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How we create the stories that shape the lives and futures of our babies

Another column I’m posting a little belatedly from my weekly ‘Her Say‘ column in The National.

On the top shelf of an old cupboard in my parents’ spare room is a collection of aged, fraying bags that hold the memories of our family. I have to stand on a stool and stretch into the cupboard’s dark corners, feeling my way with my fingertips to grasp the tatty plastic filled with decades of old photographs.

As the winter holidays approach, nostalgia percolates the family conversations, and inevitably someone will wonder about a distant relative, a half-forgotten baby photo, or a snap from a wedding. I will fly upstairs to retrieve the bags, returning triumphantly to the conversation and spilling out our collective memory across the carpet.

We’ve seen the photos a hundred times, but each one elicits a gasp of excitement, as though greeting the old relatives themselves. “Look, it’s granny! She’s so pretty.” “This is me when I was younger. I’ve become so old!” “Here you are at your graduation!”

The most exciting pictures are in black and white, fragments of an earlier time when photographs were rare, usually formal, marking special occasions. “This one,” says my mother, “was sent by your uncle after he proposed to your aunt”. He looks like Cary Grant. “And this,” she carries on, pointing to a grainy picture “is my grandfather”. He is serious, almost stern.

Our family archive lives on in these four bags. Everything else is lost and therefore forgotten. What remains defines what came before us, and therefore what we are now. The camera has preserved and thus shaped our family history.

This was on my mind this week as I faced up to the growing mountain of photographs of my baby. Although not even a year old, I already possess more than 5,000 pictures of her.

I have been creating a photobook for her. Websites offer software in the format of a book, which you populate with your own choice of photographs, in any layout and with any captions you choose. Once completed, the online creation is sent to be printed, arriving a few days later in the form of a glossy publication like a coffee-table book, entirely to your specification. At the cost of about $40, it is a modern marvel. Your photographs become official. Viewing them becomes slick and manicured. Family and friends flick easily through the edited highlights, enjoying the best moments, avoiding polite boredom.

I spent hours, probably days, selecting pictures to chart Baby’s progress from tiny newborn through each of her milestones. I decided who would feature in her life story. I selected which pictures would make the cut, and therefore how she would be remembered.

My editorial process says as much about me as her. It reveals how I wish her to be seen. I am conscious that how we describe babies affects others’ perceptions of her for many years, even a lifetime. After all, what will remain after our memories have faded are these photographs. We will continue to discuss the photobook in the same way as the fragments of my parents’ haphazard photo collection. But this time, I’ve already consciously shaped the story and the collective memory.

The pleasurable act of photography is in fact a weighty responsibility. By creating her earliest account I have shaped how she begins her own story. In doing so I have shaped how she will carry on the family history, mine included.


High heels tell us more about economics and politics than fashion

This is one of my weekly columns for The National, posted here a little belatedly, but written the week the Turkish president came to the UK.

First the feet emerged, covered in light grey leather ankle boots, with heels as long and thin as needles. Then the legs draped in a grey skirt. And eventually she came into view, towering above the pavement in her unexpected stilettos. This wasn’t Angelina Jolie, nor a Bond girl, but the wife of the president of Turkey, on a visit to the UK with her husband, to meet Her Majesty.

The Queen, ever the symbol of restraint and decorum in a world that has become excessively overt in its expression, was clearly shocked. Even the paparazzi managed to capture her gobsmacked on film. Behind one’s frown one was wondering if it was a cackle of hilarity that was being suppressed, or a grimace of horror. Her Majesty has seen everything but the six-inch futuristic spikes shocked even her.

President Gul’s visit is important to both Britain and Turkey, who are looking to strengthen their relations. Turkey is a rising power and one of the world’s economies bucking the trend of the current financial crisis. Turkey is a friend Britain wants to have. So it is hard to know if the British media coverage of the shocking heels will help or hinder diplomacy. Hairunnisa Gul is more usually controversial for wearing her headscarf in her capacity as wife of the president, something that has outraged Turkey’s hardline secularists. It is a welcome change – perhaps a calculated one – to divert attention to her feet.

The British press rather like the shoes of high- profile women. Last year Sheikha Mozah, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, captured the attention of the print media with her fur boots with “icicle” heels. Her shoes were a hit and marked her out as a leading lady to watch.

Leading British ladies are wearing more demure footwear. The Queen of course has her conservative pumps. Earlier this summer, Theresa May MP, one of Britain’s most senior female politicians, was splashed all over the press after mis-telling a story about a man supposedly granted leave to stay in Britain because he owned a cat. She made great media fodder because the shoes she was wearing that day were cute little leopard skin kitten heels.

Research released this week by IBM suggests that the height of women’s heels can tell us something about the state of the economy. It is a bit like the Hemline Index, which was proposed in 1926 by George Taylor. It suggested that women’s hemlines go up in boom times, and down in recession. The inverse relationship applies to heels.

According to the IBM expert: “Usually, in an economic downturn, heels go up and stay up – as consumers turn to more flamboyant fashions as a means of fantasy and escape.” Their research analysed social media discussions about heel heights. Contrary to expectations they found that heel height is about to go down. “This time, something different is happening – perhaps a mood of long-term austerity is evolving among consumers sparking a desire to reduce ostentation in everyday settings.”

The fact that the leading ladies of Turkey and Qatar are wearing eye-popping heels tells us something important not about fashion, but about a new world order. For the second year in a row, Qatar is the world’s fastest-growing economy. Turkey is one of the Next 11, and growing in stature politically. On the other hand, Britain’s Queen along with Theresa May are wearing low pumps, and barely there kitten heels. Only time will tell which theory of heel height will prove true, and who is living in reality, and who is escaping into fantasy.


Looking back at some of the women who made 2011

Here’s this week’s column from The National

courtesy ywcacassclay

What a year for the women of the world!

For those fed on a Disney diet, there was the chance to live the dream of becoming a princess. Enter Kate Middleton, who married Prince William and may be Queen some day.

For those with economic dreams, Christine Lagarde became the first female managing director of the IMF. And for those with political leanings, Angela Merkel has taken an increasingly central role in Europe.

For peacemakers, the three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize offered inspiration: Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, and Yemeni campaigner Tawakkol Karman.

And another activist in the year’s phenomenal change was Asma Mahfouz, whose powerful YouTube video paved the way for Egypt’s revolution.

Of course, handbags and shoes still grab the headlines. The spiky heels of the Turkish president’s wife, Hayrunnisa Gul. won her a reputation for outrageous shoes wherever she goes.

Pakistan appointed its first female foreign minister (hurrah!). Despite her competence, on a trip to India it was her fashion sense and Birkin handbag that won plaudits.

But was it all shoes and handbags? Of course not. Incredible ordinary women through simple but profound actions have taken a stand for women’s rights. Farzana Yasmin put her foot down against the illegal dowry system that remains culturally entrenched in Bangladesh and often results in enormous family debt, as well as abuse and even death of wives.

When the groom’s family demanded “gifts” barely hours into the marriage, Yasmin demanded a divorce.

Manal Al Sharif was at the forefront of the Saudi women’s campaign to secure the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. It’s a daily activity we take for granted elsewhere.

There were women who got it spectacularly wrong. A failed Kuwaiti MP, Salwa Al Mutairi, suggested men should be allowed to have sex slaves (er, no) and that Chechnya was a great place to recruit them (I can’t even begin to explain how wrong that is).

A Malaysian group of women set up the Obedient Wives Club with the ethos that if men strayed it was the wife’s fault for failing in their conjugal duties. And don’t get me started on the 27 wives of Israeli rabbis who warned Jewish women to avoid Arab men because they would use all sorts of tricks to lure them into marriage, changing their names and even being polite, but once the girls were in their evil clutches in their villages, they would suffer “cursings, beatings and humiliation”.

There were men who got it wrong, too. In Bangladesh a husband chopped the fingers off his wife because she enrolled in a college for higher education. The woman is to be admired: she says she is practising writing with her left hand so she can continue her studies. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy was another, introducing the ban on the niqab in France, as did the Belgium prime minister, Yves Leterme.

How could I possibly include all the women who filled our headlines over the past 12 months, for their bravery and impact? I can’t. But I offer my respect to them, and express my joy that the march towards a fairer, more respectful society for women might be slow, but the march does continue.


“All-American Muslim” – here is the parody

You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the reality TV show “All-American Muslim”. The Florida Family Association is campaigning against it because it’s too ordinary, and various advertisers are pulling their spots. What other option is there but to just laugh at the absolute ridiculousness of their position?

In my weekly column in The National, it’s time for some fun to imagine the show that the FFA really want to see…

When it comes to reality television, most right-thinking people wish it would disappear into oblivion. But the actions of the little-known extremist group, Florida Family Association (FFA), are having the opposite effect. In response to the series following the lives of five ordinary American Muslim families going about their ordinary lives, it has declared: “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.” As a result, Lowe’s hardware store pulled their adverts from the show.

The problem, the FFA says, is that the show “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks, while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish”. It’s all too dull. Instead, what they want is more suicide bombers, virulent niqabis and Sharia-takeover plots. And they want it in reality TV format. Now that’s a show I’d like to watch …

The programme opens with a woman dressed all in black, face covered, holding a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, turned to the “How to make a bomb” page. (FFA’s Muslim checklist: preparation to blow up the US, check.)

The camera zooms in on her face-veil. Suddenly we hear in an Arabic accent: “Sharia Sharia, jihad, jihad” (face-veiled woman, check; spewing Sharia and jihad, check; “scary” accent, check).

Six children play with dynamite (Muslim takeover by stealth through population growth, check).

“This is Sara Valin,” says the voice-over (a pun on “veiling” but rhymes with Palin, geddit?).

“In the garden, Accchhmed (the pantomime pronunciation of Ahmed) compares beard-lengths with some beardy friends.” Ahmed strokes his copious facial hair like the Bond villain strokes his cat (world domination intent, check).

Next door at the mosque, a group of young men record a suicide bomber video. They are having trouble making the camera work. “Told him to buy the warranty,” mutters one. “But he was too tight. Typical immigrant. Saving to import a wife.”

The cameras follow Sara Valin to a Chai Party meeting. Outside flags with the words “death to America” flutter in the wind. Sara drags a 10 kilogram bag of fertiliser behind her. A woman with a “Sharia4USA” badge opens the door. “Fertiliser is Buy One Get One Free at Lowe’s,” remarks Sara.

The Chai Party meeting begins by discussing strategies to destroy America, how to make all turkeys halal and whether having a Muslim Miss America wearing a bikini was a clever tactic.

“First order of business: the programme Friends. It shows only ordinary Americans and is clearly propaganda for the USA. Friends does not represent America properly and so we must complain. There are no crack addicts, no soldiers abusing their prisoners, no Tim McVeigh character, and not even a hint of political sex scandal!”

Cut to commercial break sponsored by Lowe’s.

Such a programme could save the FBI hundreds of millions of dollars in security and surveillance. After all, no need to hunt out prospective bombers. All they’d have to do is turn on the TV and watch “reality”; well, the kind of reality that only warped and bigoted minds constantly inhabit. How sad for them to live in a world they are trying to fill with so much hatred.


Brand Courage and the American Muslim consumer

The Arab Spring is opening a new frontier for brands, but American marketers may want to look a little closer to home. Ogilvy Noor’s Shelina Janmohamed reports that engaging America’s 7 million Muslims takes courage, but pays dividends.

Twelve months ago American Muslims were fired up with optimism that the moment had come for U.S. brands to embrace them.

In a struggling market, 7 million Muslim consumers with an estimated spending power of more than $170 billion seemed to have come of age at the very moment when brands were in greater need than ever of new growth opportunities.

But 12 months later brands still appear ambivalent despite the open arms with which Muslim consumers are inviting them in. So why are brands hesitant to commit themselves to serving this powerful demographic?

It’s been a tumultuous year. The controversy over the mis-named “Ground Zero” mosque grabbed headlines around the world. Media-baiting Pastor Jones threatened to burn the Qur’an. Osama Bin Laden was killed. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 came and went.

And then the Arab Spring turned the Middle East upside down, igniting fears that Islamic governments with hostilities toward the West might sweep to power.

With this political backdrop you can hardly blame brands for being nervous about speaking publicly to Muslims and welcoming them into the bosom of their marketing strategy.

Friends in need

Despite the events of the past year, American Muslims continue to remain optimistic about their place in American society.

In a Gallup poll released in August of this year 60 percent of American Muslims said they are “thriving.” Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center which published the report, added that Muslims “feel a greater sense of belonging in their country” than they did in 2008.

What this means is that brands need to demonstrate commitment to the idea that that the Muslim consumer market is valuable. Muslim consumers recognize the political climate within which brands are operating, and appreciate them sticking their necks out. The response is loyalty, pride and collective endorsement. Friends in a time of need are not forgotten.

All-American Muslim

The “Happy Eid Al-Adha” image on a Best Buy flyer sparked controversy, but ultimately won customers. Image courtesy of TechCrunch

Last year, U.S. consumer electronics retailer Best Buy prompted a backlash when it referenced the Muslim festival of Eid in a holiday flyer. Best Buy stood by its decision, winning the support of Muslim consumers in the process.

This year’s marketing campaign by health food supermarket chain Whole Foods to promote Saffron Road halal foods during the month of Ramadan also faced criticism. They too held firm, sales went up 300 percent and Whole Foods acquired a new segment of customers.

Just last month, TV channel TLC began airing an eight-part series calledAll-American Muslim, which follows the lives of five American Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan. The pilot episode pulled the second-highest ratings of the station’s reality TV shows, beaten only by Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Predictably, the show has stirred controversy but TLC has kept it on the air and it continues to gain ratings. From a brand perspective this kind of courage is proof that addressing Muslims can and does pay off, and that mainstream America is ready and willing to watch.

But other Muslim-centric content has fallen foul of the political climate. A new superhero cartoon series called The 99, based on the Islamic idea of God having 99 attributes, was bought by a mainstream American channel. With the inflamed political backdrop, the channel has shelved it indefinitely. This is a case where courage is much needed.

From kosher to halal

There is great precedent for American brands reaching out to segments that are part of the fabric of American life, even in the face of objections. In 1911, Procter & Gamble was the first company to advertise that its vegetable shortening product, Crisco, was kosher.

Whole Foods increased sales by 300 percent by selling Saffron Road Halal products

In 1915 the New York State Legislature enacted the United States’ first Kosher Food Law, which was to serve as a model for all subsequent kosher food legislation. This law has been challenged again and again by those who claim it is unconstitutional, but it has stood the test of time.

The U.S. kosher market has grown today to an estimated $12.5 billion, but only 25 percent of kosher consumers are actually observant Jews. Other consumers believe simply that kosher food is healthier. Muslims believe that halal food will have wider appeal than its core target Muslim consumer for similar reasons.

Courage and rewards

The lesson from these examples is that courage and investment in communities pay off. Muslims will respect and show loyalty to brands that support them in the public space. They are not asking for political or media support. In fact they want brands to avoid the political discourse and treat them as mainstream consumers with mainstream needs.

The events of the last year indicate that companies will need to demonstrate courage in embracing this strategy. The good news is that Muslim consumers recognize this and the reward from them is loyalty and public devotion.

Update: As of publishing this column on spirit21 (11th Dec), Lowes have announced that they will be pulling their advertisements from the TV show All-American Muslim after pressure from the Florida Family Association who said that the programme was misleading because it didn’t feature any extremist Muslims and was therefore furthering an agenda to bring down America.

This is my column written for Ogilvy Noor and published at sparksheet.com