Monday, 8 December 2014

NOTHING shouts Islam here by Vicky Allen, published in Herald Scotland (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)


There are no hijabs, minarets or prayer mats in Mona Siddiqui's working world. When we meet at Edinburgh University's school of divinity, where she is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies, and search for suitable settings for the photo shoot, we find only heraldic shields, wood-panelling and black and white marble flooring. Nor is there anything that yells "Muslim" about Siddiqui herself. Of course her religion is there, as we sit down for lunch in a nearby restaurant. She doesn't drink alcohol. She eats only halal meat - here, she orders hot smoked trout, pushing aside the anchovies which she doesn't want. But she doesn't wear her faith. Rather she talks it, thinks it, analyses it, examines it, reads it, writes it and lives it.

Islam, she says, is never out of the public focus, and "for all the wrong reasons". "Most people see Islam in terms of conflict," she says. "The only way of talking about it seems to be through the prism of terror." When she speaks at events, many people only want to know about the veil and extremism. Yet most days of her life she thinks about neither. "I'm thinking about other things." Those things are reflected in her new book. Part memoir, part theological contemplation, My Way: A Muslim Woman's Journey, is a very personal book. Intentionally, it is not about politics, but about those issues that preoccupy all of us: "Love, marriage, children."

Siddiqui's conversation is littered with simple, philosophical ponderings, bite-sized thoughts for the day, and reflections on human connections. "The most important thing we do in life," she says, "is cultivate relationships - and that's what keeps us happy and makes us sad."

Her book is rich in such musings, backed up with more complex theology and quotes from culturally diverse figures such as the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jalal al-din Rumi. But it also tells her own life story and that of her parents, who came to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s, with their three daughters, including five-year-old Mona. Although initially unsure if they were leaving Karachi for good, they decided to stay here for their children's education, and became part of the experiment of British multiculturalism.

The book contains colourful descriptions of the family home in Huddersfield, and of Eid, a grand feast her mother always insisted on hosting. "As children and even as young adults," writes Siddiqui, "we just helped out, never quite understanding why we always did the inviting, why we always had to cook so much and why my mother was so insistent that it was bett

er to have guests than be a guest." The Eid feast is a practice she continues with her own family, her husband and three sons. "Otherwise," she explains, "how will the children know what it should be like?"

My Way doesn't shirk the hotly debated politicised issues that revolve around Islam. Siddiqui sets her faith in its historical context, construing the Qu'ran as a text that sees the world through a man's eye, and represents the patriarchal view of its time.

When I raise the issue of the veil, I can sense her sighing inwardly. Islam, she fears, has been reduced to "a dress code". "People," she says, "have stopped talking about so many other things to the detriment of society. There are larger issues: education, gender equality, domestic abuse."

There is a tendency, she notes, to parcel people into categories. "If a woman covers her head that might be considered quite extreme or conservative," she says. "But that girl might be very liberal in other ways." Appearances can be deceiving. In Siddiqui's book, she relates the story of how a Muslim academic told her that some niqab-wearing Muslim women in her university were leading double lives. Many, the woman said, would come into her office asking for the morning after pill.

Siddiqui has never made a habit of donning the veil. Even when she married into her husband's hijab-wearing family and was gifted countless scarves, she declined to wear them. "The family never complained," she recalls. "I didn't do it out of defiance. It just wasn't something that I was interested in." She has occasionally worn a veil out of respect. Aged 18, on to Saudi Arabia where her father was then working, she wore the burqa. In a 2008 radio interview she recalled that, far from finding the garment oppressive, she enjoyed being able to "smirk and laugh and joke about everything underneath that burqa". Back home in Huddersfield, she even wore a long, black mackintosh and head-covering to recapture the "wealth and exotic atmosphere" of the Saudi experience.

Siddiqui, who in 2011 received an OBE for services to inter-faith relations, is perhaps best known as a contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought For The Day, but she is a regular commentator on Islamic issues in other parts of the media - and remains one of the few high-profile female figures in her field.

Although interested in women's rights, Siddiqui does not describe herself as a feminist. She laughs when I mention the word: "Oh gosh, no. I don't like labels. I don't like Muslim labels, I don't like secular labels." Nevertheless, she shares many feminist concerns. "Things like honour killings, forced marriage, or women not being allowed to have a voice, not being allowed to do certain things: these are big issues," she says. "For a lot of women from Islam even just making their voice heard is a big jihad [struggle]. It means they've gone against so many moral codes."

Siddiqui's mother, who grew up in India, probably had "very few freedoms". "But maybe she didn't see it like that. She was a determined woman so whatever culture she grew up in, she made the best of and took it a stage further." She was also strict with her children. Siddiqui wasn't raised with the freedoms many of her school mates had. She wasn't allowed to go to the cinema (except in daytime), or discos. "You just live with it," she says. "I mean you can rebel against it, but that wasn't something I was going to do. I think I was too close to my mother."

Siddiqui and her sisters appear to have adored their mother, who wanted one of her daughters to be a doctor, one a lawyer, and one a lecturer - which is what they became. Siddiqui also knew she would be expected to have an arranged marriage. People are often surprised that she and her accountant husband were matched in this way. "They can't quite link who I am now with the fact I had an arranged marriage. People have perceptions about what it is - that it's something quite narrow and limiting. But I always say it doesn't matter how you marry, it's what you do after you marry."

It seems to have worked very well for Siddiqui and her husband Farhaj, who have been married more than 20 years. The match was arranged through family friends. She recalls feeling, when they met: "This man will make my life comfortable and I will enjoy my life." On marrying, she moved to Scotland to live with him. "When we married, I felt relief. I was with somebody who understood me. He was almost like a husband and a friend rolled into one."

They were "on the same page quite a lot". They wanted, for instance, to be the primary carers of their children, and not rely on extended family for childcare - instead, using nurseries. They didn't want to find themselves living in different cities because of work. What's striking about Siddiqui's description of their life together, is that their arranged marriage seems the quintessence of a modern relationship. They both work. She does more of the domestic chores, but in the juggling act of nursery, school runs, conferences, time away from home there has been a real sense of shared parenting.

Her sons are now 13, 18 and 20. She does not plan to arrange marriages for them. "I say to them," she says, "if you can find somebody you feel you can make a life with, then just let me know." She has, she says, given them more freedoms than she and her siblings enjoyed. Would it be different if her children had been girls. "Yes. I would have been more conservative."

One of the big cultural decisions she made was to speak Urdu at home. "If you don't know the language you've lost a sense of something." Like her parents, she wants to give her children the best of her background. For her mother and father that meant the best of "the real culture of the subcontinent": not its food and dress, but its "literature, culture, music, thinking". Knowledge was what mattered to them. Her father, a consultant psychiatrist, was a "very well-read man" - and her mother was an avid reader. They made regular trips to Bradford, where they would rake through the Urdu bookshops.

In the book, Siddiqui writes movingly of the loss of her mother. She was in her 30s, had just started a job at the University of Glasgow and was occupied with bringing up her own young family, when her mother was struck by a sudden brain haemorrhage. "It took almost four years before I could wake up in the morning and not feel a faint ache at the front of my head reminding me that she was no longer alive," she recalls. Two years later, her father, who had been already affected by a stroke, also died. He had "sobbed loudly" on the death of his wife. She speaks very inspiringly about these two people, who bonded in the risk they had taken together in starting a new life away from their homeland.

On a visit to Delhi for a family wedding, Siddiqui was struck by the "emotional and physical challenge of how families and couples lived in close proximity, often in the same house". She found the intensity and lack of privacy unappealing. She was also shocked by the living conditions in her father's home village: no running water, no real electricity, hardly any furniture. "I couldn't quite picture him growing up with so little," she writes in her book.

That sense of family and community, deeply enmeshed, is not something she has fostered in her own life. The intensities of juggling work and family life seem to have left little place for "the community". Yet, she seems to perceive this connectedness as something we are losing all the way across society. "We only want to do things in our own little environment. Is that what's leading to so many communities breaking down? Where is the happy compromise? The being part of something bigger while keeping your own space and independence."

She quotes frequently from The Culture Of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, which describes how "there are more and more single people doing things for our own satisfaction but ultimately feeling less fulfilled". In a recent piece on extremism she theorised that emotional unfulfilment, rather than politics, might lie at the heart of why some are attracted to extremist violence.

My Way is just one small tale in the wider story of British multiculturalism. Siddiqui believes it is the job of minority immigrants, not the host communities, to make it work. Yet she also appears slightly despondent about the possibilities of diverse groups living side by side "meaningfully". "In terms of issues like intermarriage," she says, "there are communities where there is very little movement". Who you are happy for your children to marry, she says, is a true test of how liberal you are. But even she fails a little on this. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want them to marry within their faith. And that's partly because I know marriage has enough hurdles without adding extra hurdles."

Talking to Mona Siddiqui is a comforting break from the daily media assault of stories about violence and Islamic extremism; a reminder that there remains a strong, liberal strand to British Islam. Who is listening to her? It turns out Siddiqui is well aware of her audience. Whether at conferences, or musing on the radio, she is not, for the most part, playing to Muslims (she has only been invited a Muslim-only conference three times in her life). Rather, she says, she is talking to "white, fairly secular people".

People like me. We, it turns out, are the ones who like her message.

My Way: A Muslim Woman's Journey by Mona Siddiqui is published by IB Tauris