Wednesday, 24 of September of 2014

Category » culture

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.


Selling impossible dreams

This article was just published in EMEL magazine.

Yes, it’s true, you too can be perfect. L’Oreal can give you the perfect hair, Oil of Olay can give you perfect skin, and Ralph Lauren can dress you in the coolest clothes.

You too can be like the perfect models in their adverts. You just need to believe in the dream, and oh yes, cough up a few pennies to buy the products. Thick glossy hair created by L’Oreal products, demonstrated by Cheryl Cole. Smooth wrinkle free skin under your eyes courtesy of Oil of Olay, as seen on model Twiggy, and a hip outfit demo’d on skinny models at Lauren.

Cole spends up to £200,000 per year to achieve her beauty, of which hair extensions are a regular cost. L’Oreal don’t feel it is misleading for her to promote their products even though their shampoo could never give the look of Cole’s extension-enhanced hair. The Advertising Standards Authority said this level of deception was acceptable because for two out of the thirty seconds of the TV advert, in small writing, it indicates that ‘some’ extensions may have been used. Twiggy’s advert for wrinkle-reducing eye-cream had all her under-eye wrinkles airbrushed out in post production.

Ralph Lauren's model looks impossibly ridiculous

Ralph Lauren’s model had been photoshopped so that her head was bigger than her pelvis. When criticism of the adverts was posted online, their lawyers sent round threatening letters to silence the critics. 

The beauty industry justifies airbrushing because it claims it is selling a dream. But their products are sold based on a deception and incapable of delivering the advertised airbrushed perfection.

These are con artists – people who set out to sell a product to meet a state that has been manufactured to be unattainable. And con artists have always existed.

Yet we are deceived today into believing this perfection is attainable through a number of more modern tools. We have a more visual culture now, where images visualise on giant billboards the perfection that our lives ought to be. Of course, those lives are airbrushed and carefully staged, impossible for the products to deliver against. However, because we can now actually see the utopia that the products will turn our lives into, the impossible dream reaches a new dimension – suggesting to the believing innocent eye that the impossible is in fact possible.

But the bigger problem is this: selling dreams that can never be realised is now sanctioned. Corporations have now established as legitimate ‘right’ to sell impossible-to-achieve dreams.

The financial sector sold things that were never real, products that were derivatives of products and not real actual things. We were told this was good for us and for our economy. But what was sold was so vapid and intangible that it took but a blink of an eye for it to disappear. No wonder ordinary people with ordinary common sense were left baffled as to where did all the money suddenly go? The boom was built on fluff that never existed and as soon as one part of the manufactured dream was exposed as an ephemera, the whole thing vanished in an instant.

Political parties are doing the same – they create a brand like “Broken Britain” and then ’solve’ it with their own branding and puff. The Conservative party will solve Broken Britain with Big Society.  It’s all just so much upper case branding, and so little real product.

Even extreme religious leaders sell the ‘dream’ of paradise to persuade innocents into killing themselves and others. They say: it’s us or them, and then offer a solution of violence and criminality, where the death of innocent people is airbrushed out of the equation, and utopia is created from an act of violence.

We’ve institutionalised the legitimacy of selling a dream that can never become reality. In fact, selling dreams has been made to seem to be a good thing because shopping for a dream life is supposedly in the interests of consumers. We’ve been told that what consumers want most is to buy into a dream. No matter the hollow feeling that’s left when failing to achieve perfection from oversold products.

We’ve been told that the fluff and stuff is important in creating our dream lives. Fluff is not fulfilling. And aspiring to something impossible simply results in heartache.

Our institutions are condoning selling ephemeral intangible fluff, rather than real things that will make things better in real terms. But it is to producing and selling real things, that can achieve real outcomes, based in reality, that we must return.


1001 Inventions exhibition: discover Muslim heritage and re-discover the excitement of science

Over the weekend I went to the see the “1001 Inventions – Muslim heritage in our world” exhibition at the Science Museum, which is based on the website and book of the same name.

The exhibition consists of a number of stands like the one in the picture, under different themes like medecine, market and town. There are intriguing exhibits like Al-Jazari’s elephant clock, model wind-turbines pre-dating Dutch windmills, in Afghanistan to harness renewable energy (a lesson for today’s green energy activists?) as well as plenty of information like Muslim scholars predicted the world’s circumference to within 125 miles 8 centuries ago, and Muslim doctors pioneered cataract removal and the use of catgut around that time as well.


The whole exhibition is a revelation about the “Dark ages” where in fact many discoveries were made that have laid the foundations for today’s modern science – dispelling the absurd myths that the Muslim world was devoid of creativity, invention or contribution. Quite the opposite. From this perspective, the exhibition is a must see for historical, cultural as well as of course scientific knowledge.

From a personal perspective though, it was the short film starring Ben Kingsley as a mysterious polymath from a golden age that captured my imagination. The film was broadcast at regular intervals on a huge screen in the exhibition hall. It re-ignited my childhood excitement for discoveries, and the incredible wealth of science that we have around us today. The story follows a group of school children spending the day at a museum investigating the science discovered in various eras of history. The teacher hands the assignment for “The Dark Ages” with pity to three children, warning them that they are unlikely to find much if anything. As they enter the library section they are greeted with the mysterious Ben Kingsley. He conjures up secrets from the period, and summons various scientists and philosophers to explain their secrets to the children. Once I’d got past the Harry Potter-esque introduction, I too was swept away by the enormity of the scientific findings and the graphics are magical enough to create a tingling about how science itself is magical.
The stories of these Muslim scientists and their myriad of inventions left me feeling inspired to discover the secrets of the universe… All in all, an afternoon well-spent.

The Muslim wedding, British manners and the Minister who walked out

This article has just been published at the Times Online.


Politics.co.uk carries this report on Jim Fitzpatrick, the Minister for Food, Farming and Environment, who walked out of a Muslim marriage ceremony in his constituency, apparently in a state of shock that men and women would be segregated and sit apart.

Our guest blogger, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, argues, with justification, that Fitzpatrick was extremely rude to the couple in question. What do you think?

Shelina writes: Fitzpatrick’s constituency, Poplar and Canning Town, includes Tower Hamlets which has a 35 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim population. He claims, rather surprisingly, that he was unaware of the custom of segregation at Muslim weddings. It worries me that the representative of a ward where a large minority are Muslim is completely ignorant of this tradition. I’m even more shocked that he is proud to profess his ignorance. Whether he likes or dislikes the custom is a different matter: surely he ought to be aware of how a significant chunk of his community conduct a central event in their personal lives. What else is he ignorant of?

Let’s start with the meaning of integration. Fitzpatrick says that separate seating for men and women is stopping integration. Yet here is a family who only knows him through a friend and possibly as their MP, inviting him to their most important day. That to me is reaching out and encouraging integration.

Then we can move onto good manners. Weddings have always been a very personal matter and as with all occasions, there is etiquette which the guests must follow. If there is one thing that the British can truly pride themselves on, it is (or at least used to be) excellent manners. We know how to respond to invitations, use the right cutlery, queue in line. In fact many a book over the centuries has been written on developing the right social graces. The bride and groom are under no obligation as to who they invite to the wedding, and to be invited at all is a great honour. And at a time when budgets are tighter than ever, and weddings are becoming increasingly expensive, it is a real privilege to be invited to someone’s wedding.

I feel very sad for the bride and groom that their special day has been hijacked by a rude ungracious guest who decided that their personal choices for the day were not to his taste.

But here is the rub of Fitzpatrick’s ignorance. Segregated weddings are extremely commonplace and have been so for decades. Only a handful of the many Muslim weddings I have attended in my life have not been segregated. And this is not just the case in Britain but all over the world. Women have their own celebrations, as do the men, and both of these are incredibly joyful vibrant occasions. A half-Iraqi half-English Muslim friend who married a British born Bangladeshi had her marriage celebration for women only, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Her husband is delighted that the women got to “let their hair down” (literally in some cases of hijab-wearers). A wedding I attended in Bahrain of a minor royal was held in a glamorous marquee catering for a thousand people. Nine hundred and ninety nine were women. The groom popped in briefly to give his bride the ring.

If we look closer to home, segregation is still prevalent in other wedding traditions too. Some orthodox Jewish marriages are segregated. And we still hold dear to our separation of the stag night and hen do. Would Fitzpatrick have wanted to take his wife along on a drunken weekend in Prague?


Questions on a postcard please

This was published in the April edition of EMEL Magazine

I have been missing out on a lucrative business opportunity. Facing a credit crunch before us, and being encouraged by the PM to fight the recession, I have registered a domain name and created my own Cyberservice which I believe will plug a much needed gap in t he Muslim market.

I base my new venture on investigations into what appears to be a worrying trend in the Muslim psyche. As a set of global communities we are facing unprecedented change and challenges, one of the most significant of which is the nature and relationship of Muslims with Authority. I write it with an uppercase ‘A’ because it seems we are not sure what the archetype of authority should be, and given the various kinds of authority we all deal with on a day to day level, we are not sure how we should relate to it.

We have Muslim countries whose leaders do not necessarily seem to follow an Islamic ethos. We have others who seek to impose their interpretation of Islamic law with great vigour undifferentiatedly across their entire populations. We have some Muslims who argue that we must follow scholars no matter what, and others who argue the opposite that we must use our own minds and our independent thinking to reach the answers.

‘Twas ever thus, for the question of who has authority and how it ought to be exercised, questioned and obeyed lie at the heart of Islam. Even the Prophet’s own authority was constantly questioned, and Muslims under his watch lived under a number of different rulers including the Christian King of Abyssinia, the Meccans who had not embraced Islam, and in fact rejected it thoroughly, as well as leadership of the Prophet himself.

There are two major changes however that do raise new challenges in our understanding of authority. The first is the immediacy of global connectivity. Where once the religious leader you followed – or opposed – was determined by your geographical location, now we have a global marketplace of leaders who are accessible through websites, video clips and television. It sometimes feels like scholars have to go out touting for business, and ‘image’ is everything.

The internet has brought another trend with it – the democratisation of knowledge. This is a good thing – knowledge is the lifeblood of Islamic life, and the immediacy, depth and range of information that is now available for people to educate themselves easily and freely is unparalleled. But how to choose which information is accurate and measured?

The challenge for Muslims is to face the combination of all of this readily accessible information with modernity’s all-powerful individual and with an insecure – and unfounded – desperation to prove that their own understanding of Islam is always alwaysright. The outcome? A global nation of individuals who claim to have all the answers, unwilling to listen or to ask new questions, and who consequently are always stuck in the same debates: the veil, segregation, Islamism, the West.

With the constant spotlight on Muslims, we are expected to have answers to every question that anyone asks about Islam. But we are also guilty of not being able to just ask questions and spend time discussing them. We don’t need to have a fixed pre-determined answer for absolutely everything. There is a joy and a creativity in asking questions, allowing others to explore them and then engaging in a dialogue about potential answers.

We need to re-introduce to our vocabulary questions that begin “why” “how” “what if…” We must have enough space to ask questions. Enough time to sit and be with those questions and be able to explore them, and enough confidence and openness to listen to those who propose answers at first or even second glance we do not agree with. Our desperate need to have answers to absolutely every single question has led to an outsized proliferation of the fatwa, where any and all questions are asked. There is indeed a place to ask those who have more knowledge and more wisdom for guidance on matters which we are unclear about, but it is worrying that we’ll ask anyone anything, even things that appear to be common sense and in line with our fitrah, our conscience.

So, to make sure I cash in on this trend while it lasts, my new online business is this: DialaFatwa.Com. Am I being irreverent? It’s a good question to ask.


What’s love got to do with it?

This article was recently published in EMEL Magazine.

February plays host to Valentine’s Day, and to the declaration of those ‘three little words.’ But what exactly are those three little words, and what do they reveal about our modern psyche?

A colleague of mine will be abroad, but will be sending flowers to his wife with the message: “I’m sorry I can’t be there to take you out for an over-priced meal. Here are some over-priced flowers instead.” He humorously conveys his love, but his words reflect a modern-day fatigue of being told what, when and how to feel, beholden to the manufacturing and commercialisation of emotion.

“Happy Hallmark Holiday” encapsulates our disillusion with modern angst for total perfection. Our very real, natural and rough-round-the-edges human processes are turned into flawless airbrushed ideals that do not resemble our lived experiences.

At the opposite extreme of expressing our feelings, we face another far too common three word phrase: “it is bid’ah“, denying our natural fitrah to express love. Last year, the Saudi Vice Police were sent to all shops the week before Valentine’s Day to ensure that nothing red-coloured was sold. Kuwaiti MPs declared that Valentine’s Day was ‘not compatible with our values.’ The Internet is replete with questions asking whether Valentine’s Day is haram, halal or bid’ah.

How did Muslims reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach that Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

Today, as Muslims, we have become servants of the law, instead of the law serving us in order to achieve higher spiritual perfection. Abiding by the law is not a purpose in itself: it is a means to an end. It is critical to respect the law, and our jurists and scholars, but we must be careful not to derive a false satisfaction from following the law for the law’s sake over striving towards the underlying objectives of the law. Our current pre-occupation with legalities rather than ethos is directly connected to the fact that we have become unclear about our goals, our values and our principles as human beings who follow the faith of Islam.

Bluntly put, we focus on the minutiae instead of freeing ourselves to ask world-changing questions. Let’s ask our scholars big questions that focus on Islam’s concern for all human beings. If Islam is about social welfare for the whole of humanity, then let’s ask: how do we use the institutions of zakat to put an end to world poverty? If the Prophet emphasised education by saying ’seek education even to China’, then how do we ensure that every child goes to school? If Islam is concerned with physical as well as spiritual well-being, how do we ensure healthcare reaches all human beings?

What of those other three little words, “I love you”? We often hear that Christianity is the religion of love, but Islam – wrongly in my opinion – is characterised as far from this. Why is Islam portrayed in this way?

We must challenge the ideas that modern discourse – which includes Muslims themselves who have been brought up on a diet of legalistic directives – perpetuates that Muslims and Islam are lacking in love, or worse, are averse to it. The discussion of love – for Islam by its nature is predicated on love – is critical to our survival and contribution to the modern world. So much so, that I wanted to explore these forgotten ideas of love that underpin the very essence of being a Muslim, with humour, humanity and lightness of touch. The title and subject-matter of my forthcoming book, Love in a Headscarf, for these very reasons creates surprise at the juxtaposition of the idea of Muslims and love.

Muslims say that Islam is the religion of peace. Some go further and say that it is the religion of justice, and that justice underpins peace. I would go further still and say that Islam is the religion of Rahmah, compassion. For compassion to be exercised, justice must already be inherent. But compassion also expels the lurking remnants of hatred, fear and pain through love. Hate cannot push out hate, only love can push out hatred. Allah insists we know Him by His name Rahman, the Lovingly Compassionate. We too must reclaim our role as the people of Rahmah.


The Jewel of Medina – Sherry Jones meets Bridget Jones

The following review that I have written of the book has just been published by the BBC

A romantic telling of the life of one of the wives of Islam’s prophet has caused controversy among some Muslims – and its publication has been indefinitely postponed in the UK amid fears of a violent reaction. But is The Jewel of Medina actually any good? Blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is one of the few people in Britain to have read it.

The Jewel of Medina is a chest-heaving, brassiere-busting book of outrageously tacky historical romantic fiction.

Some parts of the media are suggesting that this book is at the forefront of defending free speech. The author wants it to reach out to solve our global problems of intercultural dialogue. Between them they had me rolling around on the floor laughing.

The book claims to tell the story of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, through her own eyes, from the age of six, through adolescence and into adulthood. But although she lives through one of the most dramatic periods of history, the narrative conveys little of the enormity of the changes of the era, and of which Aisha was a huge part.

Sherry Jones, the author, says she wanted her book to be “at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale”.

In order to do so, she fabricates a storyline about a lover, Safwan, whom Aisha runs away with – but then decides to leave and return to Muhammad.

But this invented plot dominates, leaving barely any room for the real history and importance of her story.

Whether you believe her to be fact, fiction or fantasy, and Muslims believe her to be very real, Aisha is of great significance in global history. The one fifth of the world population who are Muslim regards her as the wife of the Prophet Muhammad and a “mother of the believers”.

She is said to have been a leading scholar and teacher and recounted many of the traditions about the personality of Muhammad.

Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.

Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.

With this in mind, I would have ignored this book and let it fade into obscurity. Allowing the book to be remembered only for the lack of interest it generated would have been the ultimate poetic justice. The original publisher pulled out – and those parts of the media who wanted to stir things up said Muslims wanted it banned.

So, in order to find out what the (manufactured) fuss was about, I found myself spending 12 dreary hours reading this cringe-worthy melodramatic prose. Even if you feel that it is your duty to read it in the defence of freedom of speech, don’t do it, I beg you. Go out and enjoy the last sunny days of autumn, play with your children, watch paint dry. You’ll thank me for it.

Bodice-ripper

So let’s deal with its literary merits. If you’re a man, you’ll probably hate this bodice-ripper. If you like well-written prose, then you should steer clear too. What it does have going for it is pace and saucy pre-TV-watershed romance.
Open it randomly and you read churning phrases such as: “His eyes like honey flowed sweet glances over my face and body,” or “Is your young bride ripe at last?” Grab a crumbling Flake and a pot of ice-cream.

The author claims she wants to humanise Aisha, to reach out to the Muslim world and to create debate. I found the opposite of this spirit in the book. Muslims will not recognise the characters and stories here because they vary so wildly with recorded history. As the copyright note makes clear, this is a work of fiction.
Take, for example, the night of “Hijrah”. This was the moment when the first band of Muslims left the hostile city of Mecca to move to Medina where Islam flourished – a turning point in Islamic history. But the book changes events to place Aisha at the house of Muhammad.

Jones changes the very essence of these individuals, so their characters are at odds with historical traditions. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.
So, if you drive a wedge between Muslims and others by fictionalising core characters, how can the book be a platform for debate?

Jones admits that she has introduced concepts that were absent from the period and place to help to create her story. For example, Aisha is put into purdah, seclusion, as a child, but this is an Indian sub-continental idea then unknown to Arabia.

A huge focus of Aisha’s energies is to become the hatun, the lead wife, and make all the other wives bow to her. But hatun is a Turkish concept – and bowing is contrary to all Islamic teachings.

What we end up with is an outdated Orientalist reading of an exoticised woman.
Aisha’s angst is the angst of 19th Century western writers who couldn’t understand the culture they were observing. And when they couldn’t understand, they maligned the ideas they found unfamiliar, such as veiling of women like Aisha.

The result is an awkward unconvincing story, created to fit a pre-existing pre-determined idea of what life for Muslim women ought to be like. The cover art is The Queen of the Harem, a 19th Century Orientalist painting of a European-looking woman.

Sex, sex and more sex

The most irritating thing is its constant obsession with sex. The author sees it everywhere and in everything, and makes Aisha do the same. Her life is reduced to a parody of a smutty Bridget Jones diary.

I lost count of the references to “child bride”. Even till relatively modern times, marriage for women in their early teens was completely natural and common in parts of the world, including Europe.

Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.

What we need for debate and discussion are accessible histories of all the key figures in Islamic history. As Muslims, instead of honouring these individuals blindly, we will accord them much more respect by opening our eyes to their achievements through critical re-examination of their lives. This cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Some Muslims oppose a style of writing and analysis that offers insights into the very human lives these individuals led.

I believe this opposition is misplaced, because that is what we already do with the words and deeds of the Prophet, known as the hadith: we read, empathise and re-apply the essence of those day-to-day experiences.

The crucial issue in creating positive understanding and dialogue through such writings is that they must be historically sound, and see the world through the experiences, morality and realities of the protagonists themselves.


The Global Ummah Needs to Start Local

Muslims are rightly proud of the diverse global ummah, but we should be more willing to embrace the diversity of the British Muslim communities, and channel it to drive forward new ideas

Outside of the period of hajj in Makkah, the UK is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world. The extraordinary mix of ethnic origins and opinions from across the theological spectrum make it a unique moment in the history of the Muslim world, representing a microcosm of the diversity that Islam has always aspired to.

Islam and Muslims have travelled fluidly through history – across the Arabian Peninsula on horseback, by boat along the Eastern coasts of Africa and across to India and into the South Indian seas. It was often trade, by sea, or across the Silk Road, that flung Muslims eastward to China and Indonesia and west towards Morocco and Spain. In fact, records of the slave trade to the Americas suggested that Muslims had made it across the Atlantic long ago.

The re-drawing of national boundaries, wars, post-colonialism and the ease of travel and communication which have been the driving forces of the twentieth century, have once again shuffled Muslims around the world. Their movement has been mostly into Europe and North America, and nowhere has this redistribution and melting pot of Muslims been more apparent than in the UK.

In 2001, the British census estimated that there were 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, a number which is now forecast to be close to 2 million. This makes Muslims the second largest faith group in the country, and Muslims make up more than half of the non-Christian faith community. Almost three quarters of Muslims in the UK are from an Asian ethnic background. Those from Pakistan make up 43 per cent, from Bangladesh 16 per cent and Indians and other Asians make up 14 per cent. We probably could have guessed that. But did you know that 17 per cent consider themselves to be from a ‘white’ background, whether that is White British, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab or Eastern European? And did you know that 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin, from North and West Africa, particularly Somalia.

We also know that all these figures are out of date, and show little of those of Middle Eastern origin who have joined us on this green and pleasant land in the last few years. If you haven’t spotted your country on the list, then you make up that great overlooked fact of British Muslims – that they come from all the blessed corners of this God’s great earth.

But so what?

First, it is important to take note of these astounding facts. We live in an historic time and place for Muslims. We have more ideas, cultures and perspectives in a concentrated space than ever before, to inspire, motivate and produce more than ever before. If ever we were to create something overwhelming, tumultuous and inspirational, then the time has never been more ripe. The great age of Muslim learning flowered because minds were open to new ideas, perspectives and cultures. Thinkers would wait eagerly for new books and learnings to travel across the ethnicities and languages of the Muslim world.

Islam is also about appreciating different people and knowing them. The Qur’an is quite clear about this, and Muslims love to quote that Allah created people into “tribes and nations” so that we may “know each other”. We take positive pride in the diversity across the global Ummah. We claim that we love all our brothers and sisters, and that we feel their pain, wherever and whoever they are! Of course, this statement of bravado only lasts as long as we don’t have to go to a mosque that ‘belongs’ to those of a different ethnicity. As long as we don’t have to marry them. As long as we don’t have to have children with them. As long as we don’t have to work in communities together. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few.

We will protest vehemently for the Palestinian cause, and we may deplore the terrible situation in Iraq, but do we know any Palestinians or Iraqis here in the UK? It is easier to care for those thousands of miles away, then to look after those on our doorstep.

Nowhere in the world do we have more opportunity than in the UK, to put into action the ethos that the Prophet taught us – to treat all human beings as equal in worth, and to appreciate our variations and differences. At no time in history have we had the opportunity to infuse so much culture, so many ideas and so much vivacity into the future of Muslims.

History will judge us harshly if we remain enclosed in our ethnic and ideological bunkers. Our future generations will be even less forgiving if we fail to create the magic of cultural fusion and intellectual development that history has shown is in the DNA of the Muslim spirit.

This article was published in The Muslim News
Statistics quoted can be found in greater detail at the National Office of Statistics


Modesty is not a black and white issue

Modest dress is a key component of Islam, but it’s important to retain personality and aesthetics in the way we dress

This week I tried out the most extreme black cloak to make it into my wardrobe. A piece of elastic attached it to the top of my head, and then the single piece of long fabric hung snugly over my hair, sweeping over my shoulders and down past my feet. The final flourish was for me to hold together the two edges under my chin. Two eyes, a nose and a squashed mouth peeked through the gap under the black sheet. My husband peered into the bedroom, and nearly dropped his mug of tea.

“You look like a black blob,” he said, horrified. “Where have you gone?” He poked underneath the black cloth like a serious Sherlock Holmes. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the cloak, no man was going to tell me how to observe modest dress. “Don’t you want me to hide my figure so I’m not attracting attention?” I barked at him. He froze, rabbit in headlights, and then looked at me for a clue.

“Of course I want you to be modest,” he said, certain that this was the right answer.

“And isn’t this long cloak, the most modest thing I could wear?”

“Well yes. Erm, well no, well yes, no, yes, yeah… no? yes, yes… ”

I looked at him sternly, with the if-you-dare glint of a determined Muslim woman, who has pro-actively chosen to wear the headscarf and modest dress. He looked more terrified of me in my new guise of crazy-eyed Muslim harridan than he had of the black blob. But he was right to be distressed.

The question about how we should define modesty is constantly plaguing the Muslim community. Neither men nor women can map out any consistency or meaning in the higgledy-piggledy implementation of the rules of modest behaviour. At work you can interact with the opposite gender but not at Islamic conferences. Muslim men can shake hands with non-Muslim women, but not vice-versa. Brides who normally wear hijab will uncover in front of men to be shown off. In some communities, men will push into the women’s section during weddings, but will enforce segregation at home. In others it is the opposite, with women not allowed to participate in mosque management due to the fitnah (division) this could cause, but happily socialising together.

The spirit and implementation of modesty is confused at best. Women and their clothing have become hijacked into being the symbol of how religious we are as a community. If women are properly covered, then everyone seems to think they can rest easy.

Her choice of dress is inextricably linked to a judgement about her spiritual status. At the sober end she is considered overly pious, not to mention excruciatingly dull. By contrast those women who choose not to wear a headscarf, are immediately judged to be irreligious, un-spiritual and not considered to be ‘properly’ practising. There has been a visible increase in the number of women wearing the hijab (head covering), the jilbab (loose fitting long dress) as well as the niqab (face covering).

Colours are subtle: greys, browns, blues, blacks. These women cite their dress as a freedom, an escape from the body-obsessed post-modern world, as well as a greater commitment to the values of Islam. At the other extreme is the rise of the Muhajababe. Her head covered, she probably wears skinny fit jeans and lycra t-shirts. For her, the headscarf itself has shown her commitment to her Muslim identity and faith.

We sighed simultaneously at the black cloak I was still wearing. “We all end up looking the same, I feel anonymous and unknown. I’m not me anymore,” I mourned to him. “Some people say that our voices should not be heard either. I’m part of a black silent mass at the back of the room. Surely individuality is important? Especially if Allah says that there are as many ways to know Him as there are human beings?”

He responded enigmatically: “Each flower that God has created is specifically a different colour, and design. Even when they are closed, they make an effort to show their personality, and individuality.”

I squinted dubiously at him. “Does this mean you think women don’t need to wear niqab, jilbab or even the hijab?”

“Defining what ‘modesty’ means isn’t easy, and we Muslims spend an awful lot of time on the outward signs like dress and physical separation. Where we need to focus more is on the complex relationships between modesty, personality and aesthetics.”

I draped the abaya playfully over his shoulders. “Modesty isn’t just for Muslim women to worry about,” I reminded him. “To build a strong community we all have to be concerned with inner spirituality as well as outer codes of conduct like dress.” Grinning cheesily, I pointed at the cloak: “Modesty is definitely not a black and white issue.”

This article was published in The Muslim News


Bishop Nazir-Ali to speak at Interfaith forum about pluralism

Imagine my surprise when I came across a listing for a lecture being held this evening by the East London Three Faiths Forum: “FAITH IN A PLURAL COMMUNITY with Bishop Nazir Ali (Bishop of Rochester)”. Surely an interfaith group should be worried about some of the comments he has made?

The Telegraph wrote: ‘In an outspoken attack on the custom of Muslim women to cover their faces, the Pakistani-born bishop said that the Islamic community needed to make greater efforts to integrate into British society. “It is fine if they want to wear the veil in private, but there are occasions in public life when it is inappropriate for them to wear it,” he said.’

[shelina's comment: if the Bishop knew anything about the veil, then he would know that the concept of wearing it in 'private' is comical - the veil is a public matter, not a private one]

In January 2008 Nazir-Ali wrote that Islamic extremism had turned “already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas” and claimed that there had been attempts to “impose an ‘Islamic’ character on certain areas”. When he was challenged to name such areas, by various leading figures including Hazel Blears, he has failed to provide such evidence. He has failed to actually back up such a divisive statement. For a man of faith, it seems a strange way to build up community links and inter-faith work.

I have sent some people along to attend the lecture, and will post up their comments once they are in.