Month February

  • The love story begins at the wedding

    This just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, in response to the question: “What is marriage for?”

    Marriage is a formal written commitment to each other that benefits the couple, the children and society.

    The idea that the reason to get married is to express your love for each other – or worse still to have a good knees-up with your friends – is a modern nonsense. Love is an important part of marriage for sure, but it is not a mandatory prerequisite. After all, real-life marriage is not a Hollywood movie, nor a Cinderella-esque fairytale where the love story ends at the wedding. We’ve got it backwards: the love story begins at the wedding and ought to grow. And it’s here that we seem to have got mixed up as a modern society. The wedding is not the marriage. The wedding is a gateway to marriage, a formalised written commitment.

    Contractual agreements in personal relations are underrated these days. You wouldn’t buy a house or start a job without a contract, but we have romantic notions that a verbal declaration of love is sufficient to entrust our life, heart, emotional and spiritual wellbeing in another person.

    Formal, written, structured agreements do have an impact on individuals.Harriet Baber says security is the main reason for marriage, but her argument is a negative one, giving security against what she sees as the minus points of singledom. But I’m arguing that commitment and contracts encourage a more positive state for the couple – otherwise why put in the effort? There is clarity of expectation and direction. There is a clear understanding of joining together in union. There’s the positive mental attitude that says you’re in it for the long haul – and positive thinking is mighty powerful. Marriage in this sense is for the private good.

    Having structured units with parameters and responsibilities that society recognises is also for the public good – offering stability, respect and boundaries for that relationship. And marriage seems to be a good thing for children, too. Yet we have no training these days in how to initiate and manage relationships (sex yes, relationships no). It’s all Hollywood and Heat magazine.

    Arguments about what marriage is for tend to focus on only one of the three components – the couple, society or children, but the fact is that it’s a little bit of all three. Marriage is a formal written commitment between two people, with clearly spelt out rights and responsibilities on both sides. (That’s the problem with the “expression of love” or “knees up” approach to weddings – instead of focusing on the relationship, it’s all about the party.) These rights and responsibilities are recognised by wider society and enforced either legally or socially. In our culture, one example of these things is usually fidelity. This is usually a clear expectation of both spouses, and wider society is expected to support this. Hence we have the greater (but sadly diminishing) social stigma of having a relationship with someone who is married. Happy, well supported and stable couples mean happier and more stable societies. It’s mutually beneficial.

    This is Cif belief, so I guess we ought to mention religion. Marriage has a central place in religion, and Islam is no exception. So, to cover off the religious aspect, here is what Islam says: that marriage is a divine sign in order that the spouses may find peace and contentment in each other, and that love and mercy has been placed between them. In its essence, marriage is for the benefit of the two people involved, creating a tranquil and loving union. But it’s more than that too: to get married is to complete “half your faith”, it is part of fulfilling the human mandate and achieving spiritual perfection. And only then do we get to procreation as the reason for marriage. Islam is big on clear, solid family structure, and children knowing and respecting who their parents are. And it’s also very firm on parents taking clear responsibility for the upbringing and long-term care of their children.

    A few months ago I was rummaging through the fabulous second-hand bookshop Barter Books in Northumberland, when my eye was caught (as it is want to do, since I am a writer with a fascination for love and marriage) by a dusty tome entitled Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes. Mainly, I love the word “wooing” and wish we would use it more often. I also wish that as a society there was more wooing going on. First published in 1900, the author travelled through various cultures and brings us stories and pictures of how different peoples engage in marriage. (Particularly good is the one on “Wigwamland”.) The one constant she is at pains to point out is that marriage flourishes in all contexts. This abundance of marriage across time and geography is something that should give weight to this question of what marriage is for and its potential benefits.

    More than a hundred years ago, she made an observation that would not be out of place today: “I have found the marriage customs of most peoples strangely alike. And I have found the marriage fact, wedlock itself, almost identical everywhere. […] The highest of all arts is the art of living with others – above all the art of living with those nearest and dearest. How many of our children are ever taught its alphabet?”

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  • If you are a Muslim, what is the strangest thing you have been asked…

    “Why do you shove it down our throats?” yelled the man from the audience.

    I was speaking at the LSE Literary Festival over the weekend on a panel about “Islamophobia and Literature”. It was a Saturday night, and thus the full audience made for an impressive turn out on a fairly heavyweight subject.  We the panellists were a light-hearted bunch though – my book on love, and the others had re-written fairy tales, and a book about a Muslim women’s chat group amongst their other credentials.

    Anyway, back to the heckler.

    “Shove what down whose throats?” I yelled back to him.

    “You lot, you Muslims. Why do you try to shove it down our throats?”

    It was the usual Daily Mail diatribe (“We’re becoming a shariah state, the Moozlims have taken over! We’ve been eliminated from our own country” etc etc.) so I decided to challenge him back for hard evidence, not just rhetoric. “Give me three examples of when someone has shoved it down YOUR throat?” I heckled back.

    He muttered, the wind taken out of his sails, something about ‘Tower Hamlets’ and then grumbled under his breath as though he’d had enough.

    If he had had enough of Muslims and Islam, why on earth had he come on a Saturday night to a literary discussion about Islamophobia, I wondered. A nutty form of masochism? A secret penchant for Muslims?

    It got me thinking… If you are a Muslim, what is the strangest, funniest or most curious thing that you’ve been asked? What could you barely contain your giggles about, but had to answer seriously? Or what did you think ‘How on earth am I supposed to know the answer to that?’

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  • LSE Literary Festival Saturday 19th feb, I will be speaking there

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    Update 25/2/11: you can listen to the podcast here:

    I have been invited to speak at the LSE ‘Space for Thought’ Literary Festival this Saturday on Literature and Islamophobia.

    The event will be held at LSE (London School of Economics) on Saturday 19th Feb from 630pm to 8pm. You can see more about the event and book tickets for free, here:

    The panel will additionally feature two Dutch Muslim writers Şenay Özdemir and Naema Tahir who will comment on the subject from their perspectives of Turkish origin based in the Netherlands.

    Do come along – will be great to see you. Oh, and I’m braving my first outing after baby! (who may well come along with me!)

    Some blurb about the event:

    There are few places in Europe in which the voices of multiculturalism and Islamophobia have clashed more forcefully than in the Netherlands, often in the most dramatic ways. To name just a few, Pim Fortuyn, Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and most recently Geert Wilders have been very much in the international press over the last decade.

    In the UK we are now 14 years on from the publication of the influential Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: a Challenge for us All which sets out an agenda for overcoming social exclusion of British Muslims.

    Fiction writers from Muslim backgrounds have played an important role in the debate about multiculturalism and Islamophobia. We will explore how they see their art as a tool to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue and political discourse about integration.

    Our panel consists of Şenay Özdemir and Naema Tahir, two women Muslim writers from the Netherlands, and Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, a woman Muslim writer from North London, who will talk about what motivates their art as women Muslim writers in respectively the Netherlands and the UK.

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  • Why Valentines is an even bigger problem for the Middle East and Muslims than they think it is

    This column was published in this week’s National, aimed at the audience in the UAE.

    Valentine’s Day will generate high emotions next week – and not just from those in love. Some people will be waiting excitedly to see if they will receive gifts and meals, while others will be angry at the hold that this occasion is gaining in the Middle East. The negativity of the latter focuses around its vulgar commercialism and its celebration of a very fickle interpretation of love. These are complaints that echo around the world.

    But there is an additional criticism that comes from this region: that Valentine’s Day is alien and even contradictory to Middle Eastern culture.

    The myths that a society venerates about love tell us a great deal about its views on this subject. So if Valentine’s Day is alien, what myths tell us about the shape, value and role of love in the Middle East?

    I’ve spent time talking to women in the Gulf exploring which myths and legends they feel most connected to when it comes to love. I offer them a selection of western fairytales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, alongside Middle Eastern tales like that of Layla and Majnun and Scheherazade.

    Much to my surprise, many of the younger women have never heard of the Middle Eastern heroines and align themselves more closely to the western archetypes. This should concern those who put forward the argument that the western notion of love is “alien”. Middle Eastern storytelling and the values it conveys are already being eclipsed in the English-speaking Gulf population. And this is significant because the myths and stories of love at the centre of our society shape our social values and expectations.

    Consider Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which convey an idea of love as something passive for women, waiting to be liberated by princes who judge them for how they look rather than who they are. This looks-based love conquers all, including social and geographic barriers.

    By contrast, in Scheherazade, love is not mentioned; Scheherazade is a story of the social consequences of a woman’s infidelity, but also the power of the supposedly softer woman’s skills of guile and intelligence. In Layla and Majnun love is seen as the downfall of the two characters. Instead, the story of Layla and Majnun puts forward a model of family duty, and a warning that stepping outside of family convention can have catastrophic outcomes.

    Somehow, neither model of love seems to fit the aspirations of young Middle Eastern women. Where family duty or cleverness was once used to determine a woman’s destiny, today’s woman does want love, and also wants a more individual say in who she marries. However, Middle Eastern discourse does not appear to allow women to talk of love, which is why the western stories – including Valentine’s Day – have captured imaginations: they finally offer an outlet to talk about love publicly. This is despite the fact that the model of love put forward by such stories is problematic, based on superficiality, instant gratification and the need to be constantly high by “being in love”.

    Those who argue that Valentine’s Day and western ideals of love are “alien” to the Middle East must offer an alternative model that captures this aspiration for “love”. And this has to start by talking of love publicly. If this doesn’t happen, then the superficial saccharine kind of love will come to occupy centre stage in the discussion, because it will be the only kind of love talked about openly, and to which people can aspire. And human beings will always gravitate to some form of love than no love at all.

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  • Baby news! It’s a girl…

    The silence on the blog for the last few weeks may have alerted you to some fabulous news – Baby has Arrived!

    courtesy of

    My little girl is more than three weeks old now, and I’m amazed how the days have flown by in a blur. She’s a sweetheart, a tiny little person that has arrived in my life and taken a firm hold. Life Before Baby is now forgotten!

    Many people have been asking her name, so I can now reveal that she is called: “Hana”, and here is why…

    Hana is mentioned in Islamic as well as Biblical tradition, and is the mother of Maryam (Mary), the mother of Isa (Jesus). Hana is mentioned in the Qur’an, although not directly by name, but by her title “the wife of Imran.” The Qur’an describes how Hana vowed that if she had a child she would dedicate it to live and serve in the temple. But when the child was born, it was of course a girl – Maryam. And at that time, only men were permitted into the temple. Hana says “God, it is a girl”, sounding surprised, but I feel she wanted to draw public attention to the fact that women are also chosen to participate in the public and religious domains. We hope the name Hana will inspire our daughter to participate with full heart and joy in the civic space, and to know that her talents and spirit will be a positive force whatever she chooses to do.

    Please do say a prayer for the little one…

    By the way, anyone have one of these I could borrow?

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