Friday, 31 of October of 2014

Ayaan Hirsi Ali offers a simplistic and dangerous view of Muslims

This article was published yesterday in The National as my weekly newspaper column.

More than 12 years on from the events of 9/11, and the subsequent failed global “war on terror”, the false dichotomy of being “with us” or “with the terrorists” is still proclaimed without embarrassment.

This week, it was the turn of Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Hirsi Ali was scheduled to deliver a speech on the anniversary of the attacks at the Boston Marathon while receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University, which is located just outside Boston.

Somali-born Ms Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure. She fled to the Netherlands and claimed asylum on the grounds of persecution and escaping a forced marriage.

There she became actively involved in politics and was elected as a representative on the back of a far right rise in popularity against Muslims but she left the Netherlands for the US after it became clear that she had lied on her asylum application.

Over 80 members of Brandeis university faculty sent a letter to the school’s president demanding the withdrawal of Ms Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree invitation “owing to her virulently anti-Muslim public statements”.

In response, Ms Hirsi Ali published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Reflecting on the anniversary of the Boston Marathan bombing she managed to tie together the Boston Marathon, jihadists in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, a driving ban in Saudi Arabia and sexual assault in Egypt.

There was no mention at all of Chechnya, from where the bombers hailed, and the political problems there. There was no analysis of how the violence in Syria and the global political vested interests that spur on the killing is different to the social and political pressures on women in the Kingdom.

For Ms Hirsi Ali, Muslims are all the same. And for her, Muslims are the problem.

Of course, there was no mention of a global epidemic of violence against women, gun crime in the US, annexation in the Crimea or Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. If she had mentioned them, we could be talking about working across borders and boundaries to tackle global scourges. But no, in Ms Hirsi Ali’s world, all violence is due to Muslims and all Muslims are violent.

Ms Hirsi Ali’s analysis is both simplistic and dangerous, painting Muslims as all the same. She sees no variation. When she said Islam “must be defeated” she was asked if she meant “radical Islam” and her simplistic approach is clear: “No. Islam period.”

This makes her popular for those who cannot fathom the possibility of nuance among Muslims, 1.8 billion people who take Islam as their compass.

She legitimises hatred through a back story of “escape” from Muslims and “liberation” by the west. Yet the contradictions are already there in her own life story. Her own father was opposed to FGM. It was she herself who dropped out of further education despite her father’s insistence she continue. When she wanted a divorce, she got one without issue.

I’m loathe to give Ms Hirsi Ali publicity, but this idea that “all Muslims are the same” is dangerous and must be tackled head-on. Homogenising and dehumanising people is the foundation for hatred. Among 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, variation and differences of opinion exist. How ludicrous to paint them all the same.


That ‘joke’ about violence? It’s not funny.

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National published yesterday.

If you saw someone being punched black and blue, or beaten to death in the middle of the street, you’d never hesitate to say it was violence. The perpetrators should be locked up and made to pay for their crime. Any bystanders cheering on the murder, we’d also hold to account for their depravity.

Yet if we take violence out of the public space and into the domestic sphere, it becomes a joke about who rules the roost, and how gender wars should be played out.

As a teenager, I overheard the following “joke” being shared between men and women. “What should you do if your dishwasher stops working?” The answer: “Slap her, and she’ll start washing again.” Did you laugh?

The punchline fulfils the comic’s rule of subverting our expectations: we were thinking about the dishwasher as a machine.

It also plays on the gender stereotype that if women aren’t working in the kitchen, then a bit of violence is fine. After all, that’s a woman’s job, and if she’s not doing her job then what should she expect but a whack in the face?

In case you laughed, let me help you: this was not funny, because the idea that women should be beaten is not funny. We’re duped into accepting that it’s funny because it plays into the gender war stereotypes. This doesn’t mean those who laugh are all bad people. But if you do laugh you should be keenly aware of how “jokes” can transmit the idea that violence is acceptable and by telling the joke or just laughing at it you are condoning its acceptability. Violence is never acceptable under any circumstances. Not even as a joke.

Such jokes are so rooted in our psyches as “just a bit of fun” that if we do challenge them we are accused of not being “chilled out” or that we can’t see “the funny side”. But we’re all familiar with the adage “never a truer word than said in jest”.

Just as problematic are jokes about violence against men. The Times of India is showing a photo taken at a fancy dress competition. A little boy is dressed up with bandages and blood stains on his head and arms. He’s got a big black eye and wears a sign saying “I argued with my wife”> He won first prize. I’ve seen women posting up the picture indicating how funny they think it is. LOL! They exclaim.

That’s a funny costume, right? Don’t mess with your wife! We should take the funny side of it and chill out, right?

Wrong. It’s worth repeating: violence is never funny.

We wouldn’t laugh if a black child wore a sign saying “I picked a fight with a white boy” and there would be righteous outrage if a beaten girl wore a sign saying “I argued with my husband”.

If women think it’s funny because it gets back at men who commit domestic abuse, think again: it simply reinforces the idea that beating women in the home is fine. Besides, men can be victims of domestic violence too.

We must all – both men and women – be vigilant in stamping out “jokes” that perpetuate gender stereotypes and violence. Telling jokes might seem harmless, or just a bit of fun. But every implicit acceptance of abuse helps it to flourish.

To tell the joke is to be the bystander who cheers on the public brawl. It creates the environment for violence, and in the end someone will always get hurt. Don’t be the cheerleader. And definitely don’t be the one who thought it was funny.


BBC Radio 4 discussion: Islamic feminism

This morning I was on BBC Radio 4 discussing Islamic feminism.

If you can access BBC iplayer, you can listen to the discussion here, at 38 minutes into the recording

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymr4g


From MH370 to HarassMap, the power of the digital crowd

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

The mysterious case of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has gripped the world. How could such a huge area be scoured for clues?

DigitalGlobe, a US-based satellite imaging company, came up with a way for us all to get involved in the search through crowdsourcing, where we can go onto their website and review detailed image files from their five satellites and tag anything suspicious. They will then use an algorithm to assess which regions are getting more tags than others.

They’ve taken a problem of vast proportions and are harnessing the power of the digital crowd to solve it. It shows the digital crowd has qualities that can be put to good use: mass resources, global connectivity and immediacy. It can address problems of a macro nature through the micro actions of individuals. It’s the digital world in one of its finer moments.

In 2010, Harassmap was set up in Egypt in response to the high levels of sexual harassment faced by women there. The incidents are reported and mapped using mobile technology.

In such situations, those who have been subject to unwanted advances or even sexual assault may suffer it so often that they feel compelled to get on with their lives. Alternatively, they may not know who to tell, and not want to spend large amounts of time in police stations when not only might nothing come of it but they might be told it is they who are the source of the shame.

Being part of the digital crowd can help individuals feel part of a bigger movement, where they see how speaking out, regardless of the barriers, can lead to seemingly insurmountable social problems being resolved.

The work of HarassMap highlights the digital crowd’s power when it comes to on-the-ground events. Volunteers often show the map in places where harassment had been reported and share eyewitness accounts. People are often shocked when they realise how common harassment is on their own streets.

The power of the digital crowd does not stop there. Crowdfunding first took off as a phenomenon in 2006 by raising finance through a wide range of investors. The digital crowd in this case becomes the resource as well as the impetus for creativity and results, bypassing traditional financial and corporate gatekeepers.

By pooling individual needs together, the digital crowd can benefit its individual components in a way that is not possible offline. MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer world-class learning to millions who cannot access it through conventional education due to geography, time, or finances.

The dynamic changes from the traditional one of a teacher instructing the class to one in which individuals are required to engage with other students as part of the learning experience via virtual spaces, with huge impacts on the future of education.

Of course, the digital crowd also has its dark side, such as disgusting revenge sites where intimate pictures are posted and others where groups promote distasteful views. Normal etiquette also seems easier to forget online when it turns nasty.

The study of crowd psychology has existed for nearly 200 years but we need to learn about the digital crowd’s ability to be a power for good, having already seen it harnessed in unimaginable ways. As Gustave Le Bon, the 19th century author of The Psychology of Crowds, tells us: “The improbable does not exist for a crowd.”


British Muslim women don’t need the West’s version of feminism, OK?

This article was published today in The Telegraph.

As a charity bids to boost feminism among Muslim women, Shelina Janmohamed asks why British female Muslims would want to join a feminist movement born in the West, which asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door

Malala Yousafzai fights for gender equality - but would she describe herself as a feminist?

Everyone loves Malala Yousufzai, right? Fearless, inspiring and courageous, she is the kind of female icon that asserts the need for women to have justice and rights – arguably a ‘feminist’ viewpoint – and which has won the admiration of western feminists.

Whatever your opinions of Yousufzai, one part of her core identity rarely discussed in feminist circles is that: she’s a proud Muslim and sees her faith as a driver for the change she preaches. Yet the feminist movement as we know it today, born in the West, asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door. Want to join the feminist club? Then you’re asked to leave the world view that inspires you, makes you want to be a better person, and abandon the very principles that drive you to fight for justice and rights for women.

I understand why many feminists in the West might have this knee-jerk reaction: religion has often been co-opted by the powerful to hang on to their privilege and oppress women, and the European religious context where feminism was born was part of the movement’s formation.

This rejection of women of faith is a symptom of a core problem the feminist movement faces today: that it has come to embody only the concerns of white, middle-class women from the West. Everyone loved Sheryl Sandberg when she told us to ‘Lean In’, but some say her self-help guide was aimed at a handful of already highly-privileged women. Working class feminists rarely get a look-in.

And the same applies to women of faith and colour. And for those at the intersection of multiple oppressions being a feminist means a struggle to fight all forms of oppression.

The idea of Muslim feminism or Islamic feminism isn’t just contentious for secular feminists and the historic feminist movement. It’s equally contentious among Muslims, some of whom argue that it focuses on individuality, diminishes men and the family and works to eliminate God-consciousness from society.

Stuck in the middle of this furore are Muslim women themselves – who may or may not label themselves as Muslim feminists – but who nonetheless are working tirelessly to improve the conditions for (Muslim) women.

To this backdrop, a new project has been announced by Maslaha, a UK based social enterprise that is part of the Young Foundation that aims to improve social conditions within Muslim and minority communities. TheIslamandfeminism.org project sets out to introduce ideas of feminism to Muslim women. It is being described as ‘new’ and ‘pioneering’.

Simply put, this is to deny the long and ongoing history of activism to improve the social conditions and justice afforded to Muslim women. My great grandfather would never have called himself a feminist, but he was in some ways. In a society where male babies were consistently privileged over female babies, who some considered a disappointment of birth, he only ever gave celebratory gifts when girls were born. My grandfather sent his daughters to school on bicycles to ensure they were safe, but for a girl to be on a bike was considered shameful. He rejected that.

Some Muslim women make it into our headlines like Yousufzai, or Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman who also clearly stated Islam as a core driver of her work, and who proudly wears her headscarf. The vast majority remain unheard of, working on the ground, inspired by their faith.

I’m pleased that there is an additional resource to talk about Muslim women’s work in the global justice movement. But its impact is less about engaging Muslim women in an internal community discourse that can fuel the discussion around the realities of Muslim women’s lives, in a way that is meaningfully rooted in the faith that they wish to uphold. It is more an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and in-built biases.

Muslim women don’t need to or even want to be accepted on sufferance, a kind of ‘we’ll let you into the club even though you’re wrong’. Rather, women’s rights movements need to accept input as a two-way street.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women and is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She can be found blogging at spirit21.co.uk and tweeting @loveinheadscarf

Note from author: unfortunately due to word count issues the following paragraph could not be included:

Others have argued that feminism is simply the women’s wing of the western imperialist movement. Current examples  cited to support this argument are how improving women’s rights was shoe-horned post-facto into the reasons for the war in Afghanistan; there are questions asked why Yousufzai’s shooting by the Taliban gained such worldwide coverage, whilst the women killed by drone strikes in the same region do not; and why a group of white women like Femen gains more coverage than the millions of Muslim activists around the world who are day to day pushing back the appropriation of women’s rights


Manly myths and women temptresses: Our histories are filled with heroes, but why are so few of them female?

This article was published on March 8th on the occasion of International Women’s Day, in The National newspaper.

The heroes that fill the stories of our cultures and histories have thousands of faces, but why are so few of them female?

In a land far in the future, it is women who walk the streets freely and without fear, and men who are locked up at home. Welcome to Ladyland, a sci-fi utopia contained in the story Sultana’s Dream, written by an Indian Muslim woman, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, and published in a 1905 edition of the Indian Ladies Magazine

In the mythic Ladyland of Sultana’s Dream, men failed to defend the kingdom from invasion, so the women stepped in to do so. The condition was that men had to be confined to their homes for honour and liberty. Thinking there was no hope of the women’s success, the men did so without protest. The women approached the battlefield with mirrors and concentrated sun-rays on the enemy, who found the heat unbearable and fled. And since then, the men remained indoors.

A hundred years later, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, the story of Ladyland continues to unsettle us. Its heroes are female, women form the standard of acceptability and success, and men are simply adjuncts to salvation and safety.

We’re not used to female heroes. Our grand myths – the ones whose narratives shape our societies and cultures – are in general framed by the male archetype. Myths help us to make sense of the world, and more importantly of our place in it. Hidden within the often supernatural events are the values on which we have constructed our social order. The heroic characters that inhabit the mythical worlds help to reconcile us to our realities, and establish the patterns for our lives.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell argued in a seminal work that hero stories across cultures and histories are essentially the same story with the hero passing through the same 17 stages. His theory of the “monomyth” was titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The theory of the archetypal hero’s journey has gained huge traction among modern-day story writers and literary analysts. George Lucas is the most famous proponent, using it as the basis for Star Wars.

However, Campbell’s monomyth of the male hero has come in for criticism, with complaints that it whitewashes the female hero from its description of our grand archetypes. But supporters of the male monomyth claim that since the great myths stem from history when men were dominant, it is natural that the stories will focus on men. Women only exist in the 17-stage hero’s journey as temptresses or goddesses.

When a rare female hero occurs, she is overshadowed by the grand male narrative. Occasionally, female heroes are allowed to exist, but only within limited spheres. They can be mothers, they can be concerned about homes and children. Their stories can be about marriage, love, romance and fashion. The heroines must be svelte, beautiful, softly spoken and kind. Think of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Even as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, a seeming exception to the rule about heroes being male and that women seek husbands and love, and in their failure to achieve this turn into tragic figures. Their “superpowers” are beauty, romance and chastity.

Even when a rare female hero arises, she is often sidelined as an example only for women, not for men. Female stories gain traction as fairy tales, trivialised and dismissed as stories for children, not grand enough to be part of the canon.

Why should we care about whether abstract myths are centred on male or female heroes?

We need to care because myths shape what we see as “normal”. They tell us who is significant – men – and who is dispensable – women. They give us guides to navigate our world, and a map drawn without women makes them invisible. They show us the received wisdom on which our society is built, and the received wisdom of myths is that men matter, and women are obstacles. They give licence to men to challenge society, and for women to be hidden. Most importantly, they filter down into our day-to-day policies and behaviours, establishing the male as the norm.

Hollywood reflects the idea instilled in us by myths that male ­heroes are for everyone, and female heroes are just for women. Women are not given grand heroic roles that can be embedded into our social psyche. On the rare occasion that they are, and they become successful, there is shock. Thelma and Louise is one of the rare – and successful – examples of the female journey, both metaphoric and real.

Overturning myths can unsettle our ideas of what is normally accepted as “right”. Sultana’s Dream challenges notions of where intelligence lies, or who should own the public space and why.

Gloria Steinem’s notorious piece on “If men could menstruate” subverts the prevailing norm that the standard body is male and women’s bodies are an aberration. At the same time as tackling the stigma of periods, her subversion addresses the stereotype of women’s complaining nature, and makes an important point about who gets to allocate resources and how day-to-day policy is set. Men, she quips, would brag about their periods. Periods wouldn’t be considered unnatural and dirty. Sanitary supplies would be free. Women would be excluded from complicated fields of study such as philosophy and maths unable to comprehend them without the innate sense of rhythm men would have from their menstrual cycles.

Funny, of course, but consider a more real and fatal example of this. Heart disease is seen as a man’s problem. But the biggest threat to women in a country such as the United States is also heart disease, but gender bias means aggressive treatment is pushed for men more than women. Diagnosing symptoms is biased in favour of men. Men usually experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack. Women may have a tendency for pain just under the breastbone, or complain of abdominal pain, indigestion, difficulty breathing, nausea and unexplained fatigue. Misinterpretation of women’s symptoms means women remain undiagnosed, meaning their first heart attack is often fatal.

We need to normalise the female journey by having more female ­heroes. We need to equip young men and women with an understanding that authority, knowledge, quest, bravery and wayfaring can be learnt and practised by both men and women. Our heroic archetypes must encompass women so that the daily struggles of women can be considered ‘normal’, and treated with respect, and the challenges can be addressed in an equal way to those of men.

There is frantic activity all around the world attempting to backfill the missing female heroes from our collective histories. Recovering the lost stories of powerful, inspiring and iconic women is a crucial first step. In recognition of International Women’s Day in particular, there will be lists of powerful and influential women published to highlight women’s achievements and to inspire upcoming women to take their place on the platform of heroes.

Our modern-day stories told to us in books and films must be braver in casting female protagonists. Writers and producers must take responsibility for stories aimed at both men and women about the heroic female and her journey.

Our myths tell the story of who we are, and we are not a world that can tolerate any longer the invisibility of women. Our grand myths need to stop eradicating and start celebrating women.

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


Feminism must include men, and discussions of masculinity ["Men and women are partners, not rivals"]

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

The trouble with women’s events about women’s rights is that all too often it can feel like women talking to other women about women’s problems. And, generally, there are almost never any men present.

This seems to be an absurd position, as women’s lives are intertwined with those of men. Don’t men care? If you’re a man and you’re upset by my question, then I’m pleased: it shows you care. If men do care about their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters – and womankind as a whole – then they need to be involved in social improvements for women.

This will mean changes for men, too. So men need to be ready to explore, understand and embrace the changes that affect them. Yet the discussion around what it means to be a man today is muted. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that the meaning and role of masculinity is now on the table for discussion.

Before I get accused of overlooking women’s oppression in favour of the already privileged male elite, let’s be clear: a sensitive and future-facing women’s movement must be sensitive and future-facing when it comes to men, too. Men and women are social partners, not rivals.

We need to understand what it means to be a man. In the same way we challenge female stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, we must challenge outdated notions such as that of the domineering Neanderthal.

Research from advertising agency JWT London starts to explore the nuances of male stereotypes, and understand what masculinity today really means. For British men, for example, being emotional – something that has traditionally been a sign of weakness in men – is now a source of pride (62 per cent). Men are just as much at home in the kitchen as with doing traditional DIY. And, nearly half of men (43 per cent) feel that men are better rounded today due to the shift in gender roles.

At the beginning of this month, the inaugural Being a Man festival was held at the Southbank Centre, one of the UK’s leading arts venues. It follows the success of the Women of the World Festival, which first took place in 2012. Its commissioning was in recognition that men too need to talk about their anxieties, challenges and place in the world.

Studies like one by students at Zayed University are looking at generational changes and can give young men an insight into how masculinity has changed through the family line. And a recent groundbreaking book published in the United States finally gives an outlet to Muslim men to create some new options outside of the usual stereotypes of either being oppressive monsters or terrorist villains. “Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy” gives a first-person peek into the kind of preoccupations that men have and would like to discuss, but which prevailing narratives prevent them from sharing.

As a women’s activist, I know how important it is for women to talk about womanhood, its challenges and how the system is currently rigged against women. The system’s consequences are violence, oppression, abuse and death. But the system is also rigged against men who are stifled by outdated expectations of masculinity, men who are expected to bottle up their feelings and struggle on in emotional isolation.

Creating space for discussions of both womanhood and manhood is not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s vital to a healthy functioning society.


We need a new way to talk about motherhood: the old dichotomy of working mums and stay at home mums is dead

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

Mothers never win. If we go out to work, we’re neglecting our children, and inviting doom on family and society. If we stay at home, we’re not contributing to society, wasting our talents and slowly atrophying our brains.

I'm neither. Or possibly both. But probably actually something totally different

Behind the heady mix of guilt at never being good enough at being mother and the priceless feeling of raising small people are piles of laundry, meals to be prepared and served and a trail of toys. This is modern motherhood.

Mothers who express the challenges of being a mum today, especially if they are working, are often accused of suffering from the failure to “have it all”. The Twentieth century women’s idealism that we can be superwomen has – supposedly – left us bereft.

Today’s mums are over that. We don’t expect to have it all, so put away your outdated criticisms. We understand that motherhood brings incalculable joy, and is the most important job. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out that it’s very hard work, and by the way we still also do most of the world’s housework. Looking after children, especially infants, is draining. Sleepless nights, little adult company and a never-ending circle of chores can make it hard to keep our fingers clinging on to the cliff edge of sanity.

Today’s women know that we don’t need to put a brave face on the hard work of motherhood in the way that generations before us did, a cause of depression in many women. We know that being a parent is an awesome status, but being a mother does not have to be our only or primary defining label.

Yet when women have children, motherhood is still only offered to them in two flavours: the stay-at-home mum and the working mum.

I’m neither of these and both at once: a work-at-home mum, part of a growing phenomenon but only rarely discussed.

I chose this path because I love the work I do. It makes up who I am, and gives me a sense of fulfilment. I feel it contributes positively to the communities of which I’m part. I’m also conscious that in years to come once the children are at school I’d like to work, and that means I need to “keep my hand in”. I’m very fortunate to have a flexible and understanding employer. And of course, the money helps too. But I’m happy to take on the enormous challenge because I want to spend time with my child in her early years. Cuddles from mummy are on tap, fun is squeezed fulsomely in between meals and mayhem. We navigate the tears, tantrums and trials of toddlerhood hand in hand.

It sounds idyllic, but the reality of working in the same place as your children is tough. While friends complained of the pain of non-intellectual stimulation looking after their infants, I was trying to feed the baby then work during naps. While others felt the confusing guilt of leaving their children in day care while simultaneously enjoying a few hours of me-time at the office and the chance for an uninterrupted cup of coffee, I was eking out every minute to meet my deadlines. I’m not a saint. I want to do this. I’m not alone in trying to construct motherhood differently from the two rigid caricatures offered to women, neither of which reflect reality.

Limiting motherhood to two mutually exclusive choices is a form of oppression against women. We need to talk about motherhood in a different way, one that continues to honour the importance of mothers, but doesn’t forget we are women too.


Make love not bidah wars: Muslims and Valentine’s Day

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

The Mufti’s office in the province of Rize in Turkey is asking imams to talk about Valentine’s Day during the Friday sermon this week, as it coincides with the annual celebration of love. Imams will convey to the congregation this message: “In our religious ideology, there is no Valentine’s Day, because you cannot assign a day for love.”

It’s the polite side of a growing anti-Valentine’s movement across Muslim communities who are arguing that any actions conducted on this day with regards to expressing love and romance are against Islam. Some even use the stronger word “bid’ah”, which means to bring innovation into Islam. Yet celebrations of graduations, life achievements and national days are commonplace and are not pronounced forbidden.

I say: make love, not bid’ah wars.

If you celebrate or don’t celebrate, it’s up to you. But whatever you decide, there’s no denying the event offers us an opportunity to think about the role of love in our lives, and the people we love. I’ll be making a point to express those feelings about which we rarely speak openly to my parents, as well as to all the female friends in my life, and of course to my husband.

To argue that love shouldn’t be reserved for one day, and that it should be celebrated all year round is to miss the point. Of course it should be expressed all year round, and if we were perfect creatures we would constantly be spoiling our other halves and appreciating their virtues. But life’s not like that. Sometimes we just need to pause and make a point of highlighting things that are easily forgotten in the daily grind.

Yet I’m also very much on the side of those who argue that Valentine’s has commercialised love, reducing it to red cards and cuddly hearts.

If you’re spending hundreds of dollars on presents, booking restaurants months in advance, sitting uncomfortably with the dozens of couples also pretending to have a good time eating their heart-shaped three-course meal, and when you secretly think your partner’s gift is less impressive than yours, then yes, you’ve gone too far. Expressions of your love aren’t being judged by the Arabs Got Talent panel, and this is not about totting up the score for who spent the most.

If you want to oppose Valentine’s then argue against it on the front that it puts pressure on people to turn love into something to buy and parade. But to criticise the fact of its public and focused expression, and that expressing love is somehow un-Islamic because it coincides with lots of other human beings expressing love, condemns the aspirations of young Muslims for relationships, and turns love into something forbidden. Worse, it suggests that love and the enjoyment of love is not for Muslims, only for others.

Traditional processes around finding a partner, having a relationship and being married are unravelling. Young people are grappling with their emotions and desires where the controlling factors of keeping face for family are slowly eroding. The strident anti-love messaging intentionally or inadvertently shuts down discussions of their hopes, fears and aspirations. When an opportunity like Valentine’s comes along to talk openly about love, it is better to allow space for young people to air their genuine emotions.

A new mantra that is gaining currency is: “Sorry Valentine, I’m a Muslim.” I’d prefer to say: “Hello Valentine, I’m a Muslim, let me teach you about love.” Muslims who understand the deepest meanings of love really can make the best lovers.


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.