Saturday, 28 of November of 2015

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Shock! Horror! Nadiya, a Muslim woman, might win the Great British Bake Off

My latest piece published today in The Telegraph

Nadiya Hussain is the favourite to win this year’s Great British Bake Off and yet her ‘surprise’ success is very revealing, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Radio Times of Great British Bake Off semi-finalists Nadiya Jamir Hussain

Radio Times image of Great British Bake Off semi-finalists Nadiya Jamir Hussain Photo: Jude Edginton/immediate media/Radio Times

I love Nadiya. Millions of people up and down the country love Nadiya. She doesn’t even need a surname anymore. Even Mary Berry loves Nadiya. She’s the face of today’s Britain: authentic, honest, creative, emotional, heartfelt and honest.

Oh. And she’s Muslim. And she just happens to wear a headscarf. But this newly discovered baking genius, despite being Muslim, isn’t cooking up any kind of shariah flavoured sponge or jihadi cupcakes.

Not that you’d know it from some of the bizarre comments about the nation’s newest sweetheart, and finalist in tonight’s Great British Bake Off. Now in its sixth series, the finale is tipped to be the most watched TV programme of the year, and Nadiya seems to be the people’s choice for winner.

Finally, we have a Muslim woman in the national limelight who has not been put there for us to dissect her headscarf/forced marriage/escape from FGM/liberation from Islam/burqa/niqab/jihadi bride status (delete as appropriate).

Muslim women don’t often get to have their own voices. Or be in control of how their image is portrayed. (Have a glance at the comments below any article written by a Muslim women and discover how much people think we need saving – especially those of us who don a headscarf.) But boy oh boy, Nadiya is fully in charge and has a bit of cheek – not to mention a face of a million expressions and a talent most of us only dream of.

And this has made many people unnerved. What, Muslim women are people too? And they can bake? Even while they wear a headscarf? Is she some kind of fictional superhero?

At the kinder end of the tweets and comments, there’s also patronising undertone of surprise that a brown Muslim woman is ooh, such a lovely girl too! That Nadiya, she wears a headscarf, did you notice? She wears a HEADSCARF. She’s a Muslim, did you know? A MUSLIM. She’s a MUSLIM, who wears a HEADSCARF. But it’s OK, DON’T PANIC. She can bake.

The Great British Bake Off's contestant Nadiya The Great British Bake Off’s contestant Nadiya   Photo: Mark Bourdillon/BBC

The Muslim women I spoke to have said that it seems to be the very same people who seem to bewail the “Muslamic” [yes, people do say that] oppression of women who are complaining that Nadiya is only in the final in order for the BBC to be politically correct, and nothing to do with hard work and merit. Well to that I say you can’t have your cake and…

Naturally, there’s a sense of pride among Muslim women at Nadiya’s success; a feeling of finally being represented. But just because we enjoy seeing her on screen and she shares our faith, doesn’t mean we blindly support her. It’s not like last year I went up to all the 60-something white women I know and gushed about how excited they must have been that Nancy Birtwhistle won.

We need to face up to why Nadiya’s description is usually tempered with references to her religion, clothes or ethnicity, (because she doesn’t bring them up unless directly asked). It’s because so many still have very deeply ingrained ideas of what Britishness means, and it doesn’t include ethnic minorities, immigrants or Muslims. Whilst GBBO’s coverage might seem like just a bit of fun, this same ingrained idea is having far more serious implications that affect people’s life, death and freedom.

The final three of this year’s Bake Off – Tamal, Nadiya and Ian (Photo: BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon)

These racialised attitudes infect the Government’s rhetoric – and lead to politicians describing refugees as a ‘swarm’ or talking of immigrants who come to work here and who contribute to the economy as a strain. (Theresa May’s latest speech is a case in a point).

By limiting Muslims’ collective identity to that of their religion – and then linking us all ominously to terrorism through guilt by association – is how the Government gets away with making schools and universities police our thoughts. It’s how Muslim charities can be ignored at the Conservative Party Conference.

However, what’s given me huge hope over the last nine weeks of GBBO is that large swathes of British public recognise all of this. The majority of ordinary conversation has focused on Nadiya’s immense talent, her passion,and the way she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s reminded us all that these are the values we hold dear, not the fear mongering about immigrants; the security lockdown on Muslims; the removal of voices; faces and diversity from our landscape.

Nadiya’s the woman who we’d love more than anyone to be our neighbour and offer to cook cakes for us. That’s why tonight I’m firmly #TeamNadiya – regardless of her religion or headscarf.


Sporty hijabs: A mini high street revolution that could help save Muslim women’s lives

Published today at The Telegraph

It may seem a small step, but having a major British department store stock sporty hijabs could reverse worrying health trends for Muslim women in this country. Shelina Janmohamed reports

The new sportswear hijabs for Muslim women

The new sportswear hijabs for Muslim women Photo: SHORSO.CO.UK

Asisat Oshoala is one of a growing number of Muslim women on the global sports stage. She has been tipped as one of the top 10 players to watch during the current Women’s World Cup. And at 20 years old she’s a remarkable figure to also have been named as the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. She plays for Liverpool and was the highest female goal scorer under 20 last year.


Asisat Oshoala

In 2012 Sarah el Attar was the first Saudi woman ever to take part in the Olympics. Indian Muslim tennis player Sania Mirza is currently world number one in women’s doubles. Ibtihaj Muhammed became the first Muslim woman to compete for the USA at an international level in her chosen sport of fencing.

These are fantastic female Muslim role models, but closer to home, the story of Muslim women and sport is less positive. According to Sport England, only 18 per cent of Muslim women take part in sports, compared to around 30 per cent of the female population. Part of this is related to ethnicity – only 21 per cent of Asian women take part in sports, and in the UK at least two thirds of Muslims are of Asian origin. But it’s also a gender issue, as Muslim and Asian male participation in sport does not fall below the average for their sex.

Just five years ago, the figures for female Muslim participation in sports were as low as 12 per cent which suggests that things are improving, but not nearly fast enough. A number of barriers remain – such as access to facilities which Muslim women feel are sensitive to their needs, misplaced cultural taboos around preserving ‘modesty’ and of course, suitable sportswear.

sports hijab range has just launched at House of Fraser, finally bringing to the high street the kind of clothing Muslim women who cover choose to exercise in. Soft, flexible and tidy, it keeps hair under wraps whilst maximising movement. Until now, items like the Burqini, and sports friendly clothing have been restricted to online outlets or local independent stores, often created by Muslim women themselves who have found the high street and mainstream brands lacking when it comes to modest sportswear. Other women, outside of the Muslim community, are of course looking for modest sportswear too.

It’s a small but important step in actively engaging Muslim women in sports. A lack of involvement in sports and health related activities among younger Muslim women has long term implications for health and equalities. Analysis of the 2011 census figures by the Muslim Council of Britain show that Muslim women over the age of 65 feature disproportionately high into the category of bad or very bad health (38.2 per cent versus 16.1 per cent of the overall female population), and disproportionately low in the very good or good health categories (22.3 per cent versus 47.3 per cent). There’s a similar pattern when reporting disability over 65 where Muslim women report that their day to day activities are limited far more than the overall population. (47.6 per cent versus 29.4 per cent).

This matters because the reduction of health inequality is a one of fairness and social justice. But it also matters because ensuring long term good health is socially and economically the right thing for any community, given a straitened NHS and an aging population.

The three biggest health challenges for Muslim populations are diabetes, dementia and depression, all of which can be substantially improved through healthy lifestyles and sports.

The right clothing is very important, but so is creating the right cultural conditions within a community, as well as ensuring access to the correct facilities. For instance, local swimming pools are increasingly offering female-only sessions open to all women.

Zainab Ismail working out in the ‘Islamic fitness DVD’. Photo: NADINE ABU JUBARA

There’s a growing cottage industry of Muslim personal trainers, gyms, sports classes and even – bizarrely – fitness videos. Many of these Muslim women talk about how their faith pushes them to take care of their bodies. But they want to fulfil their sports aspiration while maintaining a level of modesty that is important to them.

This is not about Muslim women segregating themselves off from the mainstream – quite the opposite. They want to be involved in sports just like their peers.

Sports England launched its phenomenally successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign because a study it commissioned discovered that significantly fewer women than men play sport regularly – two million fewer female 14 – 40 year olds in total. When the women were asked why didn’t exercise, a reason that kept cropping up was their fear of being judged on their appearance, while they sweated buckets. Of course, being judged on a appearance is a challenge Muslim, women know too well.

If we want to encourage young women – including young Muslim women – to take up sports, the easy availability of decent sportswear is a major first step. However, once we get past the outfit anxiety, we must concentrate on the important bit: the taking part.

Women: Ramadan doesn’t need to be perfect (and neither do you)

With Ramadan just over a month away, women need to seriously re-consider the cost of creating the ‘perfect’ Ramadan, and why a good Ramadan might be even better than perfection

This article was published today in The National
Don’t try to do too much in Ramadan
Customers browse produce at a mall during Ramadan. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )

You’re probably creating a shopping list instead of reading this. Because with just over four weeks to go until the month of Ramadan you’re already behind on your preparations.

Freezer full of mouth-watering delicacies for breaking fast, menu planner completed for 30 days worth of early morning meals and invitations issued for large family gatherings? No?

You’ve already fallen short of the perfection demanded of women to create the idealised Ramadan. Shame on you, modern mother and wife, shame on you! Hurry! You still have time to go and lock yourself in the kitchen for the next month and redeem yourself.

The pressure to “do it all” that weighs so heavily on women today – to manage the home, nurture the children, mop the brow of husband, to look gorgeous and somehow squeeze in a bit of “me” time for their own pursuits – is heightened during Ramadan.

We all have rose-tinted memories of our Ramadan childhood, seated around the family table, eating our favourite food under the loving gaze of our mothers. So it’s no surprise that every woman wants to recreate that warm glow for her own family. But the desire for nostalgia together with the demands of daily life make poor bedfellows and the result is up to 30 days of unspoken and intense strain on many women.

That’s before we even get to women thinking about themselves: fasting is just as tiring for women as it is for men, but there is no chance of down- time. Women are expected to produce iftar and suhoor meals – often of several dishes to make sure everyone gets their favourite – and keep the household running. And what of the spiritual focus that is the underpinning of the month of fasting. Women have precious little time for that either, resorting to listening to recordings while on the go, or snatching a few minutes of prayer.

As women in Ramadan, we are our own worst enemies. There’s a competition for perfection, and that competition is often against ourselves. We burden ourselves with the need to create the best-ever Ramadan.

Women must make an active choice. We simply need to re-imagine what “perfection” means. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of good, so let’s aim for a good, wholesome Ramadan. Good food can mean simple, nutritious food. Togetherness means everyone helping out together. Good family moments mean erasing the hunger-fuelled bickering with warmth and affection. It’s about worrying less about what other people think and more about what really matters. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s about rediscovering the true meaning of the month of fasting.

There are calls for easing women’s burdens coming from a surprising source: religious scholars are often leading the way to encourage families to lower their culinary expectations to better suit the spirit of Ramadan, at the same time as highlighting that women should be given the opportunity for the “downtime” from the rigours of daily life to focus on self-reflection and spiritual development.

Enjoyment of Ramadan for everyone, especially for women, will come when we find liberation from the tyranny of perfection.

So, you want to build a women’s mosque?

What should women do when excluded or restricted from an institution that should be there to serve their spiritual, social and educational needs?
Mosques must cater to women
Palestinian women pray inside of the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Mosque, in Izzariya, in the outskirts of Jerusalem (Photo for The National by Heidi Levine).

It seems natural to believe that community is for everyone and no one should ever be excluded from a place of worship.

Sadly, the experience of female exclusion from mosques is one that still occurs in many places around the world. Or women are only permitted begrudgingly, faced with poor conditions with little possibility of their opinions or needs being catered for.

In the UK, the Bradford Muslim Women’s Council has announced a consultation to build a women’s mosque. It follows the opening earlier this year of a women’s mosque in the US. There were plans for something similar in India.

If the idea of a women-only mosque upsets you – undoubtedly it’s a controversial idea – then ask yourself why, and then fix the source of your contention.

Worship and spiritual nourishment should be a community endeavour, everyone in the same location, and therefore you can argue – and I’d agree – that men and women should be congregating and worshipping in the same centre.

But this aspiration falls woefully short of many women’s experience of attending the mosque.

As one woman who became a Muslim joked: “I went to a mosque to take my shahadah and become a Muslim, but wasn’t allowed to go into the mosque ever again.”

If a women-only mosque upsets you, then so should a men-only mosque. These latter may claim legitimacy as mosques, but de facto female exclusion means they are men’s clubs in all but name.

Some argue it’s better for women to remain at home, but this denies the reality of many women’s lives especially in minority Muslim populations where community support is essential for spiritual survival and nourishment.

Meeting other Muslims, receiving spiritual education and strengthening bonds with faith and community are vital. Women need it as much as men.

Women are the fastest growing segment of the Muslim population – and the most under attack – but they are being rejected by the institution they need most. Where should they go?

I welcome this initiative. Women need space, support and services. It’s a wake-up call to the community: women deserve better.

This is also a chance to rejuvenate the idea of a mosque as social and spiritual centre from the ground up, built to accommodate the needs of women and families, by women, without getting derailed by power struggles with men wishing to maintain a deplorable status quo.

The danger, of course, is that those mosques that already deliberately exclude women will entrench their positions by closing ranks and redirecting women to the women-only centre.

This can never be a long-term strategic solution, but a tactic in redressing the balance and redirecting the course of women’s social and spiritual engagement in the journey to better serve our communities, both male and female. We are always better together, but sometimes it takes radical steps to get there.

The Mad Women who led the way #Madmen

As we near the finale of the cult series Mad Men, I reflect on the women who really told the tale of the 1960’s, and how wider social change comes at a personal price
The Mad Women who led the way
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olsen in Mad Men. (Jaimie Trueblood / AMC / AP)

“Well, aren’t you lucky to have decisions?” This line is a defining moment in the cult television dramaMad Men, which is approaching its final episode.

The series follows the changing society of the 1960s and 1970s through the lens of the advertising industry, which epitomises the emergence of consumerism and the power of youth.

But the cleverest thing about Mad Men is how it has mapped the macro­cosmic shift in gender status and relations onto the microcosm of the lives of its protagonists. The title refers to the men of Madison Avenue, but the story arc over 10 years tells us how women broke out of the home and advanced in the world by making their own decisions.

Its central female character is Peggy Olson, who makes the sarcastic yet insightful statement about decisions belonging to men. She begins work at the ad agency in 1960 as a 20-year-old secretary and works her way up to copy chief. On the way, she gives up a child for adoption and loses out on several long-term relationships. At the end of the series, she is a successful career woman with her own property – but alone in the world.

Peggy nails the gender struggle perfectly: it’s about the price women have to pay to be able to make their own decisions. Creating social change comes at a personal cost.

Over the 10 years that the programme spans, the female characters develop from sycophantic secretaries who enjoy nothing more than being admired for their looks, to women with power and position. They are still banging their heads on the glass ceiling, but they don’t yet know what’s causing the headache.

There are some who will say that these changes were for the worse, that families broke down, that it was the beginning in the truest sense of the rise of individualism rather than the nuclear unit. And the focus of the series on the advertising world in the 1960s is no coincidence, because it captures a pivotal moment when life became about what we have, what we show, what we buy to reflect who we are – a facade rather than a depth.

But that’s nonsense, because, as Peggy says, the price paid has been to gain autonomy. Without self-determination there is no life worth living. Ultimately, despite the misery that being at the vanguard of change entails, the challenges these women face will be resolved in the next iteration of society.

For the women of this era, their gains came at a price – but one that I’ve no doubt they were happy to pay, for their own freedom, and for ours.

It’s easy to look back at a whole decade or even a century and feel proud of the social change that occurred. But to reach such transformation means individual women, one by one, paying a price – whether they be the characters of Mad Men or the real-life suffragettes of a hundred years ago.

When we fight for changes in society now, we must remember that there will be a personal cost. But women are where we are because of the price women before us paid, and our daughters will benefit from the sacrifices we made.

Muslim schoolgirls are being punished for wearing long skirts. In Europe. This isn’t a joke

As another French Muslim schoolgirl is sent home by teachers for wearing a long skirt, Shelina Janmohamed, explains why it’s time to tighten the bonds of sisterhood

Muslim schoolgirls

There has been a row over a French Muslim schoolgirl sent home for wearing long skirts because it was ‘ostentatious sign of religion’ Photo: Alamy

In 2009 the journalist Lubna al-Hussein was arrested in Sudan for wearing trousers. Under the country’s penal code she was guilty of wearing ‘obscene outfits’ in public and fined $200.

Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein

For women here the story was reported as something at best ridiculous, at worst outrageous – something that we didn’t need to worry too much about because they it was happening in a faraway place to women of far away cultures.

But these sorts of draconian measures are getting closer to home and it’s time for all women to worry. When what we wear can bar us from the ordinary activities like going to school, the office or just simply outdoors, we need to sit up and tighten the bonds of the sisterhood.

I’m talking about France of course, where last month a girl was sent home twice from school for wearing a long black skirt, which she bought from French high street shop Kiabi for €13. She was punished because the school deemed the non-descript skirt to be a ‘conspicuous’ sign of religion.

France’s strict secular laws ban the display of any ‘ostentatious sign of religion’ from official public spaces like schools. This includes items like a headscarf, a skullcap or a large cross. But this 15-year-old was not wearing a headscarf when she entered the school, her misdemeanour was the black maxi skirt.

Nor is this an isolated incident. In total around 130 schoolgirls were sent home last year for wearing long skirts across France.

To me it’s clear that her punishment is because she is Muslim and reeks of discrimination: it’s about who she is – not what she did. Any other pupil could have worn the same skirt. Someone else decided that they didn’t like her wearing a long skirt and told her to go home.

Earlier this week Twitter creaked under the strain of the hashtag#JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux (‘I’ll wear my skirt how I like’) as people around the world took to social media to react to this outrageous situation. After all, how does a skirt have a religion? And to those arguing that she should have changed and come back – what should she have changed into? What could be more innocuous than a long black skirt? And was the underlying message that more flesh needs to be on display?

There’s a separate discussion to be had about the rights and wrongs of the French ban on veiling. But you don’t need to support or even like the niqab or hijab to see this should be a red flag for all women. The ban and now skirt-gate sets a worrying precedent that we women can once again be stopped from our ordinary day to day activities, prohibited from our rights such as an education, because someone else decided they don’t like the way we look.

If you think that the increasing pressure placed on how Muslim women appear in public is their own fault, and nothing to do with the pressures our society places on women generally to conform to a particular look or be excluded, think again. It wasn’t long ago that women were prevented from wearing trousers in offices. Even today the unspoken code that women should wear short skirts in male environments still persists (see image above).

Women are constantly fighting the pressure to conform to a particular body image. One of the biggest challenges is to avoid the early sexualisation of our young women and to give girls the confidence to project their own image. Yet here we have a girl doing exactly all of that and she is told that because she is wearing a long skirt she doesn’t conform to our idea of what a schoolgirl ought to look like. Because of course all schoolgirls should look like sexy Britney Spears. I jest of course.

Women are also repeatedly forced to conform to other homogenous ideals to be accepted. In America, several schools have banned black children from wearing their afro hair natural. In 2006, the Baltimore Police department banned cornrows, dreadlocks and twists deeming them to be “extreme” and a “fad” – this is despite them being the most practical style to certain hair types. The US army only recently revoked the same ludricrous ban, after much protesting from campaigners.

All of these denials of women’s difference, self-expression and womanhood need to be stitched together and seen as part of the same onslaught on the ways women are allowed to present themselves in order to be accepted in the public domain.

Don’t be distracted by the argument that this is to save Muslim women. Women’s rights have too long been sacrificed at the altar of ‘saving’ other women. History shows us that this way danger lies and we must be vigilant.

At the end of the 19th century, the British consul general in Egypt Lord Cromer claimed we should be running that country to save Egyptian women from the “fatal obstacle” of Islam. The Egyptians should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilised” by disposing of the veil. You might think he was the embodiment of the women’s rights movement but when he returned to the UK he set up the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, which tried, by any means possible, to stop women getting the vote.

Six year ago Lubna al-Hussein said that the prosecution for wearing trousers was ‘insulting’. It was insulting in Sudan and now it’s insulting in France. As a Muslim woman I’m not going to stand for being punished for wanting an education, or working in an office or just going about my business in an outfit I should be free to wear. I’ll damn well wear my skirt exactly as I please and stand shoulder to shoulder with my French sisters at the top of a very slippery slope. I hope you’ll join me.

Muslim woman student is stabbed – so why can’t we say that the fact she ‘looked Muslim’ might be a motive in her murder?

This posting is in reference to the tragic stabbing of Nahid Al-Manea in Colchester. Police said that they were investigating the possibility that the murder was motivated by the fact that she was visibly Muslim wearing an abaya and headscarf. There have also been questions raised about a similar stabbing of James Atfield.

One of the national newspapers asked me my thoughts on the police response to the terrible incident of the Muslim woman stabbed who was wearing visible Muslim clothing.

My thoughts, jotted briefly are below. When I put these thoughts forward, I was told that they wanted not my thoughts ‘as a Muslim woman’ but an ‘alternative viewpoint’:

– finally! the recognition that muslim women are highly vulnerable is being raised at a national level

– i’m shocked at the negativity that is surrounding the police suggesting this may be a possible reason for the attack. It’s as though how dare Muslim women say that they are being attacked for being visibly Muslim! Why such vehement denial that it is a possibility? As with all crimes, the police have some theories and I’m glad this has been recognised as one possibility. Nobody is saying this for sure, simply that it is one angle. We know that hate crimes against Muslims have increased manyfold recently. So why shouldn’t this be one motive? To me it smacks of a wider public denial that there is a growth of hate against Muslims. Or even that it is ok to attack Muslims, especially women.

– if this is a legitimate line of enquiry, then why should the police keep quiet? Generally they share their lines of enquiry, what is different here?

– If anything, this poor student came here with a hope of doing everything that is demanded of Muslim women – ‘free’ herself, come to the west, gain an education.  Why can’t we square in our minds that she was a practising Muslim too, and that we have a problem in our society dealing with this?

– In my view it is people’s response that is bizarre – and that is what is damaging to community relations – why can’t we admit that hatred against Muslims is an issue and that women bear the brunt of this?

– Finally, if the police did not pursue this line of enquiry, or worse if they are pressured into dropping this line of enquiry, then that would be even more damaging to community relations. It is as bad practice to rule it out as it would be to say it was the sole factor or the only factor of investigation.

Update: this is stream of consciousness writing, so some further thoughts with inputs from various other Muslim women (thank you!):

– The police have said it is one line of enquiry, in a seemingly matter of fact way just as in many murders they talk of many lines of enquiry. My problem with saying they shouldn’t mention it ‘due to community tensions’ stems from the fact that our broad population can’t accept that this is a possibility, that somehow it is an abnormal aberration which can be an actual reason for such nastiness in what is obviously our lovely Muslim-friendly society. I actually think it shows a more balanced ‘healthy’ (if that’s the right word in such a horrible context) to be able to be honest and say yes this is a possibility just like several other possibilities. For both Muslims and the anti-Muslim brigade to be milking this as either ‘see!!!! we told you!’ versus ‘how dare Muslims be victims’ shows a lack of acceptance of due process and legitimacy that this could be anti-Muslim, or it might not be.

The politics of housework, and why doing the dishes is not a trivial matter

This was published on Saturday in The National

If fathers want their daughters to aspire to successful careers, a new study has revealed the answer: fathers should share housework with their wives. While mothers’ gender and work-equality beliefs were key factors in predicting youngsters’ attitudes towards the roles of women and men, the strongest predictor of daughters’ own professional ambitions was their fathers’ approach to household chores.

The findings follow other studies revealing the benefits of sharing housework, such as improvements in marital harmony and making wives feel more attracted to their husbands.

Aside from the fact that it’s simply fair for adults to share the housework, such studies demonstrate that even with selfish motives, sharing housework has immediate and long-term benefits for men.

Yet housework is still overwhelmingly done by women even though many also work like their husbands, and most childcare is still women’s responsibility. The division of housework is politics at play in the home.

In 1970, the US feminist group Redstockings published an article titled The Politics of Housework. Depressingly, nearly 50 years later, it still holds true. Writer Patricia Mainardi recounts the struggle with her husband about who should do the housework: he admits in principle that he ought to, because that’s fair, but when the time comes he proffers excuses. Everyone agrees housework is dull, says Mainardi, but she deconstructs the reasons – the same ones still used today – that men give for not doing it. Such as: women are naturally cleaner or women do it better. When a man says women are better at it, what he means, according to Mainardi, is: “I don’t engage in dull work, but it’s OK if you do.” When he says he doesn’t know how to do it, it means he has better things to do.

Mainardi’s most important point is that housework is considered “trivial”. Why do women go on about such trivial matters? Because it fundamentally shapes their lives and choices. The demands of housework and childcare determine where they can go, the decisions they make about their lives and how they engage in the public space. That’s why women have attempted to put it on to the political agenda. Campaigns such as “Wages for Housework” attempt to counter the “unimportance” of housework by putting an economic value on it. In a modern capitalist economy when something is “free” it is not valued, because only “paid” employment is worthwhile.

If women want paid work, they still bear household responsibilities, restricting them to part-time work, or preventing full focus on their careers in the way men are free to do without a care about who will look after the children or how food, utilities and daily life will be managed.

Of course, the counterargument is that running a household is an important job, requiring skill, effort and tireless devotion, and that our society should focus on developing pride in housework and childcare for whoever does it.

I agree. That’s exactly my point. Housework is considered trivial, playing second fiddle to “paid” work. If it was considered of value, we would hear men boasting to their friends about how they have washed all the dishes, and filled the freezer with lunches for the children.

The next time you’ve vacuumed, cooked, bathed the kids, put them to bed, done the laundry and paid the bills, remember that your housework is a political act. Don’t consider it to be trivial.

Are women really like pearls and lollipops?

Published today in The National

Attention ladies. Are you a pearl or a lollipop? These are two analogies that are increasingly being used for women, so as to encourage them to be more modest.

Like pearls (apparently), women are beautiful creations that should be enveloped in oysters, otherwise their beauty and value will be robbed. Women are also like lollipops. Take off the wrapping and they will be swarmed by flies eager to taste their sweetness.

At first blush it sounds quite good to be compared to a pearl. The problem is that the expensive silk-smooth bauble is valued for the way it looks, and the implication for women is that we too only retain our value by being objects that are revered for the way they look.

No wonder, a woman is bought and sold on the basis of her beauty – a passive object to be traded by others.

It’s an analogy that paves the way for “fair” women to be valued and for “dark” women to have reduced social status. In other words, it robs women of their right to self-determination.

The pearl’s passive beauty is determined by the outside world. It has no power to exercise self-determination.

Men see them the way they want to – as temptresses who must be controlled for their own good. It is because of this that the imagery of the lollipop (surrounded by flies) is so offensive.

It’s not hard to understand why the analogy of the pearl locked in her oyster can lead to a Taliban-esque view of women who should be locked up at home with no education or medical care on the excuse that they should be protected from the outside world.

It’s also not hard to understand how this could lead to women being airbrushed out of the public space, political and civic arenas. There is no recognition of the variety and diversity of women.

I don’t want to be a pearl. I sometimes want to be a rock, sometimes like a wave, sometimes a cloud. Beauty is not my defining factor. I’m not an object to put in a box and be cooed at. I’m a real woman, with aspirations for self-determination, whose worth is recognisable in and of myself.

Of course, women have an inherent value, just as pearls have an inherent value. But the analogy here is erroneous, because it is particularly about hiding women away owing to their beauty or “tastiness”.

I have even bigger issues with comparing women to pearls and lollipops.

For example, why are men alluding to themselves as treasure-robbing pirates? Why should they be portrayed as flies? How offensive it is for them.

My biggest issue, however, is this: if women should act as pearls, then society must put in place the structures that underscore women as inherently valuable.

Just last week, a woman in Pakistan was stoned to death by her family for escaping a forced marriage. How is she then a pearl? Also last week, a female student in Saudi Arabia died of a heart attack, because the paramedics, who were men, refused to enter a female area. How does that reflect an honour for the value of a pearl?

To call a woman a pearl and then treat her like dirt shows that the comparison is superficial. It’s like laughing in the face of every oppressed woman. If women are not treated as valuable, then calling them pearls will change nothing.

Them and us, the West and the Muslim world, and the question of who owns the truth

Published in The National today

In 2006, a news story hit the front pages of UK newspapers about a 12 year old Muslim girl – Misbah – who had been “kidnapped” by her Scottish Muslim father and taken back to his family’s home in Pakistan. His marriage to Scottish Muslim convert Louise had broken down after 15 years and four children.

Misbah, also known as Molly, asserted in front of the world’s media at a global press conference convened in her Pakistani home that she had willingly moved to Pakistan to be with her father and three older siblings and was in no way being forced.

Alongside having her father painted as a bearded fundamentalist, her mother was portrayed as a deranged drug addict who was an unfit mother after a nervous breakdown.

Misbah’s story symbolised the war between “us” and “them”, caught between an apparently decadent, broken West and an apparently fundamentalist woman-hating Muslim world. Trapped between these two caricatures, Molly/Misbah’s story was baffling to the West – why would she escape away from the “modern” West towards “backwards” Pakistan, supposed land of forced marriages and female misery?

What the global media furore showed us beyond the heartache of the family in question was something far more fundamental: depending on who we define as “us” and “them” alters our perception of which version is the truth, and whose story gets to be the final say.

This week a play My Name is … has opened based on the verbatim accounts recorded by a playwright who spoke to mother, father and daughter. The reality of their stories – their human personal struggles – are of course more complicated than the clash of civilisations narratives that hijacked their story of a painful family breakdown complicated by culture, geography, religion and self-imposed compromises.

The play is sufficiently removed from the family and media events to prompt us to ask: who gets to tell the story? Who owns the truth? And most importantly, how hard is it for us to accept something that is not how we ourselves accept the “truth”?

In this case, the Western media could not accept a Muslim girl asserting herself against the grain, and when she did, was baffled how she could leave the “liberated” West?

When news articles about individual stories start to dominate global discussions, Molly’s tale should prompt us to ask why such a story is being told, and why is it being told in this particular way?

The story of Boko Haram’s abduction of 200 schoolgirls has gone global, and horrific a story though it is, its effect is heightened because it resonates with a seemingly accepted truth that this is obviously Islamism and Islamists are supposedly violent. But the presumptions of this truth ought to be tested.

The same presumptions underlie the feting of Malala Yousufzai. The horror of the abduction, and the awesomeness of Yousufzai’s courage are not in question. Rather, how does their global fame reinforce certain truths of “us” and “them”?

We like the kind of truth that is black and white, and fits with our pre-existing view of the world. While the media can fall foul of this gross simplification, today’s globalised reporting, if ever there was the chance, gives us the opportunity to see other truths, to be both Molly and Misbah.