Month January

  • Anxieties of a Mum-to-Be

    This is my monthly column published in this month’s EMEL magazine.

    (An update will follow soon!)

    For first-time expectant mothers, the experience is a reflective one; revealing more about womanhood and femininity than one had expected.

    By the time you read this column, I may have some big news for you. I’m expecting my first child. And it’s very possible that by the time this reaches print, the little one will have appeared.

    When I first discovered I was expecting, I felt it was too early to share the news publicly, after all we’re advised to keep things quiet till after the 12 week watershed. After that, I felt different about myself, my body and my future from moment to moment. How would I be able to capture that kind of fluctuation in a static piece of writing?

    I also started to question exactly who or what I am as a woman. I thought I knew the answer, having spent years on life’s journey towards understanding womanhood. And – this sounds very obvious – I was blown away at how much I didn’t know about myself as soon as this new being settled itself inside me. My whole perspective on femininity and womanhood has started to slowly change. And that is before I’ve even given birth.

    As a teenager, one of the Bearded Uncles had imparted his advice to me that a woman would never be complete until she held her child in her arms. I spent the next few days in a rebellious young feminist’s huff. How dare he impose his patriarchal views that a woman could only be complete as a mother! But already, I know that what I have experienced with this new life growing stronger every day inside me is not something that can be conveyed in words.

    It is unbelievable that the body I knew so well had this innate capability to swell and give comfort to a small embryo. As I write this, only three weeks remain till the official due date, and I can feel the baby’s knees, feet and hands as little bumps that already make my heart melt. I can feel its heartbeat and its hiccups. Anyone placing their hands on the curve of my stomach will share some of the sensation, but it is impossible to convey the difficulties as well as the emotions the new being inside me generates. My mother, aunts and friends had described it to me over and over in detail, but now going through it I see that the intensity of it cannot be verbalised. Being the carrier for a new innocent life fills me with awe.

    This responsibility sits on me as both an honour and a burden, and one of the challenges that I have been dealing with is to live up to the hallowed status of motherhood. In the society we live in, women are supposed to be ‘supermums’ who can work and look after children and have it all. Or they must be ‘yummy mummies’ who wipe their children’s snotty noses and look fabulous themselves all the time.

    But equally when constantly faced with Islamic teachings such as “paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother” it is hard not to feel unworthy of the blessings of motherhood. After all, if paradise lies underneath, then the woman must be of a calibre to merit such status. I ask myself if I will be able to live up to such expectations.

    When it comes to the yummy mummy dilemma and the anxieties generated by the seemingly high expectations of motherhood, I have received my answer from the Qur’an. It is in the surah named after Lady Maryam, the mother of Isa, that I find my solace. This surah is recommended for expectant mothers to recite every day to help with pregnancy and delivery.

    The verse that grabs my attention every time I recite the surah is this one which describes Lady Maryam as she goes into labour: “And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She said: ‘Would that I had died before this, and had been forgotten and out of sight’.” (19:23)

    This down-to-earth and realistic approach towards the entry to motherhood that God communicates to men and women gives me confidence. It gives me the confidence that entering the next phase of life is recognisably difficult. It also helps me dispel any cultural myths that motherhood must be all glamour and perfection. But most of all it gives me confidence that I am safe in God’s hands as I become a mother, and that what happens next will be indescribably, amazingly, human.

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  • T minus 4

    Back to the countdown to baby…

    I’ve realised a number of things.

    I’m not good at the daily countdown. I’ve missed two entries. I had so many thoughts but the tingle in my fingers to blog them faded. Perhaps it was a conservation of energy for organisation/relaxation purposes.

    Next, I have no idea what the ‘T’ in ‘T minus’ stands for.

    But best of all, all the ‘urgent’ tasks are complete now and the intense levels of anxiety that things would not be ready have now subsided. The house is organised. The bags are packed, the urgent admin is complete.

    I now make the unofficial and entirely self-certified declaration that I am now on “maternity leave”. Yes, all four days of it.

    Howveer since I write freelance I think this self determination is significant nonetheless. After all, when does a writer/blogger who writes about the world around them ever really stop?

    I do wonder if there is really truly an ‘off’ switch. And even if there is an off, there is the worry that the ‘on’ button might be hard to find or slow to reignite (like those energy saving bulbs).

    I have been off duty since this afternoon and what I have enjoyed the most is this incredible sense of liberation, not just because I’m free to think of myself and baby but from a life perspective too. Suddenly life is organises – no rushing or emergencies. Nothing I must do. My time really is my own and I can direct it how I want to do things that I want to do and I enjoy. It’s a fabulous feeling before a big life change, but I like this sense of lightness and liberation as a general lifestyle. I’m going to see if I can hang onto it.

    Four days to go and I can now think about what happens next instead of coming to a mental standstill when I think past the delivery room.

    I’ve had one overwhelming thought through reading the pregnancy guides, going to classes and absorbing baby knowledge through conversation and Internet surfing, and it’s this… Having a baby seems to be a bit like getting married. All anyone seems to talk about is the big day itself, the preparations and the ups and downs. Almost nobody talks about what happens afterwards, and surely with both a marriage and a baby (admittedly labour is a tough and fraught experience but it is a transition phase) it’s what you do after the day or two days that really counts?

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  • When politics interferes with marriage, it tells us a lot

    This is my weekly column in The National.

    Don’t marry an Arab man: this was the underlying message of a letter written to Jewish women and signed by the wives of 27 rabbis in Israel less than a fortnight ago. The letter added that Jewish women should avoid dating, working alongside and performing their national service with non-Jews.

    Racism can rear its ugly head anywhere, it seems, even in a supposedly modern democracy.

    It’s a small group that wrote the letter, and we should be cautious not to judge the many by the actions of the few. We know, for example, that the violent criminal actions of individual Muslims who perpetuate terrorism do not represent a billion people worldwide.

    However, the letter is not without precedent. It follows another letter, this one from rabbis urging Jews not to sell or rent property to non-Jews. In surveys in Israel about the letters, polls have shown nearly half the population supports the sentiments.

    Last year an Arab Israeli was convicted of raping a Jewish Israeli woman. Even though she had consented to the liaison, when she subsequently realised he was Arab, she had brought the matter to court on the basis she had been deceived and was, therefore, raped even though he had never explicitly claimed to be Jewish.

    It was a first date, and whatever your views on one-night stands, the takeaway message from the case seemed to be that Jewish men engage in consensual sex but Arab men rape.

    The racism in the letters is also deep-rooted. Women are advised that Arab men will use all sorts of tricks to lure them into marriage, changing their names and even being polite. But once the girls are in their evil clutches in their villages, they will suffer “cursings, beatings and humiliation”.

    Some people might find the following comment upsetting, but will the next step be to make Arabs wear yellow crescent-shaped badges in public?

    Initially, these incidents point to discrimination. But there are deeper issues at work here.

    Let’s be clear. I’m not detracting from the serious political and racial implications of this action, given that it comes within a particular political climate. Nor am I justifying its lack of morality: quite the opposite. However, I think we should see what it tells us about the wider issues: even in modern times, why are women used as tools to a particular ideology?

    Whereas women and men were once and, in some instances, still forcibly prevented from marrying someone the family doesn’t approve of, the screws are now applied by appealing to patriotism and nationalism.

    Yet, are those crying racism just as guilty of it in their own lives?

    Last year an Egyptian court ruled that men who marry Israeli women would be stripped of their citizenship, although the cabinet would have discretion on this depending on whether the wife was Arab or Jewish. More than 30,000 Egyptian men are married to Israeli women. The lawyer proposing the ruling said it was meant to protect Egypt’s youths and its national security, and added that the offspring of such couples should be prevented from military service.

    Politics and marriage might seem worlds apart. But these most recent cases suggest that who a society deems acceptable for individuals to marry says a lot more about its social mores and hidden political agenda than we might think.

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  • The last seven days…

    And the mum-to-be’s chill-ih-in.
    No more stressing,
    Just getting relaxed.
    Not long to go now
    But the other side seems so far away

    (can you work out the tune?)

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  • The missing ‘eight days to go’ post

    I ought to have written this yesterday, if I was properly intent on keeping a ten-day countdown to the due date. But on day 9, lots of you gave me fab advice to stop being so anxious and just chill out.

    So I did.

    And you suffered because you were unable to share the mundane details of the 8 days to Baby.

    A quick recap: the curtains for the nursery still haven’t arrived. The inland revenue paperwork continues to be in progress (eta today). The study is more or less filed away, with about 30 minutes more to go. And I went to visit the midwife for my weekly check up.

    Last week’s midwife couldn’t tell which way my baby was facing, despite about 20 minutes of prodding and patting my belly.  “Not sure” she said. Isn’t a midwife’s expertise in knowing about babies? “Might send you for a scan” she grimaced. A scan? A scan?  No wonder the NHS is short of resources. (that’s my grumpy pregnant lady side coming out.) This midwife identified some important milestones. But she had a terrible snotting cold and kept blowing her nose.

    Some thoughts I’ve had: maybe I express more anxiety than I’m actually feeling? Maybe my fingers and mouth run away with anxious words? Anyway, am trying to hold back.

    Maybe life continues pretty much as normal after the baby arrives, except there is a baby to take care of? (as in: i’ll still write emails, I’ll still go shopping, I’ll still chat to my friends n the phone).

    Some nice things that happened: a lovely young woman trained in hospital chaplaincy offered to support me after the birth. Completely spontaneously. How nice is that?

    And I had a very strong image that I was participating in the hajj, standing outside the kaba. I took this as a very positive sign that the birth will be a spiritual journey, a special invitation to participate at an important event. A blessing.

    For those who are not Muslim, the hajj is an occasion where you have your soul purified, and it is a blessing to be part of it.

    For those not into the whole sixth sense thing, well, it was a very positive feeling. It’s going to be tough (hajj is very tough) but good things will come, inshallah.

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  • Only Nine Days

    Where did the whole of today go?

    Mr Inland Revenue boogie man, along with papers that have needed filing for some time – and yet have begun to seriously irk me – have stolen this precious day. When each days is as significant as 10% they seem to fly by.

    I’m trying hard to reduce the anxiety that I’ve been feeling that I ‘won’t get everything done’, by just taking things at the pace at which they demand to be taken. Which is definitely much more relaxing. I feel much more in control. Until I think of EVERYTHING THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

    Some cute things have happened too. I’ve just ordered some beautiful artwork to be printed on canvas and hung in the baby’s room. Hopefully it will be here by Thursday. (Thank you to Lutfi who provided some of the hi-res imagery that I picked out from his collection – just for our baby!)

    A changing table has also arrived to complete the nursery furniture. However, it still remains in its packaging as we’re dreading building it. The previous items have been a DIY challenge to say the least – and no, it’s not us, it’s the poor instructions.

    Some things which were ordered but were delivered incorrectly were taken away today by the nice delivery people – online shopping (and returning) has been a godsend for a fattie waddling pregnant lady like me.

    I also listened to the Qur’anic chapter called ‘Maryam’ today, as I have been doing everyday, recited by the beautiful voice of Mishary Alafasy. So soothing to listen to. Almost eased away the pain of the tax return.

    Tomorrow’s tasks: finish the boring admin, see the midwife, and start getting the house ready for baby. Before we know it we’ll be in my last week. What a journey.

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  • Ten days and counting

    The official countdown to D-day (or should that be ‘b-day’?) has started, and I just have ten days to go.  I definitely don’t feel ready. But as someone pointed out to me over the weekend “you’ve had nine months to prepare,so it’s not really a surprise is it?”

    The baby stuff is nearly ready.  The moses basket is prepped, the clothes are washed (and even ironed!) I’ve a cupboard full of nappies in a variety of sizes and brands. I’ve 300 wet wipes, 100 nappy sacks and six months worth of supply of the things you put in the nappy disposal bin to stop the dirty nappies from stinking up the place.

    The hospital bag 90% packed. The birth plan written (does anyone at the hospital actually read it?). All families have details of the hospital. Several phones, cameras and emergency contact mechanisms are prepared.

    And I’m not ready. Every time I go somewhere I think “next time I do this, there will be a baby, God willing.” Seems a very incomprehensible idea.

    A lovely lovely friend came over to take some ‘bump’ pictures over the weekend, so that’s a tick off the list too.

    What now? Admin. All that stuff that really ought to be done, otherwise will cause problems. You know who you are Mr Inland Revenue. Boo to you.

    And? Writing, writing, writing as much as possible for work.

    And then? Have been nesting for some weeks now, but still have the irrepressible urge to continue tidying/organising/cleaning.

    Only ten days left? Crikey. You all need to start praying for me! (and the little one of course)

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  • When a woman is harassed by men, why the rush to blame her?

    Here’s my weekly column for The National UAE.

    “Hi! How are you? Are you married?” began the e-mail, before adding: “I like you.” Is this proposition a compliment or a cause for concern?

    I receive several of these messages every week from people I don’t know. Men, specifically. Some people say it’s my own fault because my Facebook profile has a picture of me on it.

    Other friends remarked that while they sympathised with me, and even agreed my photo was modest, my continuous stream of marriage and relationship proposals was in their view still “kind of” my fault. The reason they gave was that, at the time, my profile did not specify if I was married or not.

    Why do I have to state either way if I am married or not? I don’t see it as relevant to the subject matter or quality of my public writing.

    “If they know you’re married they will stop sending dubious messages,” they replied.

    So does that mean that sleazy messages to single women are acceptable? I countered. They admitted they weren’t, but told me to be practical and change my status anyway because that’s just how the world works. Women have to put up with seedy realism rather than hold society up to higher standards.

    I did hold on for quite some time to my lofty principle that my marital status was not a public matter, and that such untoward messages shouldn’t be sent to any women at all. And then I decided I had enough unwarranted attention and capitulated, changing my public listing from single to married. And yet the messages still kept coming.

    One proposal was so blatant that I even posted the text anonymously on my personal page expressing shock at receiving such solicitation. And not 10 minutes later, despite the public manner in which I had rejected the proposition, I received yet another proposal. Some found this funny, I found it infuriating. A woman shouldn’t be subjected to harassment in this way.

    I’d had enough. Any further messages would be named and shamed. Such as this one I received: “Hiya i would luv to say hi, luv your eyes … x”

    As a side note to stalkers, please try to improve your spelling. If your messages weren’t creepy enough, your lack of literacy really lets you down.

    My “name and shame” policy generated heated responses, as I included the name of the protagonist next to their text. Some thought I should have ignored the message. But with so many coming through, and no doubt many more women receiving such harassment, shouldn’t we publicly debate this trend?

    Surprisingly, many people felt that it was unethical for me to include the name of the person who sent the message. They counselled me to take the moral high ground and hide the misdemeanour, saying I would be blessed for doing so. But my view is this: if I was walking along the street and a stranger came and whispered such words into my ear, I wouldn’t hide their infraction – I would shout, yell or scream. I would specifically want the public to know the shame that such a person was perpetuating. And I would expect the public to look down on the protagonist and defend me – not the other way around.

    Too often women are seen as being to blame for such behaviour, rather than the fact that they are its victims. Or they are told to brush it off as a bit of fun. Just because it takes place in the virtual world doesn’t make the harassment any less real.

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  • Anatomy of an Islamic Country

    This is my monthly column in the latest edition of EMEL Magazine.

    What do we mean – if anything – when we ask what does an ‘Islamic’ country look like? This is the question that I puzzled over as I sat in a traditional dhow at sunset, sailing down the creek that lies at the heart of old Dubai.

    On one side was the historic area of Bastakiyya, where little houses and minarets populated the water’s edge. As darkness fell, the adhan began to echo from both sides of the creek.  I felt at peace; the call to prayer in stereo around me and the beauty of the reddening sun reflected on the water.

    The UAE is at its core an Arabic nation with Arabic language and the traditional domed mosques with minarets that we think of as typical for an Islamic country. Next door to Saudi Arabia, it lies barely 12 hours by road to Makkah and Madinah. Despite a large expatriate population, which means that many people who live in the Emirates are not actually Muslim, practicalities like halal meat, the observance of Ramadan and national holidays in line with Islamic events are the norm. But does all of this make it Islamic?

    What about Indonesia? Eighty-eight percent of its 237m population is Muslim – which means in absolute terms there are more Indonesian Muslims than all of the Arab Muslims in the world put together. Unlike most of its Arab counterparts, Indonesia’s constitution is democratically based, and in principle at least allows for minorities to have their rights protected and participate fully in the nation’s civic and political life. Yet Indonesians don’t speak Arabic, don’t wear abayas and are comparatively liberal when it comes to women participating in the public domain.

    And what of India? According to the Pew Research Centre, Muslims make up over 13% of the Indian population and 10% of the world’s overall Muslim population. Couple that with India’s vast and powerful Mughal heritage and you have to wonder: if numbers and heritage are important, then surely India is an Islamic country?

    Then we have Turkey – home of the Ottoman empire, and once again held in positive esteem by Muslims as its leaders speak up about Gaza, defend women’s rights to veil and whose government is led by the AK Party – AK being the acronym for Justice and Development – but which has been dubbed an ‘Islamist’ party.

    Is this the list of Islamic countries? Or does 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' mean something else?

    But if we’re looking at size and history as markers of being Islamic, then there is a whole list that qualifies. A few surprising examples might include: China (21 million, early to mid 7th century); Kazakhstan (almost 9m, in the 8th century), and even the USA (6.4m and possibly as early as the 10th century via Spain).

    Clearly, population size, history, Arabic ethnicity and language, or sub-continental origins and even proximity to the Holy Cities go a long way towards shaping our ideas of a country that we consider ‘Islamic.’  But do these criteria still stand when countries that we might consider ‘un-Islamic’ appear to offer more freedom to practice Islam, and that also expound what appear to be Islamic principles. Consider examples such as the welfare state to take care of the poor, or laws to prosecute racial or sexual discrimination.

    So, the answer to our question is not so clear-cut – the idea of a checklist of qualities by which we can identify an ‘Islamic’ country doesn’t appear to hold water in the modern world. And this realisation has profound implications for the oft-repeated phrases of Dar al Islam and Dar al Kufr which are still used to shape Muslim thinking about world affairs. Those phrases relate to a time when religious identity was closely tied to citizenship. But even then, the Muslim empires had populations that were not Muslim but who held significant sway.

    This means we need to think more carefully about glib categorisations of countries and populations as ‘Islamic’ or ‘un-Islamic.’ Today’s world is not so black and white.

    As for my boat ride along the Dubai creek – one thing I realised is that whilst we may want be wistful about a traditional past, what lies beneath is the drive towards a modern multicultural reality. As Muslims, rather than hark back to romantic images of what once was, what we need to address is how to implement Islamic values for the future.

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  • When a doctor’s surgery’s staff member shows no compassion for its elderly patients

    Now that I’m 38 weeks pregnant my husband has been pointing out that he thinks my pregnancy hormones are expressing themselves in my writing as a little bit of grumpiness. Where’s the soft cute tone in my writing, he asks? I think he’s wrong and my hormones are all fine, but nonetheless I find myself writing this new year mini-complaint.

    I popped into my doctor’s surgery this morning to drop off some paperwork. Although the building is new and beautiful, the entrance IMO is poorly designed as you have to walk along a lengthy pathway from the carpark to the main door. As a bumpy-expectant mother it took me about two minutes, and it is uphill as well. Add to this the fact that the rain is pouring down today.

    As I exited the surgery and reached the bottom of the path I met a little old lady who was clearly struggling to climb up the walkway. I returned to the surgery and asked (as I have seen them do this before) if they could send a wheelchair down to assist her as she was really struggling.

    The receptionist said no. No, they couldn’t send a chair to the lady to help her arrive at the surgery. The reason? They didn’t know why she was coming to the clinic. She might be there for one of the other services (all medical by the way) or to use the on-site pharmacy. I pressed upon her that this was a very frail lady and it was pouring with rain and she was finding the walk tough. The poor lady must have been in such difficulty that she had been willing to use me (a bumpy-about-to-pop pregnant woman) as an aid to walking.

    I was shocked at the receptionist’s refusal to send assistance. After all – isn’t the whole point of a health centre/surgery to take care of the patient’s well-being? Wasn’t easing her walk part of that care? The worst part was that she wasn’t even fussed. So the surgery clearly didn’t care, and this woman had no humanity or compassion for an old lady.

    Shame on you.

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