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Baby books offer words of wisdom I can do without

This is my weekly column published today in The National

When it comes to all those bossy baby books, mothers should throw them out with the bath water.

Motherhood is a lucrative industry, especially for “baby experts” who sell millions of books each year to new mums looking for guidance. Their philosophies vary wildly, even contradict each other. But they have this in common: they are all equally convinced of their righteousness.

courtesy of mamasays.co.uk

I admit to having spent money on such books, believing I’d be a better mother for reading them. Like drugs, they offer a temporary high of advice and information with one hand, but take away a new mother’s instinct, peace of mind and self-confidence with the other.

There are numerous baby gurus around the world. Among them is Gina Ford, who advocates extremely strict and controversial routines, outlining a minute by minute timetable for the day. When I read her book the first time during my second trimester, I wept. Having a baby sounded like going to boot camp. If your baby doesn’t get with the programme, then you make her cry till she does.

Tracey Hogg known as the “Baby Whisperer” lays out an “E-A-S-Y” routine, where the baby Eats (or drinks), you do an Activity, then it’s Sleep time, and finally Mummy gets some “You” time.

Sears and Sears propound “attachment parenting” where baby is with you at all times, constantly bonding and sleeping in your bed till she is four years old. Mummy needs to make the sacrifice for the long term.

Gina Ford has just published her latest book, The Contented Mother’s Guide. She advises mothers to reignite intimate relations within four weeks, and leave baby with a babysitter for “date nights” forbidding any talk about baby, the centre of our world. No pressure on mothers, eh? Ask most mums and at four weeks the most attractive thing a man can do for his wife is to let her sleep in peace.

Every time I bought a new baby manual, my husband would hang his head in despair knowing the self-confidence they were sapping from me. Each day I would come up with a new theory on how to burp, nappy change or feed the baby. “Didn’t you say the opposite yesterday?” he would ask gently. “I did, but then I read this book…” and he would bite his lip and agree, knowing this was the best response to a sleep-deprived, postnatal mum.

A report published this week by the University of Warwick looked at 50 years of parenting self-help books, through interviews with 160 mothers. It concludes that instead of helping mothers, such books leave us feeling dispirited and inadequate. Whatever the advice, it was given as an order, with a threat of dire consequences if mother or child failed to behave as expected.

Baby books usually offer advice on how to deal with family and friends who want to “help”, their code wordfor”interfere”. The irony is that it is exactly these friends and family who once were the guides, support and sources of wisdom.

The first few months for me were an intense learning experience about caring for a newborn and reassessing who I was as a woman. It was a period of transition from which I emerged entirely changed. I didn’t need dictators to make the transition even more difficult.

I admit the books had snippets of useful information, but it was my friends, peers and older women from my family who taught me what I needed to know. Books have an expensive price, on the pocket and on self-esteem. Family and friends offer wisdom that is priceless.


Warning: Muslims have a sense of humour and we’ll be using it

This is my op-ed published in The National today

The last year has been no laughing matter in the Middle East. But its epic events – especially its use of peaceful protest and national unity as resources towards building self-determination – have made the wider world realise that Muslims are not as alien as they might have thought.

Image: Pep Montserrat for The National

Amid the darkest moments, the world also saw another glimpse of the universal humanity of Muslims – through comedy. Reuters reported that before his death, eastern Libya was full of anti-Qaddafi humour. Graffiti showed the colonel in a Superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest. Another showed him in a dustbin labelled “history”. A particularly damning cartoon urged him to “surrender himself to the ‘national council of hairdressers’”.

It’s a secret that needs to be let out: Muslims have a deep-rooted sense of humour and are not afraid to use it.

Let’s get these important points out of the way first. I know there are deeply miserable people out there who can’t possibly believe what I’m telling them: that Muslims both have and appreciate a sense of humour. Their argument is that Muslims will slap a fatwa on anyone who tries to make a joke or poke fun.

And we will. But only on anyone who makes a truly terrible joke. Substandard comedy, no matter where it comes from, should never be tolerated and deserves every fatwa it gets.

There isn’t any place either for dressing up prejudice, aggression or sheer ignorance as comedy. We are all too familiar with those misery-boots types who make barbed cracks, then throw up their hands to say: “What? You can’t take a joke?” Comedy is not a clever way to be rude or offensive. We can see straight through that.

In an entirely unscientific poll of friends, tweeps and Facebook fans, I asked what the funniest things were that they had been asked as Muslims. While wearing a pink headscarf one woman was asked: “Why do Muslim women wear black all the time?”

A rather baffling question that is often put to Muslims – who generally belong to quite sociable communities – is: “If you don’t drink, how do you meet people?”

And what is one to make of the question: “Is it true that light green is the official colour of Al Qaeda?”

Perhaps my favourite of all time, is: “Now that you’re engaged, will you have a forced marriage?”

These questions project such a one-dimensional, stereotypical understanding of Muslims that it is hard not to laugh. But we don’t. And that’s probably why some people think we are so serious and earnest all the time.

In the face of such questioning, Muslims place upon themselves the onerous burden of answering in the nicest possible way. Also, we’re never sure how non-Muslims will respond to humour. I’ve tried being funny when replying, and mostly the reaction is a blank stare. We like that people want to understand, but forgive us if you catch us suppressing an occasional smirk.

Since 9/11, a crop of young, feisty Muslim comedians have made it onto the scene. This has been accompanied by a growing number of comedy festivals, films, internet videos and blogs. Abu Dhabi last week month hosted an international comedy festival featuring the Lebanese stand-up Nemr Abou Nassar.

In the United States, a group of stand-up comics call themselves “Allah Made Me Funny“, comprising a black American, an Arab American and an Asian American. In the UK, acts like Imran Yusuf, an East African Asian, and Shaista Aziz, a British Pakistani, vie for attention. We also have stand-ups such as Riaad Moosa in South Africa.

Slowly but surely we are seeing Muslims depicted on western screens in comedy, rather than just as scary terrorists. Mainstream productions include such films as The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a Muslim comedy troupe around the American Deep South. The Infidel tells the story of a Muslim who finds out he has Jewish roots while his daughter is being courted by the son of a deeply conservative Muslim family, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World follows the actor and comedian Albert Brooks to South Asia. But perhaps the most widely known movie is Four Lions, an acclaimed British comedy about four young Muslim men who plot to carry out a suicide bombing, which was directed by the ever controversial Chris Morris.

In 2010, the American journalist Katie Couric suggested that what her country needed if it were going to normalise its understanding of Muslims was a “Muslim Cosby Show”. Her wish may be about to come true as Preacher Moss of Allah Made Me Funny is attempting to pilot such a show, currently titled Here Come The Muhammads. He says that “by making it funny, you make it accessible. People can say: ‘You mean I can actually laugh at that?’”

Yes, it’s true that Muslims and others can in fact joke about Muslims.

At a preview of Four Lions, I found myself the only Muslim among 30 very serious film critics. While others looked around nervously, I was cackling with laughter (no doubt to their annoyance). The film worked because it showed a deep understanding of Muslim cultures, and the break between expectation and reality, both of which are rich seams of humour. It was intelligent, not offensive.

The film opens with the would-be terrorist cell recording their suicide video. The idiot of the group is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. “Not a small gun,” he protests. “Big hands.” Even suicide-video production is subject to the inflated egos common in the media.

Muslim humour and self-deprecation are, of course, not recent phenomena. There must be thousands of tales of Mullah Nasruddin, one of the great entertainer-comedian-wisemen of Muslim history, dating back to the Middle Ages. I particularly like this one: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such name for me?” “God Forbid,” said Nasruddin.

Comedy also serves different purposes within different Muslim communities. While one group of young comedians is using humour to introduce Muslims to a world apprehensive about their faith, another is using it to point out the challenges of their cultures and politics.

In Saudi Arabia, YouTube comedies address religious and political pressures alongside social observation. On The Fly, for instance, has tackled subjects such as the Egyptian uprising as well as TV coverage of Arabs Got Talent.

The internet allows usually unmentionable subjects to be tackled. A mainstream TV show, Tash Ma Tash uses humour to explore social convention. One particularly controversial episode addressed the cultural taboos around discussing polygamy by having a woman with four husbands.

Such developments are the hidden gems of Muslim cultures today. The most powerful thing about their humour is its universality: while the cultural contexts may vary, they take down human foibles and misadventures in ways that all cultures can connect with.

After all, the funniest jokes are the ones that you see yourself in, and which connect to your own experiences.

So here’s a multi-faith one to sign off with. A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says: “What is this, a joke?”

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk


BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought: On International Women’s Day

This is the text of my segment broadcast this morning on BBC Radio 2.

When I was expecting our first child, the question of what we would call the baby was one that followed almost immediately after congratulations had been offered. I started collecting names fervently, having morphed into a nesting mother hen, trying them out to see if they sounded cute and pretty, if I wanted this name permanently in my life.

But I felt the name choice carried a greater weight than this, because as a Muslim we’re advised that one of the significant responsibilities for a parent is to give the child a good name. The name influences how the child sees themselves, and also how others see them.

Eventually we chose the name Hana, mentioned in Islamic as well as Biblical tradition, the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to the Quran 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 – Mary. 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.

Our hope for Hana was that her name would inspire her 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. As today is International Women’s Day, in a world where women continue to face challenges this wish for her and her female peers is particularly potent.

My husband and I enjoy lightheartedly predicting Hana’s future, as parents often do. Prime minister, or TV presenter, astronaut or train driver? We wonder. At the end of the day the kind of woman we want to bring up for this world is the kind of woman who believes that she can be anything she wants to be, and goes out to make it happen. But more than that: a woman who makes a positive change on the lives of those around her. The original Hana is a great inspiration that brings together faith traditions. If the Hana of scripture can change the world around her, then my little Hana, and all the women of the future should be supported to do it too.


Reaching back for a lost youth reveals how far I’ve come

This is my weekly newspaper column published today in the UAE’s The National newspaper.

Reconnecting with past friends can be a good thing, even if it only reminds you to be happy with the present.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those around you as you were growing up? About three years ago a compulsion of unknown origin overtook me, forcing me to start looking up people I had known at university. It was a period where the person I am today first took shape. Whether it was the people or the pivotal experiences that I wanted to reconnect with, I don’t know.

Image courtesy firstpalette.com

There were friends that I had started off close to, but time, distance and circumstance had slowly eroded the immediacy of our relationships. Some I had heard about through mutual acquaintances. Some I bumped into on the street. While browsing in bookshops, I saw the names of authors and recognised them as people I had once spent a great deal of time with. I even spotted one hosting her own television series.

The urge may have come upon me because of age. Now in my early thirties, I had acquired a sense of nostalgia at what had passed. I suppose I had lived enough years to be able to look back over a substantial period of time. I had come to a natural pause in my life where things were becoming more permanent: a career under my belt, I’d recently got married and bought a home.

Some of it was a practical response to the fact that it is hard to find new and meaningful relationships. It is almost impossible to invest freely of ourselves and the time that is needed to forge friendships as close as the ones we do as students or in our early twenties. It is simpler and more fulfilling to go back and rejuvenate the ones from our past.

Neither was it coincidence that my urge became more insistent around the same time my first book was published. I now had the confidence that I had something worthwhile to say in conversations with lost acquaintances, something to show for myself. Nine global editions, a trendy flat in central London, and plenty of travels including a period living abroad gave me enough conversation fodder behind which to hide the insecurities of my younger years and my feelings that I hadn’t done much in the intervening decade since I’d seen my friends, and that they had gone on to lead more successful and more exciting lives than me.

Part of it was that it was suddenly easy to reconnect, as Facebook gained widespread popularity. I could not resist peeking at home pages of lost friends to see a snapshot of their lives; and from there it was one painless click to reconnect. If it didn’t go well, it could easily be dissolved and the status quo restored.

What left me reeling was that two emails were sufficient to exchange the news of 10 years. When you strip out the mundane daily details that populate our lives, what is left of a decade? Spiritual epiphanies and self-development make for poor writing material, so instead all that remains is a summary of jobs, key travels, marriage and children. The more of those I wrote, the more I wondered where the years had passed.

Some reconnections have worked. Some had a burst of life, and then faded away again. And some spluttered out, reminding me that they had already run their course years ago.

The emotions they stirred were a powerful remembrance of a youth past, but also that I’m quite contented with the skin I live in now. My past made me who I am, and it was worth reconnecting with it as a reminder of how far I’ve come.


BBC Radio 2’s Pause For Thought: Holiness

This morning I was on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment, reflecting on the subject of holiness. Here is the text of the recording.

Last year we were all mesmerised by reports from the Large Hadron Collider that scientists were on the verge of finding the Higgs Boson particle.

Even more exciting than the science was the intense thirst on display during the search, the thirst for bigger meaning, and an understanding of how the universe works. The intensity of the quest for meaning made it, for me, a holy search.

That the Higgs Boson is called The God particle I don’t find heretical: instead I see it as an expression of the human yearning to understand what is around us and our place in it. The search connects the biggest questions of all: how did our universe come into being? How do we exist? To the very tiniest of creations: the most elusive of particles, the Higgs Boson.

God, after all, is the name we give to the Divine, the source, the Creator, the Ultimate, the Beginning and the End.

That’s why the small pervasive nature of the Higgs Boson excites me: because holiness is something that is everywhere, and we are constantly connected to.

We think of holiness as outside of our daily experience, as something grand or unreachable. I can understand that. That’s what we are brought up to believe, that holiness is located in ornate religious buildings, restricted to special locations, or only found in people who have dedicated their lives to faith, religion or charity.

Such holy places and people do take us outside of ourselves. We need that, because it is so easy to get engrossed in the daily grind of work, chores, bills and obligations. We long to break the cycle, wishing our days away until we can go away, or rest on bank holidays. We then take advantage of the forced pause to rest, recuperate and occasionally to reflect.

But if we can enforce that pause ourselves during the mundane happenings of our lives, then the stress and even the tedium can become holy, a moment to be treasured. A beautiful flower, a warming cup of coffee, the smile from an innocent child, they are all gifts for us to enjoy. When one of those moments happens to you today, cherish it, because something small but amazing, something holy, has just happened to you.