• Happy half birthday, baby!

    This was first broadcast on BBC Radio 2‘s “Pause for Thought”. It’s available for you to listen to until July 26th.

    Today, my newborn baby is 6 months old. Even though I always loved children and babies, I was never a particularly maternal woman, never felt broody.

    In my twenties, I travelled voraciously around the world, seeing as many places and people as I could afford on my graduate’s salary.

    The world is full of such wonders that I found it addictive – from the eerie Jordanian deserts, to the ancient history of Beijing, to the icy mystery of the glaciers of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I was always on the lookout for love, for that special someone. But babies? No Thanks!

    I did get married, and experienced the fulfillment of having a partner, a new experience after having lived an independent life till then. Yet I found myself reflecting more and more that what I hadn’t yet experienced was the parent-child relationship. I felt a particular longing to do that not because I was broody for a baby, but because of the relationship I have with my own mother – something we’ve both worked hard to cultivate. I didn’t want to miss out on that kind of intimate relationship.

    In these first few months, my love for the little one has grown – I’ve experienced that fashionable thing called ‘bonding’. But watching her first smile, her legs that wiggle in excitement, even the constant wake-ups in the middle of the night haven’t just made me love her more, they’ve made me feel more compassionate and loving to my own parents. After all, they will have experienced the same sleepless nights, the same adoration of me as a baby, the same abandonment of their own priorities in order to cuddle, bathe and play with me.

    The Qur’an tells us that “Wealth and children are the adornments of the life of this world” and it’s true. The baby has certainly brought beauty and wonder to my life. I had travelled to far flung places to experience and explore the wonders of the universe. But – at the risk of sounding cheesy, it was not until the moment that I first held my baby that I realised that ‘out there’ – wherever that is – isn’t the only place to find wonders. The intimate relationships which give love and definition to our lives are a wonder to be found much closer to home.

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  • The love story begins at the wedding

    This just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, in response to the question: “What is marriage for?”

    Marriage is a formal written commitment to each other that benefits the couple, the children and society.

    The idea that the reason to get married is to express your love for each other – or worse still to have a good knees-up with your friends – is a modern nonsense. Love is an important part of marriage for sure, but it is not a mandatory prerequisite. After all, real-life marriage is not a Hollywood movie, nor a Cinderella-esque fairytale where the love story ends at the wedding. We’ve got it backwards: the love story begins at the wedding and ought to grow. And it’s here that we seem to have got mixed up as a modern society. The wedding is not the marriage. The wedding is a gateway to marriage, a formalised written commitment.

    Contractual agreements in personal relations are underrated these days. You wouldn’t buy a house or start a job without a contract, but we have romantic notions that a verbal declaration of love is sufficient to entrust our life, heart, emotional and spiritual wellbeing in another person.

    Formal, written, structured agreements do have an impact on individuals.Harriet Baber says security is the main reason for marriage, but her argument is a negative one, giving security against what she sees as the minus points of singledom. But I’m arguing that commitment and contracts encourage a more positive state for the couple – otherwise why put in the effort? There is clarity of expectation and direction. There is a clear understanding of joining together in union. There’s the positive mental attitude that says you’re in it for the long haul – and positive thinking is mighty powerful. Marriage in this sense is for the private good.

    Having structured units with parameters and responsibilities that society recognises is also for the public good – offering stability, respect and boundaries for that relationship. And marriage seems to be a good thing for children, too. Yet we have no training these days in how to initiate and manage relationships (sex yes, relationships no). It’s all Hollywood and Heat magazine.

    Arguments about what marriage is for tend to focus on only one of the three components – the couple, society or children, but the fact is that it’s a little bit of all three. Marriage is a formal written commitment between two people, with clearly spelt out rights and responsibilities on both sides. (That’s the problem with the “expression of love” or “knees up” approach to weddings – instead of focusing on the relationship, it’s all about the party.) These rights and responsibilities are recognised by wider society and enforced either legally or socially. In our culture, one example of these things is usually fidelity. This is usually a clear expectation of both spouses, and wider society is expected to support this. Hence we have the greater (but sadly diminishing) social stigma of having a relationship with someone who is married. Happy, well supported and stable couples mean happier and more stable societies. It’s mutually beneficial.

    This is Cif belief, so I guess we ought to mention religion. Marriage has a central place in religion, and Islam is no exception. So, to cover off the religious aspect, here is what Islam says: that marriage is a divine sign in order that the spouses may find peace and contentment in each other, and that love and mercy has been placed between them. In its essence, marriage is for the benefit of the two people involved, creating a tranquil and loving union. But it’s more than that too: to get married is to complete “half your faith”, it is part of fulfilling the human mandate and achieving spiritual perfection. And only then do we get to procreation as the reason for marriage. Islam is big on clear, solid family structure, and children knowing and respecting who their parents are. And it’s also very firm on parents taking clear responsibility for the upbringing and long-term care of their children.

    A few months ago I was rummaging through the fabulous second-hand bookshop Barter Books in Northumberland, when my eye was caught (as it is want to do, since I am a writer with a fascination for love and marriage) by a dusty tome entitled Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes. Mainly, I love the word “wooing” and wish we would use it more often. I also wish that as a society there was more wooing going on. First published in 1900, the author travelled through various cultures and brings us stories and pictures of how different peoples engage in marriage. (Particularly good is the one on “Wigwamland”.) The one constant she is at pains to point out is that marriage flourishes in all contexts. This abundance of marriage across time and geography is something that should give weight to this question of what marriage is for and its potential benefits.

    More than a hundred years ago, she made an observation that would not be out of place today: “I have found the marriage customs of most peoples strangely alike. And I have found the marriage fact, wedlock itself, almost identical everywhere. […] The highest of all arts is the art of living with others – above all the art of living with those nearest and dearest. How many of our children are ever taught its alphabet?”

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  • Why Valentines is an even bigger problem for the Middle East and Muslims than they think it is

    This column was published in this week’s National, aimed at the audience in the UAE.

    Valentine’s Day will generate high emotions next week – and not just from those in love. Some people will be waiting excitedly to see if they will receive gifts and meals, while others will be angry at the hold that this occasion is gaining in the Middle East. The negativity of the latter focuses around its vulgar commercialism and its celebration of a very fickle interpretation of love. These are complaints that echo around the world.

    But there is an additional criticism that comes from this region: that Valentine’s Day is alien and even contradictory to Middle Eastern culture.

    The myths that a society venerates about love tell us a great deal about its views on this subject. So if Valentine’s Day is alien, what myths tell us about the shape, value and role of love in the Middle East?

    I’ve spent time talking to women in the Gulf exploring which myths and legends they feel most connected to when it comes to love. I offer them a selection of western fairytales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, alongside Middle Eastern tales like that of Layla and Majnun and Scheherazade.

    Much to my surprise, many of the younger women have never heard of the Middle Eastern heroines and align themselves more closely to the western archetypes. This should concern those who put forward the argument that the western notion of love is “alien”. Middle Eastern storytelling and the values it conveys are already being eclipsed in the English-speaking Gulf population. And this is significant because the myths and stories of love at the centre of our society shape our social values and expectations.

    Consider Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which convey an idea of love as something passive for women, waiting to be liberated by princes who judge them for how they look rather than who they are. This looks-based love conquers all, including social and geographic barriers.

    By contrast, in Scheherazade, love is not mentioned; Scheherazade is a story of the social consequences of a woman’s infidelity, but also the power of the supposedly softer woman’s skills of guile and intelligence. In Layla and Majnun love is seen as the downfall of the two characters. Instead, the story of Layla and Majnun puts forward a model of family duty, and a warning that stepping outside of family convention can have catastrophic outcomes.

    Somehow, neither model of love seems to fit the aspirations of young Middle Eastern women. Where family duty or cleverness was once used to determine a woman’s destiny, today’s woman does want love, and also wants a more individual say in who she marries. However, Middle Eastern discourse does not appear to allow women to talk of love, which is why the western stories – including Valentine’s Day – have captured imaginations: they finally offer an outlet to talk about love publicly. This is despite the fact that the model of love put forward by such stories is problematic, based on superficiality, instant gratification and the need to be constantly high by “being in love”.

    Those who argue that Valentine’s Day and western ideals of love are “alien” to the Middle East must offer an alternative model that captures this aspiration for “love”. And this has to start by talking of love publicly. If this doesn’t happen, then the superficial saccharine kind of love will come to occupy centre stage in the discussion, because it will be the only kind of love talked about openly, and to which people can aspire. And human beings will always gravitate to some form of love than no love at all.

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  • Is an arranged marriage the answer to my prayers?

    This has just been published On Faith, in the Washington Post.

    “Love just happens” is a romantic notion that has a strong influence on our modern ideas of relationships. Consider some of the myths that inform our views on marriage and love.

    Marriage is Cinderella’s only escape route from domestic drudgery, and then only if she looks attractive and glamorous. No wonder women feel a pressure that marriage will free them from social oppression, and that they must at all times look beautiful. Sleeping Beauty’s liberation is even more frustrating as she must lay passively until the prince comes to free her.

    By contrast, arranged marriages are a pro-active approach to the issue of finding a spouse, where the community, the family and the individual work together to locate someone who will make a good life partner. It’s hard enough to find someone special, why not get as much help as possible? No need to wait helplessly for princes to chop their way through dense forests, or fairy godmothers to magic up sparkly shoes and horse-drawn carriages. Control over the search for that partner who will complete you is returned entirely to you – the individual – and the people who know you best and care about you the most are your cheerleaders – your family, and your close community.

    It is worth digressing for a moment here to point out that the pivot of the arranged marriage process are the two individuals searching to get married. The direction and final choice – whatever the reasons – are theirs alone. Those around the individuals are guided by their choices and desires as to the kind of person that they want. Forced marriages are wrong.

    There’s another worrying subtext to the fairy stories and film fantasies – that the woman is only an adjunct to the man’s success. She only gains status by being attached to him. Even the recent announcement of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton has a hint to it that she has now achieved something – because she is engaged to a Prince, rather than bringing her own merits to the marriage.

    One of the things I describe in my book “Love in a Headscarf,” is the journey to understand the Islamic principles described in the Qur’an that men and women are created from a single soul and that they are made in pairs. They find contentment and love in each other, and an understanding of the Divine through marriage. The analogy of a pair suggests that both the man and the woman are essential to the equation, and both are required to maintain harmony and balance. The woman is not an afterthought.

    We can go a step further and say that the same applies to the way that men and women interact at a wider social level. Only by acting as a pair – where both are valued and integral to the other, after all one half of a pair is useless – can we achieve social harmony. There are two conclusions from this. First, Islam has a strong blueprint for gender relations. This might come as a surprise to many readers, since our news and media coverage is at pains to highlight how oppressed Muslim women are. Yes, it’s true that Muslim women do suffer a great deal, but this is more to do with culture and patriarchy than Islam. What we need is a return to Islam’s original Qur’anic egalitarian notion of gender: that men and women are created from a single soul.

    Second, society has a vested interested in creating and nurturing strong marriages. Again, it is worth noting that under Islamic law if a marriage is coerced then it is not valid at all – it simply never existed. And it might be even more surprising to learn that the marriage contract is initiated by the woman so that it is clear she has engaged in the liaison of her own free will. That simple rules such as these are not observed is a matter of cultural oppression, rather than anything wrong with the arranged marriage system or the Islamic approach to love.

    My own journey to find love was one that was at once hilarious and perilous. That I did it a different way from that you might expect from a modern Western woman — and a feminist of religion at that — makes it an unusual story. But it is one in which you might be surprised to find the universal themes that pervade all of our searches for love: humour, heartbreak and humanity.

    Click here to read an excerpt from Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s new book, “Love in a Headscarf,” a memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman. She was named by The Times newspaper as one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women. You can read more of her writings on her blog at

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  • Can love be measured?

    This week, the UK’s prime minister announced the commissioning of a regular “happiness index” of the British population. France, we know, intends to include happiness in its measurement of economic progress and Canadian statisticians already poll wellbeing across the country, though not for official data.

    Since an agreed-upon definition of happiness has eluded philosophers and scholars for thousands of years, how on earth can it be indexed or measured?

    More intriguing for me, as a writer about love, is whether such an index would measure subjective experiences of romantic, familial and parental love. After all, love is supposed to make us feel happier and more contented. If we have more love, then we should be happier, right?

    I don’t know how measuring happiness, let alone love, would work. Love has a certain delicious vagueness about it. For example, when single men and women on the cusp of marriage ask married counterparts how they can ascertain if their intended partner is “The One”, the response is suitably enigmatic: “You just know”.

    When it comes to love we accept this lack of clarity as part of its allure, as if knowing its construction would diminish from its magic.

    The married will advise that mapping the seemingly daily fluctuations in love-weather are even more elusive. In such cases, the ability to measure love might be helpful if only to create a “Love-ometer” to hang by the front door to warn of the love climate indoors.

    Certain activities enhance love for sure – showing concern, helping with chores, making romantic gestures. However, these activities are not a guaranteed recipe to send the Love-ometer mercury upwards. If only love were as exact as stirring together one part housework, one part compliments, one part romance and two parts listening. Instead, love seems to be more like a casserole: you keep putting in all the ingredients, and you hope a tasty love will come out of it. But nothing is for sure.

    Despite my reservations about destroying its enigmatic qualities, I must ask if love can be enhanced by science.

    Apparently … well, read on.

    A study published last month by Stephanie Ortigue, a neuroscientist at Syracuse University in New York state, set out to give some definition and measurement to love. “Love is one of the most important concepts in life. It is not well understood. As a scientist I wanted to bring some rationality to the irrational, and to see if love exists in the brain.” Her conclusion is that it does – in 12 parts of it.

    Her findings suggest that not only does love feel good and possibly lessen pain, it also encourages people to continue to forge a bond – partly because they are “chasing the high” of the love-soaked brain. Additionally, the higher areas of the brain are activated to reinforce the fact that love is more than a basic emotion: it involves cognition and complex functions including goal-directed motivation, reward and self-representation.

    It’s interesting stuff about the nuts and bolts of love, but for the romantics among us who believe in the intangibility of love and that “love conquers all”, does this really matter?

    Ortigue says it does. By knowing which parts of the brain love triggers, she wants to use her results to help those in relationships to better manage them, and those who are depressed or suffering other negative outcomes as a result of relationship break-up to get through their dark times more effectively.

    My negativity towards mixing love and science may therefore prove unfounded. Instead of sucking the magic out of love, having science as another way of understanding its mechanism could actually help us improve both the quality and quantity of love that we experience. And if the happiness index can measure that, I’m all for it.

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  • Love – good for the gander, but not for the goose?

    My weekly column in The National UAE was published today. I’d love to hear your thoughts – do leave a comment.

    “It’s fine for me to have a ‘love marriage’,” the male caller to the radio show said, “but I won’t accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister.”

    I was live on the air last week, co-hosting one of the UAE’s most popular morning radio shows as part of my invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair.

    We were discussing the fiery topics of love and marriage. Calls and text messages came through furiously as this usually private topic was given a forum for public debate.

    The notion of “love marriage” is one that carries a note of unspoken and sinful rebellion across Middle East and some Asian cultures. The open discussion of love, even within the sacred boundaries of marriage, is taboo – especially for women. But we do need to talk about it because the ability to love – our spouses, our communities and the Divine – is what makes us human and binds us together.

    My presence on the show and the publication of my book, Love in a Headscarf, challenge the prevailing silence.

    I don’t advocate mass love-ins or the abandonment of the arranged marriage process: quite the opposite. I’m in favour of a structured approach to love and marriage with support and input from families.

    Nevertheless, my position on the subject is clear: love is not a four-letter word.

    As the hosts of the show, we challenged the caller: “Would you say that your attitude to love and marriage is hypocritical if you can have a love marriage, but your sister can’t?” “Yes,” he responded. “And what are you going to do to change your hypocritical position?” “Nothing. That’s just how it is.”

    He was not alone in being unashamed of his double standard when it comes to love and marriage for men and women.

    Another caller, male and 36 years old, told us his personal story, which initially tugged at my heartstrings. “I’m a divorced father of three, and I’d like to remarry. I think it’s important to be open with prospective families about my personal situation, but as soon as I tell them these details, they break off all discussions.”

    Our societies shouldn’t discriminate against those who are divorced or who already have children, especially when they are honest about their situation. But on delving deeper, we found a murkiness in his position.

    “I keep being offered girls who are leftovers,” he whined. Leftovers? These are women we’re talking about.

    “I want a girl who is 28, not divorced or with children. I don’t want a leftover girl who is 36,” he said without shame, just minutes after complaining of his own treatment by women.

    The hypocrisy of these two male callers was bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that they were not embarrassed by their positions. As men, they saw love as their right and their privilege alone. They would not permit women the same love, the same life choice.

    Forceful text messages came through from female listeners. “If these are the men, kill me now!” one wrote. I can only assume she was joking.

    But one message raised an issue at the heart of the debate: “We must make it clear that these attitudes are based in culture, not religion.”

    To eradicate these double standards, this difference needs to be made abundantly clear. And for this to happen, what we need most is to be able to discuss love and marriage openly and honestly, without fear or shame.

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  • Film review: ‘Arranged’

    This review was published in The Times.

    This is a film that neither proselytises nor patronises religion, a refreshing change

    Arranged is the kind of film that brought me joy to watch because it celebrates the choices of women to whom religion is not just important, but critical in their lives. The story is written from within their own world view, showing their struggles with tradition and culture.

    The themes that the film explores range from love and companionship, independence and belonging, religion and secularism, modesty and hedonism and reflect the voices of many like me who embrace religion as an important part of the modern world. And for those viewers who just don’t “get” religion, this is a gentle and endearing film that gives an insider’s glimpse into the way such women view the world. It neither proselytises nor patronises religion, whether you believe in it or not.

    You can’t help but like the two lead characters, Rochel and Nasira, if for nothing else than the growth that they show through the narrative of the film. It is the most traditional of institutions – marriage and matchmaking – that lead them to discover who they are, and what is important to them.

    Just as when I wrote my own book, I felt that the universal search for love, relationships and companionship was a wonderful vehicle for exploring the different ways that people set out to achieve the same essential human goals. One of the film’s great successes was that it avoided third party judgement of the cultures and traditions, but allowed the characters themselves to tell their own stories from within their own heritage. It allowed the voices to speak for themselves.

    As a Muslim viewer of the film, it was clear to me that the writer had a stronger insight into the Jewish perspective – which reflects her own upbringing. This was informative for me as I got an insight into the Orthodox lifestyle – something I’ve always wanted to see, but never known how to gain access to.

    The writer’s background also translated into a more nuanced and confident approach to assessing the flaws as well as the positives of Rochel’s situation.

    Nasira, the Muslim woman, is very likeable and the writer has done well to get under her skin. It is rare to see a female Muslim protagonist with such confidence and bubbliness, as well as humour and charm, so I’m not complaining. But I sense that the writer wasn’t able to inject the same level of compassionate critique into Nasira’s character that she could into Rochel’s.

    There are some good comedic moments, including the standard ‘bad-date-montage’. And Nasira’s comment about her nephew and Rochel’s brother playing together in the park as ‘an advert for world peace’ shows that the film makers and protagonists have a sense of the place of their film in the wider social and political narrative.

    Is this a chick flick just for women? Yes and no. Of course the challenges that women face in particular when it comes to social pressures to marry will appeal most immediately to women, but this is a story about more than just marriage. Men will also relate to the confusions and pressures of conforming to a system that may seem at odds with its surroundings, as well as the struggle to find meaning and identity in an increasingly secular setting that has less and less respect for religion and people who make religious choices.

    The only real criticism of this heart-warming film is that it has a very cute rom-com ending where perfect marriage partners are found, understanding is established and friendships endure. But this is after all a rom-com, so nothing wrong with a cutesy ending like that. And for those who want to complain that the lives of religious women could never be happy-happy like this, I’d say a number of things. Suggesting that religious women are not happy with their choices is to bring a huge number of prejudices to judging the film – after all this is a film exploring exactly the kind of women who are happy with their choices, but who reach that contentment through the struggle to reconcile tradition and religion and find their own voices within that space. It’s exactly this kind of voice that we miss in our public discourse about women and religion, as such women are constantly talked over. Here we finally have a chance to hear what they say for themselves. Second, in every society and culture women face difficult relationship choices, some which work out well and some that don’t – why complain when a rom-com about religious women has a happy ending? And finally, with all the negativity that exists in the public space about women who choose to uphold their religious values, it’s refreshing to find a small space where the joy of family, society and religion can be relished.


    If you’d like to read a review by a Jewish author of the same film, you can read one here also at The Times.


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  • The Fairytales of Love

    This article was first published in EMEL Magazine.

    I remember the day that I first fell in love. I was thirteen, and the film Grease was playing on TV. And there he was. Cool, trendy, good looking and ready to do anything for his girl. He was of course John Travolta, and I had no doubt that he would turn up on my doorstep and ask me to marry him. Things didn’t quite work out like that – he went on to become a scientologist, and I set off on my own quest for love.

    The stories and legends we grow up with though, make it tough for reality to live up to those kind of epic romances. I thought back to the fairytales that I had grown up with; these were the stories which shape the ideas of our culture about love. Without even realising it, the innocent tales had whispered into my ears, and those of my peers, were simple words that influence the way that we see the world.Sleeping Beauty

    To find true love, I would have to be as beautiful as sleeping beauty, which meant that my prince had to be a strong testosterone fuelled hero who could chop down forests… which seemed a bit, well, neanderthal to me.

    Cinderella's beauty discovered through a shoeOr, to find true love, I’d also have to be as lovely and caring as Cinderella who was nice even to her wicked step sisters, but then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with a prince who was so fickle that he could only recognise me when I was all dressed up. What! He needed a fancy designer shoe to identify that I was a real beauty inside and out?

    And on both counts, I didn’t feel like I needed to be rescued or saved from household drudgery or from a century long snooze. I was – still am – a modern woman, who is quite capable of saving herself. But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I want to.

    The thing is, I rather like the idea of having someone around – not from financial or social necessity, but to support, love and encourage each other. Love for completion, love for fulfilment. Love for spiritual wayfaring.

    It might be fun to play at princes and princesses, but once you’ve taken away the pretty frocks, glass slippers and big castles, that’s when you know who both of you really are, and what you bring for each other. When you take away the wrapping paper and ribbon, is it still love?

    It’s worth remembering as we enter the wedding season:  Love isn’t perfect or airbrushed, it can’t be. In fact, we should be strong enough to assert that love should not be so hideously plastic or saccharine.    It is easy to love in the moments of beauty and happiness.  The challenge for us is to still love when it is difficult,  because I believe that is when love is  at its most rewarding .

    It is at that moment that our human essence fulfils its purpose to selflessly serve another. And at that very same time, despite our own imperfections, we are intimately recognised and cherished for our own essence.

    Love takes time and perseverance, not just weeks or months, but years – even decades – through those clichéd good times and bad, the proverbial ups and downs. Love starts out as exciting, full of the heady rush of romance, and we must celebrate new couples and help them enjoy the phase of red roses and moonlit walks. Even those who have made it through the journey of life together, can share a moment of exquisite romance and the pure joy that it brings.

    Collecting those early experiences in a memory bank can anchor the moments when love becomes hard work. A memory bank is love’s rainy-day-fund. A memory bank brings the rewards of the investment that all those who wish to love, and be loved, need to make. But those investments must be carefully selected, and cultivated with care and attention.  Love is certainly the enjoyment of the rose, but it is also the pleasure of seeing the plant grow. And that, of course, takes time.

    In our age of speed and convenience – or as John Travolta would have said – the age of ‘Greased lightening’ –  love is the one thing that continues to beat to its own patient rhythm.

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  • Should Marriage be Political: Marriage, realism and rugs (from the Guardian)

    This was published today on Comment is Free in response to the question they are asking “Should marriage be political’

    Marriage, realism and rugs

    Marriage is not just a bit of paper, But it needs a clear contract at its foundation and the state should make this easier

    Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It’s an agreement that two people will create and build a relationship together. Is that unromantic? Maybe it seems that way because we think of contracts as regulating things like house purchases, business transactions, loans and financial agreements.We like – in fact we demand – strong binding written commitments when it comes to the inanimate things in our lives. So why don’t we take the same approach to the agreement that is probably the most important thing in our life and will have the greatest impact on us – the relationship with our partner?

    The “piece of paper” is the written representation of the agreement between the couple based on a level-headed discussion between the two individuals who are coming together. Relationships can easily be derailed without a clear understanding of things like how the couple will approach finances, shared life values, how to deal with in-laws (or simply outlaw them), where in the world the couple wants to live, what working arrangements, who will stay at home to raise children (if anyone) or even if each of the two want children at all.

    This more substantial meaning and agreement that ought to go into building a relationship is absent in today’s popular discussion about marriage – or any long term marriage-type partnership. It may not surprise you to know that I’m an advocate of marriage, but I believe that the same clarity of agreement should apply to all intimate relationships. Many of today’s relationships are all about falling in love and achieving the dizzy heights of romance. And love and romance are great – I wrote a whole book about searching for them called Love in a Headscarf. However, side by side with feeling “that feeling” the wider framework of agreement that I mention above is mostly unclear and un-spelt out in the grammar of the relationship. The piece of paper ought not to be symbolic but rather it should be an important verbalisation and written commitment – a document – of the aspirations and understanding of the relationship.

    The Imilchil Marriage Festival takes places in a Moroccan village in the Atlas mountains every autumn, where bachelors from the surrounding area will come to see a range of bachelorettes that want to get married. I’m generally ambivalent about the idea of marriage markets, but the way that these women set about engaging in a relationship and empowering themselves in it is pertinent to our discussion here. They will weave a rug in the run up to the event, incorporating various symbols which represent what they are looking for in a marriage. A line of camels represents a taste for travel, a row of mosques might indicate an interest in religion. The rug with its myriad of symbols represents her aspirations for her marriage. As the bachelors are introduced to the bachelorettes, they inspect the rug to see what kind of marriage the woman has in mind, so that the two of them have a shared perspective on life and a common understanding of the relationship. In later years, if the wife feels that her husband is not honouring their commitment, she just points to her rug to remind him of their agreement. I believe that the husband ought really to have his own rug too so there is a shared understanding of the relationship. In essence, the rug here is the ‘bit of paper’ that we dismiss so easily.

    The state’s role in the marital contract is the same as with other contracts – to help the parties to manage the contract by offering a context which is conducive to the contract, and to intervene and resolve the breakdown of the contract in the most suitable fashion. Traditionally this was managed by the support structures of families or religious institutions, both of which were there to help the couple build and manage their relationship. But the influence of both of those has now diminished.

    However, Cameron’s approach is wrong because it treats marriage as an arrangement which is about children. What we need from politicians is not tax breaks, but better institutions to bolster relationships. Why not have guidance available from relationship centres. We don’t have innate relationship skills – we have to learn them. We have “family planning” for our sex lives; what about relationship planning for our emotional and personal lives?

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  • Islam says let love blossom

    [I am posting this article belatedly. It was published in The National a few weeks ago to co-incide with the day which in Arabic is charmingly called Yawm-al-hubb, the Day of Love.]

    Before reading this article I should warn you that it might be considered subversive. It may lead you into the paths of disbelief. Beware dear reader, for we are about to discuss Valentine’s Day.Even though I am a Muslim, or perhaps because I am one, I will quite readily wish you “Happy Valentine’s Day” today. Even this simple act might land me in trouble with a handful of Islamic scholars such as the Egyptian cleric Hazem Shuman. He warned young Muslims this week that Valentine’s Day was “more dangerous than Aids, Ebola and cholera”. Wow, I had no idea that a red rose could be so lethal.
    We enjoy such perplexing tales courtesy of the right-wing press, keen to promote the view that Muslims see Valentine’s Day – and by extension love itself – as evil. Fox News last year covered a Kuwaiti MP who chaired a committee to prevent “such alien events from impacting on Kuwaiti society and spreading corruption”. Britain’s Daily Star tabloid newspaper elevated the former head of Al-Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary, to cleric status and quoted him saying that those celebrating Valentine’s Day “would rot in hell”.

    Boy, if there is anything that Muslims are good at it, it is melodrama. But are Muslims such as these just as guilty as the right-wing press of confusing the celebration of love with love itself?

    The origins of Valentine’s Day lie not in the romance with which we associate it today, but in events any person of faith would uphold. The celebration is usually traced to a number of early Christian martyrs called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers.

    Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers.
    Since these events happened well before the advent of Islam, it is notable that the individuals are remembered for standing up for their belief in God and upholding the sanctity of marriage, two fundamental pillars of Islam as a deen, a way of life.
    There were already Roman celebrations linked to fertility, so it is possible the church decided to celebrate the feast of St Valentine at the same time to “Christianise” the festival. In the same way, Muslims in Egypt proposed to rename February 14 as “Prophet Mohammed’s Day”. One can only imagine that this was to defuse misconceptions young people may have about love and its various expressions.

    Those who argue for moving to a more “proper” Islamic celebration are most likely the same who argue against a specific day for love in the first place, their objection being why should love be limited to Valentine’s Day? But doesn’t the same argument apply to celebrating Prophet Mohammed’s Day? Shouldn’t that be every day as well?

    The connection with romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th century poem celebrating the king’s engagement described it as the time when birds choose their mate. From then on romance and Valentine’s Day become increasingly entwined. The French set up a “court of love” on Valentine’s Day in 1400 to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, with the judges selected by the women themselves.

    With the constant discussions about sharia courts, which deal mainly with women and personal law, perhaps they too should be renamed courts of love and aim to instil love and compassion between those in dispute? They could even allow female plaintiffs to choose the judges as in the French model – they would be selecting from a panel of judges, so all would be equally qualified. It seems a courteous and civilised way of resolving the current legal imbalances in many courts which do not allow women to be fully heard.
    The modern Valentine’s Day was created by Esther Howland, who mass produced cards of paper lace in 1847. Her seemingly innocuous act changed the face of the US greeting card industry which now credits Valentine’s Day with the second largest sales after Christmas.

    Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year, with women buying 85 per cent of them. Many are sent anonymously. It is a worrying echo of the stereotype that women ought to be shy in expressing their liking of someone, the hunted rather than the hunted.

    Conversely, men spend twice as much as women on the day, suggesting that they too are under pressure to conform to a stereotype of wooing a woman with their wealth. Advertisers and marketers have turned love into a cosmetic, superficial experience.

    On the other hand, Muslims seem to have reduced romance to a legalistic directive, determining their three words to be “it is bid’ah”, a worldly innovation contrary to Islam. Expressing love on days such as Valentine’s is “bid’ah”. What is perplexing is not just this legal opinion, but that Muslims need to ask such questions. How did we 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 Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

    These two polar opposites have both reduced love to a caricature of its true self, forcing us to choose between cheesy superficiality on the one hand and heartless rigidity on the other. It sounds almost like a “with us or against us” choice, and we all know the trouble that causes.

    Presented with this stark absurdity, all human beings – which, of course, includes Muslims – will be forced to look into their hearts and realise that expressing love is simply common sense. Instead of fatwas on how, what and where to celebrate, we need legal scholars to decree a return to the way of the Prophet – common sense and humanity.

    Those people of faith who oppose Valentine’s Day are missing a trick. Faith is about celebrating love – love of the Divine, love of humanity, love of your companion. There is no need to reject a celebration of love; rather those who believe in the sanctity of marriage should recapture such events for their original celebration of marriage. And each Valentine’s Day let us see love blossom and a thousand marriages bloom.
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