Monday, 21 of April of 2014

Time to unleash your inner superhero (and yes, Muslim women have one too)

My weekly newspaper column from The National

I’m feeling a bit superhero-ish. Don’t worry, I’m not about to morph into a green, muscled monster, or scale up a wall to save the good guys. But I am definitely inspired by the latest creation by Marvel Comics: Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen superhero who takes on the name Ms Marvel.

With a complicated family, the ability to grow giant fists and a complex story of identity, cultures and religions, Kamala Khan is a potent idea: she has introduced the notion to the mainstream that Muslim women can be superheroes.

I believe there’s a little bit of superhero inside all of us. I believe that is the human (not a warped-in-freak-DNA-swap) condition. We just have it ground out of us by the ordinariness of life. Cynicism squeezes out of us the belief that things can be a different, “super” way. The closest we ever get to it as women is joking about being SuperMummy in the face of tasks that appear to be incapable of being solved by ordinary human effort in the ordinary human understanding of time. But the fact that so many of us achieve it shows that what appears to be superhuman is entirely within our reach.

We just need a glimpse that it’s possible to make us realise that we have the power. We need a leader by example; someone a bit like us. We want to see our angst writ large, even if it is in the fictional realm. In fact, sometimes fiction allows us to explore beyond what our realities allow us to imagine.

For Muslim women, all too often the supposed reality of our lives is depicted as deeply miserable and passive. Certainly, injustice is a feature of life for women in many societies, including Muslim women. But to see the rise of fictional fighters, opponents and, yes, superheroes who themselves are Muslim women sows the seeds of the fight against those injustices. They paint a richer canvas for our stories to be told and to experiment with new stories and narratives.

I love Qahera, created by Egyptian blogger Deena Mohammed. With her supersonic hearing, she says: “I can hear the sound of misogynistic trash!” She swoops in to sort out oppressive husbands in typical superhero comeuppance. She then tackles Femen, an anti-Muslim-women “feminist” organisation and finally takes street harassers to task.

In Pakistan, the cartoon Burka Avenger tells the tale of an ordinary unassuming teacher by day, who takes on Taliban-type baddies by night when she dons a black mask and cloak that look like an abaya.

These women are powerful. They contravene social expectations about them. And they say and do things that “nice” (Muslim) women are not supposed to do. The superhero worlds they inhabit give them permission to step outside the boundaries of what Muslim women are permitted to do, and take us on flights of fancy that we would like to follow. In turn they give us permission to assert power in the face of our own angst. These are examples of fiction that can be both commercially successful and socially impactful.

The very existence of these superheroes writes a new story about the right of Muslim women to be powerful. We might be struggling with the laundry, extended family gatherings and putting up shelves at home. But whether it be in our personal domain or in the public space, it is encouraging to see reflections of the superheroes we know we can be. The force is with us, and the force is strong.

The Muslim world needs to put women at the heart of its growth strategy, but that needs to mean more than economics

Last week’s newspaper column for The National

At the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum held in London this week, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak was unequivocal: giving women a central role is vital for a nation’s economic future. “This is neither contrary to our faith nor to our traditions; instead, it honours the founding principles of Islam.”

Malaysia Najib Razak

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the World Islamic Economic Forum in London (Reuters)

Women didn’t get merely a passing mention; the entire focus of his keynote address was women’s empowerment. He highlighted Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, as a business icon, and their marriage as an example to the Muslim world of the power of both men and women working side by side. And he laid out a road map of how to achieve that engagement.

I was moved that a leader of the Muslim world took a historic moment to “put women at the heart of growth”. The mere fact of him doing so at such a high profile event is significant and other Muslim leaders should take note. Undoubtedly, his thesis that more women in work results in higher GDP makes financial sense.

I want to push the prime minister further, to challenge him to develop his vision beyond today’s economic paradigm. He has provided an opportunity to raise wider societal questions about whether women’s participation and empowerment should have as its metric economic development, or if we need to start measuring “success” in different ways.

I believe we must expand our horizon in championing women’s engagement beyond only monetary terms. It’s no wonder that it is in economic terms that goals are set, decisions are made and social upheaval is undertaken.

As Mr Najib pointed out, the countries closest to gender equality are also among those with the highest GDP. So it’s a no-brainer that women should be engaged and empowered. But should the status, value and rights of a woman – or any person – be predicated on their economic value?

I put to any leader that any social structure is one-dimensional if people’s rights and participation are permitted solely on the premise that it is good for GDP.

Of course economic engagement is important at a societal level. Economic independence is crucial for women to be self-determining and free from oppressive structures.

Already though, we see that economics as the single metric for women’s participation is throwing up real problems: how should the model engage with a variety of issues including pregnancy, motherhood, unwaged carers, disability, and single mother headed households?

Visionary leaders need to paint us a picture of a society not simply dedicated to the dollar. It is not utopian and unattainable to talk about establishing universal human dignity, protection of rights and fulfilment of human potential. But to turn these from ideals into realities we need to define metrics which will allow us to set targets and then measure our progress and achievements.

Economics is effective in setting goals for change, making it a powerful motivator for women’s empowerment. However, we must be cautious not to define emancipation only in financial terms, otherwise women will only ever be as free as economic market forces allow. The challenge is bigger: to redefine wider terms for women’s social, economic and political engagement, and to define new measures of what this success looks like.

Are faith and feminism compatible? A better question is how women of faith and none can work together more effectively

My weekly column published today in The National about the BBC 100 Women project

What happens when you take five women of faith and a female atheist and put them in front of a global audience to discuss the future of feminism?

If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, then you’d be wrong. There were no laughs to be had during this debate. Instead, a panel discussion that could have built solidarity among women was laden with vitriol against the world’s women who identify themselves as faith adherents while at the same time struggling to radically improve life conditions, opportunities and rights for the women in their societies. It’s a story of lost opportunity, but one that is repeated with disheartening regularity, pitting faith and feminism against each other instead of combining forces.

The debate asked: are faith and feminism compatible? It was the final session of a pioneering experiment called 100 Women, convened in London by the BBC and broadcast to the world.

The 100 Women project was a radical bid to bring more female voices to news coverage and raise the profile of the work and issues that women are tackling around the world. These 100 women were selected to illustrate the varied subjects facing women globally. The usual suspects were there, such as politicians. But the 100 also included some who would never ordinarily be heard in global reportage, women working at the grassroots on microfinance, investment, water quality, in convents, as teachers in ghettoes and in many other settings.

The panel at BBC 100 Women's "Faith and Feminism" debate

I was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 100. The day was a platform to interrogate what feminism means, to pitch “big ideas” for change, to understand how motherhood affects women’s struggles, how glass ceilings still exist, and whether faith and feminism can be reconciled.

This last topic was the day’s most heated debate, underscoring the fact that women’s rights movements around the world are rooted in different perspectives, with varying visions of what society should look like to best nurture, protect and give justice to women.

During the debate, religion was called a “deep mistake” and “fundamentally incompatible” with feminism. And yet, in front of our eyes were women who were living proof that faith inspires and drives forward movements to improve women’s status.

Western feminism has undoubtedly made huge, positive impacts that have benefitted women as a whole. But we must also admit that it hasn’t got everything right, and women elsewhere are looking at how not to make the same errors. What western and atheist feminists need to get their heads around is that women of faith make up the majority of the world’s women, and women’s movements globally are taking different paths.

For western feminists to argue that their vision and strategies – even with all the unanticipated problems it has thrown up – are the only path and everyone else’s is “incompatible” or engaged in a “deep mistake” smacks of an arrogance rooted in privilege. It carries a whiff of “four legs good, two legs better” in its superior relationship to women’s movements rooted in other traditions and religion.

By agreeing on non-negotiables such as the right to be free from violence, to access education and healthcare, to speak freely in public, to have access to employment and to ensure it is for an equal wage, and so many other issues that we can all agree on, we can achieve greater results. It is pragmatism, not polemics, that will achieve a better future for women.

The cultural heist of hijabs, niqabs and burqas, and why we won’t let you void our veils of meaning

My most recent weekly column for The National newspaper.

Covered from head to toe in a black Catwoman-style outfit, bad girl Rihanna struck a sulky pose for photos last weekend outside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Fitting in: The singer paid heed to the dress requirements in the Middle Eastern city, where local women tend to cover up their bodiesShe won some praise for wearing a hijab, supposedly showing respect for the sacred space. Nonsense. She wasn’t there for the mosque. She left without visiting it. She had come prepared with a couture outfit and a team of crack photographers, and refused to enter through the proper visitors’ gate. She simply wasn’t walking in another culture’s shoes.

Then, showing a total lack of class, she posted a photo of another woman in a black abaya, with the caption “(expletive) stole my look.” I have news for RiRi: she didn’t steal your look, you stole ours.

Fashion and art are fluid creatures, and their lifeblood is borrowing style and artistry from across cultures. So I have no problem with artists crossing boundaries to explore meaning and symbolism. But this celebrity statement was less about cultural insight and more about profitable controversy.

Worse, Rihanna isn’t even being innovative: she’s following recent celebrity obsession with what Muslim women wear.

In July, Madonna posted a picture of herself in a chain mail niqab, captioned “The Revolution of Love is on … Inshallah”.

Baffling. Instead of a substantive intervention in the heated niqab debates now going on around the world, she seemed to aim only at creating a striking image, for a world where visuals are everything, and layers of meaning are nothing.

I’m optimistic enough to hope that in borrowing our look, celebrities might be able to offer nuance in the feminist debate, while Muslim women’s voices remain largely unheard. But I feel my hope is no more realistic than the gauzy neon-pink burqa Lady Gaga wears in a recent video. You can argue that she has altered the portrayal of the burqa from an oppressive garment that prevents communication to one that – literally – reveals that Muslim women too think about sexuality.

Gaga used a cheap image to turn a garment with deep meaning into an advertising stunt. “Buy me!”, it cries. “I’m an edgy woman.” But all this image does is to edge Muslim women out of the conversation.

I don’t care what Gaga, Madonna or Rihanna thinks about veiling. But I care about Muslim women owning their own meaning in the world.

This is not just about a look. Many Muslim women say veiling gives them a multi-dimensionality, and these pop stars are deliberately flattening that into a simplistic visual image.

Rihanna and her celebrity ilk are sucking the plurality out of womanhood, and turning us into merely set-piece sexualised images for visual consumption. The centuries-old idea that veiling is just a sexual fetish is given a hearty endorsement by pop’s bad girls.

Just in case the co-option of modest clothing for the purpose of controversy and profit without insight was not sufficiently blatant, the fashion brand Diesel has been running an advert of a tattooed woman, covered only with a denim burqa over her head and chest, with the phrase: “I am not what I appear to be.”

These images are culture heists of the worst kind. Take our clothes and our art and our look, and layer on meanings and perspectives. But don’t suck them dry and flatten them for your profit.

Breaking news: Muslim women like sex too. Who’d have thought it?!

My thought piece published yesterday on The Telegraph’s Wonder Women site.

After the launch of a Halal sex shop, one which is proving popular with women, Shelina Janmohamed implores society to stop just seeing female Muslims through the prism of a veil.

An online Halal sex shop has just opened its digital doors out of Turkey. Over its first weekend it received more than 30,000 visitors.

Wait, what? A sex shop for Muslims? And one that is popular with Muslim women?

As a society, our discussions about Muslim women only go as far as whether they should wear hijabs, niqabs and burqas. Sometimes we think veiling is oppressive. Bizarrely, sometimes it’s seen as a bit saucy. But mostly we are just not sure if Muslim women should be allowed to decide for themselves.

And then along comes a story of aphrodisiacs, orgasm creams and Halal lubes that Muslim women (perhaps literally) are sucking up. Whilst this is exciting news for Turkey (will there be a baby boom in July 2014?), it’s not a world first. We’ve already seen plenty of coverage in the Netherlands, Bahrain and even Atlanta, USA. So why is a Muslim sex shop that women love, such big news?

Let’s pan out, and take a look at the landscape of ideas and news coverage when it comes to Muslim women. This week alone, Channel 4 news is running a series on “Britain’s niqab”. Barely weeks ago, Britain had its burqas in a twist at the thought of meeting a doctor who covers her face. (helpful tip: there aren’t any in the UK.) And it’s not just the UK that’s in a tizzy. Belgium passed a law banning the face veil, despite there being only thirty women who the country who wear it. Couldn’t the PM just call them round for a cup of tea and a chat instead to discuss their niqabs?

It’s a bit, erm, kinky, that what captures our imagination about Muslim women is either veiling or sex. Are Muslim women exotic and oriental, an ongoing titillation and sexual fetish for our consumption?

I think the answer is much simpler: Muslim women are depicted simply as bodies, covered or uncovered. Any deviation from this script is heavily policed. Ask Google images about Muslim women and you’ll get pages of black cloaks, with the odd nude women wearing nothing but a face veil. You’ll also find Lady Gaga in a gauzy neon pink burqa, Madonna with a bizarre niqab made of chain mail, and a Diesel Ad of a naked tattooed woman and denim burqa. No, I’m not making this up.

Women as a general rule face the challenge of being seen as nothing but bodies, but the problem is heightened for Muslim women where the entire debate focuses on what we do or don’t wear and whether we are brainwashed into our choices. Surprisingly even self-identified feminists will reduce Muslim women to what they wear, rather than hearing what Muslim women have to say.

Yet the female Muslim experience – including in Halal sex shops – has something experimental to offer women in general. There are women-only spaces created by Muslim women where a celebration of womanhood takes place outside the male gaze.

When so much of the feminist debate is dedicated to understanding what beauty, body and femininity mean when freed from the male gaze, these spaces already exist. These are finally places where ubiquitous sexualisation of the female form is banished. Weddings and parties are the most popular where Muslim women can explore what it means to be beautiful and sexy for themselves, and even do so across generations, without worrying about men.

Online Halal sex shops like this latest one in Turkey extend that courtesy to their customers, taking away the almost pornographic images. The owner of El Asira in the Netherlands, says that many of his customers are women who are not Muslim, because they find the imagery and tone less off-putting than traditional blue imagery. Halal sex shops give the chance to women to explore their sexuality without imposing pornographic norms.

Talking openly about sex and pleasure has only recently lost its taboo status in the West. It’s true that its public discussion in Muslim cultures is still difficult. However, in private among Muslim women, it’s as of much interest as anywhere in the world.

Muslims have form on the subject too, with love, sex and erotic manuals dating as far back to the eighth and ninth century Abbasid Muslim period. Rumi is perhaps the most famous of Muslim poets globally, he wasn’t shy about sexual references. And even the Prophet Muhammad pronounced that to deny women foreplay was a form of oppression.

A popular American Muslim scholar even has this to say: “There is certainly a case for producing an advanced manual in English drawing on Islam’s rich legacy in this field.”

So a sex shop that appeals to Muslim women is fun, important, and just as natural as everyone else’s lust. Stop the presses! Muslim women like sex too. Who’d have thought it?

I’m part of the 100 Women project by the BBC

Exciting news! The BBC is running a project called “100 women” which they’ve announced today. It’s part of their season focusing on women. I’ve been selected as one of the 100 women from around the world.

Here’s what they say about the project:

“They hail from all over the world, and from walks of life. They do all kinds of things: they make music, save lives, raise children, run businesses, write, preach, act and tell jokes. They campaign for their causes and strive for a better world for themselves and their families. On Friday 25 October they are coming together at the BBC’s London headquarters, Broadcasting House, for a unique day of debate and discussion. We’ll ask them to tell us where they think the world’s women are today, and to set out their goals for the future. You’ll be able to follow every development on BBC TV, radio and online.”

So watch out for more details over the coming few days, and make sure you’re tuned in over the course of Friday for the wide range of broadcasts.

Here’s the link to the 100 Women.

And a snapshot of the 100 women who make up the project. It’s an interesting attempt to look at the diversity of women today, and what it means to be a woman.

The BBC 100 Women

Calling all feminists: Get over the veil debate, focus on real problems

(Posting belatedly, my op-ed for Al Jazeera, in the midst of the debate about forcing doctors who wear the niqab to remove it).

For western feminists, the debate about the niqab that has been running in the UK is around choice. Have Muslim women who say they have chosen to wear a niqab really exercising free choice? And even if this choice is free – ‘free’ in the broadest sense of the term, say western feminists’ – is it very feminist? I believe this argument is short-sighted and misses the bigger picture that women’s rights movements need to work together. Women around the world need to get over the obsession with the veil and work with Muslim women, and here’s why: we are all on the same side, and we need to lay some ground rules that will help us work together to eradicate the problems women face around the world.

The arguments being aired around choice apply to hijab as well as niqab, as well as the broader right to be respected for being a Muslim woman. That’s one of the reasons why the recent debates and news coverage have featured so many Muslim women who don’t wear a niqab or any headcovering at all. To the Muslim women you’ve seen and heard in the news, this feels like an attack on our status as women who want to be Muslim, veil wearers or not. For many decades women who follow a religion were excluded as unable to be part of the feminist movement. Muslim women reject that. We believe that the movement towards more gender just societies must absolutely include women of religion if we are to achieve global and lasting change.

The manufactured veil controversy

Let’s tackle some basics in the niqab debate.

First, security. Contrary to high-pitched opposition in the media discourse, women who cover their face are happy to lift their veils for identification such as in airports to ensure security.

Hygiene is another red herring for banning niqab. When the UK introduced legislation that health professionals could not wear sleeves beyond the elbow, Muslims have complied. There’s no reason to suggest any hygiene related guidelines on the veil would not be adhered to with similar pragmatism. Besides, even the UK’s Secretary of Health admitted that he didn’t know of any niqab-wearing doctors. And don’t surgeons cover their faces anyway? In parts of Asia, covering your face with a mask is a form of consideration to those you are engaging with to avoid sharing your germs.

When these non-excuses are dealt with, we start to get to the crux of the matter: Muslims are not ‘like us’, and they wear veils to keep themselves separate. If the position you start from is that Muslims are ‘other’, then no wonder interaction is difficult. If anything, it is precisely because these women have entered into the public space in order to engage and integrate that we are having this debate. If they stayed at home, we’d have nothing to talk about.

Feminists beware

Feminists must be cautious of when their sentiments and actions are swept up to bolster the rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred. The Sun newspaper demanded on its front page that Muslim women be unveiled. Muslim women have had their veils forcibly ripped off. A pregnant Muslim woman was kicked in the stomach.A woman in Germany who wore a headscarf was stabbed eighteen times in open court.  It is Islam that is the problem, not Muslim women, Muslim women are told. That’s cold comfort to a Muslim woman being physically attacked.

The Ukrainian ‘feminist’ group Femen told us that we were slaves and they would free us. Their topless jihad was the route to liberation. (We’ve found out subsequently that they were being managed by a man who only picked the most attractive of women.) Whilst Femen may be more extreme than most, their idea that western feminists will free Muslim women is a sentiment widely shared. It infantilises Muslim women. How can we engage if you treat us as lesser beings? Respect must be the crucial foundation. This is also lacking in some extreme Muslim discourse that refers disgustingly to non-veiled women as raw meat, and fair game. Mutual respect is a sentiment which will foster better outcomes for all.

‘Whataboutery’ and the road to nowhere

My favourite anti-veil opposition – and the argument that feminists fall back on – is the argument ofwhataboutery. What about women who are forced to wear a veil?” They cry! “What about Afghanistan, we fought a war there to free women!” “What about the women who died to give up the veil?!” I’m not convinced yet that the imperialist enterprise in Afghanistan has improved women’s situation greatly, and I’m equally unconvinced that denying women’s rights to choose how they dress in one country improves life for those who are forced to veil. Our standard for women’s rights should not be on a par with those who force women to wear a veil. We must lead the way, not pander to the oppressive common denominator.

The challenge for feminists of all stripes in this debate is that all the arguments have pitfalls. If you ban it to ’save’ the women who are forced, then what of the free will of those who have chosen to wear it, but are now prevented from doing so? And this is even before we even know how many women are actually forced to wear it.

If the feminist argument is that Muslim women who autonomously choose to veil only think they are doing so out of free will, and are in fact being brainwashed to do so, then the core principle of feminism to elevate women’s control of their own destiny is immediately violated. And worse, it underscores the argument that feminism is a western imperialist project: that only western culture can supposedly liberate women, and that all other ideas are brainwashing. Perhaps the most insulting subtext of all is that Muslim women are infants, to be patronised into the ‘right’ choices.

If Muslim women are brainwashed into veiling, then is the mini-skirt generation equally brainwashed into believing that showing skin is liberation?

Veil tourism

This idea underpins a current flurry of veil tourism. This is when a well-meaning journalist ‘gets behind a niqab’ for a day (or more) and then keeps a diary of her experiences, inevitably concluding that it was hot and she felt repressed.

Wearing a veil for a day can give you a taste of the physical aspects. Most veil tourists talk about the heat and the restriction. They can also offer a taster of the social interactions that women who wear a niqab experience: the negativity, the hostility and even the public humiliation. Wearing a niqab for a day sounds like a good idea, and I applaud the notion of walking in another woman’s shoes. But almost every journalistic piece enters the project with scepticism and looks for reinforcement of their arguments. It is seen as an item of clothing, rather than, as many Muslim perceive it, an expression of something deeper.

I could write a piece about wearing very high heels. It would read much the same: they constrict my walking, they make my ankles hurt. Men in the street feel legitimate in yelling things at me. It doesn’t help deepen the debate or go beyond it.

Veil tourists I believe are genuine, but fail to grasp that the veil means something more to the women who wear it, and for whom, therefore, any hardships are either accepted as the price for a bigger cause, or for whom the difficulties are simply not difficulties.

Calling all feminists

The debate around veiling will run and run. It stokes provocative debates – and rightly so – about the nature of choice, women’s place in the public and private spheres, and the relationship between women, religion and patriarchy. To have these debates between women from vastly different backgrounds, religions and perspectives makes the debates richer and more complicated. It is in the true tradition of feminism to hold our beliefs up for examination and this must be done honestly by all feminists, those women who veil and those who don’t.

Whilst it is important to the future of feminism to have these ideological debates, what is more important is to avoid getting distracted by little pieces of cloth. If Muslim women say it’s a choice to wear it, let’s respect them. Let’s put an end to the headline: “Woman wears piece of cloth.” Let’s move on.

What is more important is to realise we share more in common in terms of the problems we must tackle together as women. These range from topics as wide and fundamental as poverty, education and legal rights, to access to healthcare, domestic violence, public engagement and political influence and everything in between. These are the same challenges for women around the world but under different labels and manifestations. Let’s address them together.

Feminists: stop fighting over what I wear, and start addressing who I am. I am neither burqa nor bikini. I am woman.

The struggle to find the line between my public persona as a woman, and the privacy of my child (or how every aspect of motherhood is a challenge)

My weekly newspaper column for The National.

I remember when the first labour pains started. I had just finished writing my column for The National, attached it to an email to my editor and pressed “Send”. It was after midnight and I was perched in bed. I clicked my laptop shut, sighed with relief and snuggled up. An hour later I felt contractions.

That clicking sound remains loud in my mind, the sound of the door closing on me as an individual, a single public entity. Seventy-two painful hours later, I gazed into the jewel-like eyes of my baby daughter as my husband, smiling, gave her to me to hold. I had a mini-me.

Except as the days passed, and the fog of new motherhood lifted, I felt strongly that she wasn’t me. She was a creature of her own. It was her right not to be part of my public life. I confronted the fact that she had her own new existence, like a small green shoot. Bright lights would burn her. She had a right to privacy and my duty was to shelter her from that glare.

It’s hard to keep the most intimate and beloved person in my life private. She’s adorable, smart, funny and beautiful. Her existence shaped every breath of mine from that moment. Her very being, her smile, her complaints, each action and expression intimately informs who I am.

The paradox is that I am still the same independent woman, individualistic even, who clicked shut that laptop that night, but you cannot understand me, I cannot understand myself, without knowing her.

The paradox is that while I continue to fiercely desire to engage publicly with my ideas and activities, I feel more fiercer still that my child, one of the great influences on me, should be part of my private life only. The paradox of the fierceness with which I guard her privacy could be a hyper-assertion of my motherhood, emphasis through absence.

There are no public photos of her. It was only after long and anxious reflection that I offered her name up to the public. This is unusual in our world of Facebook photos and Twitter selfies. Many parents I know on social media use images of their children as their profile pictures. For them, their children are the full embodiment of their public persona. My profile has a noticeable absence of family photos.

The increasing numbers of women in the public eye combined with our ever more powerful social media will mean that how to balance our public and private lives will become a bigger decision for more and more parents, but especially for mothers in the public eye. Social expectations on women usually demand we marry and have children, and that our status on both issues be a matter of public knowledge. But I don’t think children should be collateral damage from the pressures on women.

I’m flouting the laws of modern motherhood that require public evidence of being a mum. Also, my assertion of myself as my own woman, with my own ideas and my own journey to conduct in the public space is quietly and positively subversive, stating that I exist independent of my persona as a mother. It’s a difficult decision, because it doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad not to share my beloved with the world. Privately, my feelings and photos are shared boundlessly.

I am both individual and mother. For me, I want you take me on my merits; for her, I want to protect her. Publicly I’m proud to assert that being a mother has made me the woman I am today.

Can men ever learn to love chick flicks? Not until empathising with women is a natural part of society’s status quo

My weekly newspaper column for The National.

It’s a luxury to have an evening to spend simply watching a film from the sanctuary of the sofa. I ask my husband if we can watch a romantic comedy, and he concedes out of affection. Plus he knows the important statistic: romcoms result in a higher ratio of per-minute cuddling than any other movie genre.

When it comes to films, chick flicks are supposed to be only for women, and no self-respecting man would think to declare that what he really wants to watch is a romcom. It’s usually under duress from his female partner that he’s forced to sit through a formulaic plotline of will-they-won’t-they-yes-they-will.

The most obvious reason seems to be that they are too emotional for men, who aren’t allowed to admit a hankering for romance. Romance is that girlie, soppy stuff that will result in mocking for any male exponent.

The male lead is the standard for films, as well as books, the norm that both men and women are expected to connect with and relate to. But as soon as a female character is the lead, it’s a story for women only. So no wonder that chick flicks are belittled as being for women only: the female is the lead and the men play the same character in every film; their role to be interchangeable and act as screen sweets. The latter is, of course, exactly how women feel about themselves portrayed in films generally. I’d like both to be more rounded, not just one-dimensional and pretty.

There are chick flicks that appeal to men. There’s Something about Mary was a global hit. So was Notting Hill. Broad appeal films like these don’t expect male viewers to have to empathise with the heroine. The cynic in me says that these films let men off the hook from finding it totally natural to relate to a female character. It would be nice if they did. Instead, which is just as important, they have strong male characters which allow men to invest in the film. If only moviemakers would apply the same strong characterisation to female characters in films with a male lead.

Of course, even I will admit that many chick flicks are just simply rubbish. Weak characters and unbelievable plot lines can render them into dire productions. And I’ve been at the front of the queue to criticise them for creating the archetypal passive princess waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming, at which point life will be perfect.

I’d have no hesitation in condemning chick flicks, except for the fact that the terms “chick flick” and “chick lit” refer not just to romantic comedies. Sometimes they refer to anything about women or featuring female characters. The tone of the terms is to disparage the art as subgenre, deviating from the male norm or just a bit girlie and weak.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the opposite to a chick flick would be. Some of the suggestions are rude, so I can’t write them here. (Google is your friend if you want to know.) But I have the sense that the opposite of a chick flick would be awesome, energetic, realistic and, most importantly, it would appeal to everyone, not just women.

Movie-makers and publishers need to change the characterisation of the male and female leads, but we also need a change in society. Both men and women have a need to see the subjects of emotions and love, as well as female leaders, role models and protagonists as totally normal on and off-screen. Love and feisty chicks, they are for everyone.

Life epiphanies, the hajj, politicians and how to make a change

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today.

As this year’s Haj pilgrims make their way back home, they will be travelling with mounting expectations of major life changes.

Tradition gives them a new honorific, haji or haja, and with this comes an elevated status, one that each pilgrim must live up to with new-found piety.

More important than what others expect is what the pilgrims themselves anticipate – a real change in their own actions and lives after their pilgrimage.

Completing the Haj is seen as a moment of epiphany. The old hedonistic life must be abandoned, as the body and soul experience a transformation that leads – or is supposed to lead – to a life of goodness and devotion.

For many pilgrims, this is just what happens. The extraordinary nature of the Haj creates the right conditions for them to step out of the smallness of daily life.

The new environments, experiences, people and challenges of the Haj, coupled with the religious experience after lifelong anticipation, can bring about a true new beginning.

Even ordinary travel can create some of the conditions for epiphany. Many people craft voyages expressly to create the conditions for a life change that they have no other way to trigger.

My own experience of motherhood had a similar effect, throwing me into a novel and unexpected struggle, and giving me a whole new perspective on life.

Events like these force us outside of our routines, and thrust us into challenges so radical and transformative that we are almost guaranteed to rethink how we live and what we want from life.

If you’re seeking an epiphany, take note that these big life events are most transformative because they are public, meaning those around us have also bought into the upcoming change. This helps us maintain our own inner momentum.

For the returning hajis, if their quest was intended to trigger a life change, they may find that their friends and family will be even more zealous than they are in policing the move to piety. With motherhood, too, your social circle accommodates and supports your change.

In other cases, there is no public marker for major personal change – this is where sustaining a life reform becomes challenging. There is nothing external to send people a signal that you intend to be different now, so those around you may not understand, support or accept it.

In some cases, too, changing your mind about major matters can be seen by others, especially those outside your immediate circle, as evidence of weak-mindedness. This is particularly a challenge for social and political leaders. We leave them almost no room for epiphanies and improvements in their way of living and working.

For leaders, sometimes the only change permitted is one that comes through social and political pressure. In this case other people, with their challenging, unapologetically in-your-face views, are the agent of transformation. Their opinions create the conditions required to trigger an epiphany in the leader, but also the broader social conditions that allow prominent people the space to change.

The return home of the pilgrims is symbolic for all of us. The hajis have their epiphany to spur their change. For the rest of us, this can be a spur to create the right conditions in society so that those who wish to change their attitudes and lives have the chance to do so. We can do the same for our leaders. There’s a transformative thought.