Anxious men in the passenger seat

wife driving

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/anxious-men-in-the-passenger-seat-1.1871220

There are certain things you remember about your childhood that were an integral part of growing up. For me, one such thing was that funny little tomato-red Daihatsu Charade that we once owned. The car was a 1985 model that Dad had purchased refurbished, which meant we became its owners some 10 years after it was born.

It made funny noises when you drove it (stick-shift) and the trunk closed with an earth-shattering jolt. Pulling the windows up and down was good exercise for the biceps and if you got lucky, the air conditioner would sometimes work. This strange object, however, came in handy when I wanted to learn to drive.

After a few lessons of the basics, I decided to take my parents out for a ride. Bad idea, I know. Dad was a bundle of nerves as I took the car outside the gate, and he covered his face with his hands. A car sped along in the opposite direction and he jumped. “Can’t you see that car?” he said frantically. “We are on the other side Papa, please relax,” I told him.

Mum murmured in agreement from the back seat. Dad ground his teeth. I tried to laugh valiantly but found this first ride with him distinctly confidence-draining as I tried to reassure him that everything would be fine.

We were driving along the main road happily and I could sense him relaxing just a tiny bit. It was almost as though he had resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn’t look up much and we would all make it home in one piece. I was pleased that he wasn’t quite as excited as before and things started to get a little more pleasant. We finally turned home and as everything had gone well without any trouble whatsoever, I decided this was my time to speak. “Well, I’m quite okay driving, aren’t I? Look at you guys, you don’t trust me at all!”

Dad almost looked sorry and he was about to say something, but I’ll never know what it was because at that precise moment I banged the rear of the car while reversing into our unopened front gate, which I had presumed was open. Typical. Dad felt vindicated and the “I told you so” lecture that followed was positively grating. Fast forward a few years and I drive every day, sometimes for long distances. It has become second nature. I would even say that I enjoy it (minus the traffic, of course) and ferrying the girls around town is part of my job description. Yet, my husband recoils with apprehension every time he sits with me in the passenger seat.

We are driving to the airport to drop him off. “Change lanes, we need to take the next exit,” he says. I roll my eyes. “Thanks, but I kind of know the way,” I respond coolly. He shrugs. When I finally do change lanes he shakes his head in despair and wonders how much to say because he is travelling after all and making up over the phone might prove a little tricky. He (wisely) restrains himself from speaking about the details of my lane-changing abilities, but I notice from the corner of my eye, he looks extremely stressed. I don’t know about you, but the men in my life generally hyperventilate when I’m driving.

I enjoy speeding every now and then (the engine roar is so satisfying) but sadly my husband doesn’t agree. “No wonder the fuel costs as much as it does and do you realise how unsafe this is?” he says pointedly as I let it rip. I slow down because we need to pick up something on the way and the only parking available near the grocery store is parallel. Herein lies my real test. I take a deep breath and try it — five times out of ten I manage to do it and at other times, the car just doesn’t seem to obey. Sadly, this time the car ends up jutting out at a strange angle and he smiles vindictively. “You bribed them to pass your driving test, didn’t you?” He breathes easy and I scowl. He picks up the grocery and then knocks at my window. “I’m driving,” he tells me.

The man who looked completely distraught moments ago is now happy and relaxed and shows the girls how we take off in an aeroplane by going full throttle and making the engine thunder. My eyebrows almost disappear into my hairline. It’s nostalgic. I remember that red Charade and Dad. I smile wryly. Until he learns to relax in the passenger seat, I really don’t mind being chauffeured around by my man, especially if there’s parallel parking around.

 

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So why should I fast anyway?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/so-why-should-i-fast-anyway-1.1850796

dates iftar

The clock strikes four and I gulp down the water quickly. I hear the distant call of the Fajr (dawn) prayer and realise that for the next 15 hours, I can neither eat nor drink anything. I think warily of the fact that the girls have school almost half this Ramadan and pick-ups must be braved in the searing heat. It’s not the food I mind giving up, I say grudgingly to myself, it’s the water and the caffeine — and the sleep that gets interrupted when I wake up to eat the pre-dawn meal. I’m a grouch early in the morning and the idea of not being able to get a long lie-in irks me.

“Why must I fast anyway?” I ask myself in a moment of restless, bleary-eyed grumpiness. There’s a voice inside me that tells me to come to my senses, but another stronger voice pipes up, “Because everyone fasts during Ramadan”. I complete the Fajr prayer lazily and throw dirty looks at the clock that just doesn’t seem to move on. As the day wears on, my mood thankfully improves, much to the relief of my family. The conscience is uncomfortably guilty as I question myself again, this time wide-awake and pleasant enough — why, at any rate, do we fast in Ramadan?

The obvious answer of course would be that because Allah commanded us in the Quran to do so. He also told us that He intends ease for us and not difficulty, and that those who are unable to fast due to reasons such as ill-health, travelling and child birth are exempt from doing so. There is also great reward in paradise for those who fast. Just that should be enough for someone of sound faith to want to fast, but I want to delve deeper into this question.

Let me, for starters, examine my relationship with God. When things are going well, I don’t really talk to Him much. I pray mechanically, almost like I just want to tick off a task in my day. But when the going gets tough, I earnestly talk to Him, in the darkness of the night and during the day when no one but Him understands my whispered pleas. When I feel inadequate, unable to do everything that’s expected of me, I reach out to Him and tell Him everything, safe in the knowledge that His mercy is greater than His wrath and that He, alone will not judge me.

One thing about people is that they’re quick to judge you. Say, a woman might be having an illicit affair and people would condemn her for being a two-faced hypocrite, but the only One who knows her full story and still has the door of mercy and forgiveness open for her is Allah. When you’re in the wrong — say things you dearly regret and actions that you’d give anything to eradicate — Allah is the One and only who understands you and still loves you and appreciates the fact that you came back and said sorry. Just the thought is emancipating.

Another beautiful thing about this relationship is that Allah knows me better than anyone, imperfections and all. He still loves me and listens to me every time I need to talk — no matter even if it is too trivial and I can be myself. He takes care of my requests, provided I ask like I really mean them. Even while I prayed and fasted like it was a chore, He continued to bless me with every passing day with gifts such as a functioning body, my family and countless other things.

I feel like a very selfish person — all I seem to care about is MY comfort, MY coffee and MY entertainment. I feel shallow, insincere — but one thing I do not feel is despair, because I know that the moment I reciprocate the love He shows me, Allah will give me another chance.

Outward signs of practising religion are indeed a part of it, but the actions are weightless if the conviction of faith isn’t behind them. I reflect upon the fact that I have this One friend that I have counted on in every moment of need and found Him to be true and incredibly caring and merciful. He continues to love me despite the fact that I mess up way too often. The more I know Him, the more thankful I am to Him and the more I want to show Him my love and devotion too. From hereon, I will fast because I want to, because He said so, because it is a privilege to be able to worship Him in the way He wants me to.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” published March 27, 2016

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/what-doesn-t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger-1.1698786

negativepeople

Bullying is real. Bullying in schools, in the workplace and even in homes, is a reality that many of us go through. My 10-year-old has recently become the target of it in school and as I heard her recount her experiences, I felt like a little schoolgirl myself, all over again. I had that uncomfortable, familiar feeling of being hot in the face, feeling the redness creep up my cheeks as it consumed my insides and made them writhe, as though I wouldn’t be able to face anyone ever again. What my girl went through at school is a form of psychological abuse.

The bullying did not, (this time) come from her peers. It came from above — a teacher. The woman first developed a bond with my daughter, gave her extra responsibilities and then, gave her an unwarranted personality analysis (twice in two weeks), which explained exactly all that was supposedly wrong with my daughter’s mental make-up. That she was outspoken, over the top and didn’t feel “right”. That her bubbly nature was simply not what people were looking for and she would never be successful/appreciated in life because she was a little too “in your face”.

All this and more was said to her under the premise of “because I want to make your life better”. Understandably, she was shaken and began to cry and has not wanted to return to school since. My daughter is a sensitive, emotional girl and her self-esteem has taken a beating.

I could rage and storm and complain to the management and I feel like doing so, and may well complain at some stage. But on the other hand, I could give my daughter strategies to deal with this and prepare her for the big bad world. As our tete–a–tete went on, I noticed a hopeful and inquiring look in her eyes, as though she expected me to somehow make it all better. I’m just desperately trying to do this parenting thing right, and sometimes it’s more challenging than anything else in the world.

Finding internal strength

A response such as “that really hurt my feelings and I wish you wouldn’t speak to me like that” to a bullying superior at school or work may just backfire because research proves that responding to a bullying superior irks them, and they go about making your life more difficult than before.

Being extra nice to them does not work either and possibly the only thing that really helps is finding internal strength to still have confidence in yourself and to tell yourself that you are still good, and valuable and worthy, no matter what anyone else might think — and to distance yourself from the bully as much as possible.

There’s that nagging feeling at the back of your mind “what if everything she said was true? What if I really am a worthless person?” That’s when you realise that the negativity really did make an impression inside your head. I looked my little girl in the eyes and told her that she needed to understand and accept the fact that she had been emotionally abused, and that the abuser probably has too many skeletons in the closet herself.

We know nothing about the lives of people, about how much they may have on their plate at any given point of time, and what prompted them to commit actions that are cruel or passive-aggression. Unless we truly forgive them and detach ourselves mentally from the situation in a healthy way, we cannot move on. And moving on is essential for healing.

As is another thing — counting your blessings and remembering that there are so many precious things in life other than this one person and how he or she feels about you — and that they cannot get inside your head unless you allow them to. Connecting with yourself and God on a deeply spiritual level and finding that inner peace and satisfaction helps bring balance back to life.

I can’t help feeling like my daughter has had to grow up a little too soon over the past few weeks, but I’m sure there’s some good in it — however painful it may seem right now. I want my girls to grow up strong, independent women and I will leave the decision of responding to this teacher to my daughter.

All I want for her is to know that her parents and her family will stand by her no matter what and appreciate her for who she is, love her to bits and are very proud of her. I want her empowered with self-belief, backed by our love and appreciation. And to anyone out there who’s being bullied right now as we speak, let me tell you one thing. You’re wonderful.

Does my ten-year old need her own mobile phone?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion, published March 9, 2016: http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/does-my-ten-year-old-need-her-own-mobile-phone-1.1687337

mobile-phone-for-kids

She looks at my old, battered iPhone 5 (now repaired exactly four times) as though it’s the most beautiful thing on earth and I swallow my chuckle. “Well, nine days. You can have the phone for nine days. Only until we’re out of Dubai,” I say firmly.

The next nine days, while we were on vacation, were all about “my phone” and selfies, videos and texts were the order of the day. At the end of the nine days, however, the device was taken away. My daughter insisted that many of her classmates had their own phones and that she too, deserved to own one, but we did not relent.

The average age at which children are given ownership of mobile devices is getting younger than ever before. In a 2014 survey involving 10,985 parents from the Middle East (conducted by the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government), it was determined that 20 per cent of parents felt that children between the ages of eight and 10 should be allowed to own their own smartphones. The largest majority of parents, 28 per cent however, felt that children only above the age of 16 should be given smartphones, while 6 per cent believed that children under the age of five can be given their own smartphones.

Smartphones are used for everything — from talking, to texting, to playing games and of course for using the internet. In research conducted by the GSM Association (GSMA) involving children from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, it was determined that 38 per cent of those children who own a smartphone are “cell-mostly” internet users — they mostly go online using their phone and not on a desktop or laptop. The internet comes with its own risks — McAfee (intel security) reports that 87 per cent of children have been the target of cyber bullying, leading to anger and embarrassment.

McAfee further states that only 61 per cent of youth have enabled the privacy settings on their social networking profiles to protect their content, and 52 per cent do not turn off their location or GPS services across apps, leaving their locations visible to strangers. Additionally, 14 per cent have posted their home addresses online.

As parents, we trust our children to make smart decisions online, but monitoring them on the internet (and educating them about it) is essential. GSMA reports that 60 per cent of parents have concerns about their child being online and a whopping 88 per cent were worried about their children viewing inappropriate content. McAfee’s research further states that 74 per cent of parents (children’s ages 10-23) say they don’t have the time or the energy to keep up with everything their child is doing online. 46 per cent of children say they would change their online behaviour if they knew their parents were watching. Mobile phones offer far more freedom and personal space than, say, a family desktop or laptop and it becomes all the more tricky to keep a check.

When entrusting a child with a device such as a mobile phone, academics, in some cases, appear to suffer as well. Kent State University in Ohio carried out research that linked excessive mobile phone usage to poor grades and anxiety. Many children stay up at night just to be able to text their friends and many sleep with their devices under their pillows, exposing them to harmful radiation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified smartphones as possibly carcinogenic to human beings. Radio waves received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station, even when the device is not being used and are absorbed by the body closest to where the device is held. A study by the Environmentalist Health Trust determined that the rate of radio wave absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. According to one study by De La Salle et al (2006), children absorb 60 per cent more radiation into the head than an adult.

Children’s immature nervous system makes them more susceptible to the long-term effects of mobile phone radiation, most of which remain to be documented. The heavy usage of mobile phones is only a few decades old and studies to find out just how damaging to health mobile devices are, are ongoing. It will take time before enough data is collected to prove anything certain, but many studies point towards brain tumours, reproductive problems, sleep disorders, headaches and anxiety.

For us, the risks of giving our ten-year-old a smartphone outweigh the benefits. Perhaps a simple device without internet would be useful in situations when she needs to contact us, but for the most part, I will be encouraging face-to-face contact with friends, sports, sunshine and as less screen time as possible.

My Dad, my hero

Originally written for Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/my-dad-my-hero-1.1598893

Published: 16:45 October 11, 2015

dad.jpg

“Papa?” I say gently, stroking his hair. His eyes are half open. He smiles and with a little bit of help from me, he sits up. “How are you?” I ask and envelop him in a big hug. He smiles serenely and asks how I am. When I ask him my name, he says, “I know who you are. Isn’t that enough?” When I insist that he say my name, he shakes his head sadly. “I’m sorry but I can’t quite remember.”

My eyes well up with tears. My Dad, who could recite sonnets of Shakespeare verbatim, the poetry of Ghalib and Allama Iqbal without pausing — today he struggles to remember the name of his daughter. I hold his hand and tell him my name. He nods and says “Yeah. I knew that.”

My recent trip back home was as heartbreaking as it was peaceful. For the first time in my life, my Dad appeared vulnerable, almost like a baby. I spent almost every waking moment by his side, talking to him, helping him remember things, and making the girls play with him.

My dad has always been my hero. He was the person who was there for me at every juncture, as a child and as an adult. He wrote my school speeches, drove me around just because I wanted an ice cream late at night, and had those heart to heart talks with me that were an essential part of growing up. In a household of 14 people, all of whom were his dependents, my Dad had time for me, for each one of us. Later into adulthood, he was there if I ever needed any help.

I remember the day in third grade that I borrowed a Sweet Valley Kids book from a girl in school. I lost the book at home. When I went to school the next day, I told her that I couldn’t find the book. This happened at dropoff right outside school, with the girl’s mother and my father watching. The girl’s mother unfortunately lost her temper at my losing the book and told me that if I was so careless and irresponsible I need not borrow other people’s books. I began to cry. My Dad stepped out of the car, his eyes flashing. He gave that lady the look of death and told her that she would have the book tomorrow, no questions asked, and that she need not lose her temper at his daughter on a busy school morning. That evening after Dad came back from work, we visited every single bookshop in Karachi. The next morning I triumphantly handed over the book to its rightful owner. Dad had come to the rescue, like he always did. He was my knight in shining armour.

I cherish the memories of the endless talks we had over the dining table, long after the meal had been cleared up, and he would spontaneously produce these gems of poetry which he himself had composed, or from the great collection of poetry that he remembered, both in English and in Urdu. His memory had always been amazing. He would hear something just once and absorb it like a sponge and was able to reproduce it later on with perfection. How time has moved on.

His hands are frail, but it’s reassuring all the same when he pats my head. It’s time to leave. I must go back to Dubai. I can’t seem to say goodbye. Dad is more alert than I have seen him in all these days. “I hate it. I hate it when you go away,” he says, almost like a little child. I feel like my heart is going to break into a million little pieces.

Just when my father needs me, I’m going away. When I was small and needed him, he held my hand as I took my first steps, fed me, clothed me, nurtured me and most of all, loved me unconditionally. When the hands of time have turned and he needs help walking, I’m not even there to hold his hand. When he needs someone to give him a hug and tell him everything is going to be fine, I’m not available.

The beautiful verse from the Holy Quran comes to my mind, “And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.” (Surah Isra, verse 24).

“Papa, it’s okay. I’ll be back soon,” I tell him in a soothing voice. He looks down. I see his eyes are wet. I hug him once again, and I walk out the door quietly, unable to stop my own tears as I wonder when I will see him again. Suddenly I hear his voice calling out my name. I spin back on my heel, pleasantly surprised. “Yes, papa [jaan]?”

“[Khuda Hafiz], Mehmudah.” He remembers my name.

When homework is too much work

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/when-homework-is-too-much-work-1.1501443

Published: 17:33 April 29, 2015

homweork-overload

 

My nephew — let’s call him Saad — is a cool sixth grader. He has gleaming bright eyes, a dashing smile and karate expertise that has fetched him medals and trophies.

He is quick-witted, intelligent and playful and is also an excellent artist who sketches, colours and paints with amazing skill. It is always a pleasure to sit down and talk to him or play with him. But when I visited Pakistan this time to see him, I found his inherent spark missing.

He was hunched over his study table, bored and uninterested. Lots of books were strewn around the table as he absentmindedly doodled on his maths homework book with a perfectly sharpened pencil. On closer inspection, I found him sketching a suit of armour. There wasn’t the usual excitement on seeing me, there wasn’t the expected discussion on the woes of the Pakistan cricket team — instead my nephew just gestured towards his books and said the one dreaded word: “Homework”.

As I went through Saad’s books, I was staggered by the amount of homework this 12-year-old is expected to complete. On a given day, Saad gets three-four books that require doing extensive, exhaustive homework and at least four more that require revision.

His final exams are due to start soon and that effectively means putting a sixth grader’s life to an end. Surely, homework will help him achieve better grades, right? Research, however, portrays contrary findings.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, has found that too much homework may have negative effects on the well-being and behaviour of students.

This study, quoted on CNN, Healthline.com and various other prestigious publications, claims that excessive homework is associated with high stress levels, physical health problems and lack of balance in children’s lives.

A total of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class American communities were a part of this research and a whopping 56 per cent cited homework as a primary cause of stress.

Pope’s study concluded that excessive homework could be ineffective and counterproductive. When questioned on how much homework is optimum, she replied: “In high school, nothing over two hours. In middle school, no more than 90 minutes. As for elementary school, there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement.”

Crucial social skills

Inundated with homework, a child such as Saad has precious little time left to polish skills such as karate, cricket and football and he hardly finds time to mingle with friends and build crucial social skills. One cannot help but feel for a child who has just spent five or six hours at school studying and is expected to still do more of the same at home.

Moreover, Huffington Post reports that Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University carried out research that shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardised test called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Walker, author of the book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) found that homework only boosts students’ academic performance during their last three years of grade school. The same basic finding holds true across the globe, according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University.

If the undesirable effects of homework are so conclusively proven, why do schools all over the world continue to mete out loads of homework to students everyday? As with everything, there are two sides to the story. Homework is actually meant to be helpful and is given so students can practice the concepts taught in class, build good study habits and reflect on their own learning. Indeed, it can even be fun if you like what you are doing.

But for my nephew Saad, homework seems like anything but fun. The pressure to get above average grades is weighing him down. As I leaf through his books, I cannot help but feel that we take away our children’s childhood way before they grow up. Studying becomes all stress — it is no longer about learning, quelling your curiosity and certainly not about having a good time.

As a child, I remember feeling the same pressure that Saad is going through now and I wonder: when will things change? As my girls grow older, and they start going to school in the next few years, I hope that school life for them will be rewarding and fun, full of great experiences, and that their focus will be on learning, not studying.

A clean house, a wasted life?

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” Published: 20:00 September 23, 2014Gulf News

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/a-clean-house-a-wasted-life-1.1389008

cleanhouse

“Mum, can we play Donkey?” she asks me, with a brightly-coloured beach ball in hand. (If you’re not familiar with this game, it’s playing catch-ball. When you drop the ball, you get a “D”. And the next catch you drop, you get an “O” and so on. The person who ‘becomes’ donkey last wins.) I give her a look of indignation and roll my eyes. I look around the house. There are dirty dishes lying in the sink and hampers overflowing with laundry that needs doing. The living room is strewn with toys and I stepped on a stray Lego piece not too long ago. In my arms is the baby who is dozing off at last. ‘Her Royal Highness’ has kept me up for the better part of the night and even after my caffeine fix I feel woozy. My arms are sore from carrying her for what seems like forever.

“Moooom!” my older one says again, this time tapping at my knee. I put a finger to my lips and point to the baby. What do I tell this little girl, who of all the things in the world, wants to play ‘donkey’ right now? A part of me is beyond frustrated — I am not exactly happy with the toys that weren’t tidied up and the banana that looks impossibly mouldy because it’s been sitting on the dining table for a very long time, left there by someone who seemed to have forgotten all about it and wants to play ball. Do I show how upset I am and get the children to clean up first? Or do I nap because the baby is sleeping? Or do I leave the baby in the room and play? Decisions, decisions.

I don’t know if it is guilt for not giving my older children enough time, or if I am just plain crazy, but I abandon “Operation Cleanup” for now and forget about the nap I’ve been longing to take. I place the baby in her crib and pat her for a bit. When I am certain that she is sleeping comfortably, I walk outside, smile and say, “Ready for the game?”

The children scurry around in excitement and take their positions. We are soon at it, right there in the living room, which is not the most opportune place for playing ‘donkey’. We hit the frames on the walls, and the TV, (but not the vase, whew!) and the beach ball doesn’t really do much harm. The girls appear thrilled. In spite of myself I can’t help thinking: When was the last time I played with my children?

Life is going by fast. It seems like only yesterday my older ones were babies and I took their presence for granted. But now all I have is photos and memories of the first steps, the mashed food and the sleepy smiles. And then it hits me — this stage of life won’t last forever, either. Before I know it, they will leave their childhood far behind and I will have teenagers (scary!) to deal with. Everything that’s happening now will be just a memory.

What do I want them to remember? A permanently harried mum who always made a big deal if the house wasn’t spick and span, or if the car was left dirty? My bad moods because I was tired? Or a person they just genuinely liked and loved spending time with? The answer is a no-brainer.

What I feel right now is a distinct twinge of regret. Why didn’t I enjoy their babyhood more? Why did I treat my responsibilities as a chore and not as something to look forward to? And why is it that I’m letting their childhood slide by with the exact same attitude? Why don’t I create more happy memories? Why don’t I savour these moments more and worry about the living room a little less? Perhaps the quote ‘A clean house is the sign of a wasted life’ might have a grain of truth in it, after all.

I can’t tell you how relieved I am that they’re still around and still feign tears when they fall and I know they’re not really hurt but I cuddle them all the same. The girls chatter nonstop on the way back from school and want to tell me everything about the day and fight for my attention. I’m glad things are the way they are.