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Travelogue to Sharjah Book Fair and the UAE

Arriving very early in the morning at Dubai airport, I was welcomed by my hosts in the UAE – the Sharjah International Book Fair – whose representative made me feel like a film star. I was greeted by one of those cute little golf carts that whizzes round airports making an annoying beeping noise (annoying for everyone else, as it says ‘look at me – you have to walk, I’m driving!) to a little lounge where we waited for our paperwork to be done. A gentleman in pristine white dishdasha emerged from the door carrying a bouquet of flowers to welcome me to Sharjah. Julia Roberts step aside! Very curiously, each rose was stamped with the book fair brand.

The Sharjah International Book Fair (or check out the blog here) is in its 29th year, and so is not some ‘new’ cultural bandwagon. Instead, it provides a valuable forum for the reading public, who attend in their hundreds of thousands. In fact, in the first weekend alone, 100,000 visitors were recorded, and 500,000 were estimated for the entire ten day event. Sales topped Dhs.133 million (probably in excess of £25m). In fact, book shopping is so prolific that visitors use a shopping trolley to wheel around their purchases. See this photo taken by the lovely Lisa Dempster who was also attending the fair as a speaker, from Australia.

My invitation to speak at the Book Fair was from Sheikha Bodour, CEO and Founder of Kalimat Publishing House, President of Emirates Publishers Association, Bookworm and Mother of 3. (and daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah – but a feisty firebrand in her own right). Along with inviting me to the book fair itself (I love speaking at book fairs – wonderful places to share ideas and engage with readers), she was kind enough to make time to meet me for a coffee during the fair despite her hectic schedule. I found her extremely personable, creative and visionary. (and no, I’m not sucking up – she really was). I think her leadership in the Fair’s activities will bear great fruit. You can follow her on Twitter. She even signed a copy of her new children’s book for my niece, a colourful and quirky book on girls dressing up with the hijabs from their big sisters and mum’s collection. (and apparently to be published in French. Hurrah!)

The highlight of the visit – and of course it’s main purpose – was to speak to the audience about Love in a Headscarf. It was an excellent opportunity to hear how the themes of love, marriage, identity and self-definition are dealt with in a part of the world which still has a strong

Speaking at Sharjah Book Fair (copyright spirit21)

heritage of community and tribal culture in its recent past. The audience was fabulous, sharing their intimate personal stories of love and marriage. One young Emirati woman told of how she had tried to blog about similar issues but was advised by relatives to stop writing for fear of her reputation. Another lady spoke of her worries of finding a spouse for her child given that she was not a native of the Emirates and did not have a network of contacts. One gentleman (yes! there were men there too – fabulous!) spoke of how parents must set an example in their household to train their sons in particular in how to be good husbands and fathers.  The session was moderated by the fabulous Mujeeb Rahman, aka Jaihoon. His latest book is a travelogue across India comprised entirely of the tweets he sent during the trip. On his site you’ll find some photos of the author session. You can also read some of the other responses to the Author Session here and here. (google translate them!) An extra thanks also to Rupert Bumfrey and his magnificent work for the book fair on Twitter and the Blogosphere, and for his part in my involvement in the fair.

Whilst I was attending the Sharjah International Book Fair, I was fortunate enough to engage in some interviews. There were some fascinating conversations and I’m always intrigued by how journalists in different countries pick out different aspects of my stories.

I think my favourite interview was with Husam Miro of Al Khaleej. It felt more like a philosophical dialogue than a media story. I only wish we had a first language in common so that I could have turned the tables and interviewed him. As I expressed my intrigue and growing fascination with the UAE he asked “have you been introduced to any intellectuals?”. It was an unexpected but very insightful question given the curiosity that I had expressed. And one that no-one before or since had thought to throw my way. (see my article here before my visit to the UAE, asking what secrets people could tell me about the country. I think he had seen it.)

Here is the article as it was published in Al Khaleej.

Meanwhile, the British Embassy in Dubai invited me to a round table with other arty and cultural types to talk about my experiences as a blogger, writer and erstwhile public figure. Somehow after two glasses of coke and a bowl of peanuts, they managed to persuade me to record this cheesy video about my visit to the UAE and the Sharjah Book Fair.

The evening was a real joy as I got to speak in detail about my experiences, my book and to hear intimate and very insightful comments from the attendees. Among them was Hind Mezaina who writes the thought-provoking and inspiring Culturist Blog, as was Mishal Al Gergawi, who is an Emirati columnist who says it how it is. And Isobel Aboulhoul who co-founded the successful bookshop chain Magrudy’s and who is the festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which has very rapidly become a feature of the international literary calendar.  I got a verbal invitation from her to speak at the Festival (Isobel – I will be following that up!), but more than that it was fascinating to hear her own tales of travelling and living in the Gulf. She arrived in 1969 before the UAE even existed – an intriguing story indeed.

And before anyone pipes up in the comments – yes, there is a British Embassy in Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), but in some turn of fate when the Trucial States gained independence from the UK it seems a British Embassy was also retained in Dubai, rather than turning into a Consulate. Go figure. But then I like these historical but somehow pointless quirks.

Perhaps the most challenging and inspiring of the book-related activities I engaged in were a series of visits to schools and universities which cater specifically to young Emirati women. In Abu Dhabi I visited Shohoub School and talked to the 16 year olds. The school was hidden away from the main road, but once inside there is a lively bubbly atmosphere. Although the girls wear the abaya and shela (cloak and scarf) to attend school, once inside they remove both of these since it is an all female environment. They listened wide eyed as I discussed how answering the question ‘Who am I?’ is a critical one to determining one’s place in the world and how to react to it.

A second session was at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, which is another one of these marvellous Gulf universities. Both in the UAE and in Qatar I have seen such places of higher education springing up, offering the best of facilities. I had been invited by the bubbly media committee and was installed in the main lecture theatre. Similar themes of identity came up, but of course the usually undiscussed subjects of love and marriage – topics which I brought to the fore of the discussion – were busily debated.

And then, it was off to Dubai Women’s College, who managed to pack out their main lecture theatre to the brim with young women, who were interested in the same subjects again. My thanks to all the organisers. It’s a real treat to get immediate interaction with Emiratis, particularly young women who are busy setting themselves on the path to create a better future for themselves and their country.  I predict a bright future.

As a change from talking directly to readers, I co-hosted the morning show on Dubai Eye Radio with the very charming and talented Jessica Swann. The two hour phone in show picked up on Love in a Headscarf and talked about arranged and love marriages. The texts and calls came in relentlessly and varied from the downright romantic, to the shocking and gobsmacking. Read about it here in my weekly column. (Love and it’s seeming double standards)

I begin my article: “It’s fine for me to have a ‘love marriage’,” the male caller to the radio show said, “but I won’t accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister.” Do have a read, it was quite an incredible show. Alternatively, you can listen to the podcast here.

With all that book-related activity going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking I didn’t get a chance to travel around the UAE. And you might even think there isn’t much to see in the UAE. You’d be wrong on both counts. In fact, I barely got to see much of the country at all, given how many places there are to visit.

Ajman, UAE, copyright spirit21

One afternoon I popped up to the postcard-pretty Ajman, and watched the gorgeous waves crashing onto the deserted white sandy beaches. ‘Idyllic’ is the only word that came to mind – and only 15 minutes from Sharjah.

Dubai offered a host of marvels – of which many indeed were shopping-related, but many others (of which I only got a brief taste), were not. Of course there were the two amazing malls – Mall of the Emirates (which is the location of Ski Dubai!) and Dubai Mall (home of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, and also home to the remarkably delightful Fountain), both of which were epic in size. With the number of luxury and designer outlets present, I did begin to wonder why Emiratis come to London to do their shopping – everything is available right here with the benefit of a swanky setting and air-conditioning.

I must admit to my embarrassment, my favourite mall of the ones I visited was Al-Wafi, which is constructed in the style of Ancient Egypt, with huge columns and sphinxes outside, and hieroglyphics. It stands next to the Raffles Hotel which is built in the shape of a pyramid. However, downstairs it has a remarkable ’souq’ area, which is built in a surprisingly convincingtraditional souq style, and has the most amazing shops with absolutely stunning abayas. I will be saving my pennies up so that if I get a chance to return I can purchase one of these remarkable creations. That Emiratis think nothing of spending £500 upwards on an abaya for day to day wearing (and that they always look so glamorous) is no unending source of mystery for me.

Best of all in Dubai was visiting old Dubai and observing the cargo port, the workers crossing the creek around which Dubai was originally built and observing the abra stations – the places where the dhows dock at regular intervals along

Abra Station, Dubai, copyright spirit21

the creek to form the water transport network. As a luxury I hired an abra for an hour at sunset to travel along the creek and see old Dubai in the falling light. At sunset the adhan echoed in stereo – literally – as it was called from mosques on both sides. The old area of Bastakiyya lit up with its golden lights, and men sat beneath the bridges to fish during the perfect early evening air. This was the magic of Dubai.

By contrast were the two most epic sights of Abu Dhabi – the Emirates palace hotel which is absolutely enormous. And has this legendary gold vending machine. Not sure what to get friends and family? Running out of time to go shopping? Insert $500 and give them their own gold coin or bar.

And on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is the new Shaikh Zayed mosque. I wasn’t expecting to like it when I arrived, not being very partial to large mosques that are built too far away for daily usage, but the architecture and the decoration is exquisite, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen – fair more organic and lyrical. And the mosque is staffed in a very friendly and gentle manner – unlike my usual experiences of being shouted at for being a woman trying to enter a mosque.

Shaikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, copyright spirit21

My final day was another complete change – this time driving through the glorious deep grey Hajar mountains that form the spine of the eastern flank of the UAE. On the other side is a separate part of Sharjah, and also an enclave of Oman. The eastern coast is much quieter and less developed than the rest of the UAE, and so is more relaxing and has the rugged natural beauty that

Hajar Mountains, UAE, copyright spirit21

contrast with the frenetic metropolis of Dubai. The drive along the coast encompassed Dibba, Khor Fakkan and Kalba, all seemingly untouched in their coastal beauty.

So many things were left unseen. Yas Island (with the F1 track, and Ferrari World), several art galleries, the burgeoning arts scene in Dubai, Jumeira Beach (observed only from afar), several older mosques, a dhow cruise along the coast, a foray into Oman, a visit to the Liwa Oasis… the list goes on.

Despite staying for several days, I felt that I had only just caught a peek of UAE life. If anyone tells you that all there is to the UAE is shopping – don’t believe them. There’s plenty more beneath the surface.


British Muslim women tackling stereotypes head on

This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

London – When it comes to discussing British Muslim women, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we lead a one-dimensional lifestyle: the niqab (face veil)-and-nothing-but-the-niqab. The image of long draping black cloaks and sad-looking eyes comes to mind, and it is part of the discourse of defining Muslim women entirely by what they wear.

On the other hand, there is the danger of painting a “Pollyanna-ish” gloss on the progress that British Muslim women are making by taking the examples of those in the public eye. For example, last month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and arguably one of the most powerful people in the country, has been out in the press – and not because she’s a Muslim woman, but for defending the government’s spending cuts. She’s joined in the media by two female members of parliament in the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, and one of the presenters of the globally popular X Factor’s sister programme, The Xtra Factor.

I created this image about three years ago - since it has been copied and re-used (without my permission, or without crediting Spirit21 I should add!)

It’s good to see the faces of Muslim women as part of the fabric of the nation, not because of the “Muslim woman” label but because of their talents and contributions. Yet this dichotomy of oppressed and hidden versus liberated and public is simplistic as well as untrue.

Most Muslim women’s existence in the UK is not defined by their decision to wear a veil or not, nor is it all glamour at the highest echelons of politics and entertainment. Like most other women, their concerns focus on the ordinary issues of day-to-day life such as education, employment, health and family. But, worryingly, they face additional barriers.

Take the arena of work. According to a 2010 report by the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, only 24 per cent of Muslim women in the UK are employed, and those who have little knowledge of Islam and Muslims are quick to pretend that this is correlated to Islam’s so-called ”oppression” of women by their families.

However, a 2008 report by The Young Foundation that looks at second-generation Muslim women concludes that such “common perceptions about attitudes and barriers are misleading – most women are supported by their families in their decisions to work”, adding that “some of the barriers which affect British Muslim women affect all women, such as gender discrimination, inflexibility, and lack of childcare. But British Muslim women also face additional challenges, including discrimination based on clothing and faith.”

British Muslim women, however, are tackling this head on. We have a generation of Muslim women politicians, community leaders, businesspeople and writers like me. We’re all working hard to change the narrative and create new images, stories and cultures. This will break the gridlock of the too simplistic stereotypes that hold about Muslim women and offer them the freedom and opportunity to define who they are on their own terms.

We must do this by creating a shared vision of a better future.

Take my own example: I set up my blog, Spirit 21, five years ago to provide an outlet for the unheard British Muslim woman’s voice. The BBC referred to it as one of the UK’s most influential Muslim blogs. It is quoted across the breadth of press and I am invited to be one of the voices of Muslim women in the national and international media. As a result I was named one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women.

And my book, Love in a Headscarf, which tells the story of growing up as a British Muslim woman looking for love, is translated globally and sits at the number two spot on the bestseller list in India.

Or consider Jobeda Ali who organised a Cineforum showcasing films from around the world featuring Muslim women. Or Shaista Gohir’s Big Sister website, providing young Muslim girls with female Muslim role models from across the spectrum of professions.

Sarah Joseph, a British Muslim convert set up emel, perhaps the world’s first glossy Muslim lifestyle magazine. And Roohi Hasan is a television news editor and part of the team that set up Channel 5 news, one of the UK’s most popular news programmes. Meanwhile, Professor Maleiha Malik, a barrister and professor of law at the prestigious Kings College London, focuses on discrimination law, minority protection and feminist theory.

With such bright, innovative and motivated Muslim women crossing the frontier of so many disciplines, we must remain optimistic that the simplistic stereotypes will be forgotten and the richness of talent that Muslim women present will be recognised and harnessed.


Can love be measured?

This week, the UK’s prime minister announced the commissioning of a regular “happiness index” of the British population. France, we know, intends to include happiness in its measurement of economic progress and Canadian statisticians already poll wellbeing across the country, though not for official data.

Since an agreed-upon definition of happiness has eluded philosophers and scholars for thousands of years, how on earth can it be indexed or measured?

More intriguing for me, as a writer about love, is whether such an index would measure subjective experiences of romantic, familial and parental love. After all, love is supposed to make us feel happier and more contented. If we have more love, then we should be happier, right?

I don’t know how measuring happiness, let alone love, would work. Love has a certain delicious vagueness about it. For example, when single men and women on the cusp of marriage ask married counterparts how they can ascertain if their intended partner is “The One”, the response is suitably enigmatic: “You just know”.

When it comes to love we accept this lack of clarity as part of its allure, as if knowing its construction would diminish from its magic.

The married will advise that mapping the seemingly daily fluctuations in love-weather are even more elusive. In such cases, the ability to measure love might be helpful if only to create a “Love-ometer” to hang by the front door to warn of the love climate indoors.

Certain activities enhance love for sure – showing concern, helping with chores, making romantic gestures. However, these activities are not a guaranteed recipe to send the Love-ometer mercury upwards. If only love were as exact as stirring together one part housework, one part compliments, one part romance and two parts listening. Instead, love seems to be more like a casserole: you keep putting in all the ingredients, and you hope a tasty love will come out of it. But nothing is for sure.

Despite my reservations about destroying its enigmatic qualities, I must ask if love can be enhanced by science.

Apparently … well, read on.

A study published last month by Stephanie Ortigue, a neuroscientist at Syracuse University in New York state, set out to give some definition and measurement to love. “Love is one of the most important concepts in life. It is not well understood. As a scientist I wanted to bring some rationality to the irrational, and to see if love exists in the brain.” Her conclusion is that it does – in 12 parts of it.

Her findings suggest that not only does love feel good and possibly lessen pain, it also encourages people to continue to forge a bond – partly because they are “chasing the high” of the love-soaked brain. Additionally, the higher areas of the brain are activated to reinforce the fact that love is more than a basic emotion: it involves cognition and complex functions including goal-directed motivation, reward and self-representation.

It’s interesting stuff about the nuts and bolts of love, but for the romantics among us who believe in the intangibility of love and that “love conquers all”, does this really matter?

Ortigue says it does. By knowing which parts of the brain love triggers, she wants to use her results to help those in relationships to better manage them, and those who are depressed or suffering other negative outcomes as a result of relationship break-up to get through their dark times more effectively.

My negativity towards mixing love and science may therefore prove unfounded. Instead of sucking the magic out of love, having science as another way of understanding its mechanism could actually help us improve both the quality and quantity of love that we experience. And if the happiness index can measure that, I’m all for it.


Environmentalist tries to rise from her armchair

I’m belatedly publishing this weekly column from The National UAE.

It is a terrible thing to admit, but I’m going to come clean: although I aspire to be “eco-friendly”, and “green”, I don’t think I’m doing enough about it. And I have a suspicion that I’m not the only one.

image from thinkso.com

We are constantly told how important it is to reverse the tide towards climate change, to reduce our carbon footprint and to ensure we don’t ignore inconvenient truths. Aside from the climate change sceptics, everybody worthily agrees that it’s the right thing to do, but how many of us actually do anything about it?

According to Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group, who conducts annual surveys of consumer attitudes towards environmental issues, consumers like me are “armchair environmentalists”. We can see lots of things other people should do, but don’t want to do much ourselves, unless it’s easy and saves money.

More pertinently for those committed to the cause, people like me who exhibit good intent don’t actually know what the right things to do are, and have little real knowledge – just enough to blag our way through a party.

Please don’t demonise me: I do make small attempts such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, or reducing the amount of water I heat in the kettle to the amount I need. And I’m not alone in my little efforts. According to Current Cost, a UK company manufacturing real-time displays for monitoring domestic electricity usage: 67 per cent of people in the UK claim to always switch off lights when leaving a room, and 80 per cent always wait for a full load before switching on the dishwasher.

But, if I dare to admit it, my efforts are less inspired by climate change, and more by the simple straightforward idea of resource efficiency. It seems sensible to avoid wasting electricity by switching off lights, fully loading dishwashers or combining road trips to reduce overall mileage.

I am also the last of a generation who grew up with the ethos of re-use and repair rather than today’s practice of dispose-and-repurchase. But I’ve been trained out of reuse and repair by the fact that it is often cheaper and much less effort to buy new, along with the fact that having more and newer stuff keeps me “on trend”. Extra disposable income and the need to show off status along with shops bursting with new products are particular culprits of this change in lifestyle.

I think this is especially sad in places such as the Gulf where until 50 years ago people were exceptionally adept at living in harmony with their environment and were efficient in their use of resources. That sensitivity to surroundings has been lost. It’s understandable that with greater wealth people want to escape from their hard, austere life.

But how far in the opposite direction has the pendulum swung? Too far, it seems. In October, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that the UAE had the world’s highest per-capita environmental footprint for the third year in a row. Perhaps the environmental wisdom that still resides with elders needs to be urgently harnessed before it is gone forever.

I wonder also if the financial crisis will actually help the climate crisis. It might give us a greater focus on resource efficiency – to save money and repair goods rather than replace them with newer more expensive ones. And in doing so it might catapult us into doing all the right things to maintain better stewardship of our planet. These may not be the reasons climate change activists want to motivate us, but if it achieves the same goals, does it really matter?


Maybe the Burqa is a red herring?

These remarks were prepared for a Policy Network debate in September at a Labour fringe event. A shortened version was subsequently published in print in EMEL Magazine.

These were my remarks at the Policy Network debate which looked at the issue:

The Left’s Trouble with the Burqa.

When it comes to discussing the burqa, there is almost always one missing constant in the debate: that is the woman herself who wears the burqa.

If, as the opponents of the burqa claim, it is a form of oppression, then it is doubly oppressing that the woman cannot represent herself, and put forward her own views.

So the other possibility is that there are in fact, very few women who wear the burqa, and maybe there are just not enough to go around and speak at the numerous events and media interviews discussing their clothing choices. In fact, in Western Europe there are probably only a handful who wear the burqa – the Afghan style of covering. Those few who do cover their faces wear a niqab, a simple face veil. This might seem a small visual and semantic difference, but it highlights the point that it is the most extreme instance that is used to polarise this debate – a debate which is already about an extremely small group of people in the first place.

Maybe the burqa is a red-herring? A red herring for those who want to return to a homogenised society by claiming that there is too much difference. And as usual it is the women – in this case the Muslim women – who are caught as the scapegoats, and are paying the price.

When it comes to numbers, the Danish government thinks there are 100 – 200 such women who cover their faces. In France it’s somewhere between 367 (a very spookily specific number – what have the secret services been up to to be so exact?) and 2000.  In Sweden, the estimate is around 400, Holland around 100, and in Belgium a paltry 30.

So, why is something so incredibly miniscule in number, size and shape, the source of so much angst?

I think the last time such a small amount of cloth made such a huge social impact was the mini-skirt. Was that controversy also caused because it was another instance of self-determination by women?  And I wonder if that analogy is co-incidental in any way?

That piece of cloth changed the way that women and society looked. And changes in women’s behaviour and clothing have always upset traditionalists.

Perhaps the face-veil is today’s challenge to our vision of how society looks – the most far reaching challenge put forward by the whole enterprise of multiculturalism.

When multiculturalism first set out, it couldn’t be envisaged at that time just how far it would change the way society interacts and the way society physically looks.

By protecting the right of women to dress in the way they choose, under the freedom of religion, some say that multiculturalism has gone too far, because the face covering is a sign of visible difference. I think it is the opposite. Women’s clothing in the 20th century fundamentally signalled a change in social attitudes much deeper than the mini-skirt itself, and was opposed by social conservatives for all that it represented. Today the face-veil engenders the same vitriol because it antagonises the same veins of traditionalism and conformity which constrain people’s freedom. The vitriol is not present because multiculturalism has gone too far. It is present because it has not yet gone far enough.

These are the squeams and squirms of those who do not want society to change in any way, but we just need to ride it out, and in time, society will adjust, just as happened with women’s liberation.

When people say that the face-covering is anti-western, or does not stem from European heritage, I would remind them that women’s covering (we’ll leave men’s covering to a separate discussion) was common till 50 years ago. Even less than a few weeks ago, Cherie Blair was snapped with her hair covered with a black veil during the Pope’s visit. The mini skirt too wasn’t a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ piece of clothing inherited from any kind of European civilisational values. If anything, in earlier eras, Europeans were horrified with seemingly scantily clad heathen women that they found in their imperial travels across the world.

Society adjusted, women determined how they would dress, and our society now accepts it as the status quo.

Back to the face-veil, because everyone loves to talk about it. Well, what do they say?

Covering the face, we are told, is a sign of separation. And yet the stories we hear of British women who do cover their faces are of those who go into Jack Straw’s surgery to engage in the political process with their MP; or the tale of the woman who despite wanting to be part of French society was denied citizenship in France.

Covering the face, it is also said, makes other people feel uncomfortable because those women deliberately look different. Well, I thought we’d understood that it is our own attitudes we need to examine when others look different to us – goths, punks, hoodies, blacks, Asians… the list goes on and on.

Or, the face covering is no good because such women are a security risk, it is said. Don’t know about the last time you were in a bank that was held up by a covered woman? Or mugged by one? Or had one destroy your pension by creating a banking crisis?

The most popular argument from the left is that it is a symbol of oppression. We need to ‘liberate’ these Muslim women from their poor deluded ideals. If they claim to be free in their choice, we tell them that they are brainwashed. And, so we’re full circle back to the oppression of these women  – but this time from the people that claim to be ‘freeing’ them.  The best thing is to respect the agency of such women and the way they choose to dress.

Under this analysis of the meaning behind the veil and multiculturalism’s support for Muslim women to dress as they choose, I am a failure of multiculturalism. This is because I wear a supposed marker of separation on my head. My choice of dress is a representation of how I have been supposedly ‘brainwashed’ into being oppressed, despite the fact that I have a strong education, and my professional opinion is respected in many areas.  I may have a bomb under my headscarf, which of course is a threat to security. Some people, and strangely that is men more often than not, feel uncomfortable with the absence of my hair and my curves from their gaze.  And some feminists in particular accuse me of betraying the sisterhood, and will say that my choice to wear it in this country is a betrayal of those women in countries where they are forced to cover, even whilst I oppose that force, and have actively chosen to cover.

What can I say to you? I’m not a failure. And nor is multiculturalism. I am an active part of our society, working to make it a better place, bringing together different heritages and perspectives. What my presence, and those of these women offers us, is the knowledge that we can live in the kind of society that allows us to be proud of the heritage, cultures and backgrounds that have made each of us what we are on the inside and allows us to express ourselves with tolerance, freedom and mutual respect on the outside.


Love – good for the gander, but not for the goose?

My weekly column in The National UAE was published today. I’d love to hear your thoughts – do leave a comment.

“It’s fine for me to have a ‘love marriage’,” the male caller to the radio show said, “but I won’t accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister.”

I was live on the air last week, co-hosting one of the UAE’s most popular morning radio shows as part of my invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair.

We were discussing the fiery topics of love and marriage. Calls and text messages came through furiously as this usually private topic was given a forum for public debate.

The notion of “love marriage” is one that carries a note of unspoken and sinful rebellion across Middle East and some Asian cultures. The open discussion of love, even within the sacred boundaries of marriage, is taboo – especially for women. But we do need to talk about it because the ability to love – our spouses, our communities and the Divine – is what makes us human and binds us together.

My presence on the show and the publication of my book, Love in a Headscarf, challenge the prevailing silence.

I don’t advocate mass love-ins or the abandonment of the arranged marriage process: quite the opposite. I’m in favour of a structured approach to love and marriage with support and input from families.

Nevertheless, my position on the subject is clear: love is not a four-letter word.

As the hosts of the show, we challenged the caller: “Would you say that your attitude to love and marriage is hypocritical if you can have a love marriage, but your sister can’t?” “Yes,” he responded. “And what are you going to do to change your hypocritical position?” “Nothing. That’s just how it is.”

He was not alone in being unashamed of his double standard when it comes to love and marriage for men and women.

Another caller, male and 36 years old, told us his personal story, which initially tugged at my heartstrings. “I’m a divorced father of three, and I’d like to remarry. I think it’s important to be open with prospective families about my personal situation, but as soon as I tell them these details, they break off all discussions.”

Our societies shouldn’t discriminate against those who are divorced or who already have children, especially when they are honest about their situation. But on delving deeper, we found a murkiness in his position.

“I keep being offered girls who are leftovers,” he whined. Leftovers? These are women we’re talking about.

“I want a girl who is 28, not divorced or with children. I don’t want a leftover girl who is 36,” he said without shame, just minutes after complaining of his own treatment by women.

The hypocrisy of these two male callers was bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that they were not embarrassed by their positions. As men, they saw love as their right and their privilege alone. They would not permit women the same love, the same life choice.

Forceful text messages came through from female listeners. “If these are the men, kill me now!” one wrote. I can only assume she was joking.

But one message raised an issue at the heart of the debate: “We must make it clear that these attitudes are based in culture, not religion.”

To eradicate these double standards, this difference needs to be made abundantly clear. And for this to happen, what we need most is to be able to discuss love and marriage openly and honestly, without fear or shame.


Winning £100m is fantastic, but then what?

This is my weekly column from last week’s The National UAE.

What would you do if you suddenly acquired £113 million (Dh656m)? This was the pressing question that monopolised our coffee meeting this week, sparked by news of the biggest lottery win ever in the UK.

I slurped my cappuccino thoughtfully. This was an important discussion point, because even though I don’t play the lottery, the odds of my winning are surely only very slightly worse than the one in 76 million of those who do play.

If you were to unexpectedly come by £100, you might smile in the knowledge that the universe was looking favourably upon you. With £1,000, you would start thinking about what special treat you might bestow upon yourself and your family.

Up that number to £100,000 and you enter the realm of what people call a “life-changing moment”: paying off debts or ensuring your children got the best school and university education. With that kind of money, you could set off on a world tour, establish a charitable foundation or enjoy the full works for plastic surgery (hey, it’s your money; I’m not judging).

But what would you do if your bank balance suddenly stood at a mind-boggling £100m? Instinctively, I’d hand in my resignation to my boss! But then what?

In our coffee group, we were surprised to find that this simple question is rather revealing about the aspirations and vision that lie at the very core of a person. After all, with £100m in the bank, one’s life choices are no longer driven by necessity, but true inner desire.

First, we all wanted our own “essentials” sorted out: a home, a holiday home and some financial investments. There is something comforting about owning your own bricks and mortar and having some rainy-day back-up in case things go wrong. And add some dream cars and one-off holidays. Oh, and maybe a trip into space (£200,000).

Then, we all wanted to ensure that close family were properly taken care of. One challenging issue that remained unresolved was how to deal with other family members: how much (if anything) do you give relatives further away on the family tree? Could favourite relatives be given more than others, or would they discuss your largesse with each other and feud?

Then it gets interesting with your remaining £80 million or so. What do you do now? And what does it say about you?

I always envisaged my dream life on the stunning shoreline from the final scene ofThe Shawshank Redemption, where the azure sea and golden sand stretch into the horizon with nothing but a boat and you in the picture. That beauty and tranquility – with no financial worries – would be infinite, leaving time for sensual and paradisal pleasure along with time for inner contemplation.

Others shook their head in despair at my yearning for such sun-kissed, peaceful pleasures of heaven on earth. They said getting £100m was time to “get involved” and “make a difference”. It was time to establish charities and schools, open think tanks, buy newspapers, reduce poverty, or offer university scholarships.

Financial freedom in this scenario was a means to do more work not less. The difference: this “work” had meaning and purpose that was bigger than ourselves. This “work” was the expression of what was important to our inner being.

Thinking about what to do with one’s hypothetical wealth is an experiment to find out who we really are underneath the constraints of daily life and struggle. Ask your spouse, friends and family and see what they say. What you learn about them may surprise you.

Of course, if anyone wants to test this experiment and give me £100million, please don’t be shy. It’s a worthwhile cause.