• Women and marriage: what’s in it for us?

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE) today


    Whether in the East or the West, women are marrying later. This summer The Economist ran a feature piece looking at the “Flight from marriage” in Asia, which highlighted that the average bridal age is rising. So is the percentage of single women. This month, the cover story on The Atlantic Magazine, a thought-provoking American publication, is about how the marriage market is changing and women are marrying later, or not at all.

    For many centuries the only way single women could achieve social standing was through marriage. Financially, they were dependent first on their fathers and then on their husbands. But with education and employment, their social status and financial independence is rising.

    If marriage is no longer required for a woman to have stability or finance, what does she need a husband for? Why would they want to go into the kind of domestic servitude that some marriages entail and give up a life of fulfilment and selfdetermination? Worse still, why should they engage in a traditional marriage format where the wife is still expected to do the domestic work and undertake the caring duties for the family, and at the same time work to bring in an income?

    Societies that believe in marriage have to come up with better reasons to persuade women to marry. If they don’t, the fallout could be significant. Women in general tend to marry up. With more women becoming educated and more successful in employment, this is leaving men at the bottom of the ladder unmarried. In countries such as India and China, the number of men already exceeds the number of women by tens of millions due to male preference under China’s one-child policy as well as female foeticide. Society is generally built on a bedrock of family units and without marriage, social structures will be significantly affected. Later or no marriage means that fertility rates drop. Decades on, there will be a whole generation of older, single women. These should worry policymakers, as much as the proponents of marriage and traditional family life. What I’m most concerned about is that this is a significant loss for women themselves. As a society, we want women to be happy, fulfilled and flourishing in good relationships.

    Before religious authorities get up in arms that I’m criticising marriage – I’m not. I’m a supporter of marriage. What I am referring to is the lived reality of marriage for women that is wildly different from the theory of matrimonial bliss.

    Women are looking for a reality of marriage that is for companionship and fulfilment, with a partner who will support them and see them as an equal. They see domestic duties as something to be shared, they see a continuation of their independence after marriage.

    Trying to resist getting women educated or marrying them off early is not going to prevent the “problem”. Women are increasingly becoming aware of their rights, and education and employment among women are steadily increasing. If nothing else, families want the income. If your best argument for marriage is to restrict all other options, then you are admitting that marriage isn’t very attractive on its own merits.

    And therein lies the crux of the problem. Women want to get married, but they need to be persuaded of its attractions. East or West, women are wondering about marriage: what’s in it for us?

    continue reading
  • Hurrah for Wills and Kate! But what about all the other brides?

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today (UAE).

    Hurrah for Wills and Kate! At the end of next week, they will be finally tying the knot at a much-hyped wedding extravaganza.

    courtesy davegranlund

    I enjoy watching a good wedding, and having organised my own a few years ago, I know what a challenge it can be to pull off the perfect one when nothing less than perfect will do. The entire shindig is usually the preserve of the bride, who has probably dreamt of this day since she was a tiny tot. Do men really care?

    Don’t Tell the Bride is a UK television programme that plays with the notion that the wedding is all about the bride and that men know nothing – and care even less. To cover the expenses of the entire wedding, the programme gives the substantial sum of £12,000 (Dh72,000) to the groom.

    As it happens, this is about the same amount the Emirati Marriage Fund gives to Emirati men, a sweetener to encourage Emirati men to marry Emirati women. Can he be persuaded not to “marry out” and instead rescue an Emirati damsel? Will the lady get her man?

    In Don’t Tell the Bride, the catch is that the groom must not confer with the bride on any aspect of the wedding. Can he pull off her dream wedding, or will she curse him forever for ruining her special day? Will the lady get her day?

    I admit to finding this programme disturbingly compelling. The bride’s desperation for perfection is played off against the groom’s cluelessness. She wants a romantic fairy-tale castle; he organises a poolside barbecue. She wants a slimming frock; he plumps for a flouncy, meringue-like skirt. And yet, it all seems to work out well in the end. The bride smiles, the groom’s relieved – and they all live happily ever after.

    It seems men are not so useless wedding-wise after all.

    Is this how Kate feels as her big day draws near? Is she the mastermind enjoying having a team of professionals at her behest? Or is she feeling excluded from the process that turns her wedding into a public spectacle?

    Frankly, and I say this on behalf of all couples who are getting married this year, William and Kate have set the bar too high for the weddings of mere mortals.

    How on earth can anyone compete with this royal spectacular? Surely every wannabe princess will bemoan her own very ordinary, “commoner” wedding after this. Copycat weddings will be all the rage, and the style of Kate’s frock will become staple wedding attire, as was Diana’s.

    Westminster Abbey is the venue for the ceremony, one of the most exclusive locations in the world. And just to rub it in, the Abbey has just released an iPad application to allow you to see the building in its full 3D glory. The queen’s own kitchen staff will take care of the catering. And George Michael has recorded a special cover of Stevie Wonder’s You and I as a wedding present for the couple.

    It’s estimated that two billion people worldwide will watch Kate get married on Friday. A wedding is a day many women see as their fairy-tale occasion. At this wedding, one bride will – literally – become a princess. Not for their royal status, but for their lives together as a married couple, I wish them every happiness and success.

    continue reading
  • Women stuck between the darkness of Jahiliyyah and a brighter dawn

    I came across two stories yesterday about women in the Arab world that could not have been more different.

    The first was a press release I was sent from the “Network of Free Ulema” in Libya. I don’t know anything about them (other than the fact that the press release was in English, which I thought was quite curious. I’m assuming there was an Arabic version too. And the info that they’ve carefully written up in Wikipedia. They are very media savvy. Good for them!)

    The press release was on the occasion of International Women’s Day in order to:

    “celebrate your heroic political, social, scholarly and economic achievements. We congratulate you, and promise you that all of us, women and men, will work together towards a Libya of equality and fairness for all.”

    I haven’t copied out the whole text, but I did like this line at the end:

    “May the significance of this special day, become an inspiration for a New and Free Libya.”

    Women’s actions can and should be an inspiration not just for women, but for everyone. I like the recognition of this.

    It’s great to see this worldliness in the Ulema, and their recognition of the importance of women and the status and respect that they deserve. It gives me some hope for change. It also underlines a point I made in an article earlier this week that the up-front participation by women in the revolutions of the Middle East has forever changed their status.  It’s re-iterated in a piece written by Naomi Wolf on The Middle East Feminist Revolution.

    Contrast this with a heartbreaking piece in The National yesterday about the prevalence of women in Saudi Arabia who are being forced NOT to marry by their fathers and brothers. The article writes:

    Amal Saleh would like to marry and have a family, but she needs her father’s permission. And he won’t give it. A university professor in her mid-thirties, Amal has had numerous suitors asking for her hand, but her father always refuses. “They are not rich, or he doesn’t like their fathers or they are not from the same social group,” she says. Work colleagues who proposed were turned away because they were not from the same tribe. Her brothers support her father, she says, because they fear “that if I had a partner he would share in my money”. For her male relatives, Amal says, “I am like a horse. They don’t treat me as a human being. They treat me as if I belong to them and they should decide what to do with this ‘thing’.” The National is not publishing Amal’s real name because her father threatened to kill her if she sought help outside the family.

    It seems that a number of reasons lie behind fathers and brothers witholding permission to marry – permission which is required under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws for women to marry. The woman’s salary is lost to the family. They are worried that she will take away her share of the inheritance. They don’t like the family of the intended.

    Even though such behaviour on the part of the family is against Islamic law – and the country’s chief mufti has stated it to be so, adding that it should bring a penalty of imprisonment, this tribal custom persists. In fact,women who protest against such behaviour are taken to court by their families for ‘disobedience’, and bafflingly the court upholds this.

    Amal’s words wrench my guts. She uses a similar analogy to the period of jahiliyyah that I’ve used before. She says:

    “Before Islam, they had this practice of killing a girl when she is just a baby [because] they were ashamed of her as they wanted a boy,” Amal had said in the interview. “Now I’m saying that history is being repeated. They kill us when we have emotions and can understand and are aware of our rights. Maybe if they killed me as a child it would be better than now.”

    courtesy of

    Two corners of the Muslim world, two very different stories. On the one hand there is hope that respect for women and a recognition of their equality and status is now on the horizon. On the other hand, despair that there is still a long way to go.

    continue reading
  • 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?”

    continue reading
  • When politics interferes with marriage, it tells us a lot

    This is my weekly column in The National.

    Don’t marry an Arab man: this was the underlying message of a letter written to Jewish women and signed by the wives of 27 rabbis in Israel less than a fortnight ago. The letter added that Jewish women should avoid dating, working alongside and performing their national service with non-Jews.

    Racism can rear its ugly head anywhere, it seems, even in a supposedly modern democracy.

    It’s a small group that wrote the letter, and we should be cautious not to judge the many by the actions of the few. We know, for example, that the violent criminal actions of individual Muslims who perpetuate terrorism do not represent a billion people worldwide.

    However, the letter is not without precedent. It follows another letter, this one from rabbis urging Jews not to sell or rent property to non-Jews. In surveys in Israel about the letters, polls have shown nearly half the population supports the sentiments.

    Last year an Arab Israeli was convicted of raping a Jewish Israeli woman. Even though she had consented to the liaison, when she subsequently realised he was Arab, she had brought the matter to court on the basis she had been deceived and was, therefore, raped even though he had never explicitly claimed to be Jewish.

    It was a first date, and whatever your views on one-night stands, the takeaway message from the case seemed to be that Jewish men engage in consensual sex but Arab men rape.

    The racism in the letters is also deep-rooted. Women are advised that Arab men will use all sorts of tricks to lure them into marriage, changing their names and even being polite. But once the girls are in their evil clutches in their villages, they will suffer “cursings, beatings and humiliation”.

    Some people might find the following comment upsetting, but will the next step be to make Arabs wear yellow crescent-shaped badges in public?

    Initially, these incidents point to discrimination. But there are deeper issues at work here.

    Let’s be clear. I’m not detracting from the serious political and racial implications of this action, given that it comes within a particular political climate. Nor am I justifying its lack of morality: quite the opposite. However, I think we should see what it tells us about the wider issues: even in modern times, why are women used as tools to a particular ideology?

    Whereas women and men were once and, in some instances, still forcibly prevented from marrying someone the family doesn’t approve of, the screws are now applied by appealing to patriotism and nationalism.

    Yet, are those crying racism just as guilty of it in their own lives?

    Last year an Egyptian court ruled that men who marry Israeli women would be stripped of their citizenship, although the cabinet would have discretion on this depending on whether the wife was Arab or Jewish. More than 30,000 Egyptian men are married to Israeli women. The lawyer proposing the ruling said it was meant to protect Egypt’s youths and its national security, and added that the offspring of such couples should be prevented from military service.

    Politics and marriage might seem worlds apart. But these most recent cases suggest that who a society deems acceptable for individuals to marry says a lot more about its social mores and hidden political agenda than we might think.

    continue reading
  • The Trouble with Marriage

    My monthly column for EMEL magazine.

    Marriage is a topic which is difficult to discuss, and in which to create change for Muslims. No wonder, since it comes with heavy religious weight and touches on almost every aspect of life.

    Image by way of

    Most young people aspire to a mutually fulfilling relationship in marriage, but this can sometimes take longer than they might like and throw up significant challenges. The lack of community standing for unmarried individuals is one such challenge. The unmarried are seen as children yet to acquire maturity. This is evidenced in simple words such as the reference to the unmarried as ‘the boy’ and ‘the girl’ rather than as grown men and women.

    In particular, a woman in many Muslim communities only seems to acquire social standing after her marriage. She is advised that she will be given her freedoms once she has arrived in her husband’s home and becomes her husband’s responsibility. Single women must remain cautious of what they say and do because any unrestrained word or action will affect their marriage prospects. It’s almost as though she isn’t a real person if she’s unmarried.

    But just because “marriage is half your faith,” does not make an unmarried individual half a person. An increasing point of contention is how much choice the man or woman has in selecting their future spouse, and how much is done under the direction of their parents. It is a false dichotomy with which many families pressurise their children: that you may choose your own spouse or be loyal to your parents and culture. Of course, advice, encouragement and support from parents is invaluable – but ultimately the decision must rest with the individuals concerned.

    The problem is that marriage is often seen as a cultural activity, and so cultural factors become more significant than religious directives. It’s about picking the ‘right’ family or the ‘right’ caste (didn’t Islam do away with castes?); the ‘right’ job or the ‘right’ wealth. Or it’s about picking someone from ‘back home’ as the ‘right’ thing to do – to find a more compliant wife; to transport the extended family over to Britain; or to ensure that undue pressure can be exerted in internal family matters. For many years, the blame for challenges to the marriage process was laid at the door of parents and families. And the issues above (by no means an exhaustive list) continue to persist.

    However, new challenges are beginning to emerge which need to be openly discussed in order to find solutions. Despite the pressure to marry ‘within’ the culture, traditional networks of extended families and matchmakers are breaking down, unable to connect prospective spouses who are a good match for each other. So where to go to look for ‘The One’? New arenas are opening up – such as online matrimonial sites, speed dating, or marriage events. These are good opportunities, but are complicated to navigate and have plenty of pitfalls for the uninitiated. Speed dating is a particularly thorny one – how can you possibly get past the superficial layer of knowing someone in a mere three minutes? And internet sites can be just as perilous, with caution being required when dealing with unknown and distant parties.

    By far the most challenging is managing the expectations of the two individuals, and ensuring men and women have an understanding of the other so that a relationship can be properly constructed. It is worrying how often complaints are levied that “women are only looking for a big bank balance” and “men are only after a pretty doll.” Laughable though these may seem, such misleading expectations range from the superficial to much deeper differences in attitudes about what a marital relationship should entail. And these differences are rarely discussed until it’s too late.

    With all the emphasis on family, culture and social conformity, what is forgotten is to nurture the new relationship that is being formed.  The wedding becomes the big event instead of the marriage. We need to reverse this situation.

    Marriage lessons, or pre-marital counselling, ought to be a must for the couple – and for both sets of in-laws too. Perhaps those conducting nikahs should insist on such lessons before agreeing to perform the religious rites – thereby investing in the long term durability of the marriage.

    If we want to reverse the tide of difficulties in the spouse selection process, and to stem the rising divorce rate, then we need to identify the underlying problems. And we need to do that very difficult thing: recognise the problems and create change in our cultures and attitudes.

    continue reading
  • 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

    continue reading
  • Travelogue to Sharjah Book Fair and the UAE

    Arriving very early in the morning at Dubai airport, I was welcomed by my hosts in the UAE – the Sharjah International Book Fair – whose representative made me feel like a film star. I was greeted by one of those cute little golf carts that whizzes round airports making an annoying beeping noise (annoying for everyone else, as it says ‘look at me – you have to walk, I’m driving!) to a little lounge where we waited for our paperwork to be done. A gentleman in pristine white dishdasha emerged from the door carrying a bouquet of flowers to welcome me to Sharjah. Julia Roberts step aside! Very curiously, each rose was stamped with the book fair brand.

    The Sharjah International Book Fair (or check out the blog here) is in its 29th year, and so is not some ‘new’ cultural bandwagon. Instead, it provides a valuable forum for the reading public, who attend in their hundreds of thousands. In fact, in the first weekend alone, 100,000 visitors were recorded, and 500,000 were estimated for the entire ten day event. Sales topped Dhs.133 million (probably in excess of £25m). In fact, book shopping is so prolific that visitors use a shopping trolley to wheel around their purchases. See this photo taken by the lovely Lisa Dempster who was also attending the fair as a speaker, from Australia.

    My invitation to speak at the Book Fair was from Sheikha Bodour, CEO and Founder of Kalimat Publishing House, President of Emirates Publishers Association, Bookworm and Mother of 3. (and daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah – but a feisty firebrand in her own right). Along with inviting me to the book fair itself (I love speaking at book fairs – wonderful places to share ideas and engage with readers), she was kind enough to make time to meet me for a coffee during the fair despite her hectic schedule. I found her extremely personable, creative and visionary. (and no, I’m not sucking up – she really was). I think her leadership in the Fair’s activities will bear great fruit. You can follow her on Twitter. She even signed a copy of her new children’s book for my niece, a colourful and quirky book on girls dressing up with the hijabs from their big sisters and mum’s collection. (and apparently to be published in French. Hurrah!)

    The highlight of the visit – and of course it’s main purpose – was to speak to the audience about Love in a Headscarf. It was an excellent opportunity to hear how the themes of love, marriage, identity and self-definition are dealt with in a part of the world which still has a strong

    Speaking at Sharjah Book Fair (copyright spirit21)

    heritage of community and tribal culture in its recent past. The audience was fabulous, sharing their intimate personal stories of love and marriage. One young Emirati woman told of how she had tried to blog about similar issues but was advised by relatives to stop writing for fear of her reputation. Another lady spoke of her worries of finding a spouse for her child given that she was not a native of the Emirates and did not have a network of contacts. One gentleman (yes! there were men there too – fabulous!) spoke of how parents must set an example in their household to train their sons in particular in how to be good husbands and fathers.  The session was moderated by the fabulous Mujeeb Rahman, aka Jaihoon. His latest book is a travelogue across India comprised entirely of the tweets he sent during the trip. On his site you’ll find some photos of the author session. You can also read some of the other responses to the Author Session here and here. (google translate them!) An extra thanks also to Rupert Bumfrey and his magnificent work for the book fair on Twitter and the Blogosphere, and for his part in my involvement in the fair.

    Whilst I was attending the Sharjah International Book Fair, I was fortunate enough to engage in some interviews. There were some fascinating conversations and I’m always intrigued by how journalists in different countries pick out different aspects of my stories.

    I think my favourite interview was with Husam Miro of Al Khaleej. It felt more like a philosophical dialogue than a media story. I only wish we had a first language in common so that I could have turned the tables and interviewed him. As I expressed my intrigue and growing fascination with the UAE he asked “have you been introduced to any intellectuals?”. It was an unexpected but very insightful question given the curiosity that I had expressed. And one that no-one before or since had thought to throw my way. (see my article here before my visit to the UAE, asking what secrets people could tell me about the country. I think he had seen it.)

    Here is the article as it was published in Al Khaleej.

    Meanwhile, the British Embassy in Dubai invited me to a round table with other arty and cultural types to talk about my experiences as a blogger, writer and erstwhile public figure. Somehow after two glasses of coke and a bowl of peanuts, they managed to persuade me to record this cheesy video about my visit to the UAE and the Sharjah Book Fair.

    The evening was a real joy as I got to speak in detail about my experiences, my book and to hear intimate and very insightful comments from the attendees. Among them was Hind Mezaina who writes the thought-provoking and inspiring Culturist Blog, as was Mishal Al Gergawi, who is an Emirati columnist who says it how it is. And Isobel Aboulhoul who co-founded the successful bookshop chain Magrudy’s and who is the festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which has very rapidly become a feature of the international literary calendar.  I got a verbal invitation from her to speak at the Festival (Isobel – I will be following that up!), but more than that it was fascinating to hear her own tales of travelling and living in the Gulf. She arrived in 1969 before the UAE even existed – an intriguing story indeed.

    And before anyone pipes up in the comments – yes, there is a British Embassy in Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), but in some turn of fate when the Trucial States gained independence from the UK it seems a British Embassy was also retained in Dubai, rather than turning into a Consulate. Go figure. But then I like these historical but somehow pointless quirks.

    Perhaps the most challenging and inspiring of the book-related activities I engaged in were a series of visits to schools and universities which cater specifically to young Emirati women. In Abu Dhabi I visited Shohoub School and talked to the 16 year olds. The school was hidden away from the main road, but once inside there is a lively bubbly atmosphere. Although the girls wear the abaya and shela (cloak and scarf) to attend school, once inside they remove both of these since it is an all female environment. They listened wide eyed as I discussed how answering the question ‘Who am I?’ is a critical one to determining one’s place in the world and how to react to it.

    A second session was at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, which is another one of these marvellous Gulf universities. Both in the UAE and in Qatar I have seen such places of higher education springing up, offering the best of facilities. I had been invited by the bubbly media committee and was installed in the main lecture theatre. Similar themes of identity came up, but of course the usually undiscussed subjects of love and marriage – topics which I brought to the fore of the discussion – were busily debated.

    And then, it was off to Dubai Women’s College, who managed to pack out their main lecture theatre to the brim with young women, who were interested in the same subjects again. My thanks to all the organisers. It’s a real treat to get immediate interaction with Emiratis, particularly young women who are busy setting themselves on the path to create a better future for themselves and their country.  I predict a bright future.

    As a change from talking directly to readers, I co-hosted the morning show on Dubai Eye Radio with the very charming and talented Jessica Swann. The two hour phone in show picked up on Love in a Headscarf and talked about arranged and love marriages. The texts and calls came in relentlessly and varied from the downright romantic, to the shocking and gobsmacking. Read about it here in my weekly column. (Love and it’s seeming double standards)

    I begin my article: “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.” Do have a read, it was quite an incredible show. Alternatively, you can listen to the podcast here.

    With all that book-related activity going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking I didn’t get a chance to travel around the UAE. And you might even think there isn’t much to see in the UAE. You’d be wrong on both counts. In fact, I barely got to see much of the country at all, given how many places there are to visit.

    Ajman, UAE, copyright spirit21

    One afternoon I popped up to the postcard-pretty Ajman, and watched the gorgeous waves crashing onto the deserted white sandy beaches. ‘Idyllic’ is the only word that came to mind – and only 15 minutes from Sharjah.

    Dubai offered a host of marvels – of which many indeed were shopping-related, but many others (of which I only got a brief taste), were not. Of course there were the two amazing malls – Mall of the Emirates (which is the location of Ski Dubai!) and Dubai Mall (home of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, and also home to the remarkably delightful Fountain), both of which were epic in size. With the number of luxury and designer outlets present, I did begin to wonder why Emiratis come to London to do their shopping – everything is available right here with the benefit of a swanky setting and air-conditioning.

    I must admit to my embarrassment, my favourite mall of the ones I visited was Al-Wafi, which is constructed in the style of Ancient Egypt, with huge columns and sphinxes outside, and hieroglyphics. It stands next to the Raffles Hotel which is built in the shape of a pyramid. However, downstairs it has a remarkable ‘souq’ area, which is built in a surprisingly convincingtraditional souq style, and has the most amazing shops with absolutely stunning abayas. I will be saving my pennies up so that if I get a chance to return I can purchase one of these remarkable creations. That Emiratis think nothing of spending £500 upwards on an abaya for day to day wearing (and that they always look so glamorous) is no unending source of mystery for me.

    Best of all in Dubai was visiting old Dubai and observing the cargo port, the workers crossing the creek around which Dubai was originally built and observing the abra stations – the places where the dhows dock at regular intervals along

    Abra Station, Dubai, copyright spirit21

    the creek to form the water transport network. As a luxury I hired an abra for an hour at sunset to travel along the creek and see old Dubai in the falling light. At sunset the adhan echoed in stereo – literally – as it was called from mosques on both sides. The old area of Bastakiyya lit up with its golden lights, and men sat beneath the bridges to fish during the perfect early evening air. This was the magic of Dubai.

    By contrast were the two most epic sights of Abu Dhabi – the Emirates palace hotel which is absolutely enormous. And has this legendary gold vending machine. Not sure what to get friends and family? Running out of time to go shopping? Insert $500 and give them their own gold coin or bar.

    And on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is the new Shaikh Zayed mosque. I wasn’t expecting to like it when I arrived, not being very partial to large mosques that are built too far away for daily usage, but the architecture and the decoration is exquisite, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen – fair more organic and lyrical. And the mosque is staffed in a very friendly and gentle manner – unlike my usual experiences of being shouted at for being a woman trying to enter a mosque.

    Shaikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, copyright spirit21

    My final day was another complete change – this time driving through the glorious deep grey Hajar mountains that form the spine of the eastern flank of the UAE. On the other side is a separate part of Sharjah, and also an enclave of Oman. The eastern coast is much quieter and less developed than the rest of the UAE, and so is more relaxing and has the rugged natural beauty that

    Hajar Mountains, UAE, copyright spirit21

    contrast with the frenetic metropolis of Dubai. The drive along the coast encompassed Dibba, Khor Fakkan and Kalba, all seemingly untouched in their coastal beauty.

    So many things were left unseen. Yas Island (with the F1 track, and Ferrari World), several art galleries, the burgeoning arts scene in Dubai, Jumeira Beach (observed only from afar), several older mosques, a dhow cruise along the coast, a foray into Oman, a visit to the Liwa Oasis… the list goes on.

    Despite staying for several days, I felt that I had only just caught a peek of UAE life. If anyone tells you that all there is to the UAE is shopping – don’t believe them. There’s plenty more beneath the surface.

    continue reading
  • 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.


    continue reading
  • 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.

    continue reading