I have been making this smoothie lately as part of my son’s breakfast. He loves it, drinks it up with a straw in a flash and then asks for more. The best thing is it’s loaded with nutrients to give him a healthy start to his day. I have found this smoothie works very well for me during Ramadan, giving me a quick boost of energy at iftar. Almond milk is easy to find these days in most good supermarkets, though make sure you buy the unsweetened kind. If you don’t have almond milk, ordinary milk mixed half and half with water should be ok too. This recipe makes enough for 3 glasses (as shown above).
250ml unsweetened almond milk
1 ripe banana
3 level tablespoons wholegrain rolled oats
2 handfuls of young leaf spinach leaves
3 heaped tablespoons of frozen (or fresh if you like) berries such as blueberries, strawberries and raspberries
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until you get a smooth mixture. Serve immediately.
Yesterday was my son’s school sports day, held in the extensive grounds of Dulwich College. It was a warm, sunny day with temperatures forecast to rise up to 24C. Knowing I would be out all day in the heat, I dressed appropriately: knee length leggings with a light and baggy white coloured tunic, sandals and of course, a hat to protect my head from the sun.
Looking around at the other parents I saw fellow Muslim women wrapped up in thick cloaks from head to toe, many of them all in black. Most of these women would be fasting as it is the month of Ramadan – no food or drink of any kind from sunrise until sunset (though women are exempt from the fast if they are menstruating). The men in these families, those that were in attendance, were dressed far more comfortably in knee length shorts and T-shirts. Watching them I felt the familiar sadness, anger and frustration engulf me.
The stricture for women to wear clothes that cover their entire body and a headscarf or hijab is so embedded in current Muslim orthodoxy that to question this is to be a heretical rebel. I have held my tongue for a long time but today I am going to stick my neck out and say the unsayable. This dress code is wrong, has no real basis in the religion, and is a manifestation of the patriarchal nature of Muslim society today that empowers men and subjugates women. There, I’ve said it!
What irks me the most is the way women are singled out for this burdensome dress code and not men. I would like to see men out and about everyday covered from head to toe (and in black if you please) and see how long they would last under such strictures. If this kind of all encompassing modesty is to be enforced, then let it be enforced on everyone, not just women. I bet within a week or even a day of the universal enforcement of this dress code, men would be up in arms about it, complaining about how uncomfortable and impractical it is.
Men and women are equal in front of God. This much is clear to me. There are differences between us of course. No one can deny that men are in general physically stronger and that women are the ones who carry babies in their tummies, and go on to nurture their children. There are always going to be exceptions to these norms. Some women can be physically stronger than some men, and some women have no empathy with children while some men are caring and nurturing. We may choose to have different roles in our society but we are all equal before God.
In the matter of sexual attractiveness and sexual desire, men and women are equal. I don’t believe the lie that says men are more governed by sexual desire than women and that we consequently have a duty not to tempt them into sin. A muscled man in swimming shorts can turn women weak at the knees in much the same way that a woman in a bikini does so to men. Desires are equal on both sides so it does not make sense that one gender is singled out for modest attire and not the other. The logical conclusion is inescapable: women are told to cover up in order to allow men to have control over them.
Now I have many good female friends and family members who I love and respect and who adhere to the dogma of hijab. Many of them, I’m sure, would argue that they wear the hijab out of their own free will and that it empowers them. I respectfully disagree. The orthodoxy of hijab is so embedded into Muslim society that to go against it is to attract undue attention. For many women, to wear the hijab or not is no longer a choice. It is expected of them in the same way as we do not eat pork and fast during Ramadan. It is a non-negotiable pillar of the religion. There is no opt out, particularly if you come from a religiously conservative family. In these circumstances, women accept the status quo and convince themselves that they are truly doing God’s will.
When I was a young teenager I noticed something strange happening around me. Women I had known all my life were all of a sudden putting on a headscarf in the presence of men. I have photos of many of these women coming to visit us in Geneva and London in the 1970s, all of them bare-headed, not a headscarf in sight. I look through photos of my parents’ wedding in Damascus circa 1966. The only woman in the whole series of photos wearing a headscarf is my old and infirm great grandmother. Everyone else is wearing typical knee-length dresses of the sixties, carefully curled hair, lots of eyeliner and mascara. Yet should we fast forward to a wedding being held today, you can be sure that at least three quarters of the women would be veiled.
What has changed since then? Have we all suddenly rediscovered our religion and become more pious? I would argue that no, we are not more pious than we were before. The growth of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back to the political climate of the late 1970s. Middle Eastern countries, having discarded Turkish and British imperialist rule, were under autocratic and corrupt regimes often seen as beholden to the Western powers. The nationalist movements of the fifties had failed and political Islam appeared in their stead, whether in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The siege of Makkah in 1979 resulted in a much stricter enforcement of the Islamic code in Saudi Arabia. The 1980s saw the rise of stricter Islamic practices and the greater influence of Wahhabi theology across the Muslim world culminating in the likes of Isis and AlQaeda. These movements did not emerge out of the blue – they are the direct results of the political landscape of the 1970s.
So, there I was, a teenager in the early 1980s, unaware of the political dimension but suddenly noticing a change in the religious climate around me. Everything was strict, programmes on television (in Riyadh, my dad’s last posting in a long diplomatic career) were full of men with long beards telling us not to do this and that, life became all about dogma, the stricter the better. Three decades of this regimen has infected the discourse so much that few people remember what it was like before. Even level headed, sensible people, surrounded by this dogma in every aspect of their lives have been unable to resist its influence on their thinking. It’s like a virus has taken hold of the Muslim world. We must shake it off with a good dose of antibiotics.
The younger me, uneasy at these changes around me, asked my Arabic teacher to show me the Koranic phrases that tell women to wear a hijab. If God wanted me to make this sacrifice, then I would do it. First, I wanted to see the evidence. The relevant texts were given to me and my first reaction was puzzlement: was I to make such a fundamental sacrifice on this spurious evidence? As far as I could see, the text was telling women to cover up their cleavages and not to shake their ankle chains to attract men’s attention. Not a single mention of covering hair. I went home to my father and asked him for guidance. Brought up in Medina, the second most important city of Islam, my father’s knowledge of Islam was deep and extensive. “Do women need to wear a headscarf?”, I asked him. No, he said, this is just a cultural thing that has nothing to do with the religion. Thank you Dad, for showing me the way. I just wish more Muslim women had dads like mine.
I have lived in the UK for many years. Since I was seven years old to be precise. I did take two years off to try living in my native Saudi Arabia but that didn’t work out and I came straight back to London. This multicultural melting pot is my home. I know its streets, its underground stations, its parks, its theatres and museums. I feel comfortable here because I know this city and I feel like I belong. Just the other day, however, I was reminded that no matter how integrated I think I am, there are some parts of the English way of life that I still don’t get.
The A word
By which I mean alcohol. Having been raised in a Muslim household I never encountered alcohol until I was at university. At which point curiosity made me try it. I found it tasted rather vile and the effect it had on people around me was off putting. I remember going on a date and my chivalrous beau insisting on buying me a beer. We were at a university union gig and I gamely tried to sip the noxious drink. It was hard work. When an opportunity presented itself I disposed of the contents into a bin. In my efforts to blend in I tried switching to cider, which had less of a bitter taste, and managed for a while to sip slowly at half pints. But even that experiment went sour as I found my system could not tolerate the stuff. I have a memory of nauseously making my excuses and hailing a taxi, rushing up to my university flat and being horribly sick. It seemed alcohol and I would never be friends.
Over the years, I have had a few more drinks here and there. A sip of champagne at a wedding or trying an expensive wine in a fancy restaurant. I can see that alcohol matters to a lot of people, a lot of nice sensible people, and that for many the taste of a fine wine is second to none. I get that, sort of. I can understand it on an intellectual level but at the gut level of experience I can’t. If I want to quench my thirst I crave water. If I want to refresh my palate, juice or a herbal tea will do very nicely. If I want to relax and feel happy, a slice of cake will ease my tension. A glass of cold milk after eating a bar of chocolate is magical. At no time, except perhaps in social gatherings where I want blend in, would I dream of drinking anything alcoholic. There’s just no pleasure in it for me.
Fine I hear you say. We live in a free society and if you don’t want to drink you don’t have to. That’s true and my bubble of domesticity means I rarely find myself in a pub or other situations where alcohol is to be found. And yet… Socialising as I do with neighbours and friends, I often find that the drinking way of life is interspersed into everyday jargon. Whether it’s some Facebook post saying “hurrah time for drinks” on a Friday afternoon or some frazzled mum saying “I could do with a glass of wine”, it all goes to highlight a culture that I am not part of.
Just the other day I finished reading a chick lit novel that I had picked up at a train station waiting room. It was the usual bog standard relationships yarn with a romantic story line. Reading it, I was struck by just how often the hero and heroine had alcoholic drinks. On their first “get together” they down a bottle of southern comfort while nattering away late into the night. The heroine has lunch with her agent and is so nervous that she gulps down one glass of wine after another and ends up making a fool of herself. Every other scene involves them drinking a beer, particularly at times of stress and tension where they seem to down pint after pint. Putting down the book I pondered this alcoholic culture in Britain. The recent death of Charles Kennedy, probably due to alcoholism, has also put this in mind. Hey Britain. Why do you love alcohol so much?
Those pesky animals
There is one other defining British characteristic which I find hard to relate to. I speak of their love of animals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike animals. I can enjoy nature programmes and stroke a cat (though must wash hands straight after). I wouldn’t wish any harm on animals (except mosquitoes and slugs) but I don’t feel any need to have a pet in my house. Dodging the dog poo on our walk to school is a daily inconvenience. However, I don’t find it bizarre that other people do have pets. What I find strange and incomprehensible is the way animals are imbued with human characteristics and people seem to love them as well if not better than human beings. Somehow, animals are seen as more noble than us humans. The other day, our local Facebook blog had a post about foxes and I was surprised by how many people said they felt sorry for them and gave them food. No wonder we are overrun with them!
At the end of the day these are minor quibbles. I love this country and I don’t think I would ever live anywhere else. There is no doubt though that I still do feel an outsider at times. Perhaps that is a good thing. It allows me to be true to myself rather than be part of the crowd. It makes for a more interesting life.
Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.
Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.
I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.
So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!
Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.
We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.
We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!
We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.
The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?
Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.