The Times

  • 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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  • Europe vs the Burka

    Today I’ve been blogging at Faith Central, at the Times Online. Guess what, the face-veil is in the news (again!). Here are my thoughts on the trend sweeping Europe:

    Bess (of Faith Central) writes: Faith Central welcomes back Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, blogging today on the topical issue of new laws in Belgium and France regarding the Burka.

    Shelina writes:

    No matter how itsy-bitsy the face-veil might be in physical size, it has the ability to drive political and emotional sentiment at a national level.

    Recently Belgium became the first European country to vote for a full ban on the face-veil in public, and the law could come into force by July. The 400-odd women out of Belgium’s 280,000 Muslim population who wear the face-veil could face fines of £110.

    A woman in Italy was recently subjected to a 430-euro fine for wearing a face-veil on the way to a mosque. And the French, in a show of one upmanship, are to introduce sanctions that would fine husbands who force their wives to wear the veil up to 15,000 euros and send them to jail for up to a year.

    France is particularly worried as  it has such a huge immigrant population that it simply doesn’t know how to handle. Ghetto-ised  in suburbs, without jobs, education or prospects, the five million or so immigrants who hail mainly from North Africa and identify themselves as Muslims are increasingly agitated.

    The wider French population has been encouraged to see them as problematic, and instead of identifying the lack of policy to resolve these issues as the cause of  riots, are instead jumping on their “Muslim” character as the problem. 

    The face-veil is, of course, perceived as the symbol par excellence of Islam. This was particularly apparent over the weekend when two passers-by pulled the veil off a Muslim woman  in a shopping centre in France, telling her “Go back to your own country.” The violent nature of the attack hardly flies the flag for ‘enlightenment’ values, and the remark reflects a worrying racist undertone.

    So far Britain has taken a different stance – with politicians arguing for women’s choice to dress as they please. Even Jack Straw – who stated in 2006 that he felt uncomfortable when he spoke with his veiled constituents – has stated that he believes it is still up to women to decide for themselves.

    Just what has made continental Europe veer in such a different direction to the UK?

    France would argue that it is the entrenchment of secular principles in their constitution and its historic trailblazing of human rights. But today’s human rights lawyers have been telling Sarkozy that such legislation would be contested on those grounds.

    So maybe the reason for Europe’s stance is more about “defending our values” from overrunning hordes bent on Islamisation? Certainly that was the sentiment behind Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets. It wasn’t about the size and shape of the minarets given the number of physically similar church spires that dot the Swiss landscape. With  provocative posters that depicted minarets as missiles, it was clearly about fear-mongering. Unsurprisingly the posters featured images of  a woman in a face-veil – linking the idea back to the concept that face-veils are a threat to Europe.
    Is it about security? Well most Muslim women who veil have no objection to being cleared through security, in fact they most likely would support such security checks.

    Is this about racism? The difficult question that no-one dares to ask is whether in this vitriolic response to a group who looks a little different continental Europe is reverting to type? Dare anyone mention the scapegoating that took place in Europe in the 1930s?

    Maybe it is simply a symptom of insecurity within Europe about its identity. Given recent troubles in Greece, Spain and Portugal, Europe’s power on the world stage is looking shaky. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you are in opposition to  – the ‘other’ –  rather than having the self-knowledge and conviction to stand for what you actually believe in.

    Europe has always taken upon itself the burden to “liberate” Muslim women, blind to the suffering of its own women. For Muslim women who choose to veil, being forced to strip off and pay a fine hardly seems any kind of liberation. For those who are in fact forced to cover, such legislation will only confine them to their homes, rather than allow them to talk to their peers and neighbours, get educated and assert themselves. It’s not just Muslim women who face oppression and domestic problems. In France for example, 40,000 women a year suffer domestic violence at the hands of their partners.

    When arguing in favour or a ban on the face-veil, Europeans often resort to what I call the “reciprocity” argument saying in effect “if women are forced to veil in countries in the Muslim world like in Saudi Arabia, then why can’t they be forced not to veil in Europe?” I wonder  do we really want to look to oppressive non-democratic regimes for guidance on freedom?

    Of course, while the politics of the veil hints at  wider tensions between Europe and the Muslim world perhaps this is more to do with faith than politics. Religion has been getting a hard time recently, being pilloried and driven out of public consciousness as no longer important in our national life. Islam is painted – wrongly in my opinion, as it shares an Abrahamic heritage with Christianity – as different and alien. So when it comes to rejecting faith, rejecting Islam is the most symbolic way of expressing this rejection. And when the face-veil is seen as the most potent reference to Islam, it’s no surprise that Europe’s many insecurities and tensions become focused on a seemingly innocuous bit of fabric.

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  • Segregation: A Muslim woman writes

    This article was published today in The Times Online

    Gender separation is not inherently sexist. We have single sex toilets, stag do’s and hen nights, boys nights out and Anne Summers party nights in, as well as single sex schools, monasteries and convents.

    Every culture has places and occasions where men and women find themselves congregating towards each other through custom, nature or by design.

    I’m deliberately not using the word segregation – a word that carries far too much baggage with its connection to apartheid in South Africa, and the Civil Rights movement in the US. For segregation was premised on a lesser value being placed on those who were being segregated away, and that lesser value meant that they were deserving of less opportunity, respect and participation.

    Separation in itself is not discriminatory because in theory – we’ll come on to talk about practice in a moment – it treats both genders equally. In the theory of separation men and women have equal respect and rights, equal access to opportunity and resource, but are also given the space to flourish or relax in a single sex environment.

    India Knight wrote beautifully about how our culture has many moments of joy where men hang out with men, and women with women, and that we have no need to be in a mixed sex environment all the time.

    The separation of the sexes is always a hot topic for debate. It was always widely held that both boys and girls gained better results in single sex education.

    Boys and girls are more likely to take a wider range of school subjects including those which are not considered ‘typical’ of their gender when in separate schools – girls taking more sciences and boys taking more arts – and more likely to go onto careers less typical of their gender and more suited to their talents.

    Women educated in single sex schools also go onto earn more money. In the working world the policy was always to encourage women to broaden their choice of professions out of the usually ‘women’s professions’ and get more men involved in things considered feminine.

    In a recent study by the University of Cambridge, amongst a sample of 20 countries, those which have more occupations dominated by one sex have more equality in pay between the sexes overall, contradicting assumptions about the advantages of bringing men into traditionally women-dominated occupations and women into male-dominated occupations.

    These examples are not to distract us from the topic in hand, nor to discuss the methodologies or accuracy of their findings and not even to suggest they are directly comparable to the issue we are about to discuss.

    Rather they should set the landscape to a more sophisticated debate on separation and illustrate two points.

    First, that this is a nuanced topic with many complexities. There is no simple right or wrong to policy and execution and the issue of separation permeates all aspects of society.

    Second, this issue of separation is not limited to “Muslim weddings bad” as an MP raised last month.

    Jim Fitzpatrick MP for Poplar and Canning town, which has a large Muslim population, was invited to a Muslim wedding but on arrival, finding that the men and women were to be seated separately, decided to leave, and tell the press about it.

    I wrote about it at the time, disappointed that he was rude enough to make a fuss about a private matter, and surprised that he was ignorant that many Muslim weddings are separated, in both the UK and around the world, and have been as far back as I can remember.

    Gender separation definitely is discriminatory when it normalises male behaviour as the “baseline” and the male side robs the female side of the equation of access, agency and participation.

    This is an extremely problematic area in the Muslim community.

    Let’s for the moment assume that there is no intent to discriminate, but that Muslims feel as though creating a physical boundary for gender separation is in line with Islamic principles.

    Even from this starting point, even those Muslims who support it must acknowledge the reality that the physical arrangements exclude and diminish women’s participation simply because of the arrangement of physical space and location.

    Those “holding the microphone” have control “from the men’s side” and it becomes a kerfuffle to make even a comment from the women’s side. This is not about social occasions of enjoyment like weddings, but serious civic institutions where decisions about the life of the community and its future take place.

    Sometimes women aren’t even invited or told they “don’t need to be there”.

    Herein are the clues which are more revealing about what really lies beneath. Sometimes the sound system is poor, there is no visual, or women are not even in the same room or building. The rooms are smaller, dank, poorly ventilated, or hurriedly found to plonk the women into.

    Those Muslim men who don’t believe me should perhaps investigate these rooms for themselves.

    Not all mosques are like this – the ones I attend have seating in the same room, or separate rooms but with excellent facilities for both men and women.

    When the less favourable locations are challenged about the lack of facilities for women they say that there isn’t enough space to fit the men and women, or the women prefer to stay at home, or so on.

    This makes it apparent that it is the same gender discriminatory attitudes that are often prevalent in wider society rearing their ugly heads here, but hiding behind the false statement that it is religiously “required” separation that makes it so.

    I don’t buy it.

    If it was important to have women there, if it was a natural instinct to include women as Islam dictates, then space would automatically be found.

    The separation can cause other problems too if not carefully patrolled – women become anonymous and indistinguishable. When events are reviewed, their presence and participation is unrecorded. And of course their talents remain untapped for the benefit of the community, which is a great loss. Participation in the running and management of a community is then denied to women – when it never was in Islamic history.

    In Islamic thinking, separation stems from the importance placed on modesty in public – this covers modest clothing (for men and women), modest behaviour (for men and women) and humility (for men and women). In a society which has sexualised almost every aspect of life this can appear a stark contrast or possibly even austere. But for many Muslims the call for modesty is actually a relief from adverts that hallucinate naked men and women in supermarkets after wearing certain deodorants, or the constant debates about body images of female celebrities (she looks like a pre-pubescent child vs. she’s put on a few pounds on holiday).

    The debate on Muslim dress almost always seems to be hijacked by notions that men are uncontrollable lust-monsters who would ravage a woman as look at her, and that women are nothing but sexual objects that need such extreme protection that they can’t be in the same room.

    Frankly I find the former insulting on behalf of men, and the latter infantilising and patronising on behalf of women.

    By instituting a physical separation as the vessel for modesty-management the responsibility for modesty is devolved to the physical partition rather than necessarily imbuing the men and women with the social graces of modesty and respect in the way that they interact with each other.

    Personally, I believe that there is a time and place for separation, and a time and place where a cohesive participation is required. In either scenario it is the behaviour that is primary, for me the physical separation is simply about allowing a space for both men and women to unwind, relax or flourish – as with all the examples I quoted at the beginning.

    Those who insist on separation as a requirement of religious law in order to exclude women’s participation are actually hiding prejudice behind the law.

    For law is always a product of the values and ethos of a community – the law serves a community’s vision rather than dictating how the community should behave. And the Islamic ethos is that men and women are equal creations, that have equal value and equal responsibility in the life of the community.

    The Koran talks about men and women being equal “garments for each other” and “finding peace and tranquility” in each other.

    Those who wish to uphold physical separation, as well as those who want to make clear that separation is not discriminatory, must make extra efforts to eradicate the difficulties of access and participation that usually come for the women. They need to make doubly sure that resources and respect are fully provided so that women can be fully functioning and valued members of society.

    It’s a bit like thinking of the Yin-Yang symbol in representing the male and the female. They interact with each other, but don’t need to be constantly mixed up or in each other’s pockets. Neither can one be completely excluded. When you get the balance and the interaction right you achieve a fully functioning whole.

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  • The marital rights of the British Muslim wife

    This article was published at Faith Central at the Times Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • The Muslim wedding, British manners and the Minister who walked out

    This article has just been published at the Times Online. carries this report on Jim Fitzpatrick, the Minister for Food, Farming and Environment, who walked out of a Muslim marriage ceremony in his constituency, apparently in a state of shock that men and women would be segregated and sit apart.

    Our guest blogger, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, argues, with justification, that Fitzpatrick was extremely rude to the couple in question. What do you think?

    Shelina writes: Fitzpatrick’s constituency, Poplar and Canning Town, includes Tower Hamlets which has a 35 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim population. He claims, rather surprisingly, that he was unaware of the custom of segregation at Muslim weddings. It worries me that the representative of a ward where a large minority are Muslim is completely ignorant of this tradition. I’m even more shocked that he is proud to profess his ignorance. Whether he likes or dislikes the custom is a different matter: surely he ought to be aware of how a significant chunk of his community conduct a central event in their personal lives. What else is he ignorant of?

    Let’s start with the meaning of integration. Fitzpatrick says that separate seating for men and women is stopping integration. Yet here is a family who only knows him through a friend and possibly as their MP, inviting him to their most important day. That to me is reaching out and encouraging integration.

    Then we can move onto good manners. Weddings have always been a very personal matter and as with all occasions, there is etiquette which the guests must follow. If there is one thing that the British can truly pride themselves on, it is (or at least used to be) excellent manners. We know how to respond to invitations, use the right cutlery, queue in line. In fact many a book over the centuries has been written on developing the right social graces. The bride and groom are under no obligation as to who they invite to the wedding, and to be invited at all is a great honour. And at a time when budgets are tighter than ever, and weddings are becoming increasingly expensive, it is a real privilege to be invited to someone’s wedding.

    I feel very sad for the bride and groom that their special day has been hijacked by a rude ungracious guest who decided that their personal choices for the day were not to his taste.

    But here is the rub of Fitzpatrick’s ignorance. Segregated weddings are extremely commonplace and have been so for decades. Only a handful of the many Muslim weddings I have attended in my life have not been segregated. And this is not just the case in Britain but all over the world. Women have their own celebrations, as do the men, and both of these are incredibly joyful vibrant occasions. A half-Iraqi half-English Muslim friend who married a British born Bangladeshi had her marriage celebration for women only, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Her husband is delighted that the women got to “let their hair down” (literally in some cases of hijab-wearers). A wedding I attended in Bahrain of a minor royal was held in a glamorous marquee catering for a thousand people. Nine hundred and ninety nine were women. The groom popped in briefly to give his bride the ring.

    If we look closer to home, segregation is still prevalent in other wedding traditions too. Some orthodox Jewish marriages are segregated. And we still hold dear to our separation of the stag night and hen do. Would Fitzpatrick have wanted to take his wife along on a drunken weekend in Prague?

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