Tuesday, 21 of October of 2014

Archives from month » April, 2012

The burden of gold jewellery must be removed from weddings

This is my weekly column published in The National yesterday.

The wedding season is upon us. Young people might be thinking about love, but for families this can be a time of great anxiety as weddings mean hefty bills. And this year they have one additional worry: the eye-wateringly high price of gold.

From a young age, my family and wider community would talk with concern about building up wedding trousseaus for their daughters, made up of fancy frocks and gold jewellery. During wedding festivities, jewellery and clothes would be put on display for in-laws to inspect. The purpose was never clear to me, although I assumed it was to show-off how endowed the bride was, and more importantly to stop snide remarks from the in-laws about stingy or poor parents. It all felt shallow and exhibitionist to me.

Nonetheless, once I started work and before I got married I started to purchase gold jewellery for myself as I’m fond of the sparkly stuff. The fact that it would add to my collection when I got married – oh happy day! (but first I had to find a groom) – was a lovely bonus. Although the gold jewellery was an indulgence, compared to today’s prices I was fortunate that the price of gold at that time was comparatively reasonable.

By the time my wedding date was set, I had a respectable amount of gold jewellery for my wedding so that my family did not need to take out a mortgage to purchase more. I bought it because I liked it, not because I had to. Besides, what an anachronism to give gold, when the groom is already getting the girl: is she not valuable enough, yet we have to bribe him with gold on top?

If there is pressure on the bride’s family to stump up gold, the groom feels the burden too, often preventing or delaying marriage. He can’t turn up to the wedding empty-handed. After all, what kind of self-respecting father of the bride could accept a son-in-law with no pointless trinkets to sit in the bank even if he has to take out a loan to get them, or can’t afford a house and other basic necessities (but at least he has a shiny necklace to give)?

In India, 10 million annual weddings clock up consumption of half the world’s gold. The average middle class family spends more than Dh18,000 on wedding jewellery. Worried you won’t have enough gold to marry off your daughter? Savings accounts are on offer for families to build a gold fund from birth. After the wedding, the gold probably goes back in the bank.

What a shame, the money could be put to far better use: the deposit on a house, a car, education, or simply savings for a rainy day. But no, it’s all about status, a deeply crass form of putting wealth on display. And it drives families into paralysing and totally unnecessary debt, or delays couples getting married.

The problem is that the gold-giving custom is so entrenched in so many cultures it’s going to take some radical couples to dispense with it. However, I think the time has come to get rid of the mandatory and all-encompassing nature of this tradition. I’m all for pretty jewellery, but we should temper expectations and pressure. Perhaps it’s time to introduce the idea of passing just one small item of jewellery down from mother to daughter as a sign of prestige, and make piles of shiny new bling the second rate choice.

While you’ve been reading this, the price of gold has gone up again. Bet you wished you’d started that gold fund.


Easter should be for Christian remembrance, not for chocolate

Here’s my weekly newspaper column published today in The National

The shelves at my local supermarket are straining beneath the weight of chocolate eggs and hot cross buns, in anticipation of Easter this weekend. While these luxuries are being wolfed down by many, Christians are marking their belief in the event of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and subsequent resurrection.

As I enter the store I’m hit by the notion that this weekend is not Easter, but a Festival of Sugar. As a lover of chocolate in particular, I’d be right behind the creation of Chocoholic Sunday (marketers take note: you heard it here first). But why oh why does a very serious religious celebration about betrayal, sacrifice and redemption need to be turned into a cutesy commercial extravaganza?

While Easter is pivotal to Christian doctrine, as a Muslim, I don’t accept the premise of crucifixion and resurrection. For me, Jesus was not God, nor the Son of God, nor part of a Trinity. He was a human being, albeit a prophet, whom I hold in extremely high status. However, like significant events in all religions, I believe it is important to respect the believers of that religion and their reverence for the event. Just as I feel dismayed at the increasing commercialisation of Ramadan and Eid, I feel the same dismay at the commercialisation of Easter.

Easter doesn’t suffer as badly as Christmas, which has turned into an extenuated and indulgent shopping fest. That’s probably because the gory events of Easter are much less easy to paint with a romantic cuddly brush. But at least most people have an inkling of the core message of Christmas: the birth of Jesus, hope, peace and goodwill. Easter’s more complex messages are waylaid at the hollow altar of crème eggs and cuddly bunnies.

Survey after survey show that the meaning of Easter is slowly being lost. In the United States, Barna Group noted that only 42 per cent of adults could identify that Easter was about resurrection. Yet the National Retail Federation says Easter spending could top $16bn (Dh59bn) this year, the average household spending $145.

The story is the same in the UK, where Reader’s Digest found only 48 per cent of people could identify the story of Easter. Shopping has become such an ingrained part of the occasion, that a supermarket managed to mess up, not once but twice. The Somerfield chain had to reissue a press release about the meaning of Easter, claiming first it was about the birth of Christ, and then about his “rebirth”.

So why, as a Muslim, do I care? Shouldn’t I be pleased that a religious occasion at odds with my own theology is disappearing? Far from it. It’s important to respect other faiths, and even more so to share the universal morals from their stories. Easter follows the occasion of Lent, a period of self-restraint, reminiscent of Ramadan. Then there is the lesson of betrayal: those who sell themselves out like Judas will live and die with regret. And a vital point: there are those who believe in the ideals of justice and equality with such passion that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives.

Bunnies are cute, and chocolate eggs are tasty. And it’s true that there’s a gap in the calendar for a Chocoholic Sunday. It doesn’t need to be on Easter Sunday.

While we might not accept the premise of the occasions of other religions, we should mourn the fact that festivals such as Easter and Ramadan – which have much to tell us about ourselves and the human predicament – are being turned into shopping and eating extravaganzas.


Pasties, power and forgotten promises to the the people

A little belatedly, here is my column from last week’s National

Leaders around the world, beware! If you’ve forgotten how important it is to be in touch with those you lead, then take an object lesson this week from the British chancellor, George Osborne. In his latest budget pronouncement, he introduced a tax on hot pasties – those deep-filled pastries so beloved of ordinary Brits during their lunchtimes.

Osborne was asked with barely-hidden derision about the last time he bought a pasty from Greggs, the country’s largest high street bakery. He looked stumped and this has had the media running headlines underscoring the fact that his party is out of touch with ordinary people.

In fact, in just the last two weeks, his Conservative Party appears to be less and less in touch with “normal” people. Its co-treasurer was secretly filmed offering access to dinner with the prime minister, David Cameron, along with the possibility to influence policy for £250,000 (Dh1.46 million); they’ve cut tax for the richest earners; and refused to raise allowances for pensioners, creating more headlines about “granny taxes”. They couldn’t have paid for better re-enforcement of their brand as the party of the rich if they’d tried.

The accusation of being out of touch with people is damning for any form of government, but it is the worst form of insult in a democracy where power is supposed to reside with the people. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it, leaders are worst “when people are contemptuous”.

But leaders, beware! Danger also lies the other way. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is pandering to the extreme right to win voters back from the Front National, by playing up to the lowest common denominator of anti-immigrant racist sentiment. In a country that already faces huge social problems, and in whose living memory remain the horrors of Nazi atrocities and the Second World War, his actions in fomenting such attitudes to win votes are despicable.

While democracy empowers people, surely one of its unavoidable curses is that leaders must divert their energies, attentions and resources while wooing the electorate. Watch any US presidential hopeful and you’ll see the vast financial outlay, the hordes of volunteers, the months (if not years) dedicated towards voter seduction. The 2008 elections are said to have cost $1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn), double the amount of 2004. This year’s race will probably cost even more. Is this really power to the people, or is the truth that money talks, and big money brings big power?

Even social activists and religious leaders understand that they must win the hearts of the public if they hope to effect the change that they believe society needs.

Ultimately, inspiring and effective leaders are those who combine the visionary with the common touch. They understand the here-and-now of our lives but can galvanise us towards something different, something better.

What we hope from politicians is that they show moral leadership and move countries forward while remaining in touch with the reality of life as most of us live it. We expect some backbone and some respect. We are not aliens who should eat colder food, have base attitudes fanned, nor have our allegiances bought. Leaders, beware: we are the people, and in your actions you are accountable to us.