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I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up Jennifer Zobair’s debut novel, Painted Hands.

Chicklit isn’t really my thing — and it was sold to me as a “Muslim chicklit” — even though highly appraising endorsements found on the back cover call this novel, “a positive portrait of Muslim women” and an “important addition to the canon of ethnic fiction.”

I’ve never seen Sex In the City; when it comes to fiction, I’m more interested in sci-fi/fantasy, and I just wasn’t sure how much I could relate to a pair of high-flying, Prada-wearing, Boston-raised, and politically- and legally-minded “modern” Muslim characters.

Surprise! I loved it.

Within the first few pages, I was gasping in shock and gleefully gossiping with my sister-in-law over each experience, event, plot twist, and wonderfully terrible scandal as the book unfolded. As if these characters were like our own friends — and they probably could be. Zobair has not only created a collection of memorable characters, but she has also effortlessly represented almost every Muslim American community and popular media personality. It’s as if her novel presents a snapshot, a broad overview of the American Muslim community, from Muslim feminists, activists, and converts, to non-practicing Muslims, avid mosque-goers, and unruly mosque Uncles. She even name-drops a few modern famous Muslims to make the book more relatable to a present-day context.

The plot, about 30-something Muslim women trying to negotiate faith, love, and growing up in secular America while firmly routed in South Asian culture, focuses on the two main characters: Amra Abbas, a work-obsessed lawyer aiming for corporate partnership, and Zainab Mir, a fierce A-type personality with a knack for spinning strategic communications for a Republican political campaign runner. Their relationship with each other, their families and their faith are influenced by a cast of eclectic supporting characters: Mateen, Amra’s love interest and husband, struggles to balance his love for Amra with his own expectations of how a “good” Muslim wife should act; Chase Holland, a neo-con radio host and bigot who struggles after falling in love with Zainab; and Hayden Palmer, a party-girl headline stereotype who converts to Islam to spite the Muslim man who uses her for sex.


photo 2 (28)Terrified screams rip through a dark forest. Ghostly eyes leer and skeletal branches attack an innocent girl as she runs from a close encounter with death — and she soon falls to the ground sobbing. Later, when several strange “little men” offer her refuge in exchange for cooking and cleaning services, a twisted old woman tricks her into eating poison and she enters a death-like state. In revenge, the men chase the old woman off a cliff and hold a wake for the poor girl. While they mourn her, a charming, handsome, prince wakes her with a kiss and she happily falls into his arms.

It’s not the Snow White I remember from my childhood, so I was pretty shocked when watching it again in preparation for this post. But then again, the only things I really remember from Disney’s 1937 movie version were the seven dwarves happily singing “Heigh-ho,” Dopey’s big ears, and the famous kiss from Prince Charming.

Both the Grimm tale and Disney’s retelling are incredibly dark — filled with death, attempted cannibalism, sorcery, deception, attempted murder, torture and in the Disney version, child molestation. No really. Disney’s Snow White is 14 years old and the kiss to wake her was totally made up just for the movie.

In my review last month of Cinderella: An Islamic Tale, I spoke a little about the problems of princess culture. Snow White was Disney’s first princess, and she set the bar pretty high for an entire industry that includes a massive amount of marketing and story-telling over the past 80 years. But the life lessons we can glean from this particular story are less than positive.

Despite my respect for Snow White as a lovely person with an awesome voice and amazing power to communicate with animals, I’m not a fan of her story’s framing — which includes teaching that it’s okay to be with a man you barely know, and who kisses you when you are incapable of giving your consent; people with different forms of dwarfism are just for comedic relief; being a damsel in distress will help you in all aspects in life; wish really hard and you’ll get everything you want without working for it; and your beauty is your only worth, as evidenced by the fact that people will either kill you or love you for it.

So yet again, I was absolutely thrilled to read Fawzia Gilani’s, Snow White: An Islamic Tale. And while this book wasn’t necessarily written as an alternative to Disney, it’s how I’ve approached it, as I know how influential princess culture can be and how important it is to have Muslim representation and alternatives in children and young adult literature. And as the author shared with me through private correspondence:

“I am acutely aware that our children live in a world where there is a hegemony of secularism and a breeding of Islamophobia. Islam is an emancipatory way of life, if we can demonstrate that through stories, I think it’s a good thing.”


Disney's Cinderella

Disney’s Cinderella. [Source].

Pink princess toy cameras. Pink princess wallets. Pink princess magic meal time cutlery. Pink princess backpacks, pencil cases, water bottles, golden hair extensions, and the most fabulous silver sparkle princess shoes with pink flashing lights.

After only a week in full-time school, my daughter Eryn has embraced this new world of marketing around princess culture — and even though she has never seen a Disney princess film, she can now name all of the popular princesses off by heart.

Princess culture is ubiquitous — from their original fairy tales to lego. As an empire, it’s selling a whole slew of negative gendered stereotypes, unattainable beauty ideals, and a message that a woman’s agency and action is found only through her sexualization. Even the most “brave” anti-princess princess of the Disney franchise, Merida, was at one time subjected to a sexy redesign — which was pulled after a huge backlash favouring her original bow and arrow over huge breasts and a sparkly dress. And let’s not forget the problematic Jasmine of Aladdin, our favourite Muslim princess at MMW, who not only falls victim to orientalized cultural stereotypes, but becomes a heroine by seducing the bad guy with a bare midriff, fluttery eyelids and a hawt kiss.

There is nothing wrong with children loving the colour pink or wanting to “sparkle” — but there is definitely more to life than buying into the message that vapid beauty and inaction will help little girls everywhere snag (and be saved by) a rich, hetronormative prince.

So in looking for alternatives to balance out this growing influence, and to help my daughter find positive examples of Muslim identity in the media she consumes, I was recently overjoyed to find an Islamic alternative to the classic Disney Cinderella story.

Cover of Cinderella: An Islamic Tale.

Cover of Cinderella: An Islamic Tale. [Source

Cinderella: An Islamic Tale by Fawzia Gilani-Williams is a wonderful children’s book. Set in medieval Andalusia, the classic tale receives a both religious and pro-woman retelling. The fairy Godmother is replaced by a grandmother who holds real social power and is the one who saves Cinderella. The evil, ugly stepsisters aren’t punished, but turn over a new leaf and are forgiven. They’re also not ugly or necessarily evil to begin with — softening the villainization of stepfamilies that plagues many fairy tales. The prince’s role in chasing Cinderella, after being seduced by her beauty and grace, is downplayed by the actions of the Queen — a strong character who spends the evening with Cinderella and facilitates their marriage. And what I love the most about this story is that Cinderella is recognized for her piety, patience and humble nature — and not necessarily her beauty.


Sorry I’ve been a little absent from the blog. Eiding with a huge family means lots of obligations and we’re now gearing up to travel back home. TONIGHT.

But I was able to share some of my ‘Eid reflections over at Muslimah Media Watch in a small (and awesome) roundtable looking at ‘Eid celebrations and gender in four countries. I’m cross-posting my exert here as well.

Prayers for everyone as we fly over the Atlantic and things will be back on a regular posting schedule once we’re over the jet lag.

Enjoy and a belated very Merry Eid Mubarak!

Praying evening prayers in the mosque just before the 'Eid announcement was made. The ladies gobbled up Eryn and Ivy.

Evening prayers in the mosque just before the ‘Eid announcement. The ladies gobbled up Eryn and Ivy.

Eid for our small family usually means dressing in our finest, rushing to pray with thousands at an exhibition hall, patiently listening to elected officials remark on the amazing diversity of Canada’s mosaic, and delighting the children with bouncy castles for a few hours before returning home or going back to work.

This year, we celebrated ‘Eid in our pyjamas.

Many mosques in Kuwait start ‘Eid prayers at about 5:15am in the morning. So most of the household just didn’t bother going to bed — we stayed up all night chatting with extended family members, applying henna, praying Fajr and listening to several of the neighbourhood mosques chanting the takbirat, broadcast high above the city from minaret speakers. Then, bleary-eyed, we threw abayas over our pyjamas and carried the still sleeping children outside to pray in a rocky parking lot.

Carpets softened the makeshift musalla and a caterer distributed cold dates and water while the men sat in the open-air and women took their place in a special section behind them. To ensure “maximum privacy,” the women’s section was enclosed on three sides by a large beige tarp — which doesn’t provide much of a view, but beats staring at a paved road.

Admiring the henna.

Admiring the henna.

This year our speaker system unfortunately cut out just as the khateeb brought up the topic of women. A few people took the silence that followed as a cue to wish everyone a happy ‘Eid Mubarak, many waited patiently, and I peeked over the tarp to see what the men were up to. Later, the Hubby told me the sermon was very positive — telling everyone that women should be an essential part of the community, working and volunteering publicly. That women should be elevated, empowered and proud. A lovely sentiment, but pretty ironic without a game plan to change societal perceptions and when we’re peeking from behind the tarp.

The view beyond the tarp.


An irony I largely ignored in favour of experiencing a fun and privileged ‘Eid day with friends and family in a city where the overwhelming majority celebrated as well. In Canada, the prayer itself seems to be the main event and I’ve always felt slighted at being told how empowered I am on ‘Eid, while mosque officials put me in a basement every other day of the year.

We later breakfasted with family at an aunt’s house — enjoying creamy and strong cooked tea, eating a sweet pasta dish called atriya and home made Yemeni bread, all lovingly cooked by the grandmothers in the family. Then we retuned home to sleep before finally dressing in new ‘Eid clothes and spending the rest of the day party hopping, gift exchanging with the family and wandering the hallways of a flashy and trendy mall with thousands of other families enjoying the same.

Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak!

The Ramadan Reflections over at Muslimah Media Watch are wrapping up for another year. For my second reflection I wrote about an experience that truly illustrates some of my personal frustrations about motherhood and spirituality — so I’m cross-posting it here to be included in our ongoing series. 


Help I’m alive…

The Grand Mosque in Kuwait.

The outdoor courtyard at the Grand Mosque in Kuwait.

We’re late. My favourite popular imam has already begun leading the second rakat for Qiyam ul-layl, the night prayers. We dash from the car and run across the street, our feet soon gliding upon smooth marble floors at the largest mosque in Kuwait.

My sister-in-law leads the way. One hand holds a chair for our pregnant cousin and the other clutches her black abaya as she power-walks ahead. A corner is turned and the scent of cardamom laced coffee brings a smile to my face. Hundreds of people are milling about. Some grab free water and dates, others coordinate with friends – everyone is searching for a place to pray. There’s a crush of people trying to enter the women’s section in the outdoor courtyard, but a female police officer is closing the gates, saying it’s full. Squeezing in, my sister-in-law grabs my arm and drags me inside.

We join the line and I open my Qur’an app, quick to find the right section so I can follow along. My eyes fall into their own rhythm – absorbing the English meaning before jumping back to the Arabic. Up, down and up again. Left to right, then right to left. The languages and words begin to meld together in cadence with the reciter. I lose myself in calligraphic script and try desperately to write the meaning onto my heart.

Suddenly a woman grabs my arm. I’m disoriented. She’s insistent. It’s clearly something terribly urgent. “Ta’ali!! Ta’ali huna!” “Come! Come here!” She grabs my arm harder and tries to pull me out of the prayer line. She’s saying more but I can’t understand her.

My mind races. Is she upset that I’m reading from my smart phone? Does she want me to fill the gaps in the line behind? I frown, angry that she’s disrupting my prayer and quickly pull my arm out of her grasp. Then she lightly brushes my shoulder. (more…)

For the second year now, the awesome writers over at Muslimah Media Watch take a break during Ramadan to lay off the media analysis and instead share some Ramadan Reflections. I’ve added my voice to this collection of personal stories, memories and experiences, and am cross-posting here as well. Enjoy!


Eryn and Ivy’s Ramadan lanterns, treat bags, and advent calendar.

Thick tendrils of white smoke curl around my fingers as I add more bukhoor to the incense burner. Nasheed music wafts softly from the living room, creating a calm, somber atmosphere. My children have just come back from the balcony, certain that the new moon made her appearance despite heavy storm clouds. We smile at each other and lovingly embrace in a group hug — the girls wishing me a good fast before heading off to bed.

At least, that’s how I imagined we would welcome the blessed month of Ramadan.

Instead, we shattered the quiet, reflective time of maghrib by shaking glow sticks in the dusk, blowing noise makers and jumping up and down. We got high off too many dates — the natural sugars making sure my children bounced off the walls until three hours past their bedtime.

Unconventional for some, but amazing to usher in Ramadan with true abandon and joy.

This is the first year that I’m fasting with my daughters Eryn and Ivy — and I’m doing it solo. The Hubby is currently working in the UK, my Muslim family has returned to Kuwait for the summer, I’m unmosqued from the closest community in my area, and while I’ve previously adjusted to the isolation caused by not fasting due to pregnancy or breastfeeding, I’ve never had to fast alone on top of experiencing a little single parenting.

Caring for two young children is all-consuming. Every moment of their day is meticulously planned, so I can hopefully get them into bed in time for me to break my fast and find an hour to work on my own spiritual goals. Sure, we normally have a schedule, but I rely a lot on the respite gained from passing off the kids to their father. There is barely enough time for me to perform the bare minimum requirements of prayer — let alone engage in the extra acts of devotion normally associated with Ramadan. Literally every second of my day is dedicated to talking, singing, and moving for the benefit of the kids.

Breakfast, dress-up, laundry, park, picnic, nap, splash pad, craft time, cooking, dinner, clean-up, bath, play and bed — doesn’t leave much time for extra worship, Qur’an, or blogging for that matter.

So since I’m outnumbered, I’m learning to experience Ramadan like a child. And that means creating Ramadan spiritual activities that suit the three of us. In doing so, I’m honing and reframing my worship into small, manageable, mind-blastingly fun snippets — in the hopes of encouraging the Ramadan spirit and nourishing my soul in the process. Something that’s a complete departure from the usual austere attitudes and seriousness that I usually apply to increasing my imaan.


ironExplosions, gripping fight scenes, artificial intelligence, funny one-liners, sexist playboy arrogance and close-ups of Robert Downey Jr.’s face overlaid with computer graphics are everything I expect when walking into an Iron Man movie. What I don’t expect are convenient and overused Hollywood tropes about Muslim women.

So now you know my guilty pleasure. I’m a science-fiction-superhero-action-film geek — and I frequent these movie genres in part to turn off my brain, enjoy some CGI eye-candy, and go fanatical over favourite characters and stories. And while I always secretly hope that films involving terrorists, vague references to Arabs, or locations in the Middle East will avoid using oft-repeated narratives that demonize Muslims, I’m still surprised whenever they pop up.

It’s frequently discussed on Muslimah Media Watch that Hollywood movies often orientalize or objectify Muslim women characters as marginalized props — creating scenes with women shrowded in black just to illustrate how “foreign,” “other,” or oppressed women are by the “bad guys.” These tropes conveniently justify all sorts of terrible actions by the “good guys” to save the day and liberate teh womenz.

Even when identified as essential to the plot, Muslim women are only given agency to play terrorists or victims of Islam and Muslim men. Rarely are they positively portrayed as strong, intelligent, amazing women. And when they are, they’re killed off. Like my all time favourite (and only) Muslim character in the television program Doctor Who — a fantastic woman who uses her enviable wit and intelligence to help the Doctor solve an essential problem. And then promptly dies at the hands of an alien monster.

Her role as a Muslim is to drive the plot by the virtue of her “Muslimness” and unwavering faith in God — a key clue in resolving the episode — making her fantastic character completely and utterly expendable.

Muslim women own about 20 seconds of screen time in the latest edition of Iron Man, during which they are nothing more than a convenient plot element.

Iron Man 3 picks up where The Avengers movie left off. After Loki’s failed attack on New York City, the United States is left vulnerable and now faces a new terrorist threat: The Mandarin. This anonymous terrorist hacks television signals to broadcast verbal threats and claims responsibility for several bombing attacks on military installations and personnel. The United States’ government-backed military responds by deploying “War Machine” — an Iron-Man-like-mechanical suit worn by the character Colonel Rhodes. We soon learn though, that he is re-branded, and the newly marketed “Iron Patriot” cavorts around the globe seeking out terrorists, delivering the government’s unwavering message of strength in this war against The Mandarin.

Screen shot 2013-06-09 at 11.34.32 AMAt one point, the military sends Iron Patriot to Pakistan to investigate a suspected Mandarin broadcast point of origin. After he breaks down the door to a sweatshop, we see a room full of women in black niqab working away at sewing machines. “Target not armed” flashes across one woman’s veil as he scans the room for weapons — objectifying her face into a convenient projection screen. Reporting back to his superiors, Iron Patriot jokes:

“Unless the Mandarin’s next attack on the US involves cheaply made sportswear, I think you messed up again.”

And to the women as they flee the scene:

“Yes, you’re free, if you weren’t before. Iron Patriot on the job. Happy to help. No need to thank me.”


make-me-a-muslim_625x352When I think of Britain, I don’t think of a society so “rife” with promiscuity and drunkenness that it’s very moral fibre is in need of repair. Call me naive, but I usually imagine red telephone boxes, Mister Darcy, imperialism, fish & chips, curry houses, and Doctor Who. But according to a mini-series from 2007 called ”Make Me a Muslim,” Britain is so horribly off track with naked women in the streets and hooligans living hedonistic lifestyles, that things are going to get much worse unless something stops this social degeneration. What Britain needs is an infusion of “decency, respect and moderation.”

So let’s make everyone Muslim.

“Make Me a Muslim” was a three part series aired by Channel 4 in the UK and followed a group of non-Muslim volunteers from the town of Harrogate in Yorkshire while they “lived under Islamic law” for three weeks. It popped up in my feed reader a couple of weeks ago when BBC Three aired another ingeniously titled documentary, “Make Me a Muslim.” This unconnected 2013 installment follows Shanna Bukhari, the first Muslim to compete for the title of Miss Universe Great Britain, as she learns what it’s like to practice Islam from a group of white women converts who have given up partying and drinking.

Since the convert party girl exposé is sooo last year, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the 2007 series and its specific focus on sharia law. I was curious to know how they were going to present Islam and depict a group of non-Muslims abiding by a system of religious norms that have vast interpretations, implementations and practices throughout the world, as well as within Britain. Unfortunately, my initial optimism was dashed the moment episode one opened by polarizing a modern and immorally broken British society, with the ancient religious values that can supposedly fix it.

To test the theory that Islam can save Britain, Imam Ajmal Masroor and his crack team of Muslim Mentors help six non-Muslims (and one “lapsed Muslim”) learn what it’s like to live under the principal tenets of Islam and sharia law — namely, no alcohol, no pork, no sex outside marriage, modesty, fasting and prayer. While I was hoping for more discussion on the nuances and reasons why Muslims are enjoined to pray and maintain levels of modesty, the series instead holds true to the performance of reality TV: They take an extremely surface understanding of Islam, enforce it on a group of people who aren’t Muslim by choice, throw in a group of stereotypical and at times ridiculous Muslim characters, and watch the sparks fly while both groups clash.

The understanding of sharia is not exactly explained, as much as it’s simply narrated in a two-second sound-bite as a system of law based upon the teachings of the Qur’an. The actual defining of sharia is left to Phil, a beer-swilling, bacon eating, mildly xenophobic taxi driver, who confronts a Muslim Mentor about how, “Muslims want to impose sharia law on Britain,” and that “we don’t want the stoning of women and cutting hands off thieves on the streets of England.” Sharia is not explained as helping guide personal religious observance, but as “barbaric.” And while he is sincere in wanting to learn more about Islam and Muslims, Phil’s views on the “Islamization” of Britain are used to reinforce every negative stereotype about Islamic law.

The group’s initiation into Islam begins by a brief introduction to the five pillars and, much to my delight, with the Muhammad Asad translation of the Qur’an. The Muslim Mentors then purge the participants’ homes of all things “haram under Islamic law” — and the camera spends a lot of time showing alcohol being tossed down the drain and the confiscation of “frilly knickers.”

The really unfortunate presentation in this episode was the role of women in Islam. Which, for the purposes of tabloid entertainment, was reduced to the wearing of hijab.

After taking away bathing suits, skirts, and shirts unceremoniously deemed “immodest,” South London preacher and Muslim Mentor Mohammed explains that:

“The religion of Islam is a religion of prevention. A lot of women have been raped in England and all over the world. Why are women inviting it by wearing something that is [immodest]?”

This hijab-as-protection-from-sexual-abuse trope continues when Muslim Mentor and white convert Dawn explains hijab to Kerry, a glamour/soft porn model, “this is about protecting you and keeping you safe.”

Understandably, the female participants are outraged and their unwillingness to abide by “the rules of Islam” are exploited to illustrate that Islam is foreign, oppressive and misogynist. Even when Imam Ajmal comes in as the voice of reason, defining modesty as protecting society, encouraging humble behaviour and allowing people to interact with their personalities by not focusing on the “body beautiful” — it’s all done secondarily to the BIG DEAL that non-Muslim women feel oppressed and choked by long sleeves and a head scarf.


Taxi in Yemen.

Taxi in Yemen via Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

In recent years, women-only taxi services offering convenient and safe transit have sprung up in major cities all over the globe. These “pink taxis,” driven by women for women, offer a variety of benefits — not only giving women the option of avoiding harassment by male drivers, but also offer employment opportunities, business ownership, and in some cases, empowered transit in funky, candy pink rides decked out with lady magazines, beauty kits, and alarm buttons.

In Beirut, they’re styled as fierce competition to the standard transit system, brought about by one woman’s entrepreneurial vision, and follows similar models set up in Dubai, Cairo and Tehran. In Kuwait and London they’re “women-run businesses” offering “secure modes of transit” helping female customers feel less vulnerable when riding alone with a male driver. Moscow’s taxis are all about girl power, while Mexico City’s pink taxis are fantastically “girly” while helping address the problem of leering male drivers. But Yemen? Yemen doesn’t have a women-only taxi service and that’s because Yemen is too tribal and slow to change, to even consider allowing women to drive taxis.

Well, that’s according to a recent article by Radio Netherlands Worldwide. While initially promising (and Fugees inspiring), the title completely mislead me into thinking a new, pink revolution had already hit the streets of Sana’a: “Pink taxis for Yemen: ready or not.” Apparently, not.

It didn’t take long to realize the point of the article was not to celebrate a new social and entrepreneurial opportunity for women — but to use the absence of pink taxis as a social commentary, highlighting gender segregation and the restriction of women’s employment due to “tribal tradition.”

The article leads by over-emphasizing Yemen’s culture of gender segregation. “Men and women practically lead separate lives,” with segregated weddings, women-only Internet cafes, and asks, “if so many places have separate facilities for women, then why are there no women-only taxis?” It’s a fair enough question. Taking a taxi with a male driver is awkward for many women and while not every male driver is a predator, there are many documented cases of sexual harassment by taxi drivers in Yemen. So in a country that is so obviously divided upon gender lines, why hasn’t segregation entered into the transportation sector?


It’s been 20 years since the start of Bosnian war. All year, journalists have used this anniversary not only to revisit their coverage of the region, but also to highlight how communities and individuals continue to experience the aftermath of a conflict that uprooted families from their homes, saw widespread wartime sexual violence and resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people between 1992-1995Unprotected, a recent documentary by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, looks at the harrowing experience of a Bosnian woman to highlight the way people are treated when called as witnesses at war crimes trials.

The full documentary is available on Youtube:

Twenty years ago, the woman identified as Z.R. was raped, and watched as her family was murdered. In the first half of the documentary, she describes how, due to a lack of government support, she was forced to face the man who attacked her and her family, even though she was supposed to be a protected witness during the trial against him. She is still suffering the consequences of reliving that nightmare today.

The only “care” the State Investigation and Protection Agency gives to victims, according to Z.R., is simply driving them to and from the court. Protection for victims of sexual violence is nonexistent, and the documentary goes on to argue that the infrastructure to fully support victims and witnesses is missing. They have little or no protection, or proper access to medical, psychological and financial assistance needed to help rebuild their lives.


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