That Dratted Headscarf!

The hoopla over Michelle Obama’s lack of headscarf during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia has had me sighing yet again. There is hardly a day when I don’t read the newspapers and sigh, shaking my head at this or that. But that’s another story for another day.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is no law or protocol that says non-Muslim female visitors to Saudi Arabia need to wear a headscarf. They should dress modestly out of respect for the customs of the country, so no to short skirts, plunging necklines and sleeveless tops. Most non-Muslim expats go about their daily business in the Kingdom wearing the abaya (a cloak of sorts) but with their heads uncovered. And, shock horror, the expats are not always the only ones without a headscarf. Sometimes it is the Saudi girls themselves going about with heads uncovered and I count myself one of them.

Of course it’s all to do with context. The culture differs from city to city and from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Riyadh and the central region are generally the most conservative parts of the country. Jeddah, in the west of the country, takes a more relaxed approach. You would probably make sure you were all covered up if you were going to government offices or going through immigration at the airport. On the other hand, you might feel comfortable enough without the headscarf going to the supermarket, the shopping malls or simply travelling by car to visit a friend.

For me, the decisive moment came rather symbolically on the first day of the year 2000. I had recently moved back to Saudi Arabia after the death of my parents and had decided to start a business there. I was going about every day wearing the customary uniform of abaya and headscarf but I started to notice a lot of local women putting their headscarf on very loosely and sometimes letting it fall back altogether. The dreaded muttawa (a kind of religious police) were also notable by their absence. I remember being terrified of them in my younger days when my family lived in Riyadh. They were at the height of their powers in the 1980s, harassing women on a daily basis but it seems this power has now been severely curtailed and women are no longer quite so fearful of encountering them when they go out in public. It is very easy for journalists in the west to portray Saudi Arabia as a conservative country clinging to its old customs but things do change there.

Anyway, let’s go back to 1st January 2000. I had stayed up all the previous evening thinking about this glorious new century we were entering and how I would mark its beginning. I started thinking about the dratted headscarf and questioning why I wore it. It was certainly not from religious conviction – it should be obvious by now that I am one of the non-hijab wearing types of Muslims. I concluded there was no compulsion to wear a headscarf, no muttawa to frighten me and that I was just wearing it out of habit. Time to stop this hypocrisy, I thought, and be true to myself. The next morning the headscarf was cast aside, all was fine and I felt happy and free. My sister joined me in Jeddah some time later and she took her cue from me. We went about to shops, restaurants or walks by the seaside with heads uncovered and the country did not die of shock.

Thus you can imagine my loud sighs of annoyance at the twitter storm surrounding the first lady’s omission of the headscarf. There are a lot of Muslims who are in “outrage mode” these days, ready to take offence at the slightest thing. Have they been reading the Daily Mail by any chance? They need to calm down and the western world should not pander to them – there really was no need for a White House official to make a statement about this matter and to defend Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. Ignore the silly twits, I say. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.

Muslims are not the Enemies of the West

The past few weeks since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris have set in motion a maelstrom of debates in the media about free speech, Islam and the integration of Muslims in the western world. The violent attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine have given the green light for many to voice what they may have thought in private but never articulated openly before.

The debate has yielded some insightful writing and discussions in the media but for the most part it has felt more like a free-for-all mob out to have a showdown with Islam, the bogeyman of the free world. Politicians are getting in on the act, writing to Muslim organisations throughout the country asking them to clean up shop and do their bit to stamp out the violent extremism, the implication being that somehow they had been remiss in doing so before.

Let’s get things straight. The gunmen who committed those hateful murders may have proclaimed they were doing it to avenge the prophet Mohammad but in truth these men were no more Muslims than Richard Dawkins is. These men were part of a terrorist organisation with a terrorist agenda which happens to cloak its vicious objectives in Islamic rhetoric.

The Taliban overlords who peddle heroin in order to finance their power struggles, the ISIS leaders who extort vast ransoms through the kidnap of innocent aid workers and slaughter en masse innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, the Boko Haram fighters who butcher entire villages in Nigeria. These are not God-fearing people. These are cynical, ruthless and power hungry men for whom religion is a convenient tool for brainwashing their drones. By all accounts the Paris gunmen weren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. They were drones doing their masters’ bidding whilst parroting the words of their Al Qaeda mentors.

Is the growing power of these pseudo-Islamic terrorist groups a cause for global concern? Absolutely. Let’s not mince our words here. We are at war. The rise of pseudo-Islamic terrorism presents one of the greatest dangers to societies both in the West and in the East. This is not, as is often portrayed, a conflict between East and West, between the Islamic world and the secular/Christian one. It is a conflict between anarchic, power hungry thugs and the rest of us.

The front lines of this war are being fought in Africa and the Middle East – witness the thousands of civilians that have been killed this past year in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and so on – but the global world we live in means no country is totally safe from attack. The terrible massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher grocery store, horrifying as they were, are just another manifestation of this global war. To see them uniquely in terms of an attack on free speech is to miss the point. The cynical masterminds of these various plots are well aware of the impact such attacks on Western soil can have, how they can further marginalise Muslims within society and create fertile ground for recruitment of more “drones”.

So we come to Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in a manner that many people (both Muslims and non-Muslims) found offensive. With a mere readership of 60,000 this publication caused ripples rather than tidal waves. It did not spur imams throughout the country’s mosques to incite their congregation into murderous retaliation. However, for Al Qaeda here was an opportunity to put themselves back into the spotlight again. To whip impressionable men with questionable pasts into a vengeful frenzy was easy enough to do. The calculating minds behind such a plan would surely predict the reaction to such an attack. Yet more cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad, yet more backlash against the Muslim population, yet more impressionable recruits. By publishing this week’s cover with prophet Mohammad wearing a shirt saying “Je suis Charlie”, the magazine played into Al Qaeda’s hands, doing exactly what it wants it to do.

Naturally in the wake of these horrific murders, people were shocked, angry and scared. They wanted to find a way to express these emotions. They wanted to stand up for democracy and free speech. Thus people of all faiths came together on the streets of Paris and other major cities in a show of solidarity against the terrorist extremists. This unity did not last long. The dust had barely settled before questions began to be asked of the Muslim community. Was the religion itself inherently violent? Were Muslims at fault because they failed to prevent radicalism amongst themselves? Are freedom and democracy compatible with Islam?

Pressure like never before has been put on Muslims to denounce these acts of terrorism and to prove that they are not “fifth columnists”. Social media has been inundated with cartoons mocking Muslims and articles showing contempt for their beliefs, particularly focusing on women’s rights or lack of them. Like any religion, there are many shades of Islam. Some women in Islam wear the hijab (veil), some wear the niqab (face cover) and others don’t wear any head cover at all. The starting point for all Muslims is an affirmation of their belief in God and that Mohammad is a messenger of God. Beyond that many differences of opinion emerge. The Koran, the holy book of Muslims, is open to different interpretations but the one clear message it preaches over and over again is to do good, help the poor, be respectful of others, do no harm, and follow the path of truth. It is a powerful message, one that has inspired more than 1.5 billion people worldwide (23% of the world population) to follow this faith.

There is nothing here for the western world to fear and no conflict with its democratic traditions. Muslims do not need to justify their beliefs or apologise for them. It is time to stop pointing the finger of blame at Islam and for all decent people to stand united against a common threat to our peace and prosperity.

Smarties Birthday Cake

IMAG0773I made this chocolate smarties cake for my son’s 6th birthday party and it went down a treat! The cake is chocolatey but not too sweet and ever so easy to make.


  • 60g cocoa
  • 5 eggs
  • 330g light brown sugar
  • 225ml sunflower oil
  • 250g self raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda


Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a rectangular tray bake tin (I used my lasagne pyrex dish which is 23cm x 30 cm).

Whisk the cocoa with 250ml boiling water, making sure to get rid of any lumps. Set aside. In a large bowl whisk together eggs, sugar and oil. Sift in the flour and baking soda, and lastly stir in the cocoa solution. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake  for 45 to 55 minutes, until the centre of the cake is firm to the touch or a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool while you make the icing.

For the icing you will need to gently melt in a saucepan 100g milk chocolate, 35g dark chocolate, 25g unsalted butter and 5 tbs of milk. Stir over a low heat until all the chocolate is melted and smooth. For those who like their icing more chocolatey, reduce the amount of milk chocolate and substitute with dark chocolate.

Once the cake has cooled down, place it on a serving tray and spread the icing on top. Decorate with smarties, 100s and 1000s and for that extra special birthday look, sprinkle some edible gold powder on top.