Sunday, 21 of September of 2014

Category » Muslim Veil

You say burqa, I say burqini

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

Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


European leaders legitimise anti-Muslim sentiment: latest is burqa ban in France

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

France has gone all burqa-phobic again. As of Monday, it will be illegal in France for anyone to cover their face in public. The ban has been on the horizon for some time, so nothing much new here, but the wider context has intensified.

courtesy ska-p.net

The leader of the far-right Front National, Marine le Pen, is campaigning hard against Muslims and immigration, and her popularity is increasing. She has compared crowds of Muslims praying in the streets outside mosques to the Nazi occupation.

Not to be outdone, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week organised a debate on secularism and the role of religion. His prime minister, François Fillon, refused to attend, saying that it would further stigmatise Muslims. Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired from his post as Sarkozy’s adviser on integration for criticising the debate, called on Muslims to wear a green star in protest against the discussion. It is aimed to echo the yellow star that Jews in Europe were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

With such emotive references on both sides to the Nazi era, it’s clear that France still needs to come to terms with its own history in dealing with minorities.

Despite arguing that the ban and the debate are in defence of secularism, Sarkozy has had no qualms in simultaneously praising the “Christian heritage” of the country.

And even though a 1905 law separated church and state, churches and synagogues still receive indirect subsidies from the state. If mosques were included in this it might help put an end to the lack of space in them that forces worshippers to overflow onto the streets.

It is easy to understand the motivation behind the ill-conceived debate on secularism held this week, as it is the political context for the ban on face veils in public.

However, this would fail to illuminate the bigger picture. By pandering to the far-right to gain votes, Sarkozy is giving anti-Muslim sentiment legitimacy and a national platform that it does not deserve and that could have long-term and dangerous consequences.

courtesy politicshome.com

He is not the only leader guilty of this. Germany’s Angela Merkel was keen to score cheap political points last year when she stated that the “multikulti” project had failed, and pointed her finger at Muslims. Merkel would do well to remember that Germany’s earlier mono-culture project in the 1930s and 1940s did not work out so well.

Following hot on her heels was the UK’s prime minister, who repeated the same vacuous mantra in February this year at a conference in Munich.

He told world leaders that state multiculturalism had failed in the UK and pledged to cut funding for Muslim groups that failed to respect basic British values such as freedom of speech and democracy. Strange words from a government that harped on about “stability” when the protesters of Tahrir Square were demonstrating for democracy.

Europe must be more principled in its approach to dealing with its Muslim populations. Countries such as the UK and France are taking bold actions in Libya to support the movement towards freedom and democracy. At the same time, domestically they wish to suppress Muslim self-expression.

You can’t have it both ways. Freedom, self-expression and democracy need to be accompanied by one more value to be meaningful: a consistent standard for all.


Maybe the Burqa is a red herring?

These remarks were prepared for a Policy Network debate in September at a Labour fringe event. A shortened version was subsequently published in print in EMEL Magazine.

These were my remarks at the Policy Network debate which looked at the issue:

The Left’s Trouble with the Burqa.

When it comes to discussing the burqa, there is almost always one missing constant in the debate: that is the woman herself who wears the burqa.

If, as the opponents of the burqa claim, it is a form of oppression, then it is doubly oppressing that the woman cannot represent herself, and put forward her own views.

So the other possibility is that there are in fact, very few women who wear the burqa, and maybe there are just not enough to go around and speak at the numerous events and media interviews discussing their clothing choices. In fact, in Western Europe there are probably only a handful who wear the burqa – the Afghan style of covering. Those few who do cover their faces wear a niqab, a simple face veil. This might seem a small visual and semantic difference, but it highlights the point that it is the most extreme instance that is used to polarise this debate – a debate which is already about an extremely small group of people in the first place.

Maybe the burqa is a red-herring? A red herring for those who want to return to a homogenised society by claiming that there is too much difference. And as usual it is the women – in this case the Muslim women – who are caught as the scapegoats, and are paying the price.

When it comes to numbers, the Danish government thinks there are 100 – 200 such women who cover their faces. In France it’s somewhere between 367 (a very spookily specific number – what have the secret services been up to to be so exact?) and 2000.  In Sweden, the estimate is around 400, Holland around 100, and in Belgium a paltry 30.

So, why is something so incredibly miniscule in number, size and shape, the source of so much angst?

I think the last time such a small amount of cloth made such a huge social impact was the mini-skirt. Was that controversy also caused because it was another instance of self-determination by women?  And I wonder if that analogy is co-incidental in any way?

That piece of cloth changed the way that women and society looked. And changes in women’s behaviour and clothing have always upset traditionalists.

Perhaps the face-veil is today’s challenge to our vision of how society looks – the most far reaching challenge put forward by the whole enterprise of multiculturalism.

When multiculturalism first set out, it couldn’t be envisaged at that time just how far it would change the way society interacts and the way society physically looks.

By protecting the right of women to dress in the way they choose, under the freedom of religion, some say that multiculturalism has gone too far, because the face covering is a sign of visible difference. I think it is the opposite. Women’s clothing in the 20th century fundamentally signalled a change in social attitudes much deeper than the mini-skirt itself, and was opposed by social conservatives for all that it represented. Today the face-veil engenders the same vitriol because it antagonises the same veins of traditionalism and conformity which constrain people’s freedom. The vitriol is not present because multiculturalism has gone too far. It is present because it has not yet gone far enough.

These are the squeams and squirms of those who do not want society to change in any way, but we just need to ride it out, and in time, society will adjust, just as happened with women’s liberation.

When people say that the face-covering is anti-western, or does not stem from European heritage, I would remind them that women’s covering (we’ll leave men’s covering to a separate discussion) was common till 50 years ago. Even less than a few weeks ago, Cherie Blair was snapped with her hair covered with a black veil during the Pope’s visit. The mini skirt too wasn’t a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ piece of clothing inherited from any kind of European civilisational values. If anything, in earlier eras, Europeans were horrified with seemingly scantily clad heathen women that they found in their imperial travels across the world.

Society adjusted, women determined how they would dress, and our society now accepts it as the status quo.

Back to the face-veil, because everyone loves to talk about it. Well, what do they say?

Covering the face, we are told, is a sign of separation. And yet the stories we hear of British women who do cover their faces are of those who go into Jack Straw’s surgery to engage in the political process with their MP; or the tale of the woman who despite wanting to be part of French society was denied citizenship in France.

Covering the face, it is also said, makes other people feel uncomfortable because those women deliberately look different. Well, I thought we’d understood that it is our own attitudes we need to examine when others look different to us – goths, punks, hoodies, blacks, Asians… the list goes on and on.

Or, the face covering is no good because such women are a security risk, it is said. Don’t know about the last time you were in a bank that was held up by a covered woman? Or mugged by one? Or had one destroy your pension by creating a banking crisis?

The most popular argument from the left is that it is a symbol of oppression. We need to ‘liberate’ these Muslim women from their poor deluded ideals. If they claim to be free in their choice, we tell them that they are brainwashed. And, so we’re full circle back to the oppression of these women  – but this time from the people that claim to be ‘freeing’ them.  The best thing is to respect the agency of such women and the way they choose to dress.

Under this analysis of the meaning behind the veil and multiculturalism’s support for Muslim women to dress as they choose, I am a failure of multiculturalism. This is because I wear a supposed marker of separation on my head. My choice of dress is a representation of how I have been supposedly ‘brainwashed’ into being oppressed, despite the fact that I have a strong education, and my professional opinion is respected in many areas.  I may have a bomb under my headscarf, which of course is a threat to security. Some people, and strangely that is men more often than not, feel uncomfortable with the absence of my hair and my curves from their gaze.  And some feminists in particular accuse me of betraying the sisterhood, and will say that my choice to wear it in this country is a betrayal of those women in countries where they are forced to cover, even whilst I oppose that force, and have actively chosen to cover.

What can I say to you? I’m not a failure. And nor is multiculturalism. I am an active part of our society, working to make it a better place, bringing together different heritages and perspectives. What my presence, and those of these women offers us, is the knowledge that we can live in the kind of society that allows us to be proud of the heritage, cultures and backgrounds that have made each of us what we are on the inside and allows us to express ourselves with tolerance, freedom and mutual respect on the outside.


Hopes for a post-veil society (part 2)

I wrote a follow up on the theme of “we don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it” for The National, aiming at a Muslim and also a Middle Eastern audience.

You can read the full piece here: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091226/WEEKENDER/712259830/1311

However, here is an extract which adds to the original piece which was written for EMEL magazine.

“…Four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament found themselves at the opposite end of another discussion about veiling – an insistence that they should cover in order to be admitted to fulfil their constitutional roles.

Their election came after Kuwaiti women received full political rights in 2005. Since two of the women choose not to cover, an ultraconservative MP asked the ministry of Islamic affairs and endowments’ Fatwa department if Sharia obliged women to wear the hijab.When the ministry agreed that women were indeed obliged to do so, there was a movement in parliament to impose hijab on the national assembly’s female members, stating that it was incumbent on women in parliament to subscribe to Sharia.

[...] The constitutional court has upheld the right of the women to remain uncovered if they choose. We can hope that this will drive home the importance of what the women have to say, and the value they will bring to the political process, rather than reducing them to their clothing, as though they were vacuous Barbie dolls.
Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue “problem”, and that issue is the veil.That is the problem with Marnia Lazreg’s recent book Questioning the Veil. Lazreg, an American academic with Algerian roots, lays the problems that Muslim women face at the feet of the veil. She claims to systematically demolish every reason that Muslim women give for wearing the veil. She highlights issues such as sexual harassment, men defining women’s bodies, gender politics in the workplace, the anonymity of women, men wielding full control over women and women as the vessels of male honour.
She then draws the tenuous conclusion that the veil lies at the heart of all these issues.I disagree. Even if the veil was removed, these underlying problems would still be rampant. The veil is the wrong symptom she is trying to treat. What we should be doing is tackling the underlying causes.She also adds that, if a woman truly believes that wearing a veil is the right thing to do, and she has made an informed choice to do so, then we should accept her decision. Simply put, we do not need to force women to veil, nor do we need to force them not to veil – what we need is education and free choice.

[...] Curiously, it is veiled Muslim women themselves who [are] fed up with seeing themselves portrayed as nothing more than the veil they wear. I feel it too as a Muslim woman, yet I feel compelled to write about it in order to create a movement to get over it. I have to keep writing about it till the Sarkozys of the world stop women gaining citizenship because of it. I am driven to keep highlighting the Marwa Sherbinis of the world – a woman stabbed in full public view in a German court, at the hands of a man who hated her for her headscarf.

It may shock both liberals who oppose covering of any sort, as well as traditionalists who would enforce mandatory veiling on women, that Muslim women more often than not have other priorities, and also want something other than their clothing discussed. For example, in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where “saving”Muslim women is high on the list of justifications for invasion, the discourse on veiling is low on the list of women’s concerns. Security tops their needs, something that the “liberating” forces have denied them. We need to get past the veil, and into the business of living – education, employment, security, personal law and civic and political participation.

Aseel al Awadhi, one of the women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament asked: “Why do only women have to comply with Sharia law and not men? This is, by itself, discrimination.” Her subtext: veiling and visible religiosity are used as gatekeepers and excuses to exclude women from public and
political discourse – that it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with power.”



The marital rights of the British Muslim wife

This article was published at Faith Central at the Times Online

Bess Twiston-Davies writes: Melanie Reid, our columnist, is merely one of many commentators who has asked why Britain’s soldiers are apparently fighting for the right of Afghan men to mistreat their wives, in the wake of the new so -called “Marital Rape” Law (although the original clause permitting men to withold food from wives who refuse sex was eventually removed). Here Faith’s Central’s Muslim guest blogger, Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf and the blog Spirit21 looks at the disturbing, related issue of the lack of legal protection for many Muslim women who marry in Britain

Shelina writes: One of the reasons Britain gives for its military intervention in Afghanistan is the liberation of Muslim woman from oppression.

But what if anything has really changed for them in the 8 years in which the UK and US have been present in the country? In fact, with laws like the recent legislation dubbed the “marital rape law” where a husband can supposedly starve his wife if she does not have sex with him, it’s hard to see that Muslim women are indeed being ’saved’.

Let’s look at the example of veiling where women are forced to wear the Afghan-style burqa. This is utterly wrong as it is a woman’s choice as to how she should dress. Some in Afghanistan, however, who would argue that it is a more traditional society, where women being uncovered is ‘alien’ to the ‘culture’. This really is about culture not religion because this is absent in the majority of Muslim countries bar a few exceptions.

Back in Britain, some Muslim women do face pressure to veil, but on the whole veiled Muslim women are exercising their own freedom of choice. This can be seen from the fact they tend to be younger, well-educated, British-born women, often decked out in the latest fashions. These women are exercising the same freedom of choice that Britain says it is fighting to give Afghan women.

Now let’s look at marriage. Married Afghan women have little protection from mistreatment and abuse. The scale of magnitude in Afghanistan is clearly different to the UK, but British Muslim women can suffer from lack of protection by the law in Britain too. If we care about Muslim women’s rights in Afghanistan, we must demonstrate clearly that we care about them here as well.

I’m referring to the ‘nikah’, the Islamic wedding ceremony, which is not recognised under British law as a legal marriage. For this, the bride and groom must undertake a further civil marriage ceremony. A Church of England marriage by comparison is automatically registered as a legally recognised marriage. For Muslims, as with many of other religions, it is the religious ceremony that is paramount, and once this is conducted the couple are considered married. Rightly or wrongly, the civil marriage is often not carried out.

If the marriage doesn’t work out, or the husband leaves the wife, the wife is still married but has no legal protection under British law. Further, if the husband proves unscrupulous, he can marry another wife legally under British law without committing bigamy. Recognising the nikah as a valid British marriage with all the parameters of the civil marriage is the first step to solving this problem. Some mosques do insist that the civil marriage certificate is proffered before they will conduct the nikah, but these are too few. Tying the nikah into civil marriage has nothing to do with ‘Islamifying’ Britain, but is rather a small development which will offer much needed British legal protection to Muslim women in marriage.

Of course the Muslim community – mosques and Imams – who have conducted the marriage ceremony should be held responsible should a marriage break down, but this doesn’t always happen. Ensuring that mosques and Imams are abiding by procedures which give both bride and groom their full rights is the next step, and for that we need to talk about those so called ’shariah courts.’ In fact, a better description would be ‘Islamic advisory panel’. At the moment they consist of volunteers with various levels of Islamic training, probably few social or counselling skills and even less legal training under British law. This is hardly surprising, since they state quite openly that their remit is to offer Islamic advice. Often faced with marital disputes Muslim women prefer to go to these panels because their faith is important to them and they want an Islamic resolution to their problems. Also, they live as part of a family and community, and any resolution agreed with such a panel is more likely to stick with the people amongst which they live.

By recognising the nikah as legally valid, these subsequent links in the chain will be forced to deal with such issues with higher standards and in line with legal norms, thereby respecting the religious wishes of the Muslim woman, and at the same time affording her full protection in the law. A standard of behaviour and guidance amongst mosques and Imams becomes normalised over time, and the woman becomes automatically protected.

If we are busy fighting in Afghanistan for legal protections to be put in place for Muslim women, then we need to do the same for Muslim women here. The issues are different in magnitude but are still about both choice and protection. Not only will implementing such laws and protection in Britain squash accusations that ’saving’ Muslim women is just a pretext for war, not only will it actually protect Muslim women, but more importantly it will also demonstrate that in word as well as in practice we are genuine in our intentions and actions.


Sarkozy speaks out against Burqa in France

Yesterday the French president said “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

This follows the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate whether the wearing of the burqa should be banned in public.

Following his speech, he is due to meet the Emir of Qatar – I wonder if he will suggest to him that women there should also remove their veils? If his view is that it is wrong in France as it “reduces them to servitude and undermines their dignity” then he ought to make the same point to the Emir about women in Qatar.

Except he won’t. His speech yesterday was held to the French parliament – a right he put into the constitution for himself last year. This is the first time that such a speech has been held in over a century. Following in the footsteps of his imperial predecessor at yesterday’s speech, it seems that in a hundred years, little has changed in Mr Sarkozy’s mind about imposing his version of liberal values.

Let’s remember what Obama said in Cairo, ‘it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.’

In the shadow of the sumptuous Versailles Palace, Sarkozy’s comments seem little other than cheap shots at winning political points, without really addressing the heart of the issue. How can a politician determine what a woman should wear? If she is wearing it out of choice – as some women do – not that I necessarily agree with them – then refusing a women’s right to choose what to wear is a form of oppression that women have long fought against.

If she is being forced to wear it – and this of course does happen – then what that woman needs is not a patronising president, but real tools to help her take control of her life – education and economics.

Besides, those women who wear burqa’s are a tiny minority of Muslim women – why single those who are forced to wear it as sufferers of domestic oppression, when so many millions of women face domestic violence? A more holistic approach would reap greater benefits for women in both quality and quantity. It seems from his words that he cares more about his own popularity, then making changes for burqa-wearing women.


Googling Muslim Women

[This article was published in the March issue of EMEL Magazine]

I’d like you to try an experiment that I have conducted regularly for the last year: Google the search term “Muslim women”, click on “images” and then have a look at the pictures that are returned to you by the search. The first time I did this, I was shocked, very shocked, but not surprised.

You’ll find the first several pages are populated almost entirely by imagery of women in black niqabs, black burqas or black trailing cloaks. The others are unnerving pseudo-pornographic images with translucent veils that are best left un-described in a family magazine. The sad fact is that this result has changed very little over the time that I have been observing the phenomenon.

Google’s mission statement is ‘to organise the world’ using algorithms that return the results to us that we were looking for. In any search we usually get a result that matches well what we were looking for, which is why Google has become an institution in our lives. When we are searching for information about Muslim women, the intelligent technology throws back these sombre anonymous uni-dimensional images assuming they are what we were referring to by ‘Muslim women’. Worse still, perhaps that is all the imagery and information that it can find. If it is the former we can blame lazy stereotyping. If it is the latter, then it is we who are to blame by not providing alternative, compelling and more widely spread diversity on who and what Muslim women are.

Conduct a similar experiment on Amazon or in your local high street bookshop. The same images abound of books with subtitles like: “A heart-rending story of love and oppression”, “sold” “burned alive” “honour killing”. Even those books that tell of courage, struggle and freedom use this lazy visual shorthand of anonymous women’s faces to adorn their books, despite the fact that the writers and protagonists themselves have gone to great lengths to make their names, ideas and voices heard.

The stories that are told in our public discourse about Muslim women are depressingly predictable. Most common is the Oppressed, as we’ve seen above. Some of these women truly have horrific stories, and it is absolutely right that they are at the forefront of our consciousness, and that we are working constantly to eradicate the attitudes and actions that give rise to these terrible experiences. However, these same images are used ignorantly as shorthand for the ‘barbaric’ and ‘mediaeval’ views that Islam is said to hold about women.

Then we have stories from the Liberated, who escaped from the Oppression, and have ‘freed’ themselves, and at one extreme of the scale have ‘enlightened’ themselves and even rejected Islam utterly, and yet peculiarly still continue to define themselves in relation to it.

And somewhere in between are the soft sensual tales from the ‘hidden world’ of Muslim women, the Exotic, which Eastern doe-eyed beauties inhabit and where secrets of desire, womanliness and oriental allure reside. This is a world of voyeuristic otherness.

In order to register in the public consciousness, Muslim women must fit themselves into one of these categories. But they don’t. And they don’t want to.

The challenge is that Muslims too have ideas about how and what Muslim women should be. They offer Muslim women a choice between hijab-religious or non-hijab-irreligious, making sweeping assumptions about a woman’s moral and religious character based on what she wears. But this is a false dichotomy that is saturated with an irony that most Muslims are not even aware of: that the recommendations on modest dress in Islam are specifically in order to avoid defining people by what they wear, and yet we use religious clothing as a way to pigeon-hole women.

Whether Muslim or otherwise, the paradigms within which we understand Muslim women have been limited to these caricatured notions. In doing this, we ourselves have removed the freedom from Muslim women to express their own voices in a way which allows them to represent themselves as they wish to be represented.

We need to create a change in the perceptions about Muslim women, their rights and the way that they are treated. In order to do so we need first of all to create in our public discourse the possibility of different ways of being.


The Jewel of Medina – Sherry Jones meets Bridget Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodice-ripper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex, sex and more sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is the meaning of hijab?


The MagicMuslims solve the Ramadan moonsighting issue…

The MagicMuslims are here again, using their cartoon superpowers to make the world a better place. They bring levity and humour to a world that needs a smile. They are ‘Ordinary Muslims, with extraordinary powers.’ Brought to you by Spirit21, if you haven’t seen them before, you can read more here.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and the beginning of each month is signalled by the sighting of the new moon. This becomes a particularly frenzied and controversial affair for the highly auspicious month of fasting, Ramadan, and leaves many confused over how such a simple matter ever got so complicated…

Enjoy the cartoon.