Tuesday, 30 of September of 2014

Category » Muslims

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.


Despite our differences, we all need to shop

This is my weekly column from The National UAE.

Let’s stop talking about politics and extremism. We need to go shopping.

Trade was arguably one of the things that once made the Muslim world great (and rich), and created fluid and mutually binding relationships with other great world powers.

Star products included spices from as far afield as India and Indonesia, Oman’s sweet fragrances of frankincense.  And coffee, ah, dear wonderful coffee with its warm hug of caffeine first thing in the morning, also came from the Muslim world.

So, at a time when global relations are showing the odd sign of strain (anyone mentioned the mis-labelled ‘Ground Zero’ mosque recently?), what antidote could be more fitting than the resurgence of Islamic branding and marketing as a 21st century phenomenon?

You all think I’ve lost the plot, don’t you? Some Muslims are going to be up in arms that I’m advocating a supposedly consumerist-capitalist-slave-making-spirituality-stifling paradigm. And Islamophobes are going to say that I’m trying to hide an Islamist take-over inside my recyclable plastic shopping bags.

Chillax, people.

Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies, has commissioned research to better understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim consumers. The segmentation of consumers was not just for shopping’s sake, but to get under the skin of what makes ‘real’ Muslims tick, those1.599999 (recurring) billion Muslims, not the handful of crazy ones who think the way to get your fifteen minutes of fame is to blow things up.

Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the seeming frivolity of shopping versus the scary headlines of bombings that gives rise to this kind of angst. Or maybe it’s that people who stand to benefit most from upholding the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis don’t want us to see the things we have in common as human beings. These shared aspirations include trying to become better human beings, world peace, eradication of poverty, equality and justice for all, and an end to exploitation, violence and suffering. Oh yes, and we all need stuff, starting from the basics like food, clothing and construction materials.

So, given our shared human need for things which we need to buy, perhaps we can use trade and commerce, built on ethical, sustainable and non-exploitative principles, to understand a bit more about each other and to build relationships. Please note that I am not advocating a materialist, exploitative, disposable culture. I’m simply pointing out that all human beings need things to survive, and trade is a basic of human civilisation.

Research produced by Ogilvy & Mather's specialist Islamic Branding division

So what did Ogilvy & Mather’s research tell us about Muslim consumers? Importantly, instead of judging them on a single dimension of how ‘devout’ they are, it looked at what role religion plays in their lives. Their findings identified two broad categories which they labelled ‘Traditionalist’ and ‘Futurist’ and in each one were a further three segments. ‘Traditionalists’ have a desire for harmony and belonging, they are quietly proud of their faith and align with values of tolerance and compassion. ‘Futurists’ see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are individualists who ‘choose’ Islam. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’.

The research insights are meaningful because the trick to successful commerce is the same as that needed for international relations and diplomacy: it is to understand the drivers and motivations of people and to give them due recognition.

So, when we talk about trade with Muslims, we might find ourselves positively addressing wider issues of international relations. In the world of shopping, I believe they call that a ‘two for the price of one’ offer.


What kind of Muslim are you?

This article was published in November’s edition of EMEL Magazine.

Recent marketing and advertising research concludes that ‘Muslims are diverse’. Why can’t Muslims be of the same opinion?

In the political, social and religious spheres, there are plenty of labels to define what kind of Muslim you are.  Are you a moderate or a fundamentalist? A Sufi or a Salafi? A progressive or a conservative?

More often than not, a Muslim will be defined by how outwardly pious they appear – how long is his beard, how expansive is her head-covering – as though a Muslim is defined on one axis only. Such lazy and judgemental labelling has prevented us from seeing the human aspirations, motivations and even foibles that make up the great mosaic of the global Muslim nation.

So when two of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies commission research into better understanding Muslim consumers, it is a good time to ask ourselves: can the commercial world get past these labels and help us gain better insight into the attitudes, diversity and aspirations of Muslims?

JWT’s aim was to identify the common values at the core of the Muslim market. Five segments emerged. It is worth noting that no segment is more or less merit worthy in terms of humanity.

‘Social Conformists’ (19%) believe social norms should be adhered to even at the cost of personal choice. They lack self confidence and rely on others for decisions. They are not religious and feel positively about Western values.  ‘Religious Conservatives’ (17%) follow and expect others to follow religious practices, which always override personal choice. They are anti-media and information averse. They support gender segregation. ‘Pragmatic Strivers’ (24%) are non traditional and ambitious, open-minded and willing to compromise on religious values in order to get ahead. ‘Extreme Liberals’ (21%) are independent and assertive and not particular about tradition or religious practices. They will explore options even if they don’t conform to religious or societal norms. ‘New Age Muslims’ (19%) are traditional and religious but do not expect others to be so. Whilst religious, they believe in gender equality, are pro-media and pro-Internet.

Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide published their report earlier this year, and have even set up a specialist Islamic branding and marketing agency. The CEO made an interesting remark about how piety is often confused with understanding the state of being Muslim: “While segmentations of Muslim consumers have been attempted before, they have often tended to merge into relatively simple scales of devoutness in terms of adherence to Islam on a scale of liberal to conservative. It seems more profound to look instead through the lens of the role that religion plays in their lives.”

The research identified six segments.  The ‘Connected’ (27%) who see themselves as part of the web-like network of the Ummah, saying ‘religion connects me’. Technology is positive, and compassion ranks highly. The ‘Grounded’ (23%) say ‘religion centres me’: Islam is their anchor, religion and culture are inseparable. They seek peace and closeness to God. The ‘Immaculates’ (11%) say ‘religion purifies me’ are younger, seek discipline and perfection, and may incline towards rejecting the impure. These three segments have a more ‘Traditionalist’ mindset; a desire for harmony and belonging; quietly proud of their faith; aligning with values of tolerance and compassion.

The remaining three segments were noted as of key importance in influence, labelled as the ‘Futurist’ mindset who see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are individualists who ‘choose’ Islam. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’. They believe in education and question intention. ‘Identifiers’ (27%) wear Islam with pride: ‘religion identifies me’ and want it strengthened and defended. The ‘Movers’ (6%) say ‘religion enables me’. They are internet savvy and act as change agents. The ‘Synthesizers’ (6%) are pragmatic, and adapt religious practice to their needs saying ‘religion individuates me’.

If we are to take any first insights from these commercial models, it is to learn that the aspirations and motivations of Muslims are not homogeneous, and Muslims should not be judged in a one-size-fits-all fashion. Muslims have complex and varying motivations, and yet their religion still informs what they do.

Muslims expect others to recognise and respect Muslim diversity. Such research highlights this, and if anything the immediate next step is to hope that we can learn to apply the same level of complexity to how we as Muslims ourselves see other Muslims, rather than just judging them by how pious they ‘appear’ to be.

Surprisingly, such commercial research may help us better understand our co-religionists, and what motivates and inspires them.


Faith buildings and urban environments: mosques, minarets and multi-faith

Towards the end of last year, the Arts and Islam programme held an intriguing seminar about the relationship between faith buildings and the urban environments that many of them inhabit.

My review:

The mosques that I went to as a child, were of two types. The first were ephemeral fleeting locations: hired halls, school rooms, community centres. They functioned as mosques only during the time that they were populated by Muslims, melting back into their ordinary functions as soon as the last worshipper had left.

The second kind were permanent structures, with the dedicated function of being a mosque; but somehow they were still lacking in confidence, constrained by lack of time, resources and vision. Purchased from owners who found the large buildings too costly to maintain as a result of disuse or disrepair, they were often old town halls, churches and even schools. They offered benefits such as being well located with large halls to accommodate worshippers. But the bathrooms were too small for the ritual ablutions, the floors too hard for prayers, the qibla that points the congregation to Mecca at a crooked angle to the building, and most likely in need of restoration.


What baffled me most – even as a child – was the crowning of these new buildings with a little green dome. I understand why it was done – a symbolic marking of the building’s new life as a Muslim centre. Was it necessary though, I wondered? And what was the impact of these and similar architectural changes on the aesthetics of existing – often historic – buildings? And did it enhance the worshippers’ faith?

These questions have been bubbling away in my mind for many years, so imagine my delight in finding a seminar hosted at a Muslim centre, and inspired by Muslims, focusing on the spatial relationships of faith buildings with their community and environment. Why had I never come across such a discussion before?

The seminar was prescient – coming only weeks before the Swiss referendum on whether to ban the building of minarets. 53.4% of the population turned out to a vote which carried the motion to ban minarets by 57.5%. The ban has provoked controversy, and has been called a violation of religious freedom and expression, but it highlights the significant meaning which people attach to faith buildings. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of them. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. It might be naive to wonder why this might be, but when
approaching this question from an architectural rather than a political perspective, it gets to the very heart of this seminar’s question about how faith buildings influence and interact with their surroundings.

The seminar was part of the This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) Festival, a weekend of presentations, debates and forums on the city and urban citizenship. It was co-sponsored by Arts Council England’s Arts and Islam initiative, and in his introduction the director of diversity Tony Panayiotou made a bold statement: “Arts can help young people from turning to extremism.” I wondered whether, by extension, was the same true for faith architecture? I have always maintained that those who have been seduced by violence have not found it in mosques, but rather have been alienated from them. Was it therefore possible that a well-designed, well-built, well-implemented faith building could inspire souls and minds in positive ways?

You can read the full review here:

Faith%20buildings%20and%20Urban%20Environments%20%28Shelina%20Zahra%20Janmohamed%29.pdf
or here:
http://www.artsandislam.com/pdf/Faithbuildings.pdf


Muslims: beyond the caricature

This article was just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

The Muslim attitudes survey reveals a loyal community, keen on integration – far from the usual stereotypes

My British glass is half empty. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, only half of the UK population identifies itself as very strongly British. And in Germany only 32% of the general public feels that way about being German. Who then identifies most strongly with their nation, reaching a whopping 77% in the UK? Muslims.

This refreshing piece of information is part of a wider picture that Gallup paints of a European Muslim population that is more tolerant and integrated, as well as more strongly identified with Europe’s nations than other communities. It is an excellent and much-needed study, capable of informing the ongoing debate about the situation and place of Muslims in Europe.

The report investigates the usual allegations levelled at Muslims. It establishes that religiosity is no indicator of support for violence against civilians and that in the UK and Germany Muslims are more likely to state that violence is not justified for a noble cause than the general public.

This vital information needs to be channelled immediately into policy, where Muslims are only ever seen through the prism of violent extremism and are falsely considered to be predisposed to violence when in fact the opposite is the case.

The idea that Muslims want to live in isolated “ghettos” is also untrue. Muslims are in fact more likely to want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people: 67% of Muslims vs 58% of the general public in the UK, 83% vs 68% in France.

Muslims also believe that it is nonreligious actions that will lead to integration – language, jobs, education. For example, over 80% of Muslims in the UK, France and Germany believe that mastering the local language is critical.
Whilst both the general and the Muslim populations believe these things are essential for integration, these are the areas where Muslims are found to be disproportionately struggling. They have lower levels of employment and lower standards of living. For our public discourse and for government, this is where the focus needs to be and funding need to be applied.

The really worry is the gulf between how Muslims see their integration into society and how the wider population sees them. Some 82% of British Muslims say they are loyal to Britain. Only 36% of the general population believe British Muslims are loyal to the country.

This has its roots in misinformation and miscommunication across society and means we all need to work hard to dissipate the dark cloud of fear that hangs above our heads. The Gallup report points to other countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa which have a very high level of tolerance and integration across society and suggests that this may be a result of governments that actively promote religious tolerance, recognise multiple religious traditions in official holidays and national celebrations and enshrine religious freedoms in the constitution.

As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I was particularly proud to see that in Britain the headscarf is seen positively. When asked what qualities it was associated with, a third said confidence and courage, and 41% said freedom. Some 37% said it enriched European culture.

Instead of building on the platform for understanding and communication that this report brings, the mainstream media coverage has sensationalised the report by reducing it to one thing: Muslim opinions about sexual relationships.

To be sure, Muslims are indeed more conservative than the general population, but this is perhaps a trait shared with other religious communities. In fact, the areas which concern Muslims are in some cases those that we find socially contentious anyway: pornography, abortion, suicide, homosexuality and extra-marital relations.

French Muslims appear to be more “liberal” with regards to sexual mores than German or British Muslims. This is a red herring. It does not necessarily mean that they have “more integrated” sexual attitudes. All it seems to reflect are broader views on sexuality in those countries. For example, the French public considers married men and women having an affair far more morally acceptable than Brits or Germans, and this difference is reflected in the Muslim population across all three countries.

The danger in focusing on sexuality as a litmus test of integration is that in turns this into a one-issue debate. The point here is that it is that it is completely irrelevant to a discussion of integration and a happily functioning society, where mutual respect and understanding for each others moral codes – whether we agree or not – ought to be the foundations for a shared vision of a shared society. We see this in the statistics about homosexuality: it’s true that no Muslims in the UK found this to be morally acceptable (though there is a 5% margin of error for Muslims across all the statistics in the report). However, this needs to be seen in context of the fact that Muslims are more respectful of those different to themselves than the general British public. The important point here is not that we should have homogeneous social and moral attitudes, but that we can respect and live with those who hold opinions at different ends of that spectrum.

The message is this: we should use this report to silence those who spread hate once and for all. We need to move on from the monochromatic discussions of loyalty being either to the state or to religion, discussions that force a choice between “my way or the highway”.

Our glass is actually more than half full. There is much hard work to be done, and many aspects of economic and social policy that need to be addressed, but the status quo offers all of us much hope for an integrated future. It is a future that can be built on the evidence before us of ample scope for dialogue and understanding.


Created from a single soul

This week, The Guardian’s Comment is Free has been asking “Is religion good for women?” My response has just been published.

The Question: Is religion good for women?
Created from a single soul: If there is unequal treatment it is because those with power have forgotten the underlying principles of religion

I am irked by this question, the sense it carries with it that women are some kind of second best, an after-thought for religion, that require special attention. Women aren’t a remnant, or an aberration whose existence is there simply to sweep up the leftover genetic code off the floor and perpetuate the species. Women are fundamental to successful human flourishing – both physical and spiritual. It comes as no surprise to me that with the constant oppression that women face – whether in the name of religion or the cultural codes that seem to exist across all societies – the result is human society as a whole lurching from one failure to another. How can the human environment we all live in blossom if half of its inhabitants suffer in so many ways because of their gender?

As a Muslim woman, I was annoyed by the opening blurb introducing the question “Is religion good for women?” that set the background to the question saying that the Abrahamic faiths “believe in a father God, ruling the world through a network of men”. Islam emphatically does not believe in a father God. The divine is gender-neutral. The more I have discussed religion, the more I have found myself veering away from the word “God” for the very reason that it seems to carry historical baggage with it that in vulgar terms is very male, with a long beard and throne somewhere on high, which immediately engenders (yes, pun intended) a sense of exclusion in all of us who are non-male, or at the very least non-bearded, or non-throned.

Instead, I have found myself using other terms from within the Islamic paradigm like “the divine”, or “the creator” or even borrowing from other mystical traditions with a word like “enlightenment”, in order to get rid of the accepted male status quo within religion.

The fundamental way of knowing “the divine” as a Muslim are the 99 names which describe the qualities of the deity. Islamic scholars have grouped these broadly into two halves, male and female, and any comprehensive understanding and connection to the divine must understand and embrace both the male and the female attributes. By extension, human beings also aspire to manifest all of these qualities, which therefore underlines the critical importance of the female within any sort of understanding and practice of religion.

Men and women in Islamic theology were “created from a single soul”, as quoted in the Qur’an, and are “made in pairs”. The origins and relationship of men and women are therefore equal and equitable, neither one being able to exist or fully function without the other. The assumption behind the phrase “a network of men” is therefore also false. Every story related in scripture almost invariably has a man and a woman who carry the message together. Jesus and Mary, Moses and Miriam, Muhammed and Khadija. These stories are told in Islamic scripture with feisty, spiritual women who change the course of history.

Take the story of Mary as related in the Qur’an. Her father promised that his unborn child would be dedicated to God and would serve in the temple. He was surprised to find it was a girl – Mary – as only boys were traditionally dedicated for this purpose. He is instructed by the divine to continue with his dedication, and Mary went to live in the temple, shocking those around him with the idea that a woman could be worthy enough to serve the divine, a privilege previously accorded only to men. Mary’s very presence in the temple was designed to crush oppressive and misogynistic ideas, but many of these are still perpetuated vigorously today. As an aside, I should mention that Islamic tale of Mary’s birth of Jesus is told without reference to any male father figure. There is no Joseph, instead Mary is the epitome of the strong single mother whose neighbours gossip about her, but who raises a great child.

With such a powerful parable to draw on, and with the fundamental blueprint of gender relations in Islam being framed in the paradigm of “a single soul” I often ask myself why women are still treated as second best. I find it incomprehensible that women are excluded from some mosques, when by decree Mary was placed at the place of worship. I find it equally baffling that men treat women as lesser beings when the clear instruction is that both are created from the same spiritual fabric. All other actions must be carried out in the context of this basic human blueprint.

The problem is, those who have power will justify keeping it in any way they can, sometimes by conveniently forgetting the underlying principles of religion. The challenge is to reject black-and-white polarising questions like “Is religion good for women” and start from the basic fundamentals of equality. “Created from a single soul” seems a pretty good place to start to overturn the misogynists.


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.


Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow

Today I’ll be speaking at a press event at the Foreign Press Association for a conference to be held next weekend in Doha. 300 young Muslim leaders from 76 countries which include minority and majority Muslim countries, will convene, in an event which is totally unique.

The press release describes: “In an historic time of change and diversity, young Muslim leaders from a broad range of countries are convening to push for change from within the global Muslim community. An Italian imam, a Saudi fashion designer, an Iranian rapper, a Pakistani madrasa reformer, an American blogger, and a Dutch lawyer are among the participants attending the 2009 Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference. This new generation of community-based, forward-thinking Muslim leaders will come together to share a wide range of strategies and leadership styles, to ‘make tomorrow a day when Muslims are known around the world as people of peace,’ in the words of one invitee.

These young Muslim leaders – from Senegal to Somalia, Indonesia to Iraq, Britain to Bahrain, and Kosovo to Kuwait – will propose innovative solutions to challenges facing Muslims globally such as the crisis of religious authority, violent extremism, competing values, and strained relations with the West.

The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow are answering a global call for change on behalf of the world’s Muslim community and will communicate their shared message of tolerance and progressive leadership by authoring a joint statement addressed to world leaders.”

———————-
Now added: video clip from BSN on the conference


Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.

Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.

I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.

I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?

The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!

I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.

On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…

My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?

Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.

Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!

(p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)


Armchair spirituality is not enough

If the hajj teaches us anything, it is that you have to get involved spiritually and physically in order to make lasting and impactful change.

Muslims from all around the world will be travelling to Makkah in early December to take part in the hajj pilgrimage which takes place in the first ten days of the month. All the pilgrims dress in stark white clothing, indistinguishable from each other, as their clothing levels out the differences of prince or plumber. Their white brilliance contrasts with the Ka’bah which is draped in black cloth and around which they circulate to perform the duties of the pilgrimage. For many, it is a dream come true to visit in person the place which they face every day as they perform their five daily prayers. Each person is simply a soul, undifferentiated by wealth, status or colour. You can no longer hide behind clothes, make-up or social status. It is a sobering experience to come face-to-face with the grim realities of the bare souls of others, as well as your own.

The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat which represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator. With no distractions, and a clear uncluttered head and unencumbered body, the change that is needed becomes apparent in your heart, and resolutions for making life better are quick to emerge. Pilgrims comment about the profundity and solidity of the change that occurs in this barren setting, which somehow frees the inner spirit. The physical presence in a challenging environment stimulates personal growth and development. No matter how much someone explains the environment and sensation, it never has the impact of being there in person. You have to taste it, breathe it, live it.

The journey passes through the night towards Mina, where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his beloved child and to show that he was willing to give up what was dearest to him. The pilgrims make a symbolic sacrifice of an animal, to represent the surrender of something of utmost importance to them for the sake of God. Still following Abraham’s actions, they throw seven pebbles at stone satans, as though they are stoning the devils of their own inner desires.

Exhausted, the pilgrims return to Makkah, physically broken, but spiritually elated. The hajj pushes the human being to the limits of physical and spiritual endeavour. The lasting impact that hajj creates, and its success in creating change is down to the fact that it address both the physical and the spiritual. The body and the spirit are integral and interconnected parts of the human being that need nurturing. They must both go on a real, symbolic and ritual journey together in order to make change.

The images of these pilgrims is broadcast across the world on television networks, and we can watch the painstaking journey that each person is experiencing as they go through this most rigorous and gruelling of physical and spiritual challenges. Going through the event, and feeling the pain and elation at every moment is what cements the spiritual experience.

We sit and watch the journey of hajj from the comfort of our armchairs, enthralled by the experience, but not able to access the benefits for ourselves. We cannot create the same impact as walking those footsteps and tasting the sweat and tears, whilst we sit ensconced in the soft sheltered environment of our own homes. So it is with developing our own communities and our own spirituality. We like to shake our fists at community leaders, the state of the Ummah, and the ongoing problems we face, from the sanctuary of our sofas. It is like expecting your cheers whilst you watch your football team play on TV to have an impact, or as though shouting at the television set will change events as they unfold. It is like walking the footsteps of the hajjis watching through the live TV coverage: this can never create that type and strength of change.

If we believe that by sitting at home and engaging in armchair protests that we can make an impact, then we are deluded. Muttering astaghfirullahs whilst propped on a comfortable cushion with no connection to the outside world cannot create change. The hajj gives us that very evidence – you have to be right in the centre of things to make an impact.

It is the same with spirituality. To refine our souls and our ethics we have to interact with the world around us. It is only through participation and relationships with other human beings that we can truly learn what it means to be the purest of souls. Muslims are quick to point out that asceticism is rejected by Islam – physical separation is prohibited in that sense. Sitting on our sofas, and complaining about the world around us, is only one step away from that.

Proceeding with patience and prayer is the hallmark of a human being, and that is because the spiritual relationship with the Divine can only flourish through interaction and participation with society. This requires us to extract ourselves from the cushioned comfort of our armchairs, and to step out of the front door to take part in the world.