Thursday, 23 of October of 2014

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How not to marry a child bride and other helpful tips for treating women

My latest weekly column for The National.

This month in Steubenville, Ohio, two teenage men were sentenced for the crime of rape. They had sexually assaulted a teenage girl who was unconscious, passed her around, filmed her and shared the footage.

In some of the media reporting, there was a skin-crawling sympathy for the “ruined” lives of the men, described as local stars in their community, high-flying footballers who were set to get college scholarships. One fact was overlooked. Rape is wrong, and they are rapists, and rapists should pay the price for their crime. The victim, who has not been identified, received little sympathy.

This led to opinion pieces with the startlingly obvious and yet seemingly necessary guidance – both serious and satirical – on “how not to rape”.

Inspired by the fact that even in clear wrongdoing sometimes we have to state the obvious, here are three helpful “how not to …” tips to avoid the mistreatment of women and girls.

First, how not to marry a child bride.

Around the world, the UN predicts that 39,000 female children are married each day. Of course there are cultural norms about the age at which women should marry, but it’s clear that a woman should be able to give her own free adult consent. Apart from violating the right to consent of another human being, child marriage increases the likelihood of death, labour difficulties and child rearing.

Early marriage leads to early pregnancy, and girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is a leading cause of death for women aged 15-19 in the developing world.

Second, how not to kill girl babies.

By Jorge Royan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0  (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 )], via Wikimedia CommonsThe scourge of killing unborn babies for the “sin” of being female is on the rise. In China and India there are 30 to 40 million more men of marriageable age than women. A whole range of causes are at work. Male heirs will contribute economically, the “shame” of a daughter and her “burden” on the family.

But there is no shame in having a daughter, especially with economics and independence at women’s disposal. So here’s how not to kill a girl baby – love girls, love babies.

And third, how not to engage in domestic violence against women.

Violence against women is so obviously wrong that other than writing a spoof, I’m not sure how to explain its total and utter wrongness. And yet if I do satirise it, the crazy may interpret it is a blessing on their grotesque behaviour. Shockingly, up to 70 per cent of women will experience violence in their lifetime. In fact, according to the World Bank, women aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.

Here’s how to remember not to beat your wife or your daughter: you wouldn’t walk up to a stranger in the street and punch them.

Perhaps the easiest way to establish how not to treat women and girls is to ask if she wants you to behave that way or not. If she says no, then don’t do it. It’s quite obvious.


What should the voice of the Muslim world sound like? Lessons from the elections of the Pope

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today

Europe is one of the least religious regions of the world, and yet later this month it will be home to the election of the new Pope. This single man is arguably the most influential of all religious leaders, heading a strictly hierarchical Catholic church of 1.2 billion people.Video: Pope gives last Sunday address

Despite an image of Catholicism as a white western religion, reflected in a long tradition of a Eurocentric papacy, only 24 per cent of Catholics live in Europe, and this number is falling. Most live in Latin America (41 per cent) and Africa is the only region where it is growing.

The resignation of the current Pope has therefore prompted questions about whether his successor will follow centuries of tradition in the European mould – the last non-European pope is recorded as the Syrian Gregory III in 741 – or whether he will come from the more populous regions like Latin America. Such a departure from a European papacy will demand a re-imagining of the shape and nature of Christianity today.

The politicking over the next Pope’s provenance and what this says about Catholicism should make the Muslim world think about its own relationship between the Arab and non-Arab worlds. What does the Muslim world think about the question?

Islam too has a traditional heartland, which naturally is focused around Mecca and Madina. As the language of the Quran, Arabic is the lingua franca of Muslims. And since the early history of Muslims is intertwined with Arab history, Muslims feel a strong affinity with Arab lands.

But, analogous to the heartland and diaspora of the Catholic church, in today’s Muslim world most Muslims are not Arab, nor do they live in the Arab world. Nearly 65 per cent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, and there are nearly as many Muslims in Indonesia alone as the whole of the Arab world. Muslims in the subcontinent outnumber both put together.

Yet global Islamic discourse and culture is heavily dominated by Arabic culture. That’s not to say this is right or wrong, rather it’s a frame for us to ask questions about the cultures, representation, voices, and leadership that are given primacy and legitimacy for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.

Could we ever imagine that the leading authorities and voices for Muslims might be Asian? With growing numbers of Muslims in America and Europe, could we accept a shift of intellectual, economic and political Muslim leadership from those regions? Could the Muslim world ever imagine African leadership?

Religious authority is undoubtedly tied together with political and economic influence, and so it’s no wonder that Muslim majority nations jostle for position in leadership of the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia is undeniably home to the cradle of Islam. Asia-Pacific is seeking to claim commercial leadership through industries like Islamic finance, European and American Muslims believe they will drive modernity and bring Islam into the modern era. Iran asserts its culture and civilisation. Turkey wants to reclaim its historic political power and sees itself as the legitimate leader.

It doesn’t need to be a competition. There is space for many voices and representations, and a multiplicity would offer greater value, strength and resilience to the Muslim world. And most of all, it would support the ummah’s promise of respect for multiple tribes and nations.

Chart from the Pew Forum report: the global religious landscape


Women and minorities the losers in power politics in Bangladesh

Here’s my latest weekly newspaper column published today in The National.

Amid growing political turmoil in Bangladesh, the arrest of 20 female activists at the end of last year went almost unnoticed by the world’s press.

The women’s hijabs were forcibly removed and then they were forced to remain in an open public space, presumably to humiliate them. They were all denied bail, even the pregnant one.

The police admitted that there was no evidence to support charging them, or refusing bail. But the 20 were held for a further two days for “questioning” even though Bangladeshi law limits such custody to 24 hours. Meanwhile 13 other women were arrested for protesting against the treatment of their sisters.

These women were locked up for no crime, and then humiliated, for just one reason: they belong to the opposition party.

I am increasingly concerned that those in power in Bangladesh see mistreatment of women as mere collateral damage in their zealous efforts to defeat their political opponents.

This is not about the rights and wrongs of the two main political positions in Bangladesh. I will not venture into that minefield, the long history and deep emotion of which are tearing the nation apart. Rather, I want to focus on the fact that women are being targeted as a matter of political strategy. This is part of a wider government failure to protect ordinary women.

In January in Dhaka’s Shah Ali area, an 11-year old schoolgirl died after being gang-raped. The rapists left the girl’s corpse hanging from a ceiling fan. A local protest carried the body to a police station, but the authorities did nothing about the crime.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts in eastern Bangladesh, the Asian Human Rights Commission reports, police did not register a formal complaint in another rape case, as the alleged perpetrator is an influential political leader. Police also denied the victim a credible medical exam.

Rape is a contentious issue in Bangladesh; there are grave allegations of mass rape during the 1971 war of independence. But denials of justice in recent rape cases give official demands for justice over crimes past the empty ring of insincere rhetoric.

There’s no denying that women in Bangladesh face oppression from traditional patriarchy. But cases like these highlight government failure to enforce existing legislation. As Human Rights Watch says diplomatically, “implementation remains poor”.

Extreme conservatives do Muslim women no favours. But just as pernicious are secularists who put political power above the reality of women’s lives. In Turkey women who chose to wear the headscarf were erased from political and civic spaces by secularists. In France women have been denied citizenship because they wear the niqab. And so on.

In Bangladesh it’s not just women being targeted, but minorities too, in a tolerated epidemic of violence against those seen as “other”.

A Hindu man was shot in his home after being accused of supporting the opposition. He begged for his life explaining he was Hindu. His crime? A beard, a symbol of Muslim piety.

Further, the government has been widely criticised for rejection and harassment of Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives from neighbouring Myanmar, where they are persecuted for the “crime” of being Muslim.

In its fight for political power, Bangladesh’s government has shown that it finds power more desirable than justice. Women, minorities and refugees are simply collateral damage.


Warning: Muslims have a sense of humour and we’ll be using it

This is my op-ed published in The National today

The last year has been no laughing matter in the Middle East. But its epic events – especially its use of peaceful protest and national unity as resources towards building self-determination – have made the wider world realise that Muslims are not as alien as they might have thought.

Image: Pep Montserrat for The National

Amid the darkest moments, the world also saw another glimpse of the universal humanity of Muslims – through comedy. Reuters reported that before his death, eastern Libya was full of anti-Qaddafi humour. Graffiti showed the colonel in a Superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest. Another showed him in a dustbin labelled “history”. A particularly damning cartoon urged him to “surrender himself to the ‘national council of hairdressers’”.

It’s a secret that needs to be let out: Muslims have a deep-rooted sense of humour and are not afraid to use it.

Let’s get these important points out of the way first. I know there are deeply miserable people out there who can’t possibly believe what I’m telling them: that Muslims both have and appreciate a sense of humour. Their argument is that Muslims will slap a fatwa on anyone who tries to make a joke or poke fun.

And we will. But only on anyone who makes a truly terrible joke. Substandard comedy, no matter where it comes from, should never be tolerated and deserves every fatwa it gets.

There isn’t any place either for dressing up prejudice, aggression or sheer ignorance as comedy. We are all too familiar with those misery-boots types who make barbed cracks, then throw up their hands to say: “What? You can’t take a joke?” Comedy is not a clever way to be rude or offensive. We can see straight through that.

In an entirely unscientific poll of friends, tweeps and Facebook fans, I asked what the funniest things were that they had been asked as Muslims. While wearing a pink headscarf one woman was asked: “Why do Muslim women wear black all the time?”

A rather baffling question that is often put to Muslims – who generally belong to quite sociable communities – is: “If you don’t drink, how do you meet people?”

And what is one to make of the question: “Is it true that light green is the official colour of Al Qaeda?”

Perhaps my favourite of all time, is: “Now that you’re engaged, will you have a forced marriage?”

These questions project such a one-dimensional, stereotypical understanding of Muslims that it is hard not to laugh. But we don’t. And that’s probably why some people think we are so serious and earnest all the time.

In the face of such questioning, Muslims place upon themselves the onerous burden of answering in the nicest possible way. Also, we’re never sure how non-Muslims will respond to humour. I’ve tried being funny when replying, and mostly the reaction is a blank stare. We like that people want to understand, but forgive us if you catch us suppressing an occasional smirk.

Since 9/11, a crop of young, feisty Muslim comedians have made it onto the scene. This has been accompanied by a growing number of comedy festivals, films, internet videos and blogs. Abu Dhabi last week month hosted an international comedy festival featuring the Lebanese stand-up Nemr Abou Nassar.

In the United States, a group of stand-up comics call themselves “Allah Made Me Funny“, comprising a black American, an Arab American and an Asian American. In the UK, acts like Imran Yusuf, an East African Asian, and Shaista Aziz, a British Pakistani, vie for attention. We also have stand-ups such as Riaad Moosa in South Africa.

Slowly but surely we are seeing Muslims depicted on western screens in comedy, rather than just as scary terrorists. Mainstream productions include such films as The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a Muslim comedy troupe around the American Deep South. The Infidel tells the story of a Muslim who finds out he has Jewish roots while his daughter is being courted by the son of a deeply conservative Muslim family, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World follows the actor and comedian Albert Brooks to South Asia. But perhaps the most widely known movie is Four Lions, an acclaimed British comedy about four young Muslim men who plot to carry out a suicide bombing, which was directed by the ever controversial Chris Morris.

In 2010, the American journalist Katie Couric suggested that what her country needed if it were going to normalise its understanding of Muslims was a “Muslim Cosby Show”. Her wish may be about to come true as Preacher Moss of Allah Made Me Funny is attempting to pilot such a show, currently titled Here Come The Muhammads. He says that “by making it funny, you make it accessible. People can say: ‘You mean I can actually laugh at that?’”

Yes, it’s true that Muslims and others can in fact joke about Muslims.

At a preview of Four Lions, I found myself the only Muslim among 30 very serious film critics. While others looked around nervously, I was cackling with laughter (no doubt to their annoyance). The film worked because it showed a deep understanding of Muslim cultures, and the break between expectation and reality, both of which are rich seams of humour. It was intelligent, not offensive.

The film opens with the would-be terrorist cell recording their suicide video. The idiot of the group is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. “Not a small gun,” he protests. “Big hands.” Even suicide-video production is subject to the inflated egos common in the media.

Muslim humour and self-deprecation are, of course, not recent phenomena. There must be thousands of tales of Mullah Nasruddin, one of the great entertainer-comedian-wisemen of Muslim history, dating back to the Middle Ages. I particularly like this one: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such name for me?” “God Forbid,” said Nasruddin.

Comedy also serves different purposes within different Muslim communities. While one group of young comedians is using humour to introduce Muslims to a world apprehensive about their faith, another is using it to point out the challenges of their cultures and politics.

In Saudi Arabia, YouTube comedies address religious and political pressures alongside social observation. On The Fly, for instance, has tackled subjects such as the Egyptian uprising as well as TV coverage of Arabs Got Talent.

The internet allows usually unmentionable subjects to be tackled. A mainstream TV show, Tash Ma Tash uses humour to explore social convention. One particularly controversial episode addressed the cultural taboos around discussing polygamy by having a woman with four husbands.

Such developments are the hidden gems of Muslim cultures today. The most powerful thing about their humour is its universality: while the cultural contexts may vary, they take down human foibles and misadventures in ways that all cultures can connect with.

After all, the funniest jokes are the ones that you see yourself in, and which connect to your own experiences.

So here’s a multi-faith one to sign off with. A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says: “What is this, a joke?”

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk


Reaching back for a lost youth reveals how far I’ve come

This is my weekly newspaper column published today in the UAE’s The National newspaper.

Reconnecting with past friends can be a good thing, even if it only reminds you to be happy with the present.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those around you as you were growing up? About three years ago a compulsion of unknown origin overtook me, forcing me to start looking up people I had known at university. It was a period where the person I am today first took shape. Whether it was the people or the pivotal experiences that I wanted to reconnect with, I don’t know.

Image courtesy firstpalette.com

There were friends that I had started off close to, but time, distance and circumstance had slowly eroded the immediacy of our relationships. Some I had heard about through mutual acquaintances. Some I bumped into on the street. While browsing in bookshops, I saw the names of authors and recognised them as people I had once spent a great deal of time with. I even spotted one hosting her own television series.

The urge may have come upon me because of age. Now in my early thirties, I had acquired a sense of nostalgia at what had passed. I suppose I had lived enough years to be able to look back over a substantial period of time. I had come to a natural pause in my life where things were becoming more permanent: a career under my belt, I’d recently got married and bought a home.

Some of it was a practical response to the fact that it is hard to find new and meaningful relationships. It is almost impossible to invest freely of ourselves and the time that is needed to forge friendships as close as the ones we do as students or in our early twenties. It is simpler and more fulfilling to go back and rejuvenate the ones from our past.

Neither was it coincidence that my urge became more insistent around the same time my first book was published. I now had the confidence that I had something worthwhile to say in conversations with lost acquaintances, something to show for myself. Nine global editions, a trendy flat in central London, and plenty of travels including a period living abroad gave me enough conversation fodder behind which to hide the insecurities of my younger years and my feelings that I hadn’t done much in the intervening decade since I’d seen my friends, and that they had gone on to lead more successful and more exciting lives than me.

Part of it was that it was suddenly easy to reconnect, as Facebook gained widespread popularity. I could not resist peeking at home pages of lost friends to see a snapshot of their lives; and from there it was one painless click to reconnect. If it didn’t go well, it could easily be dissolved and the status quo restored.

What left me reeling was that two emails were sufficient to exchange the news of 10 years. When you strip out the mundane daily details that populate our lives, what is left of a decade? Spiritual epiphanies and self-development make for poor writing material, so instead all that remains is a summary of jobs, key travels, marriage and children. The more of those I wrote, the more I wondered where the years had passed.

Some reconnections have worked. Some had a burst of life, and then faded away again. And some spluttered out, reminding me that they had already run their course years ago.

The emotions they stirred were a powerful remembrance of a youth past, but also that I’m quite contented with the skin I live in now. My past made me who I am, and it was worth reconnecting with it as a reminder of how far I’ve come.


My conversion to the joy of the beach holiday: so this is what relaxing is all about

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today. It’s no secret that I’m just back from my travels to Singapore and Langkawi!

Book in hand, legs outstretched, feet perched on a small stool, I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking a white sandy beach. The sea is clear, with the gentlest of waves slowly bringing the tide in. The sun is bright and golden hot, its fierce edge softened by a light tropical breeze and a glass of the freshest juice beside me.

It was not a kind of heaven that I had ever imagined for myself.

Squashed in between travelling for work, and immersing myself in the vibrant city-state of Singapore, a couple of days at a beach resort had been almost an afterthought, booked only hours before departing from London.

I chose the Malaysian archipelago of Langkawi mainly because the flights fitted into my schedule. I hadn’t researched the hotel, but took second-hand advice from someone who had stayed there. It was, in short, not the kind of holiday planning that fits my usual meticulous and detailed holiday regime.

Boarding the flight for Langkawi, I flung myself onto the airplane with a gusto that only the overworked and under-rested can muster. Asleep with exhaustion before the flight had even taken off, my eyes opened as we glided into a lush green island.

A little later, I walked into the hotel lobby and gazed over the resting guests through the far window that framed the sea into the horizon. I was smitten.

I’ve seen beaches and coastlines before, so this in itself was not new. I had always pitied those who wasted away their days lying still by a square of water, sleeping extravagantly while their skins burnt under the sun. I had always been puzzled as to why someone would travel far away from home, only to lie down and do nothing for several days, on one chair. In my view, holidays were to be savoured to the fullest by seeing everything, talking to everyone, visiting every sight, and enjoying every cuisine. Sleeping was dispensable. I considered going on holiday just to lie down or sit still to be a debilitating malady.

As I swam in the infinity pool, its waters blurring into the distance and turning into the sea and then the horizon, I reflected on how my search for calmness had replaced the craving I had once felt to dispel quietude and embrace loud and vibrant travel experiences.

No doubt age is a factor, as is the increased intensity of work and family life, in yearning for rest and pure pleasure. I have less inclination or energy to be constantly rushing from tourist trail to tourist trail. I’ve escaped from a seven-day-a-week schedule, to realise that there is nothing lovelier than feeling sun and breeze and hearing the rustle of trees.

However, I still couldn’t lie down on a recliner by a pool for a whole day, just lying or sleeping. I need interesting and unusual activities in which to engage. I need to know that I did something new on my holiday. I need to create a bank of sustainable and substantial memories that will survive me into my older years.

And I still doubt I could spend a full week in only one resort. After just two days I was itching to see what the island had to offer.

And I know that this is the quiet period at the beach. If the resort was swarming, my holiday paradise would quickly turn nightmarish. After all, no Eden can withstand endless people with no attractions.

Given my caveats for earthly paradise, I’m already planning my next visit.

I declare myself a convert to the beach holiday.


It’s not women who need preaching about “corruption” and “social responsibility”

Here’s my weekly column from The National.

Men are poor helpless creatures who can’t control their feelings or libidos, or so it seems they want society to think. I’m a believer in the general goodness of most men, but baffled by the attitude that they are helpless in the face of womanly charms and must therefore refer to themselves in derogatory and weak ways.

Take this comment – a mild one compared to many – I came across while reading about a new line of Islamic fashion: “If a girl attracts other males even unintentionally, it will end up to be a sin [sic] … So style in Islam is OK, but it should be limited to an extent that won’t create new feelings within the pervert males of today.” Baffling that it’s not the “pervert males” responsible for their warped feelings.

This is on the same dimension as arguments against women being educated, or driving: that they will spread “corruption” by entering the public space. Or recent comments by the former head of the women’s studies department at Bangalore University telling women how to dress to avoid rape, but no edict telling men not to rape.

We get it: men think women are the source of corruption and that in order to stop the world coming to an end you must tell us what to think and how to act (and what to wear) because of course we have no brains, no sense of social responsibility, no spirituality and no reason. Oh wait – you say we do? Because that is just logic? And because it is our human fitrah to have all of those? And because the Quran says that we are all equal in spirit? Oh right.

Women are constantly preached to about social responsibilities even though we are not the ones responsible for most domestic abuse, violence, crime, rape or “corruption”. It’s time for our menfolk to preach to themselves about social responsibility.

It takes two to tango, so even if your outrageous idea that women are responsible for “corruption” is true, why don’t you stay away from them? Too weak? Oh dear, how can you run a society if you are too weak to resist a woman?

So now you have a choice in the arguments you employ: are you too weak in the face of women’s “corruptive” influence, which therefore means you are too weak to “lead” them? Or are you strong enough to lead, which means that it should be water off a duck’s back if women participate in society. Which is it to be?

I want to emphasise that I believe both men and women have responsibilities to act and dress modestly. To achieve social harmony, creativity and spiritual ease, both must participate fully but be equally modest and respectful.

So brothers, fathers, male colleagues – extend a little respect to the womenfolk around you. They are not toys, slaves, maids, objects or chattel to be bought, sold or bartered. Women are people. Yes, people.

And if you are a man from a society that isn’t majority Muslim in culture (note my use of the word “culture” and not the phrase “Islamic in religion”), please don’t look smug. There is plenty of oppression, abuse, violence and discrimination against women in all societies that no man – and no society – anywhere can be holier than thou.

So for men and societies everywhere, here are your mantras for 2012: be nice to women, be respectful of women’s intelligence and change yourselves instead of blaming women for the “pervert males”.


Getting ready for 2012: from money to the meaning of life

Here is this week’s National column published on new year’s eve.

As the year comes to a close, one of my perennial resolutions rears its head and commands me: take better control of the household budget. The talk at a global scale of bankruptcy, poor credit and downgrading has made the resolution ever more urgent. Where are my slippery and elusive pennies going?

Don’t tell my Dad about this confession, he will give me a stern look and tell me that he taught me better, that money doesn’t grow on trees, that a man one penny in the red is a poor man, and a penny in the black is rich. I know I ought to know all this, but before you make me blush, are you able to account for your expenditure down to the last penny, cent or fils?

The pessimism I feel about my financial management is exacerbated by the fact that it seems ever more important to get a grip on it. Somehow, the fact that the world’s leading economists, and in particular the European leaders, found themselves in difficulty this year while trying to manage a successful budget for their countries, suggests that I should try to do a better job in my own little domain.

But if all those clever people overlooked the flaws in their financial systems, how am I supposed to manage any better?

I’ve done what all aspirational budget managers have done: I’ve created an extensive and detailed spreadsheet to list out all the outgoings. And there are a lot of them.

It’s easy to spot where I can get better deals on regular household expenses – although it will take some time to work through the changes. But the main struggle is in adjusting lifestyle: do I want to give up the enjoyable holidays? I love buying pretty clothes for my baby. And what harm is there in a pleasurable if slightly overpriced cup of coffee a couple of times each week?

Therein lies the crux of my challenge: getting the best deals is a straightforward if tedious task. My bigger challenge is deciding what kind of life I’d like to live: frugal to the point of asceticism? Cautious and sacrificing some pleasures of daily life? Sensible but enjoyable? Carefree, tomorrow will take care of itself?

To me, these questions raise the issue of identifying a deeper truth about who I am and who I aspire to be.

I often think that we could easily live in a much smaller abode, with fewer things and less obligations. Isn’t that the right approach for someone who wants to spend time nurturing their spirit rather than their bank balance?

On the other hand, our home offers sanctuary for the family, a place of exploration for our child and an enjoyment of the good things in life.

There’s no profligacy or extravagance. A car, a good school for baby, smart clothes (but not designer) to be well presented, the education of seeing the world on our travels: I see these as blessings we are able to afford. I see these as to be balanced with work for the community, charitable giving and constant thankfulness for all that we have.

My spreadsheet may help me to balance the books. A spreadsheet can never help me to build a balanced life: for that I need constant reflection, a generous helping of wisdom and a selfless love of those around me.

Most of all what I need is an appreciation of the value of all that I have, and I am fortunate to have a great deal. What a wonderful way to start 2012. Happy New Year!


How we create the stories that shape the lives and futures of our babies

Another column I’m posting a little belatedly from my weekly ‘Her Say‘ column in The National.

On the top shelf of an old cupboard in my parents’ spare room is a collection of aged, fraying bags that hold the memories of our family. I have to stand on a stool and stretch into the cupboard’s dark corners, feeling my way with my fingertips to grasp the tatty plastic filled with decades of old photographs.

As the winter holidays approach, nostalgia percolates the family conversations, and inevitably someone will wonder about a distant relative, a half-forgotten baby photo, or a snap from a wedding. I will fly upstairs to retrieve the bags, returning triumphantly to the conversation and spilling out our collective memory across the carpet.

We’ve seen the photos a hundred times, but each one elicits a gasp of excitement, as though greeting the old relatives themselves. “Look, it’s granny! She’s so pretty.” “This is me when I was younger. I’ve become so old!” “Here you are at your graduation!”

The most exciting pictures are in black and white, fragments of an earlier time when photographs were rare, usually formal, marking special occasions. “This one,” says my mother, “was sent by your uncle after he proposed to your aunt”. He looks like Cary Grant. “And this,” she carries on, pointing to a grainy picture “is my grandfather”. He is serious, almost stern.

Our family archive lives on in these four bags. Everything else is lost and therefore forgotten. What remains defines what came before us, and therefore what we are now. The camera has preserved and thus shaped our family history.

This was on my mind this week as I faced up to the growing mountain of photographs of my baby. Although not even a year old, I already possess more than 5,000 pictures of her.

I have been creating a photobook for her. Websites offer software in the format of a book, which you populate with your own choice of photographs, in any layout and with any captions you choose. Once completed, the online creation is sent to be printed, arriving a few days later in the form of a glossy publication like a coffee-table book, entirely to your specification. At the cost of about $40, it is a modern marvel. Your photographs become official. Viewing them becomes slick and manicured. Family and friends flick easily through the edited highlights, enjoying the best moments, avoiding polite boredom.

I spent hours, probably days, selecting pictures to chart Baby’s progress from tiny newborn through each of her milestones. I decided who would feature in her life story. I selected which pictures would make the cut, and therefore how she would be remembered.

My editorial process says as much about me as her. It reveals how I wish her to be seen. I am conscious that how we describe babies affects others’ perceptions of her for many years, even a lifetime. After all, what will remain after our memories have faded are these photographs. We will continue to discuss the photobook in the same way as the fragments of my parents’ haphazard photo collection. But this time, I’ve already consciously shaped the story and the collective memory.

The pleasurable act of photography is in fact a weighty responsibility. By creating her earliest account I have shaped how she begins her own story. In doing so I have shaped how she will carry on the family history, mine included.


“All-American Muslim” – here is the parody

You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the reality TV show “All-American Muslim”. The Florida Family Association is campaigning against it because it’s too ordinary, and various advertisers are pulling their spots. What other option is there but to just laugh at the absolute ridiculousness of their position?

In my weekly column in The National, it’s time for some fun to imagine the show that the FFA really want to see…

When it comes to reality television, most right-thinking people wish it would disappear into oblivion. But the actions of the little-known extremist group, Florida Family Association (FFA), are having the opposite effect. In response to the series following the lives of five ordinary American Muslim families going about their ordinary lives, it has declared: “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.” As a result, Lowe’s hardware store pulled their adverts from the show.

The problem, the FFA says, is that the show “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks, while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish”. It’s all too dull. Instead, what they want is more suicide bombers, virulent niqabis and Sharia-takeover plots. And they want it in reality TV format. Now that’s a show I’d like to watch …

The programme opens with a woman dressed all in black, face covered, holding a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, turned to the “How to make a bomb” page. (FFA’s Muslim checklist: preparation to blow up the US, check.)

The camera zooms in on her face-veil. Suddenly we hear in an Arabic accent: “Sharia Sharia, jihad, jihad” (face-veiled woman, check; spewing Sharia and jihad, check; “scary” accent, check).

Six children play with dynamite (Muslim takeover by stealth through population growth, check).

“This is Sara Valin,” says the voice-over (a pun on “veiling” but rhymes with Palin, geddit?).

“In the garden, Accchhmed (the pantomime pronunciation of Ahmed) compares beard-lengths with some beardy friends.” Ahmed strokes his copious facial hair like the Bond villain strokes his cat (world domination intent, check).

Next door at the mosque, a group of young men record a suicide bomber video. They are having trouble making the camera work. “Told him to buy the warranty,” mutters one. “But he was too tight. Typical immigrant. Saving to import a wife.”

The cameras follow Sara Valin to a Chai Party meeting. Outside flags with the words “death to America” flutter in the wind. Sara drags a 10 kilogram bag of fertiliser behind her. A woman with a “Sharia4USA” badge opens the door. “Fertiliser is Buy One Get One Free at Lowe’s,” remarks Sara.

The Chai Party meeting begins by discussing strategies to destroy America, how to make all turkeys halal and whether having a Muslim Miss America wearing a bikini was a clever tactic.

“First order of business: the programme Friends. It shows only ordinary Americans and is clearly propaganda for the USA. Friends does not represent America properly and so we must complain. There are no crack addicts, no soldiers abusing their prisoners, no Tim McVeigh character, and not even a hint of political sex scandal!”

Cut to commercial break sponsored by Lowe’s.

Such a programme could save the FBI hundreds of millions of dollars in security and surveillance. After all, no need to hunt out prospective bombers. All they’d have to do is turn on the TV and watch “reality”; well, the kind of reality that only warped and bigoted minds constantly inhabit. How sad for them to live in a world they are trying to fill with so much hatred.