Saturday, 25 of October of 2014

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4thought.tv: who would you like to be the new Pope?

I was featured on 4thought.tv earlier this week as part of a range of people commenting in advance of the Papal election on who should be the next Pope. You can hear my thoughts by clicking through the video.


The Blue Screen of Death has come for me

This is my weekly newspaper column for The National (UAE) published yesterday.

cartoon by Richard Thompson

The Blue Screen of Death came a’knocking at my door this week. The gruesome bright azure of his face, the hissing finality of his breath and the blankness of his unapologetic gaze are his hallmarks, and he used them to stare me straight in the eye. My computer was no more.

I was in the middle of an innocuous task, when suddenly everything froze. I wiggled my mouse, first in annoyance, then frustration, then fear. No. Please. No, I muttered to myself. Not now. Please not now.

My eyes grew wider, and I could feel tears pricking the corners of my eyes. My heart beat faster and my fingers started to twitch. This couldn’t be happening to me. I had a top of the range laptop. I hadn’t installed any bootleg software. I hadn’t been browsing anywhere off the beaten track. I was a good girl as far as my computer life went.

So why was this bad thing happening to me?

The Blue Screen blinked at me. “If this is the first time you are seeing this screen …” it said. Phew. It was the first time. So, I rebooted. I even used “Safe Mode”. As a non-techie I congratulated myself on not just knowing that Safe Mode exists, but that I knew how to access it. There on my screen I could see all my files and documents, and even the piece of writing that I had been working on, whose potential loss was causing me to panic.

Just as my palpitations subsided, the computer started whirring, like the shutting down of the last power station on earth. It hummed, then roared like a lion seeing its cubs about to be attacked, and suddenly it vanished into a void. The Blue Screen disappeared. No goodbyes, no warning, no “nice to have met you”. And with it, my latest work – literally – was sucked into the ether. Goodbye, computer. Goodbye, Shelina.

The Urban Dictionary, which is like Wikipedia but for street speak, has as its top definition of the Blue Screen of Death as “Microsoft’s most successful program”. Ha ha. I’m not laughing. There is even the claim that the Blue Screen’s name itself was a joke: the “blue” referring not just to the colour of the error screen but also to IBM in whose operating system the screen had first appeared, and which industry followers called “Big Blue.” It’s still not funny.

In the past two weeks, computer geeks who have had access to beta versions of Microsoft’s Windows 8 have been saying that the Blue Screen is no more, and the kiss of computer death has become black.

This is top-notch geek-gossip. Black might be a more appropriate colour to signal the demise of your beloved, but it’s less of a visual shock.

The geeks say the use of black by Microsoft is clever, because it will allow them to retain the BSOD abbreviation. Some even say they will miss the Blue Screen of Death. Strange, masochistic fools.

What I miss is having a computer that works. Now I will have to call technical support to perform a resurrection. The operative will have just the slightest whiff of condescension at my lack of technical knowledge. Have you tried switching it off and on again? He will ask.

If he does, this time the response will be my own blue scream of bloody murder. Just make it work. Just make the pesky thing work.


You say burqa, I say burqini

This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper.

Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

Nigella Lawson has unwittingly moved forward the debate about Muslim women and the way they choose to cover their bodies.

Lawson, a celebrity TV chef, is famed for being proud of her curves and for eschewing the pressure on female stars to show off skinny bodies.

Last week, she was spotted on Australia’s famous Bondi Beach sporting a “burqini”. This is an all-over black bodysuit with cap that covers almost every inch of the female form apart from the face, hands and feet. Islamic swimwear like the burqini is something that has seen a rapid rise in popularity in recent years, usually worn by Muslim women wanting modest dress by the beach.

Newspapers are keen to plaster their pages with photos of female celebrities in bikinis, commenting on either how “hot” she looks, or disparaging unsightly flesh as unsuitable for public display.

So what would the press make of the voluptuous chef covering herself up and denying the paparazzi their expected moneyshots?

A columnist in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper indulged in some mockery at the supposed horror of Lawson’s attire: “The world stopped spinning this week when a woman wore some clothes on to a beach … You can’t just turn up on a beach in this day and age covered from head to toe and showing only the bare minimum of flesh. It’s offensive, and this so-called woman needs to realise that.”

That’s obviously what Muslim women are told all the time – that covering up is offensive to “our” values, in today’s “modern” and “liberal” age. Yet, here was one of their own, covered unapologetically from head to foot.

The surprise of the whole incident was that alongside the expressions of horror and criticism at Lawson’s level of covering was the begrudging hankering to follow Lawson’s lead, to which many female commentators admitted.

Some echoed Lawson’s own logic behind wearing the all-in-one: to protect sun-sensitive skin. Others suggested her choice was a snub to the media piranhas who feast on female bodies. But there was one additional thread of realisation: that maybe, just maybe, here was an escape for women from relentless body fascism.

“This must be what people mean by the “liberation” and “privacy” of the burkini – by refusing to strip to what is effectively skimpy underwear, non-Muslim women such as Lawson are saying: “To hell with your fake tans, diets, ‘bikini-readiness’,” wrote one commentator in the liberal Guardian.

And that is the whole point of the realisation that Lawson’s actions have prompted: that women don’t have to submit to baring all.

“Was there a woman in Britain, I wonder, who didn’t feast their gaze on Nigella and who didn’t on some level think … I wish I was brave enough to do that?” asked Rachel Johnson, sister of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, in The Times, a conservative tabloid. “Nigella’s capacious burkini has clearly liberated her, and there must be a positive message for us all in there somewhere.”

Lawson’s fear of sunburn may have inadvertently prompted the realisation that there is liberation in covering. This is something that Muslim women like me have expended much effort in explaining and defending. But maybe we can now move on from this constant need for explanation, defensiveness and the vague sense of liberal apologetics that occasionally appears. Perhaps it’s time to be a bit naughtily smug and say: we already told you so.


Has EDL pressured Luton Council into not selling to a Muslim group?

I came across this incident today – plans to sell a hall to a Muslim group have been shelved, seemingly after pressure by the EDL.

I don’t know anything about this particular mosque, but it does seem as though the council has behaved in a very peculiar fashion. They didn’t even inform the Muslim bidders that their decision had been reversed, leaving them to find out in the newspaper.

Here is the story:

PLANS to sell a large site in High Town to a Local Muslim group have been put on ice by Luton Borough Council.

A campaign had been set up against the sale of the Old Drill Hall site by Darren Carroll, a relative of English Defence League leaders Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll, who claimed to have collected 1,500 signatures on a petition demanding the site was used for affordable housing.

Luton Borough Council said the site had been originally intended for housing, but economic conditions meant it had to sell the land on the open market.

But yesterday the council said a ‘change in government policy’ had meant it had had to suspend the sale of the site, in which MA Community Centre (Masjid-e-Ali) were understood to be the preferred bidder.

The organisation is currently based in Moor Street but wanted to move to the Old Drill Hall and create a community centre, which it said would be open to people of all faiths.

A spokesman for the council said: “The property was placed on the open market and a marketing campaign was implemented which invited bids by means of an informal tender process. A number of bidders engaged in the process and the council did identify a preferred bidder (Masjid-e-Ali Community Centre).

“However, in the time which elapsed through that process, policy guidance changes have emerged from central government with regard to provision of housing and educational needs.

“These changes have required a review of the process of site disposal across the authority. The government has set a new policy framework for the provision of affordable housing and has altered the funding stream by which this can be achieved. This new policy guidance only came into force in February 2011.

“As a result of this change to guidance, elected members have now directed officers to look again at how all site disposals – not just the Drill Hall site – are dealt with as part of a wider review of policy and procedure so that these new objectives can best be addressed. Officers will recommend changes to the wider policy and procedure on surplus site disposals to a future meeting of the executive.

“In the light of this review, the executive decided to suspend the bidding process of the Drill Hall site in the 11th hour.”

MA Community Centre were only made aware of this breaking news via the Luton News Paper & feel that this decision is unreasonable & unfair as LBC had completed all checks and issued a draft contract for approval. MA Community Centre feel LBC have given into pressure from a facist Group the so called EDL (English Defence League) following their recent march in Luton.

MA Community Centre plans were to regenerate the site as a Community Centre with new & improved recreation facilities for all the community that would also house NHS Walk In clinics, rehabilitation Centre & many other social & welfare services for “ALL” the local community.

A petition has been created which you can sign up to (anonymously if you wish) here: http://www.gopetition.com/petition/44353.html

One Luton resident told me: “The council needs to know that EDL are not the only arbiters of what goes on this town.  This is a diverse town.”

This is not about this particular mosque – we need to ensure that this kind of u-turn behaviour is put to a stop.


Female death in Bahrain protest

Those of you who have been following my blog will know that I’ve been writing about the incredible role that women have been playing in the uprisings across the Middle East. I’ve been commenting especially on how women have changed the expectation and the stereotype that they are oppressed or trapped at home or not political.

Well, this week we hear of the death of the first female ‘martyr’ of Bahrain. I highlight it because of the incredible protest you see below that ensued during her funeral. Just look at all the women who are out on the street, it inspires awe.

Women attend the funeral of Bahiya al Aradi who was shot in the head. Photo courtesy of The National

According to The National which is based out of Abu Dhabi:

Bahiya al Aradi was en route from her elderly mother’s home in central Manama to the home of her best friend of 40 years, a woman who would agree to be identified only by the name Salwa.

After the violent events of the morning, there was a heavy police and military presence on the roads as al Aradi drove Salwa’s car from Manama towards the area of Budaiya.

A drive that would normally take 20 minutes ended up taking hours, as she was stopped by multiple military checkpoints.

Umm Mahmoud said her sister was rerouted several times, struggled to find petrol and became increasingly alarmed about driving in the dark with armed soldiers on the streets.

As she was driving through the village of Qadam, al Aradi was on the phone to one of her sisters, who suddenly heard what sounded like shots being fired on the other end of the line.

“My sister heard Bahia scream,” said Umm Mahmoud, 37, in the family home’s majlis in Manama. “My sister called me and said ‘Maybe she’s dead’.”

Three days later, the al Aradi family were informed that she was at the Bahrain Defence Force Hospital. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter the facility, Habib al Aradi, her brother, was finally given access and found his elder sister hooked up to life-support.

On Monday night, the family were told that she had passed away.

There has been no comment from the government about al Aradi’s death, but the official death certificate issued to the family yesterday said she died from the “shock” of a “severe brain injury”.

By yesterday, a wound in the back of her head had been stitched up, making it difficult to determine the exact entry point of the bullet.

Of course Libya is gaining huge coverage in the media, events there are horrific, but it seems that Bahrain has been forgotten – or at least its importance and the suffering of its population has drifted down the news agenda. Foreign troops have come in to suppress protest – protest for democracy – and deaths are ensuing. There are reports also that access to hospitals – this one at the very least – is being restricted, and with heavy military presence.

Our prayers are with all those across the Middle East – and the world – who are engaging in such protests. I feel whatever we can do to support the movement for change, and the blood with which people are paying, it is not enough.


Is there humour to be found in the terrible recent events round the world?

My weekly column for The National UAE.

It seems the world around us has had nothing to offer recently but horror and torment. How is it possible to remain cheery in the face of all this disaster?

The Middle East’s new year was filled with excitement, triggered by relatively peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But recent, more violent, events in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria have cast a darker shadow across the hopes of millions for reform in their countries.

On the other side of the world, Japan has been suffering the effects of a huge earthquake followed by a tsunami, and now the subsequent troubles with a nuclear plant.

It feels inappropriate to smile, yet alone search for humour while millions continue to suffer under natural or man-made tragedies. And yet, strange creatures that human beings are, we still have the urge to look for humour even in the worst of times.

Incompetence is a traditionally rich seam for jokes. Consider this error committed on Fox News during the Japan disaster. The broadcaster displayed a map identifying all the nuclear plants in Japan, including one named “Shibuyaeggman“. On later inspection it turned out that “eggman” was in fact not a nuclear plant, but a nightclub in the Shibuya district.

“Comedy” goes the famous saying, “is simply tragedy plus time.” And when you don’t have time, then distance can do the job just as well.

There’s a cartoon depicting the floods in New Orleans in 2005. A man is shown at a police station describing how his house was swept away by the water, down a hill and washed into the ocean. The policeman responds: “OK, I’ll just put ‘no fixed address’.” It feels very close to the recent events in Japan. Is it funny? I’ll let you decide.

Laughing at another person’s tragedy can be considered tasteless, but for those in the middle of the particular situation it is a way of releasing overwhelming tension.

One Bahraini activist chuckled at her own plight on Twitter. In regards to the drama involved in the protests, she tweeted: “Being followed by many eggs … I can make u all a Mexican omelette.”

Humour isn’t just about releasing tension. For those involved in trying to bring about regime change, it can be a powerful weapon.

The Nazis knew this. Joke-telling was illegal and punishable by death. As one Nazi prosecutor of the time said: “The better the joke, the more dangerous its effect, therefore, the greater punishment.”

The Libyans are aware of the political power, as well as the cathartic energy, of jokes. According to a Reuters report, eastern Libya is running wild with anti-Qaddafi humour. Graffiti on walls show him as a “Super Thief” in a Superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest. Another shows him in a dustbin labelled “history”.

Mockery signals the end for an unwanted leader, and no mockery is as fine as that which points to the subtle symptoms of hubris. In Muammar Qaddafi’s case, his crazy hair is the ultimate target for satire. One cartoon urged him to “surrender himself to the ‘national council of hairdressers’.”

Whatever catastrophes and tragedies the world may be facing, if this coming week sees Qaddafi go, then that would certainly put a smile on my face.

What happened in Japan (courtesy cartoonaday.com)

What we wished had happened in Japan (courtesy of cartoonaday.com)


Is the luscious eyebrow the gateway to being a real woman?

My weekly column in The National was published today.

It was the time for me to become a woman once again. A short but excruciating amount of pain would leave me radiant and glowing, assured of my truly feminine status. I was at the beauty salon to “have my eyebrows done”.

Why oh why do I do this to myself? It’s a strange form of addiction, exchanging pain to get the temporary high of “beauty”. The gorgeous arc of the eyebrow “opens up my eyes” and makes them sparkle, apparently. But eyebrow-shaping is also one of the worst forms of self-inflicted persecution I know.

The beautician (for which read “torturer”) summons me into her small room and beckons me to lie down on the narrow treatment bed. She tuts at the horror of my bushy brow overgrowth. To me, they still look presentable, but she informs me that they are unsuitable for public display.

She leans over my face, her ample bosom precariously close to my face, the smell of her perfumed uniform is at once comforting but also a signal of the pain I am about to endure. And yet here I am, month in month out.

I’ve bought into the notion, which the beauty industry has sold to me, that without pain there is no gain. But this industry is not only those nasty faceless conglomerates that churn out various white creams that will moisturise, nourish, cleanse, rejuvenate or anti-age me. It also includes well-meaning friends, mothers, bossy aunties and colleagues who advise on what it means to be womanly. And having perfectly shaped eyebrows is part of womanliness. It is you know, it really is.

“Can you hold here?” she dictates, drawing me in to participate in my own torment. I close my eyes, and use one of my hands to depress and gently pull down my eyelid while using my other hand to winch up the skin above the brow. With the eyebrow held taut she begins work to excavate my long-lost luscious brow. She has wound a piece of white cotton thread (it’s always white, I don’t know why) between her hands and her mouth. Holding it tight she pulls away lines of hair from above, below and between my brows. A thousand hairs are yanked without any ceremony from right above my eye, and tears start streaming down while I suppress a scream. Real women don’t scream when they are becoming woman-ified.

Sometimes, I wonder if men notice. Are you tuned in to the trouble that most of the women around you go to? The comedian George Carlin says: “Ladies, here’s how much men care about your eyebrows: Do you have two of them? Good, we’re done.”

I’m not going to go through this trauma without due recognition, however. I’ve trained my husband to notice when my eyes have gained their freedom from eyebrow overgrowth. If the compliment is not spontaneous, I stand directly in front of him in obvious anticipation.

But is it the male species that we do it for? I don’t think so. The shaped eyebrow confirms our eligibility into the “real woman” club, a small but effective signal that says: “I am a woman who cares about myself.”

If a woman doesn’t care about how she looks, then what kind of woman is she? I’d like to say I’m the kind of woman who hasn’t bought into the social pressure to conform to being what is considered a socially acceptable “real woman”.

But I have.

And after each torture session, I can’t help but admire my luscious curved brows and newly liberated sparkling eyes.


For one moment, I was at peace with my being

This is my weekly column for The National, published yesterday.

This week I discovered yoga. Anybody who is a Somebody already does yoga, right? Yoga is for cool, chilled-out types, and since that obviously describes me, I figured I ought to become yoga-tastic.

I turned up at the class, attired in loose clothing, clutching my new yoga mat. Everyone else was already sitting on their gently worn mats, looking calm and beatific.

By contrast, I started a fight with my mat, which refused to flatten, instead curling up at either end, betraying my just-bought-fromthe-shop novice status. Eventually I turned it upside down and sat with a plonk at one end and stretched my legs out to keep it flat on the floor. I raised a knowing eyebrow at my neighbour and shrugged conspiratorially about errant mats and their non-compliance. She looked at me serenely as though such petty matters were of no consequence to her.

The class began, and we stood feet slightly apart, knees soft, crowns lifted towards the sky and chins up. Eyes were closed. We were instructed to concentrate on our breathing. “ Count four breaths in, and now six breaths out. Keep going,” the teacher whispered soothingly, “ Only recognising your breath.” Recognising your breath, eh? I recognise my breath. It keeps me alive.

“Breath, breath is air,” I thought. “Air. Must top up the car tyres, getting flat. Need good tyres, going on long drive. Must stock up on food before setting off. Need to go to supermarket to buy food. Hmm, should pick up dinner ingredients whilst there. And supplies for the weekend. Weekend, must visit relatives. Ooh, and that film we wanted to see, should book tickets in case they sell out. Not sure about having time to watch a film, have to organise spare room for guests. Too much to do.”

The instructor’s liquid-honey voice oozed gently across my thoughts. “Are you still concentrating on your breathing? Or,” she teased, “ has your mind wandered a bit?” I blushed. Wandered a bit? I’ve planned out the rest of my week. I felt smug in my high levels of productivity, but knew I had failed to be present just in the moment. Why was I here, if I was only going to be somewhere else?

While everyone else curled elegantly onto all fours for the next exercise, I scrambled clumsily to the floor, still mapping out my supermarket shopping list. Then we did more of that breathing stuff.

The instructor was a tease. “Raise your right leg,” she whispered lusciously. “Now,” she paused for dramatic effect, “this next move is for only very advanced practitioners.” She paused again and we waited expectantly. “In this position,” she continued, her voice as smooth as melted chocolate, “raise your left leg.”

The room stiffened to execute the move, and then realised its impossibility. The instructor chuckled. “ I could hear you all tensing with competitiveness,” she smiled. “ It’s not a competition, this is just about you. And finding who you are and recognising your own merit.”

The competition wasn’t against the shopping list, the supermarket or the weekend plans. The competition wasn’t even against myself, in order to score my yoga performance or my weekly productivity. There was no competition. The moment was just for the moment’s sake.

And then I did something I haven’t done for a long time. I appreciated that very moment, the wondrousness of my breath, and the stillness of everything being in exactly the right place at the right time.

Just for an instant, I was the mistress of the moment. And more importantly, just for an instant, I was the mistress of my entire being.


Designing a game-changing Islamic Brand

Muslims know a thing or two about branding, after all they already own some of the world’s most well known brands. To Muslims, the brand ‘Islam’represents a way of life; the ‘ummah’ is a transnational super-community;‘Halal’ is a global food brand; Ramadan, Hajj, Jihad,and Zakat to name but a few are also all familiar names with their own brand values and brand experiences. All one billion Muslims – and significant chunks of the remaining global population – can identify these brands for you. That is to say, they can tell you the meaning, values and benefits of these ‘products’.

A global brand is one which consumers perceive to reflect the same set of values wherever they are in the world. Global brands transcend their geographic, cultural or ideological origins, and create strong, enduring relationships with those who consume the brands across countries and cultures. Think of walking into a McDonald’s or a KFC – you know exactly what will be on the menu, and what the food will be like.

During the expansion of the Muslim world from the 7th century onwards, the ‘Islamic’ brands spread quickly. In many ways, they created a self-sustaining economy. For example, the brand of ‘halal’ meant that Muslims were employed in creating halal products – such as meat – which would be bought by Muslims, creating employment for Muslims, and keeping finance in the Muslim pocket. Even though the immediate objective of Muslims confining themselves to the ‘halal’ brand is to follow Islamic teachings and eat healthy clean prescribed food, the retention of Muslim commerce within the Muslim market is a bonus by-product.

Let’s keep our focus for the time being on the ‘halal’ brand, to understand why I believe those engaged in creating ‘Islamic’ products today have an upside down approach to ‘Islamic branding’. The ‘halal’ brand, as taught by the Prophet is made up of two parts when it comes to food production. One part is made up of the values that make something ‘halal’, and the other part is the technicalities of the process, like how to slaughter animals.

The technical procedures are generally well documented and great emphasis is rightly placed on the observation and implementation of these procedures. The ‘halal’ brand is also made up of values such as purity, goodness, well-being, animal welfare, and honest earnings. The same partnership between technicalities and values make up the other brands I’ve quoted like ‘Islam’, ‘Hajj’, ‘Zakat’ and so on. It is the underpinning values that give each of these process their meaning and significance. So, even if you carry out hajj, zakat, salat or any of the other Islamic activities – even if it is to the letter – but fail to grasp the values that it conveys, then the ritual is empty and feels meaningless even to the protagonist. For example, the ritual of hajj is about building brotherhood, and yet in the tussle to complete the prescribed Tawaf, people will happily elbow their brothers and sisters, trample on their feet, or squash others, leaving themselves and others feeling angry, hostile and horrified. The brand value of hajj – building of brotherhood – is lost to the technicalities of completing the tawaf. When the values that underpin the ‘brand’ are contravened, the brand becomes empty and void, and instead of having long lasting results, its impact fades away.

It may seem a strange way to approach religion and religious rituals in commercial terms like ‘brand’, ‘consumer’ and ‘product’, but if Muslims are to build meaningful, sustainable and innovative brands and products, we have to understand what exactly is an ‘Islamic’ brand, and how should it be constructed in order for it to be game-changing.

Most of today’s ‘Islamic’ products are a sad reflection of the state of the contemporary Muslim world – focusing on the technicalities of Islam rather than aspiring to live the values themselves. Islamic practice and social discourse today are all about following the rules, rather than creating the ethos and then using the rules to deliver to that ethos. Don’t get me wrong – rules are crucially important, and must be observed. But rules are not the end in themselves, they are a tool to deliver a vision and a set of values.

The problem with most ‘Islamic’ products today is the same. They tick all the boxes that make them ‘technically’ Islamic. They do this by taking existing products that are not necessarily constructed on Islamic values, tweak them a bit so they ‘technically’ meet the requirements, and then badge them ‘Islamic’.

Take the spate of ‘Islamic’ colas that hit the world – we had Mecca cola, Ummah cola and Zamzam cola to name but a few. What was ‘Islamic’ about them except the name? They cashed in on a moment in political history when Muslims wanted to boycott the big brands. Instead of taking this moment when there was a captive and willing worldwide Muslim audience to deliver a truly innovative drinks range based on values inimical to Islam, the producers pocketed a short term benefit for themselves by copying another product. They gave a global market sugary teeth-rotting drinks. If they had considered the kind of values that would be great in a drink drawing from Islamic values, they may have thought of something that cleanses the body, is made from pure sustainable ingredients, and whose packaging degrades without damaging the environment. With such a brand-values-based approach to product design they might have won over not just the Muslim market, but a wider global market too – through values and innovation.

If today’s ‘Islamic’ products are to really mean anything, they must create their brands as derivatives of the main Islamic superbrands that I mentioned at the beginning. That is how they can appeal to the Muslim audience. Muslim consumers will fully understand the ethos of the products and how the products will change their lives. The products will move from being a necessity to being a valued product – which of course increases its desirability and price.

However, what is even more attractive is that the fundamental ‘Islamic’ brand values will undoubtedly appeal across the commercial and global spectrum to all consumers irrespective of faith. I’ve already spoken of ‘good’ food. The same applies to other values like environmental protection, ethics and fair trade and financial prudence and workers’ welfare. By exhibiting these brand values in ‘Islamic’ products, they will appeal to those from other backgrounds too, as they are universal aspirations.

I would urge all those engaging in creating ‘Islamic’ brands to move past just tweaking products so that they are technically Islamic, and start thinking about the Islamic values that are crucial to new products and then design products from the ground up. Copy cat products do not change the world. Innovative, game changing products come from meeting real untapped consumer needs. The way they do this is by building brands whose values are meaningful and important to consumers, and which consumers fully believe in.

A new wave of products that appeal to Muslim money should do more than just meet the technical spec. They must be built on brand values that aim to invest all the goodness of the superbrand of ‘Islam’. What is important is not the label ‘Islamic’ but that the values that are used to design the products are Islamic, and deliver an Islamic brand experience to consumers.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk. She has fifteen years of experience in marketing and new product creation.

This article was published in the Muslim Council of Britain’s publication entitled ‘Nurturing the Future in Islamic Finance and Thought Leadership’ as part of an international delegation to the 6th World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 2010. The full brochure can be accessed here: http://www.mcb.org.uk/wief/Documents/6WIEF_Brochure.pdf


Saudi women boycott lingerie shops

If any women amongst you have tried to buy clothing of an intimate nature in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf, you will know how mortifying it is that the shop assistants are almost always male. Lingerie shops are complicated and confusing places (yes, even for women!) and having men to ‘assist’ in the process is enough to make any woman flee in distress.

That is why one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest contradictions is that in a country where women are given little choice but to cover up from top to toe, and are strictly segregated, it is men they must deal with to choose their underwear. This is because the religious hardline and the religious police don’t like to see men and women mixing and they feel that encouraging women to work in retail will encourage this (but men selling underwear is fine). In addition, reducing the unemployment level of men is seen as an important goal. There is already a 2006 law which says only female staff can be employed in women’s apparel stores, but this is rarely implemented.

Last year, women held a boycott of shops which employed male staff, and took their money to outlets which had female staff. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/25/saudi-women-boycott-linge_n_179229.html

This year, Saudi women are planning to hold the boycott again, starting from tomorrow February 13th for two weeks. (I guess with Valentine’s Day being banned there is no rush to get out and buy some frillies anyway). If you are in Saudi, you can support the boycott as well.

As one commenter on this article “Ban men from selling lingerie in KSA” explained: “The more money that women spend in women only lingerie stores the more it demonstrates that women only stores are a financial success and what the consumer wants and is willing to pay for women only service. Interestingly women still purchase a large proportion of lingerie outside of KSA when people take holiday’s as they prefer the service outside of KSA.”

To me, the contradictory nature of the seediness of men monopolising lingerie sales vs the strict separation of women to the point of exclusion from the public space, highlights a key point: women are told that all the segregation and ‘guardianship’ is to protect them and safeguard them, but clearly this is not the case – it is all about safeguarding men’s interests in employment and in control.