• Film review: ‘Arranged’

    This review was published in The Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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  • Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims

    Last week I mentioned that I’d been reading the report “Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims.” You can download the full report at the link.

    The report raises some interesting points beginning with the premise that young Muslims  – the under 25’s make up over half the communities – are in fact seen and rarely heard, and in particular that they feel that other people don’t see them as they see themselves – modern young people who want a voice but are denied one. The report highlights intergenerational experiences and identity as challenges facing young people, and that these are exacerbated for women who additionally have to deal with challenges from within and outside the immediate British Muslim population.

    Three key issues surface in the report:

    Identity: young Muslims are surprisingly class aware, and how they view Muslims in other parts of Britain is shaped considerably by their local life. When looked at in a general way, this seems obvious, but somehow it’s not been stated this way before. No one homogeneous national Muslim profile or psyche exists. In addition, young people do not regards themselves as a contradiction between their religious and national identities, but these are in a state of flux responding to discourses, experiences and pressures such as debates around Muslim women, roles in society and so on.

    The report also introduces the idea of ‘intergenerational’ issues, by which it means that some young Muslims face different worlds in their lives, one in the home and one outside and see a communication divide between the two. This is an issue that I address in my book Love in a Headscarf – living multiple lives and not knowing how to integrate them together.  However, I think this is a particular issue for teenagers generally and specifically for those from immigrant cultures where finding a way to balance the parental culture with the school/outside environment can be challenging. The report adds that whilst statistical evidence is needed, this split-world is unsurprisingly creating social and emotional disorders.

    And finally, ‘disconnection.’ The report says that although much is written about young Muslims, they are aware that they are not the authors and sources of that content. It’s worth noting that this report is compiled entirely of interviews with young Muslims themselves and analysis applied to their comments in order to draw the conclusions. The book itself is peppered with their quotations. What is more worrying is that it’s not just wider society that they feel disconnected from, but also the platform institutions and umbrella bodies that claim access to a large chunk of British Muslim thought and opinion.

    So what does the report say needs to be done? Capacity building, upskilling and training in meeting the needs of young people, along with investment in their development. It suggests mentoring schemes and role modelling.  Some of this exists already, but if young people are not benefitting, then maybe there is not enough around, and perhaps this ideas need to be institutionalised at a local level so it’s ingrained into community structures.  The programme mentions its own next step: a national Muslim heritage programme looking to capture the experiences of 1st generation Muslims to build young Muslims’ sense of local pride and belonging, and to increase their sense of being stakeholders in this society.

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

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

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

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

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