrat, from The National

    My mini-me, who welcomes readers to my website, is a small cartoon that looks a bit like I do, wears a pink headscarf with sparkly pink shoes, and has a cheeky smile. In her own small way she restores individuality and agency to the debate in the West about Muslim women.

    I suggested a similar approach to some lovely Emirati women I met recently on a visit to the Gulf. They were dressed in gorgeous couture black abayas, which oozed sophistication and expense. Of course, in the Gulf, black has a totally different meaning for women. The black abaya is a symbol of all things womanly, and the best of Arabic culture.

    The individuality of these successful professional women was obvious in the tiny embroidered details at the edges of their sleeves, the expensive crystals sprinkled across the black fabric and in the glimpses of the bold coloured lining as they glided elegantly around the room.

    I was surprised that for women who clearly have had to be determined and focused to progress in the professional fields that they had chosen, in a society that is only now slowly accepting women into the workplace, when they stood together they all looked, well, the same.

    I wondered if this was about creating organised power through a collective representation of women, or whether it was a cultural mechanism to keep women’s individuality out of the public space, and turn this vibrant half of humanity into an undifferentiated anonymous mass.

    Born of my own experiences in the West about the meaning that a simple piece of clothing like a headscarf and its colour can convey, I proposed to the women that they should form a Pink Abaya Club. It would be an invitation-only group, where a designer pink abaya would be worn on special occasions by women who had excelled in their field and who through their day-to-day lives were showing that women were part of the burgeoning, innovative culture that is emerging out of the Gulf.

    The women were enchanted by this notion, and giggled initially with some excitement in their eyes about presenting themselves in a totally new way. It was a chance to offer their personalities to the outside world in a way that represented their vibrancy as individuals. And then abruptly they said: “But people will talk about us. They will say bad things because we are not wearing the black abaya.”

    It was clear from their words that the way to succeed as a woman was by keeping femininity and individuality to linings, crystals and sleeves, and blending into the social definition of acceptability for what it means to be a woman. The Pink Abaya Club was dead.

    I returned to London, reflecting on my possibly irrational phobia of black. But, as a younger woman, I had had an equal distaste for pink, seeing it as too “girlie”. What I am certain of is that I had deliberately used my pink headscarf as a political tool, with a small p. Of course, women have often used their clothing for political purposes. But I’m now beginning to wonder, am I only defying one stereotype of women to be caught by another?

    In asserting my own “freedom” from black, is the colour pink as liberating for me in the West as I think it is? The colour pink in relation to the western world has a very narrow prescription for women, a hyper-feminisation that limits them to beauty and shopping, or the rather old-fashioned ideas of domesticity.

    These are sold as liberating choices where women can be proud of their femininity and freedom, but do their narrow confines mean that they are just as limiting as the black lens through which Muslim women are seen? Is pink culture just as oppressive and anonymising?

    There has been a recent revival in discussions about what it means to be a postmodern western woman. Are today’s post-feminism women who have greater economic power – in itself a debatable point – and sexual liberation, now confined only to notions of shopping and beauty as markers of success?

    The more we shop, and the more we adhere to standardised depictions of beauty, the better we are told we fulfil our function as women. The mantras that we follow are seemingly liberating, revelling in femininity: “You can never have enough shoes” (really?), and “Because you’re worth it” (so buy this product).

    Shopping and beauty are the two domains in which women are permitted to excel. It creates a strange conformity, with the only individuality that is permitted being in the detail and in the degree of being a woman in this hyper-feminine way. It’s all on the edges: what is your hair like, which brand of shoe do you buy, how big are your breasts.

    Just like the gorgeous and feisty abaya-wearing women of the Gulf, individual expressions of the personality of women and their characteristics as human beings are confined to the fringes.

    This is “pink culture” where Cheryl Cole becomes Britain’s sweetheart through her manufactured perfection, spending £200,000 every year on clothes and beauty; and where the glamour model Katie Price is considered a role model by teenage girls. Price has even just announced a make-up range for children.

    I was given most food for thought while caught in this trap of negotiating my way between contrasting stereotypes of how to be a woman when I came across a campaign called Pink Stinks. The founders say: “We have always wanted to offer girls an alternative to all this ‘princess sparkle make-up body-image popstar fantasy world’.

    “We believe that body image obsession is starting younger and younger, and that the seeds are sown during the pink stage, as young girls are taught the boundaries within which they will grow up, as well as narrow and damaging messages about what it is to be a girl.”

    One of their aims is: “To challenge the ‘culture of pink’ which is based on beauty over brains and to provide an alternative.” Being a woman and having a brain, or being a bit different, demonstrating that as a woman you’ve exercised your own choices are of course threatening. Culture says it is much safer and much more appropriate to stay within the acceptable boundaries of being pink.

    Does my pink headscarf play into this notion of “girliness”? A headscarf and associated modest dress is upsetting and even threatening because it is not typically womanly. How will you know if I’m a “proper” woman, if my feminine assets are hidden away? And worse still, some see the fact that I do not put luscious locks on display as inflammatory, as though it is their right that I display myself as a “proper” woman in the mould that has been cast for me.

    My headscarf is a defiant expression of my choice to reject pink culture, and be a woman on my own terms. A woman who makes her own choice and flaunts it: that’s scary.

    So, perhaps the reason that my pink headscarf feels approachable, acceptable and reassuring is because it re-casts me into an understandable and “safe” depiction of a western woman, focused on being girlie, beautiful and conforming to accepted standards of femininity.

    It is exactly for these same reasons – but in their mirror image – that the Pink Abaya Club is such a dangerous and inflammatory idea. It would be just as elegant, modest and beautiful as the black abaya, but it would step out of the acceptable limits of the expression of womanhood which have been determined by society.

    It is the simple act of a woman choosing for herself a colour that she feels best represents her individuality – whether that is pink, purple, blue, green or yellow – that makes it outside of what is “acceptable” for a woman to wear.

    Whether East or West, Muslim or not, a woman’s personality is limited to being expressed only in the margins. Instead, we should be revelling in the individuality of women, not confining them to a monochromatic choice of either hyper-feminine pink culture, or collective black anonymity.

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  • ‘Love in a Headscarf wows India’ according to Wall Street Journal

    As regular readers of this blog will know, LIAH was launched in India earlier in the summer. After reaching Number 2 in the Bestseller list, itseems the book is being even more widely noticed! The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog ran this story today. Talking of Amaryllis, the imprint of Manjul Publishing that launched with LIAH the story says:

    “The imprint’s been very lucky with its first book, the Indian edition of “Love in a Headscarf: A Muslim Woman’s Search for the One,” a memoir about her arranged marriage by North London-raised writer and blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, which came out here in July.”

    The article also carries a Q&A with the Head of Publishing at Amaryllis who says that they picked the book for the launch title because it is: “a book that would make waves and would connect with readers of all ages […] a sensitive, yet light read that addresses issues that trouble young women not just in India, but all over the world.” and commented on its: “runaway acceptability by the readers.”

    You can read the full article here:

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  • Eid, a time for self-improvement and spiritual renewal

    This article was published in The Times yesterday. Although I celebrated Eid on Friday, some Muslims will have done so on Thursday or today, Saturday. I think of it as a super-sized 3 day celebration.

    Today, millions of Muslims around the world will be rejoicing in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which comes after the month of Ramadan. For the past 30 days, Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food, drink, and all other physical intake, including smoking and sex.

    So it should come as no surprise that the day which immediately follows the end of Ramadan is one of great joy and festivity. There is a simple but intense pleasure in the first breakfast, the fragrance of the first morning cup of coffee after a month of abstention, the sheer delight of taste, texture and liquid on the tongue, the feeling of a filled belly during daylight hours. It is understandably human to delight in these pleasures after the immense control that has been exercised for 30 days.

    The pleasure is intertwined with sadness. Ramadan has past. Gone for another year is a special month that combines an intensity of divine connection with a passionate communal spirit. Hundreds or even thousands of people will have gathered each evening to break their fasts together, to pray together, or simply enjoy a rich and supportive sense of togetherness which we in modern times in particular have lost.

    For 30 days, the pull of the worldly, the carnal and even the mundane was severed, and the lightening of the consumerist load has created a sense of liberation. In this paradigm of Ramadan and the Eid that follows it, it should be noted that Eid is not the last day of the sacred month, but the first day of life after it.

    At first glance Eid is a celebration because of the return to normality and the simple pleasures that have been denied. However, its true worth and festivity is rooted in the fact that those who have risen to the spiritual challenge of Ramadan — to become better people, better connected to the divine — begin their lives cleansed and anew. It might sound paradoxical to one who has not experienced fasting during Ramadan, but although the body feels tired by the end, the spirit feels renewed and invigorated. Islamic tradition indicates that the one who has successfully fasted begins a new and purified life on Eid.

    That is why Eid is marked with the morning prayer, and the mandatory giving of charity, known as ‘zakat ul fitr’. This year, the thoughts of many Muslims will turn to the victims of the floods in Pakistan, no doubt. I suppose “begin as you mean to go on” is an apt description of these rituals.

    In fact, this idea of self-improvement is embedded in the ethos of Eid. Although Eid al-Fitr is one of the two officially marked festival days in the Islamic calendar — the other being the Eid of Hajj — the notion of Eid as a day of celebration has a wider meaning. The Prophet Muhammad talks of Eid as any day on which a human being has been a better person than the day before.

    This year, Eid al-Fitr falls close to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, as well as during the season of “back to school”. All of them celebrate rebirth, renewal and new beginnings. Despite school terms being something of the misty past for me, September still brings a sense of excitement and trepidation of what the future holds. Eid al-Fitr ushers in a similar feeling of anticipation, delight and hope.

    The chance to start again, brand new, with no physical or spiritual burdens, now that is the real celebration of Eid.

    To all readers, Muslim, Jewish, back-to-schoolers or otherwise, joy and blessings to you, or as Muslims will say over the next few days: Eid Mubarak.

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  • Eid Mubarak!

    Whether you are celebrating Eid on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday – may you have a blessed and joyful Eid. As for me, I’ll be donning my glad rags and doing the hugging rounds tomorrow, Friday. But as regular readers will know, my philosophy is to super-size Eid – so it will be a 3 day celebration for me. Eid Mubarak!

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  • Love in a Headscarf: the perfect gift for Eid

    As Ramadan draws to a close, you may be thinking of a unique present for your friends and loved ones.

    Why not consider giving them their very own personalised first edition copy of Love in a Headscarf? (or treating yourself to a copy!)

    Buy a personalised copy now, for just £10.99 plus P&P.

    Love in a Headscarf is the humorous and irreverent memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman, looking for faith and love. Now published and translated globally, the Guardian described it as “irreverent and feminine” and the Daily Mail called it ‘hilarious’, and right now it is the Number 2 bestseller in India.

    Purchase Love in a Headscarf now, and you can have your own personal message written in the book by the author, with a bonus Love in a Headscarf bookmark, beautifully gift wrapped and sent to you or your friend for Eid.

    Buy your exclusive personalised copy now!

    Eid Mubarak!

    Note: Postage only available in the UK at this time. If you’d like your personalised copy sent elsewhere in the world, please send a message through the ‘Get in Touch’ page.
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