30 things every woman should have and should know by the time she’s 30

I don’t know what it is about lists, but I’m forever making them and always tempted to read them. So around the time of my 28th birthday earlier this month, it seemed timely that I came across a list of things every woman should have and know before she turns 30.

Published originally by Glamour magazine in 1997, this year it was published in the form of essays wherein each of the original 30 items was expanded upon by different writers.

In the introductory chapter, Pamela Satran -the author of the original list- talks about how she almost missed her own surprise birthday party thinking turning 30 was no reason to celebrate, added to the fact that she was an exhausted new mother and grappling with grief following her own mother’s death.

However after her husband gave away the surprise and begged her to come to the restaurant where all her friends were waiting for her, she had a great time and realised that she was the same person she was at 9 or 15 or 28 or later will be at 39 or 44. But what she also realised was that there was a shift for her. She writes,

“for many of us there is a sense, whether it’s justified or absurd, that throughout your twenties you are becoming someone and something that, once you turn thirty, you simply are“.

Of course a list published by Glamour telling women 30 arbitrary things didn’t really promise to be thought provoking soul searching literature. But while some items on the list are just plain fluff such as “a purse, a suitcase and an umbrella you’re not ashamed to be seen carrying”, some do have underlying value to them.

For example, no. 8 on the list of things to have is “an email address, a voice mailbox, and a bank account- all of which nobody has access to but you”. This to me points to the importance of having privacy and being independent, both as an attitude but also financially. We women tend to share and give too much of ourselves in our relationships, so it is a good reminder that some things should be just for ourselves, even if it is reclaiming a day of the week or an hour in the day as ‘me time’.

To give another example, no. 3 on the list of things you should know states “how to quit a job, break up with a man, and confront a friend without ruining the friendship.” To me this underscores the importance of good communication rather than being literally about quitting jobs, breakups or confrontations.

My teens and early 20s were marked by numerous socially awkward encounters. I would beat myself up for days about something ridiculous I had said to someone (or at least what I considered to be mortifying). These awkward conversations would then shape those relationships for years to come and I would just not be able to get over them. As I’m getting older, my communication skills are getting better, but more importantly when I do make a faux pas or say something embarrassing, I am able to laugh at myself, sometimes even on the spot, and move on. In cases where I do dwell on something, the after effects don’t last forever.

When I bought the book, I was seduced by the idea that each of these arbitrary items on the list would be turned into something meaningful by people like Katie Couric, Bobbi Brown and Maya Angelou (and others whose names I didn’t recognise given my limited knowledge of American pop culture). At any rate these were all successful inspirational women who must have something to say that I could learn from. However, while there were snippets here and there that were touching, inspiring or funny, most of the writing was very superficial and rhetorical, only touching upon an idea or story rather than really delving into it. Sometimes even the transition from one thought or paragraph to another seemed abrupt, so that the essays seemed like they were synopses of larger pieces rather than being complete pieces in their own right.

Even Maya Angelou’s piece, which I was looking forward to, was no more than a reading list and a list of random objects to possess. These included things like “an elegant robe to wear when one has company staying over” and a silver tea serving set and a silver coffee serving set, which you would expect a 84 year old woman to come up with.

Personally I could live without these, especially given the next item on her list: “with all this silver, you should always have silver polish on hand. When a silver set is polished and shining, it tells a woman that she is worthy of the best because she is the best.” Ahem. I can imagine how having a really beautiful tea set (perhaps vintage china in a very delicate design) would make you feel very grownup and ladylike, for the moment I’m happy with my polka dotted and striped mugs. I do own one white tea pot to brew green tea in though. Perhaps that is enough of a concession to domesticated womanhood?

I will share with you Maya Angelou’s book list though, some of which I plan to read:

1. Sula by Toni Morrison
2. The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
3. Poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay
4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
5. The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
6. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
7. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
8. The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
9. The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
10. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende


Preparing for Ramadan!

Not having fasted for the last two years because of pregnancy and nursing, I have to admit I was nervous about fasting this year. For one, the fasts will be incredibly long. Sunrise to sunset (roughly from 3am to 9pm) would be 18 hours. My second concern was not having properly participated in Ramadan for the last two years, I may have lost my ‘Ramadan spirit’.

So in search of some motivation and inspiration, this Friday I attended an event in London called ‘Your Best Ramadan Yet’ organised by City Circle. The event featured a talk by Shaikh Haytham Tamim of Uttruj Foundation, followed by practical fasting and health related advice by two medical doctors.

While for some the talk may have lacked the ‘wow’ factor, I got from it exactly what I was looking for.

The main point which the Shaikh drilled into the audience was about the purpose of fasting. Why do we fast? According to him, the abstention from our desires is a prerequisite to connecting with our spirituality. Or in other words, it is only when we silence the constant ‘I want this, I need that’ that we can connect with God.

This is the shared link between salah (prayer), haj and fasting. Through all these acts of worship, we try to create a space for ourselves (physically and mentally), where we can take refuge from the onslaught of our desires, the constant consumerism and media messaging telling us to indulge ourselves in this and that. Although this may sound like an obvious point but a lot of us forget this during our ritual prayers and while fasting. Ramadan is about the victory of the spiritual self over the material one, ultimately restoring the balance between the two.

Inspired by the talk, I vowed to keep my ‘wants’ in check, whether these are for buying things, cravings for junk food or never being satisfied with anything in life. Instead of always wanting and whining, I want to create sabr (patience) and contentment. In trying to live this ideal, I’m finding out how difficult it is.  Take a very small example: I decided to gradually cut down my calorie intake in the lead up to Ramadan. I’m ashamed to report that one day spent at the mall was enough to throw all my good intentions out the window. But I’ll persevere.

Another point raised during the talk which I really appreciated was that we should never forget the power of the mind and how resilient our bodies are. A lot of us have been grumbling about how difficult this coming Ramadan would be. But we forget that if we enter something with a negative perception and anticipation, we will most likely find the experience to be negative. However, if we create a positive mindset and send positive signals to our body, we may radically shift our experience. Positive thinking- feeling hopeful and excited about something- goes a long way in shaping our actual experience.

Finally, being a woman and a mother I also appreciated the acknowledgment on the part of the speaker that sometimes (especially in traditional families and cultures) Ramadan for women amounts to preparing and cooking food all day and clearing up at night while the men go for taraweeh prayers. We really need to take our focus away from this attitude of ‘feasting’ at iftaars and also share the responsibilities with women. He went so far as to say that during the last ten days of Ramadan (considered to be a special time of quiet reflection and prayer) women should not cook at all and families should have take aways. He may have been exaggerating his stance just to drive home the point that women should also focus on their spirituality.

The challenge for me to is to find quiet time for myself when my whole day is consumed with childcare responsibilities and in keeping my super curious 16 month old entertained and out of trouble. The only quiet time I have is the two hours of his nap during the afternoon. Generally I spend this time in mindless pursuits like facebooking and watching tv, or doing essential stuff like cooking or showering. I tend to shy away from any activity that may require me to use my grey cells. I realise that this is an excuse to be lazy.

I hope in Ramadan I can counter this attitude that ‘my day is not mine’ and take control of my time. Instead of forcing my baby to fit into my routine or being totally driven by his, I need to find a balance. For example, while he may not allow me to use my laptop (he wants it himself), I could listen to audiobooks or recitation of the Quran in the background while I perform other tasks. If you have any advice or tips to share with me on how I can achieve this balance, please do share!

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!



Is Sheryl Sandberg really an inspiration for working mothers?

Earlier last month Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, admitted that she’s been leaving work at 5:30pm to be able to have dinner with her kids. While she’s been doing this for many years, it is only in the last two years that she felt comfortable about admitting it publicly.

The fact that this admission made headlines brings to light the huge hidden costs and informal penalties associated with choosing flexible hours, even if they are on your company’s official books. Sandberg was widely lauded for making this public admission, but it must be noted that she only did so at a stage in her career where she may be considered ‘unpenalisable’.

Sandberg has made it her mission to support women. She frequently gives speeches about promoting female leaders and what women must do to take responsibility for their own careers.

In her iconic speech at TEDWomen in 2010 titled Why we have too few women leaders’, viewed over 1.3 million times, she suggests three things that women must do to make it to the top. First, they must ‘sit at the table’ in the literal but also the figurative sense: Very often women stay on the sidelines and are not as proactive in seeking opportunities or negotiating their careers as their male counterparts. Next she asks women to choose partners in life who will support them in not only their career choices but will also split housework and childcare responsibilities. And finally, Sandberg argues that women stop playing the game way too early, sometimes when they’re even just trying for a baby. They need to keep their ‘foot on the gas pedal’ until it is truly and finally time to leave.

In this talk, while she admits there are institutional and external barriers that women face, she only wants to focus on what women can do themselves. This has been Sandberg’s unwavering stance at other forums as well and is summed up well in what she said in her Commencement Speech at Barnard College last year,

Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal.

As such, Sandberg proposes what some have called “a private solution to a public problem”. Her efforts seem to be targeted to a certain elite group, or dare I say class, of women.

Sandberg’s uplifting and inspiring speeches have touched the hearts of many women. She herself is a living testament to the merits of her advice: If you’re determined, ambitious and don’t give up, you can make it to the top.

However, we have to acknowledge that other factors of a woman’s circumstances also come into play than just her attitude. Women from disadvantaged backgrounds, working low-income jobs, or from ethnic minorities are given less chances and opportunities in life. Or stated in the language of Sandberg’s TED talk; they are never presented with a table to sit at; they have less choice in the matter of choosing a partner who will enter into 50-50 household and childcare responsibilities (or like Sandberg, be able to afford a full-time nanny); and less choice of when, or even if, to leave their jobs.

Given women’s differing circumstances, a change in attitude or behaviour can be quite inspirational for some women, but it may not be enough for others. It only addresses one side of the problem by not taking into account systemic reasons and structural causes for women’s career struggles.

Factors such as legally instituted paid maternity and family leave, childcare support, provisions for breastfeeding at the workplace and health insurance cover are vitally important to support women, especially mothers, in their careers.

By not addressing these external factors, Sandberg puts the onus of responsibility on the women themselves. Women can continue to play the game as hard as they can, but they won’t be able to overcome what Sandberg calls a ‘stalled revolution’ until the playing field is levelled.

Structural and institutional factors determine the ‘choices’ women can make in their lives. For example, take the issue of maternity or family leave. The United States is one of the few developed countries where workers are not guaranteed paid family leave, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Failing its families: Lack of paid leave and work-family supports in the US”. HRW noted,

“Having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunisations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers”.

In admitting that there is no such thing as a work-life balance for working mothers, Sandberg famously said that she used to pump breast milk while on conference calls at Google. While this admission shows that things are not easy when you’re juggling a high-powered career with family life, the fact that she was able to do so was a privilege and not a legally guaranteed right that other women in her country could also take advantage of.

Compare this to a low-income worker in the US who was interviewed by the Human Rights Watch in relation to their above-mentioned report. This woman was denied a place to pump breast milk for her baby when she returned to work after a six-week unpaid maternity leave. She had been mistreated by her employer during her pregnancy, did not have any health insurance and was later even denied time off for medical appointments for her sick baby. It is no surprise then that she suffered from acute postpartum depression. Would it have made a difference in her circumstances if this woman had taken on Sandberg’s 3-pronged career advice?

Sandberg is right about the fact that individual attitudes and choices are vitally important to help women succeed in their careers. Unfortunately they are not enough. These must be accompanied by societal changes, policies and laws that support women in the workplace, especially those who are less privileged.

Sheryl Sandberg has inspired countless women to seek ‘real equality in the workforce’. Frequently listed as one of the most powerful women in the world, Sandberg has the massive success and public leverage combined with her charming personality to achieve incredible advancements for women.

If she truly wants to see women leaders at the top, she must concern herself with women who are at the bottom.

This article was first published in the Express Tribune on 12 May 2012. You can find it here.

“Foreign Minister, your scarf has slipped off your head”

On her show aired yesterday on CNN, Christiane Amanpour suddenly stopped in the midddle of posing hard hitting questions to the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and informed her that her scarf had slipped off.

Yes, you heard me right: sandwiched in between questions about Osama Bin Laden and Pakistan’s relations with India, Amanpour found it perfectly natural to make this interjection.

Here is the relevant section from the transcript of that interview:

AMANPOUR: I just want to let you know that your scarf has slipped off your head. If you — if you care, you can put it back on right now. Otherwise, I can continue.

KHAR: Sure. Please continue.

AMANPOUR: OK. Perfect.

I was so shocked and enraged at this inappropriate and impertinent interruption that I found it hard to focus on the interview from then on. I have to wonder as to what was going on in Amanpour’s head when she said this.

– Did she think the Foreign Minister was sinning and perhaps she wanted to set a believer straight?

– Was she just being courteous to her guest, along the lines of “hey chica, just to let you know you’re flashing some cleavage there. Better fix it!”.

– Or was she scared for her guest’s life thinking some mullah in Pakistan will kill Khar for *gasp* showing off her hair?

You expect more awareness from a seasoned journalist like Amanpour. Or perhaps she was trying to be a bit too culturally aware. But anyone who has seen any pictures of Hina Rabbani Khar knows that she wears her scarf symbolically as part of her political persona (I don’t have any issues with that). Sometimes it does slip off and she fixes it without being too bothered by it. No one has ever thought it was such an issue before. And even if it weren’t symbolic and it, horror of horrors, briefly slipped off- why make such a fuss about it?

Would Amanpour have stopped the Ugandan President (who was the guest before Khar) to inform him if, let’s say, his spectacles had slipped off his nose? “Mr. President, I want to let you know that your glasses have slipped off your nose. If you care, you can put them back on right now. Otherwise, I can continue.”

President: Of course Christiane! Thank you for letting me know. How else could I  have answered such important questions about foreign policy if my glasses had not been securely fixed to my nose!

I have to give it to Hina Rabbani Khar though. For the briefest second she seemed confused or amused by this interruption, but after fixing her scarf, she continued to answer questions with a lot of poise and presence of mind.

Desperate in Dubai

I just finished reading Desperate in Dubai by an author who goes by the pen name Ameera al Hakawati. The book was first written as a blog (which I never saw but was apparently very popular in Dubai). The book was a bit trashy but throughly entertaining. TimeOut India’s description of it as “Dubai’s answer to Desperate Housewives” is an apt description.

The story revolves around the lives of four women in Dubai. Lady Luxe, a young local Emirati girl belonging to one of the most elite families in Dubai. However, despite her privileged life, she is unhappy and leading a double existence. Donning an expensive wig and blue contact lenses she indulges in Dubai’s nightlife and men, exploring every possible avenue forbidden to her by her culture and religion. She is living in constant fear of being discovered and the disastrous consequences that would surely ensue. She is reminded of cousins who simply “disappeared” having dishonoured their families, yet she can’t give up her “freedom” which makes her feel in control of her own life.

Next we meet her friend Leila, a thirty-something Lebanese bombshell who pretends to be in her twenties. Having lost her naivete years ago and left with a broken heart, her one mission in life is to marry a rich man. A decade, countless men and heartbreaks later, she is still single and getting more desperate to prove to her family that her decision all those years ago to defy them and move to Dubai was not in vain.

Nadia is a British of mixed Moroccan and Algerian descent who marries a convert Daniel in London and moves to Dubai with her husband. However, soon after he starts cheating on her and she is left a shell of her previous self with her life falling apart in a strange land with no friends or family. However once she is able to snap out of her self-pity, it is replaced with a desire for revenge and we know that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Wracked by loneliness and heartache, Nadia connects with her sister’s old friend from London, Sugar, who has also recently moved to Dubai. Haunted by demons from her past, she is desperately trying to build a new life for herself. She meets a handsome, intelligent and caring man who rekindles love and hope in her heart, but her past is not letting her move into her present.

Having lived in Abu Dhabi (Dubai’s more boring sister state) for a number of years and visited Dubai numerous times (most recently last year), the book seemed very familiar. I could relate to the cultural references, understand the mindsets described and got excited because I could imagine the scenes described whether it was references to Jumeirah Beach Resort (JBR), Burj al Arab or the numerous malls dotting the city. The other location which almost all characters shared was London and there too the descriptions seemed familiar and I could imagine the characters’ lives whether it was walking through Hyde Park, getting on crowded tubes or living on a council housing estate.

With dramatic  twists and turns, sometimes humourous and sometimes horrifying, the lives of all the ‘desperates’ get woven together and the plot moves forward at a fast pace. At times shocking, other times cliched and sometimes over-the-top, Desperate in Dubai is nevertheless a page turner and an entertaining read.

High Heel Envy

I pose to you a very simple question, yet which has perplexed me for a long time: How do women walk in high heels?

I see them rushing to work at the tube stations in them. I see them standing for hours at parties in them. And now to make all of us mere mortals feel even more incompetent, apparently they even carry around babies in 7 inch heels!


I remember rushing for a presentation in uni and was almost in tears after my 15 minutes’ walk. Another time I ended up walking barefoot in the supermarket when I couldn’t take the pain any more (the supermarket was a detour on the way to a restaurant, in case you think I wear heels for grocery shopping). And it doesn’t matter what brand I buy. They all KILL my feet. Sometimes I think I need to woman up and bear the pain, but really there’s too much other pain to bear as it is. So yeah I think I’ll pass on this.

I reserve heel wearing to the most formal of occasions: weddings, parties and celebratory dinners. But I love heels and hence, envy all women who carry them off so effortlessly.

These days my eyes are set on these gorgeous nude patent leather platforms. It seems like nude is the new black: it’s super versatile and goes with almost anything.


Ok I have to admit: it was after seeing Kate Middleton’s Canada tour pics that I fell in love with them. No surprise that LK Bennett’s website says they are no longer in stock.


Seeing Victoria Beckam tottering about in 7 inch Christian Louboutin nude platforms while carrying her baby sort of ruined it for me (sour grapes?).


So I’ve decided to settle for the next best thing: tan moccasins. Just a slight substitute.


shaadi joras, never-been-worn

I was trying to sort out my wardrobe today. MOST of the shelf space had been taken up by all the fancy shaadi joras (outfits for the ‘bridal trousseau’) I got made 2 years ago. What’s really sad is that I realized there are some I’ve not even worn once yet in these 2 years! Now I’ve moved most of these clothes from my closet downstairs onto a hanging rack in the garage or packed them away with mothballs.

I wonder why we put in so much time and effort into making these fancy outfits that we hardly ever get the chance to wear and then they go out of fashion in a year or so any way?

For girls who are living in Pakistan I understand there are a lot of occasions to wear the outfits such as big family dinners and get-togethers, weddings and even birthdays, but for those of us who live abroad, we hardly even get the chance to wear shalwar kameez, let alone fancy ones.

In my defense, I must say that I tried my best to keep these outfits to a minimum, but being the eldest daughter there was still a tendency for my family to get a bit carried away. My in laws got a lot of outfits made for me as well, even though they were trying their best not to go overboard knowing I was moving to England. I guess there is an element of tradition and saving face. Although nobody asks any more how many outfits you got made (traditionally I think there was a set number and girls came with trunks full of clothes, shoes, jewellery, bedding and what-not), but still there is an element of having at least a few really fancy ones and a few semi-formal ones that everyone is aiming for.

There’s no point to this post, it’s a bit of a lament really. But if there are girls getting married and moving abroad, please don’t go overboard with the joras. Be practical. It’s quite a shame to see them after years still sitting in your closet never been worn.

Vote for BLISS!

Something must have really moved or inspired me to come out of my blog-writing hibernation. A friend of mine shared an email about an amazing initiative BLISS started by a young Pakistani woman, Saba Gul, that aims to get working girls back into school. Reading about Saba’s project and the innovative ways in which she’s promoting it has really inspired me as I also share the dream of starting something of my own that makes a difference to people’s lives.

Saba (middle) with two talented girls whose handiwork has been converted into beautiful handbags to be sold in the market

BLISS is running a pilot in Attock with 25 Afghan refugee girls who were previously forced to work for up to 14 hours a day at carpet looms to economically support their families. BLISS enables these girls to attend school while gaining important income-generating skills, such as embroidery lessons, and earning a daily wage at the same time. Their handiwork is then professionally converted into trendy handbags that will be sold on the market. This approach encapsulates the BLISS mantra of “Education. Entrepreneurship. Empowerment”.  BLISS will launch its first range of 60 handbags in March 2011.

Girls attending school

Saba started the initiative while she was working in the US, where she graduated from MIT in Computer Science and Economics. Her project has already gained recognition in the US through various competitions and was recently invited by Secretary Hillary Clinton to a US State Department iftaar dinner. She is now moving to Pakistan to work full time on her dream project and make BLISS into a sustainable and viable social enterprise. That’s real commitment!

Saba’s project has been selected as 1 of 45 finalists from all over the world by the Unreasonable Institute for a competition. The winners of the competition will get a chance to attend a 6-week program to take their initiatives to the next level through rigorous skills training, guidance from expert mentors, access to seed capital and a chance to pitch to investors in Silicon Valley. The 25 lucky winners are chosen by popular voting. Here’s the catch though: in order to vote for an entrepreneur, you have to put your money where your mouth is and donate a very small amount towards their initiative. In fact the maximum donation allowed is only $10. So in fact at least 800 people would have to sponsor your project in the quickest possible time in order for it to win, demonstrating it’s popular appeal.

Take out a few minutes of your time and vote for this truly innovative and inspiring initiative!

Me and the Mosque

turkey mosque
The beautiful Sakirin mosque in Istanbul built by a female designer, Zeynep Fadillioglu, who made sure the women had equal access to the space and facilities.

There are some things that just stick in your memory and form a part of your subconscious– almost a lens through which you view the world, having forgotten when or even if you had put it on.

This past Friday, I became conscious of one such lens that I carry around with me when I went to Wembley mosque after a long time. I felt like I didn’t gain much from my prayer because of the cramped space and less-than-perfect shape the women’s room and outer courtyard was in (I haven’t seen the men’s side, so I have no idea what it’s like). If it had just been the superficialities of it, I might have been more compromising and understanding, but for me it struck a deeper nerve. It reminded me of all the times I’ve gone to a mosque and been unhappy with the facilities provided to women. So much so that sometimes I’m overly critical even when the facilities for men are just as bad (as Asim attests is the case at Wembley mosque. Or in other words, “it’s nothing personal against women, don’t be so over-sensitive”). Wembley mosque is tiny and insufficient for the number of people who come to pray. I was standing outside and entirely missed the khutbah in just trying to figure out whether I should wait outside or go in or wait for the next prayer that would be in 20 minutes.

It’s hard for me to articulate all the things that annoyed me but for a start let me recount my experience of ‘brothers’ at mosques. Either they’re overly helpful telling me to “Try to squeeze in, Jazakallah” when I’m waiting outside for the next prayer to start…or they’re not at all helpful; crowding out all the exits in the courtyard because they are more in number. Even though they see a small group of women inching towards the exit, they don’t have the patience to wait and let them cross– knowing well that we can’t or won’t jostle and elbow our way through. I was stubborn (read: dheet and besharam) enough to walk into the throng and loudly exclaim “excuse me” whereby some old gentleman said “let the ladies cross please”, but other than my other big African sisters who followed my example, I doubt many other women would have done that. It’s a small incident, but it put me in a foul mood.

On the way back recounting this to Asim, he thought I was being a bit over critical since the major issue was that of the size of the mosque and the resources available to them rather than sexist attitudes. I wondered why I was never able to let go of this critical stance that I carried with me into mosques and why I was always analyzing the facilities for women rather than just focusing on my prayer. Sometimes I worry I probably get no spiritual benefit of going to a mosque and just get hung up on this aspect.

me and the mosqueThat’s when I remembered a documenary by a Canadian filmmaker called Zarqa Nawaz titled “Me and the Mosque” that I had seen many years ago at McGill. It must have had a very profound influence on me as I still remember it and can’t shake off my quest for women-friendly mosques. The documentary is very well-made and has a light narrative style exploring the place of women in mosques in North America and particularly Canada by focusing on “discussions about the historical role of women in the Islamic faith, the current state of mosques in Canada and personal stories of anger, fear, acceptance and defiance… And Nawaz herself speaks of the spiritual longing that comes from belonging to an institution that doesn’t want you” (National Film Board of Canada). One of the themes that struck me was how generally all over the world the space for women at mosques was not as accommodating as it had been during the time of the Prophet. All these barriers and strict segregation hadn’t been a feature of the Prophet’s mosque.

Seeing this documentary at university, around the same time when Amina Wadud led prayers in America and created a huge furore and controversy, articulated many of the frustrations I would feel going to the mosque and still do. For those who don’t know, Aminda Wadud led a Friday prayer of a mixed congregation of over 100 men and women in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on March 18, 2005, “breaking with the tradition of having only male imams (prayer leaders). Three mosques had refused to host the service and the museum that had agreed to host it pulled out after a bomb threat”, as my wiki search confirms. This event for me was a watershed in terms of my search of women’s place in Islamic leadership, in mosques and beyond, and just generally trying to understand why women couldn’t be imams and what sort of cultural or theological issues were at stake. I must have frustrated my circle of close friends who had to listen to me day in and day out asking and trying to answer the same questions. I think some of them perhaps considered them heretical, but most were quite accepting and we had long and heated debates. I found like-minded friends too who shared my concerns (through my Women’s Studies courses, especially a course called “Women in Judaism and Islam”).

This was the cover of a McGill Daily article featuring a peaceful sit-in the MSA had organized to protest infront of the administration building. I was also there.
This was the cover of a McGill Daily article featuring a peaceful sit-in the MSA had organized to protest infront of the administration building. I was also there.

Ironically for me this was not the best time at McGill to be raising women’s issues at the mosque or prayers, since even the right to pray had been taken away by the university administration. Muslim students on campus had had a prayer space (musallah) for many years from which we were evicted on grounds of secularism and we went on many protests and meetings trying to contest the administration’s stance, to the extent of even lodging a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, to no avail. So when we didn’t even have a space to pray, it was almost besides the point to be arguing over whether women could lead the prayer or whether they should stand beside men or behind them. I just did a quick search and it seems unfortunately the issue has still not been resolved after all these years. Many universities and colleges in Canada provide students with multi-faith prayer rooms, open to everyone not just Muslims, (which is what the McGill MSA had been asking for) but that was not accepted by the McGill administration.

A friend recently wrote an article on the “30 mosques project” that two young men in New York undertook to pray at a different mosque every day of Ramadan. I thought it was such a wonderful idea and yet I couldn’t help but think that if the ‘experiment’ had been carried out by one man and one woman, perhaps their experiences would have been completely different. Or perhaps not, perhaps I’m the only cynic out there. It made me ponder on my own experiences at London’s different mosques this Ramadan. I went for Taraweeh to Harrow mosque (the brand new mosque that was targeted by the BNP demonstrators a few weeks ago) and was again disappointed that even at a mosque of that size, women were again confined to a small narrow strip on the side of the prayer hall. Granted the mosque is under construction and more men than women come for taraweeh prayers, but it was still disappointing. Hopefully once the mosque is complete, it would have a more women-friendly space. One of the mosques, I liked praying at this Ramadan was the East London LMC where we could see the imam from the top balcony while we prayed. Regent’s mosque is really nice as well and while I enjoyed the iftaar and prayer, it’s sometimes too crowded with screaming children galore to highten your spirituality.

In countries like Pakistan, it is very hard to even find mosques that have a space for women. So many of us growing up in the South Asian context, never went to the mosque and were told that women should pray at home. It was only after we went to Umrah or went abroad that we went to the mosque or congregational prayers. So initially having any room or space, no matter how inadequate, seemed like a vast improvement. But over time I realized that it wasn’t enough. Not only did we have a right to access mosques, we also had a right to pray in the main hall or at least have access to the khutba and imam in the same way as men did. I remember seeing photos of mosques in Indonesia (if I remember correctly then the Istiqlal Mosque allows women to pray in the main prayer hall) and wanted more mosques to become women-friendly, whether it meant having childcare centers or allowing women to pray in the main hall or being able to get in touch with the imam easily.

Ideally, I would like men and women to be able to pray in the main hall, segregated but side by side rather than women behind the men. I would also like women to be able to lead prayers and become imams and leaders at mosques. I want mosques to become community centers, being open and inviting to men, women, children and non-Muslims…anyone who wants to go. I love the feeling of community and spirituality one gets in big open spaces where you pray with others. These spaces are hard to find when one is living in the diaspora in a Muslim minority country and ironically exist in Muslim majority countries but not always accessible to women. I wish our community in the UK can reach a point of self-sufficiency of having these spaces where women feel welcome as well.