The Guardian

  • The love story begins at the wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 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.

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  • Love in a Headscarf – out now!

    Exciting news! My book is out now, and available to purchase at all good bookshops and online. Yes, yes, it’s shameless promotion, I know, but a first-time author’s gotta do what a first-time author’s gotta do. Click on the book cover to find out more. And if you like the look of it (and it seems quite a few people have), a couple of key-presses and postal delivery later you’ll be the proud owner of the book, which is today covered in a double page spread in the Guardian.

    You can also read more about the book at

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  • A Muslim Woman’s Journey – "Love in a Headscarf" published today

    The Guardian is joining me today in announcing the publication of my book “Love in a Headscarf

    I wanted to write about my experiences – not of oppression, or turning away from religion – but of love.

    I sometimes wonder what someone who has never met ordinary Muslim woman thinks we are like. Perhaps they see us all as black-veil-wearing creatures in voluminous cloaks. Certainly those who search for images in Google under “Muslim women” are likely to think so.

    Perhaps if you’ve never met a Muslim woman you might think we are all failing to “integrate”, whatever that means, or to communicate with the people we live amongst, as Jack Straw would have us believe. It’s possible that they think we are all opposed to freedom of speech and will use violence to attack it.

    If you walk into any bookshop you will find stories of Muslim women with words like “oppressed” “sold” or “kidnapped” in the titles. Their tales of horror rightly need to be told, and the abuses which have been perpetrated need to be stopped. However, this genre of misery-memoir about Muslim women is fed constantly by publishers eager to confirm and exploit this stereotype. The tales are topped off with accounts of rejection of Islam and the nirvana of “liberation” from it. Both of these archetypal stories feature book covers almost exclusively of women with sad oppressed eyes staring out from behind a tightly wrapped niqab, camels and deserts in the background.

    It is hard to tell whether publishers illustrate their books in this way because it reaps easy commercial rewards. Or is it that they themselves cannot see the complexity and variation amongst Muslim women, or are simply too lazy or cowardly to bring us new stories that avoid this one-size-fits-all approach.

    I speak from experience – today sees the publication of my first book “Love in a Headscarf“, a memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman. I was fed up of seeing the same old stories told all the time, and wanted to share one “from the inside”, and in a way that itself was groundbreaking.

    So I chose to write a humorous and light-hearted tale. I wanted to tell a story that touches each of us as human beings, looking at questions of love, life and meaning that we all share, but through the eyes of a Muslim woman. Most of all, I wanted to explore the contradictions and contrasts that we all face, and humour was the best medium for that. As Peter Ustinov said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

    I took the book to a number of publishers whose commissioning editors loved the story, but couldn’t see it fitting with the existing mould of books about Muslim women. “We need an ‘alias’ of a book that is already out there so people understand how it relates to previous books,” they explained, meaning it should be either a forced marriage story or one of escape from Islam.

    With such black and white views about the stories that Muslim women are permitted to tell, how can it ever be possible to create an understanding of our diversity and complexity?

    I hope my book brings a fresh perspective to the discussion about Muslim women. But there is a serious question to be asked – will it provoke the Muslim community to look into itself and wonder why these lazy stereotypes exist? Sometimes as Muslims we lack an intellectual honesty about ourselves, and are not brave enough to tell our stories as human beings on a journey, with all our flaws. If publishers are guilty of monolithic misery memoirs, then Muslims must also take some of the blame for not sharing our universal experiences in a language and context that everyone can relate to.

    We need to connect to those around us at that very fundamental level of human experience. Today, on Valentine’s Day, let’s do it with love.

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  • Let Muslim Women Speak

    This just posted on the Guardian website at Comment is Free. Swing by and leave a comment.

    The last few weeks have been particularly eventful for Muslim women on Comment is Free. We would have felt extremely exhausted by all the excitement, were it not for the fact that – with the notable exception of Samia Rahman and Reefat Drabu – we were spared the ignominy of having to participate in the debate ourselves.

    AC Grayling started us off by equating the headscarf with an iron shackle and stating that Muslim women are complicit in their own oppression. In the process of attacking the abhorrent denial of freedom that Muslim women can wrongly suffer, Grayling (in)advertently takes away the very same freedom of choice to decide to wear the hijab if we choose.

    Julie Burchill bigged up Christianity, and in the process scathingly dismissed Islam and Muslim women. The only “Muslim” women she suggested as role models – Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji – were those she claimed had rejected Islam and were no longer Muslim.

    Cath Elliott on the other hand says she’s not holding out for women to emerge empowered from religious communities. She asks some good questions, such as why does God always appear to be a “He”? Why are the decision makers in politics and economics still predominantly male? But let’s not be weasely as some pundits are: Muslim men often wriggle out of addressing these difficult questions by deflecting attention away from themselves; and it needs to stop.

    Islamic theology has a strong framework for a blueprint of gender equality. I know that this is a deeply unfashionable thing for a Muslim woman to say, but let me explain.

    In Islam, God is not gendered, not physically located, nor carnal. There is no original sin – the two genders were “created from a single soul” which is entirely pure and good. God is “like nothing else” we can imagine, and in that sense is neither male nor female. However, in order to know God, there are at least 99 qualities or names, that are characterised as masculine and feminine, and both are equally critical in learning about and approaching the divine.

    Both genders have their own free will and have their own minds and must make their own contribution. Qur’anic and Islamic narrative has plenty of examples of such women: Mary’s immaculate conception is a strong vision of a woman raising a child as the head of the family without any men present. Hagar raises her son while her husband is away, Aasiya the wife of Pharaoh stands up to her dictatorial bloodthirsty husband. All of them are celebrated as role models for both men and women.

    Neither is marriage supposed to be a subjugation for women, but a completion and partnership for both man and woman. Every man that is held up as an example has a woman by his side (or you could argue it is vice versa) who is exemplary in her own right: Adam with Eve, Rachael with Moses, Mohamed with his wife Khadijah.

    With such a framework and strong and robust archetypes to inspire Muslims, what went wrong? How did we end up at a place where Muslim women are not fully empowered and find themselves at the unprotected and miserable end of cultural oppression endorsed in the name of Islam? There is no denying that Muslim women do suffer and have not been granted the freedoms, choices and opportunities that are the right all human beings, and guaranteed by Islam. But somewhere between the ideals of faith, and the pleasure of patriarchal power, that respect and those rights were lost.

    Which brings me neatly to the latest set of discussions about the proposed Muslim marriage contract. The idea of having a contract between the two parties is embedded in the very notion of Islamic marriage. The goal is to allow both parties to be clear about each other’s expectations of the relationship. It would probably help most couples – Muslim or otherwise to have such an agreement.

    The basic rights are guaranteed with or without the written document. These are that neither party can be forced to marry – they must do so of their own free will; that both parties may divorce should they choose, and that neither a woman nor a man can be prevented from marrying the person of their choice. As Reefat Drabu of the Muslim Council of Britain put it, the contract “is not a re-invention of the shariah.”

    So why the hoo-ha about the document?

    Ed Husain flags up the core of the real problem beautifully by recounting the tale of an imam who refused to conduct a nikah in the absence of the bride’s father’s permission. But he draws the wrong conclusion in thinking that the contract papers would have saved the day. Since the imam’s actions were clearly out of line with the principles of Islamic marriage it is unlikely that the document would have changed his mind.

    Instead, what the document champions is the notion that the behaviour of the people who hold authority needs to be questioned, or as Drabu puts it, the need of a “change in behaviours”. No authority should ever be too humble to be challenged. What it also highlights is the extreme need for accessible and easy to understand information.

    What is most important about the concept behind the marriage contract should be the reiteration to Muslim women – and to Muslim men – that knowledge is a powerful thing, and that empowerment and questioning are two fundamental components of the Islamic spirit.

    Knowledge is about learning and about being brave enough to ask questions, and about getting your voice heard: education and courage. Laying down challenges for the status quo can be a transformative rather than antagonistic activity.

    What that means for many commentators is that we may say, believe and do things which don’t fit in with the caricature of a Muslim woman who would be desperate to be “liberated” from Islam if only she knew it.

    You may find our voices reverberating with the view that we like being Muslim women, we just want to make our lives better and in line with true Islamic principles. It would be nice if those who debate vociferously about Muslim women would therefore move over and give us the seat at the table that we’re demanding

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  • Holding out for a hero – published on the Guardian

    Poverty, war and climate change are all indications that individual is not as heroic as we once thought. Do we need a modern-day messiah?

    Click here to read more

    This article has just been published at Comment is Free on the Guardian website

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  • Chatting to the Guardian about Hajj

    The Guardian’s religious correspondent Riazat Butt is out in the hajj at the moment, and is reporting back on her experiences. RB made the front page earlier this week – go girl! – and I caught up with her last week to chat to her about what she might expect.

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  • Spiritual journeys like the hajj must challenge body and soul

    Yesterday I was published in the Guardian’s Face to Faith column discussing the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj which is currently underway.

    About 25,000 British Muslims will travel to Mecca this week to take part in the hajj. They will join almost 2 million Muslims, from around the world, including 214,000 from Indonesia and 15 from Argentina. All of them will begin and end their journey at the Kaaba, an enormous iconic cube, usually draped in black, that Muslims turn towards every day when they pray. Everyone dresses in the simplest of white clothing. The trappings of the material world are momentarily erased. 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.

    Each person enters a swirling ocean of humanity that circulates seven times around the Kaaba on foot. It is an amazing sight as blonde and brunette, black, brown and white, young and old walk side by side. The microcosm that each person represents finds its place in this most diverse representation of humans.

    The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat to look deep into their own souls. The barren landscape shines a harsh light on the inner self. Arafat represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator.

    Without temporal distractions, new perspectives and priorities about living the good life emerge, along with firm resolutions about making change. Pilgrims return from the Hajj talking about a life-changing experience, which does seem to have long-lasting effects. Islamic tradition says that after reflecting at Arafat, the pilgrim leaves fully purified, as innocent as a babe, ready to start life anew.

    The journey passes through the night towards Mina, a resting place that is also the backdrop for two symbolic actions. In Islamic narratives Abraham was so dear to God that he was called “the friend of God”. He grew into old age longing for an heir. When he was finally blessed with a son, God asked him to give up his child. He personified his devotion to God by entrusting to God that which was most beloved to him. The pilgrims must each sacrifice an animal, to symbolise that they too are prepared to give up what they love most.

    On his journey to sacrifice his son Abraham was plagued by, and eventually overcame, the Devil. Pilgrims exorcise their own devils by throwing seven symbolic pebbles at stone satans, one pebble for each flaw they wish to erase. People throw their pebbles passionately, and their intention to wipe away previous shortcomings is buried into their muscle memory and DNA. The symbolism of ritual has a ripple effect into real life, and this is one of the great lessons of the hajj.

    The triumphant spiritual return to Mecca is accompanied by a sense of physical exhaustion. The hajj is an arduous journey that challenges both body and soul. Its power lies in this very fact: that it addresses both parts of the human being and pushes them to extraordinary lengths. The journey needs to be both physical as well as 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. Today, sadly, the body has been separated from the spiritual domain. It is worshipped in its own right, rather than as an integral part of the development of our individual humanity.

    Curled up in our armchairs, we imagine that reading self-help books will create radical and long-lasting change. Those who have been on a pilgrimage, whether on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, to the many Hindu holy places or on the hajj, will tell you that it is the endurance, ritual and symbolism of the physical journey that reveals the secrets of the human soul.

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  • Hello Guardian readers!

    Welcome to new readers who have read my article today in the Guardian. I invite you to keep reading below and check out the rest of the site. For my regular readers, my article that was published in The Guardian’s Face to Faith column is here. You can leave comments here at spirit21 or on the Guardian site

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