Month December

  • It’s Christmas! Let’s make bonds through celebrations

    This is my weekly column for The National UAE, published today.

    I used to love singing Christmas carols, even though I’m a Muslim. As a young child at primary school, we were handed out special booklets once a year and together sang rousing carols that had been passed down over centuries. I loved Silent Night in particular, with its elegant melody and soothing tones. And also because it had no words in it that contradicted my religion as a Muslim.

    I had to be more careful with the carol Away in a Manger. As the whole school sang the words the little Lord Jesus, I changed them under my breath to “the little baby Jesus”so I would still be in synch with the Islamic view of Jesus’s importance as a prophet. And in the carol O Come all Ye Faithful, I changed the words “Christ the Lord” to “Allah the Lord”. No harm done, eh?

    I didn’t mean any disrespect to my Christian friends, I simply loved the togetherness of the singing and wanted to be part of it, but not compromise my religion.

    Although I was only seven, I can see now my efforts were an attempt to connect my own place in the world with a wider universal experience.

    We live in a world where our social circle increasingly consists of people from different backgrounds. Secret attempts to adjust the words of Christmas carols is probably not the adult way to connect with others, but attempting to find the common points in our experiences and world views does become ever more important.


    For example, for the past few years, the Islamic celebration of Eid al Adha, the festival marking the Haj, has fallen close in timing to Christmas. And this year, two festivals of light, Hanukkah and Diwali, fell close by, too. Much the same tinsel, streamers and wrapping paper can be used in the exchange of gifts, whatever your religious position. But more significantly, lessons of common human experience and morality can also be shared.

    As someone who has grown up celebrating Eid, but totally immersed in Christmas culture by virtue of living in a Christmas-celebrating environment, I can see more similarities than people might expect. Both festivals mark individuals of great standing in the Abrahamic faiths – Jesus and Abraham. Both allude to a spirit of sacrifice (although with all the shopping and indulgence we may be inclined to forget this). Both have become a time of sharing and family, and remembering people less well off than ourselves.

    Am I painting a cuddly, loving picture of interfaith and intercultural harmony? Yes. And why not? If religious and even secular celebrations teach us anything, it’s to share our love and promote togetherness in the hope of living better lives.

    Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world are celebrating today. It’s true that some people have turned it into an excuse for consumption and gluttony, spending profligately on presents, food, clothes and partying. But let’s also remember that, for many people across the world, Christmas is a time of pious devotion, the gathering of family, or simply a much-needed rest from the chaos of overly busy lives.

    As a child, I found something to connect to in the Christmas carols by making some slight alterations. As an adult, I have found the connections in the similarities with my faith. For all those celebrating Christmas, let us rejoice with those who find their own meaning in the message of today.

    continue reading
  • The Trouble with Marriage

    My monthly column for EMEL magazine.

    Marriage is a topic which is difficult to discuss, and in which to create change for Muslims. No wonder, since it comes with heavy religious weight and touches on almost every aspect of life.

    Image by way of

    Most young people aspire to a mutually fulfilling relationship in marriage, but this can sometimes take longer than they might like and throw up significant challenges. The lack of community standing for unmarried individuals is one such challenge. The unmarried are seen as children yet to acquire maturity. This is evidenced in simple words such as the reference to the unmarried as ‘the boy’ and ‘the girl’ rather than as grown men and women.

    In particular, a woman in many Muslim communities only seems to acquire social standing after her marriage. She is advised that she will be given her freedoms once she has arrived in her husband’s home and becomes her husband’s responsibility. Single women must remain cautious of what they say and do because any unrestrained word or action will affect their marriage prospects. It’s almost as though she isn’t a real person if she’s unmarried.

    But just because “marriage is half your faith,” does not make an unmarried individual half a person. An increasing point of contention is how much choice the man or woman has in selecting their future spouse, and how much is done under the direction of their parents. It is a false dichotomy with which many families pressurise their children: that you may choose your own spouse or be loyal to your parents and culture. Of course, advice, encouragement and support from parents is invaluable – but ultimately the decision must rest with the individuals concerned.

    The problem is that marriage is often seen as a cultural activity, and so cultural factors become more significant than religious directives. It’s about picking the ‘right’ family or the ‘right’ caste (didn’t Islam do away with castes?); the ‘right’ job or the ‘right’ wealth. Or it’s about picking someone from ‘back home’ as the ‘right’ thing to do – to find a more compliant wife; to transport the extended family over to Britain; or to ensure that undue pressure can be exerted in internal family matters. For many years, the blame for challenges to the marriage process was laid at the door of parents and families. And the issues above (by no means an exhaustive list) continue to persist.

    However, new challenges are beginning to emerge which need to be openly discussed in order to find solutions. Despite the pressure to marry ‘within’ the culture, traditional networks of extended families and matchmakers are breaking down, unable to connect prospective spouses who are a good match for each other. So where to go to look for ‘The One’? New arenas are opening up – such as online matrimonial sites, speed dating, or marriage events. These are good opportunities, but are complicated to navigate and have plenty of pitfalls for the uninitiated. Speed dating is a particularly thorny one – how can you possibly get past the superficial layer of knowing someone in a mere three minutes? And internet sites can be just as perilous, with caution being required when dealing with unknown and distant parties.

    By far the most challenging is managing the expectations of the two individuals, and ensuring men and women have an understanding of the other so that a relationship can be properly constructed. It is worrying how often complaints are levied that “women are only looking for a big bank balance” and “men are only after a pretty doll.” Laughable though these may seem, such misleading expectations range from the superficial to much deeper differences in attitudes about what a marital relationship should entail. And these differences are rarely discussed until it’s too late.

    With all the emphasis on family, culture and social conformity, what is forgotten is to nurture the new relationship that is being formed.  The wedding becomes the big event instead of the marriage. We need to reverse this situation.

    Marriage lessons, or pre-marital counselling, ought to be a must for the couple – and for both sets of in-laws too. Perhaps those conducting nikahs should insist on such lessons before agreeing to perform the religious rites – thereby investing in the long term durability of the marriage.

    If we want to reverse the tide of difficulties in the spouse selection process, and to stem the rising divorce rate, then we need to identify the underlying problems. And we need to do that very difficult thing: recognise the problems and create change in our cultures and attitudes.

    continue reading
  • Snowman theft more significant than it appears

    My weekly column in The National UAE was published yesterday.

    As soon as the UK enjoys a light fluttering of snow, ordinary life comes to a standstill. In the past few weeks, winter has brought more of the white stuff than was expected, and cars, roads and deliveries seemed incapable of functioning.

    There was nothing on the news except TV reporters dressed in unattractive windbreakers stationed next to snow drifts in obscure locations. It seems that it’s not just the roads that the snow brings to a halt, but common sense as well.

    The emergency number 999 recorded the following call to the police.

    “There’s been a theft from outside my house,” said a distressed woman.

    When the emergency telephone operative asked her when the incident occurred she responded: “I’m not sure exactly; I ain’t been out to check on him for five hours but I went outside for a fag and he’s gone.”

    “Who’s gone?”

    “My snowman. ”

    Confused, the 999 operator asked her if it was an ornament that had gone missing, and the woman answered without irony: “No, a snowman made of snow. I made him myself.”

    The operator was silent, presumably never having dealt with the theft of a snowman.

    The woman went on: “It ain’t a nice road but at the end of the day, you don’t expect someone to nick your snowman, you know what I mean?” True story.

    The audio recording was made public by the police, who called the woman “irresponsible”.

    I’ve listened to it at least 15 times so far, and it is the best source of belly laughs and tension release that I can find. But if you can find a moment between chuckles and after you’ve picked yourself up off the floor, there is something that I find rather charming about the story.

    We ought to find the incident morally wrong – theft. Why should the theft of a snowman be any less meaningful than that of food from a supermarket, or flowers from a garden? If it’s the fleeting nature of snowmen that makes the story so funny, then all these items are equally perishable.

    Is this woman silly in her distress over her loss because of the childish nature of a snowman? But she had built it with her own hands, and created a work of art. Perhaps it wasn’t a very good one, but why shouldn’t it be protected? And the woman’s bewildered innocence seems underlined by the fact that her creation was made of snow – something that we think of as pure and innocent in its own right, something that stands as a moment of beauty and purity in opposition to the grimy, gritty world that lies underneath and that we can forget about, if only for a few days or a few minutes.

    Our instinct is to laugh at the caller for her stupidity in reporting the theft of something valueless that will disappear anyway – like a snowman. Perhaps our giggles are more bitter than we might think, however. We’re laughing more at the woman’s innocence and optimism that purity and childhood innocence can triumph in the face of a world that is too often disappointing, and full of hard knocks.

    When we lose hope that innocence and joy can prevail, and we no longer value the worth of our contributions, then, dear readers, that is the cause for communal emergency. Just don’t call the police to report our loss, or you may find yourself broadcast on primetime television.

    Listen to the recording of the call here:

    continue reading
  • WikiLeaks proves that the whole world loves to gossip

    This is my weekly column for The National, published over the weekend.

    This week’s big story was the publication and aftermath of the leaked US cables by WikiLeaks.

    Yes, we’re interested because we get to see the inner workings of the US machinery of state in its uncensored form. We’re avidly eating popcorn as the Hillary Clinton saga unfolds as she calls for China to be more open about sharing state information and embracing the internet whilst at the same time advocating “aggressive steps” against those at WikiLeaks.

    image via

    But what we secretly love is the utterly trivial gossip that even high-level diplomats exchange.

    North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was described as a “flabby old chap”, Colonel Gaddafi’s long-time Ukranian nurse is a “voluptuous blonde” and Russia’s Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev were described as the double act “Batman and Robin”. Partying makes Berlusconi tired (we learnt separately of his “bunga bunga” parties) and Turkmenistan’s president wanted a yacht as big as that of the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, but he couldn’t have one, as it would have been too big for the waters he sails in. My favourite story, though, is the one of Sarkozy chasing a rabbit around the office. And no, that isn’t a euphemism for anything.

    See – now you’re interested, aren’t you? You’re going to go and tell your colleagues, friends and families about the rabbit story. You’re probably Googling it as you read this.

    We shouldn’t be horrified that US diplomats are engaging in this sort of secret office activity under the banner of classified information – please admit it, the rest of us are just as guilty. For us it is Monday-morning banter by the coffee machine, for those political animals it is all hi-tech cables and online memos.

    Ooh, those naughty juvenile diplomats with deplorable moral standards, is what journalists as well as ordinary folk have been saying, before turning to the unbelievable thing that Sara wore at the office do, or the unfortunate turn of phrase that your colleague used in a meeting with the company’s biggest client. The only thing is, none of us expect to have our confidential opinions put on such public display, otherwise we too would be a lot more careful.

    The question is, where is the line between the useful information that you need to exchange in order to do your job, and the superfluous details that we like to share in order to dish the dirt? The former makes you successful in your career, the latter makes you into a Bad Person.

    There is a gender dimension to this as well. We say that women gossip, while men engage in “networking”, “bonding” or perhaps even “international diplomacy”. The latter is surely the name for some of the gossipy content of the cables published by WikiLeaks.

    Nicole Hess, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls gossip “informational warfare”.

    And that is exactly what every office worker – from admin staff at your local business all the way up to senior officials at the US state department – is engaged in every day.

    Information has never been so powerful. And with so many unverifiable sources of information production and an even greater number of channels through which to disseminate it, how will we learn to distinguish what is truth and what is malicious rumour? More worryingly, perhaps there are those who don’t want us to know the difference. After all, gossip sticks. You’ll never think of Sarkozy without the image of a rabbit, and in your mind Gaddafi’s voluptuous blonde will always be by his side.

    continue reading
  • Does it matter how women get power?

    I’m posting this belatedly. It’s my weekly column from The National written shortly after the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton was announced.

    The world will have one more princess when Prince William weds Kate Middleton next year. Young girls dream of growing up to be a princess. Even grown women may secretly aspire to the hallowed status of princess in our societies, a status granted for no other reason than who her father or husband is.

    Courtesy of Tricycle Theatre

    Despite the fact that princesses are often seen in simplistic, caricatured Disneyesque terms, I must confess that I still tingle when I’m called “Princess” by my father or my husband, or even my female friends. It makes me feel special, unique and anointed.

    A different part of me, however, is annoyed at the Kate Middletons of the world who marry into power and status and then claim the title of princess, thereby elevating themselves above us mere mortals. What exactly did she do to deserve her revered status?

    Women who marry into princess-type roles – whether into royal families or rich, influential ones – are still trumpeted as powerful women. For example, the Forbes list of 100 most powerful women in the world had Michelle Obama at the top. By contrast, Angela Merkel’s husband isn’t cited as wielding power or influence, nor is Prince Philip.

    Does it really matter how you get to your position of power and influence, or is it what you do with it that is more important? If you ask that question about men in positions of authority, the general answer is that how they got their power does matter. It tells us something about who they are, their motivations and their modus operandi.

    We look down on men who marry into jobs, we expect them to be elected or appointed by merit not connections. And when it comes to experts we want to be sure that advice and consultancy is delivered by those with the greatest knowledge, experience and training, not the husband or son of someone.

    We don’t hold women to such standards. Marriage is seen as an acceptable way to assert social authority and status. The woman need not have any of her own intrinsic merit. The upshot of this attitude is that women are judged less on their talents and more on their families and whether they are married or not. A single woman has lower social standing and respect.

    Of course, once you are in a position of influence, it’s what you do with it that is important. A notable example from the recent press is Aung San Suu Kyi, who carries her father’s mantle for freedom in Burma, now known as Myanmar. The Middle East has plenty of these female advocates, too, including Queen Rania, Sheikha Mozah and Queen Noor. They are out there making a difference.

    For the princesses, queens and first ladies of the world, their power is fleeting and dependent. So let’s not commend their acquisition of it through marriage or by association with their men. What we can and should commend are the activities they proactively engage in to maximise the social good.

    Such women who make the most of their positions to help others and make society better – whether they are found on royal family trees or power lists or whether you come across them in local communities, your extended family or your colleagues at work – these are the women who are the real role models of the world, and the ones we should aspire to be.

    continue reading
  • Is an arranged marriage the answer to my prayers?

    This has just been published On Faith, in the Washington Post.

    “Love just happens” is a romantic notion that has a strong influence on our modern ideas of relationships. Consider some of the myths that inform our views on marriage and love.

    Marriage is Cinderella’s only escape route from domestic drudgery, and then only if she looks attractive and glamorous. No wonder women feel a pressure that marriage will free them from social oppression, and that they must at all times look beautiful. Sleeping Beauty’s liberation is even more frustrating as she must lay passively until the prince comes to free her.

    By contrast, arranged marriages are a pro-active approach to the issue of finding a spouse, where the community, the family and the individual work together to locate someone who will make a good life partner. It’s hard enough to find someone special, why not get as much help as possible? No need to wait helplessly for princes to chop their way through dense forests, or fairy godmothers to magic up sparkly shoes and horse-drawn carriages. Control over the search for that partner who will complete you is returned entirely to you – the individual – and the people who know you best and care about you the most are your cheerleaders – your family, and your close community.

    It is worth digressing for a moment here to point out that the pivot of the arranged marriage process are the two individuals searching to get married. The direction and final choice – whatever the reasons – are theirs alone. Those around the individuals are guided by their choices and desires as to the kind of person that they want. Forced marriages are wrong.

    There’s another worrying subtext to the fairy stories and film fantasies – that the woman is only an adjunct to the man’s success. She only gains status by being attached to him. Even the recent announcement of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton has a hint to it that she has now achieved something – because she is engaged to a Prince, rather than bringing her own merits to the marriage.

    One of the things I describe in my book “Love in a Headscarf,” is the journey to understand the Islamic principles described in the Qur’an that men and women are created from a single soul and that they are made in pairs. They find contentment and love in each other, and an understanding of the Divine through marriage. The analogy of a pair suggests that both the man and the woman are essential to the equation, and both are required to maintain harmony and balance. The woman is not an afterthought.

    We can go a step further and say that the same applies to the way that men and women interact at a wider social level. Only by acting as a pair – where both are valued and integral to the other, after all one half of a pair is useless – can we achieve social harmony. There are two conclusions from this. First, Islam has a strong blueprint for gender relations. This might come as a surprise to many readers, since our news and media coverage is at pains to highlight how oppressed Muslim women are. Yes, it’s true that Muslim women do suffer a great deal, but this is more to do with culture and patriarchy than Islam. What we need is a return to Islam’s original Qur’anic egalitarian notion of gender: that men and women are created from a single soul.

    Second, society has a vested interested in creating and nurturing strong marriages. Again, it is worth noting that under Islamic law if a marriage is coerced then it is not valid at all – it simply never existed. And it might be even more surprising to learn that the marriage contract is initiated by the woman so that it is clear she has engaged in the liaison of her own free will. That simple rules such as these are not observed is a matter of cultural oppression, rather than anything wrong with the arranged marriage system or the Islamic approach to love.

    My own journey to find love was one that was at once hilarious and perilous. That I did it a different way from that you might expect from a modern Western woman — and a feminist of religion at that — makes it an unusual story. But it is one in which you might be surprised to find the universal themes that pervade all of our searches for love: humour, heartbreak and humanity.

    Click here to read an excerpt from Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s new book, “Love in a Headscarf,” a memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman. She was named by The Times newspaper as one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women. You can read more of her writings on her blog at

    continue reading