Book | Writing As A Sacred Path by Jill Jepson #MuslimWomenWrite

writing_as_a_sacred_path_jill_jepson_reviewThey say that writing is a calling: I felt that calling as a young teen, but only in secret. Even at such a young age I was only too aware that my writing would not be taken seriously. It would not be encouraged and I would certainly be told to spend my time more wisely. It seems that in the Muslim community, fiction is seen as mere entertainment, a frivolous pastime.

More than a decade later, having studied literature for many years and understanding the true worth of stories, I am still painfully aware that my writing will not be taken seriously in our community. It leads me to often question the purpose of my writing and what it does to benefit my faith. Jill Jepson’s book, Writing As A Sacred Path, serves as a wonderful reminder that writing, with the right intention, can be intrinsically connected to faith and can even serve as a form of sadaqah.

“Storytellers are custodians of human history,” Jepson reminds us, they are “the recorders of the human experience, the voice of the human soul”. Stories define what it is to be human; they enlighten us and guide us. In this way, writing can be a spiritual act, a form of charity and prayer. Writing can help nourish our spiritual lives, inspire us to think openly, and can be a wonderful gift of gratitude to the rest of the world.

Sacred Path is an essential guide for Muslim writers as it not only reminds us of why we should be writing, but it also offers excellent writing advice. The book is structured in four parts, each section highlighting different spiritual journeys from which we can learn to hone our own skills. Admittedly, I wouldn’t recommend Jepson’s advice in its entirety, but there is definitely more useful advice than not.

The Mystic Life, the first section, includes some questionable ritualistic exercises, but it also imparts some interesting ideas about altering your writing perspective, such as letting inanimate objects speak, visualising scenes and crafting analogies. I would never have thought to write like this but I can see that it would help your creativity to flow more openly.

The Monastic Path is a useful section that discusses the importance of solitude in allowing your creative energy to rise, to connect with your inner self to find your authenticity as a writer. Jepson also encourages the appreciation of community, from where our inspiration arises and to where we bestow our stories, our gifts of gratitude.

The third part, The Way of the Shaman, encourages us to use writing to face our inner demons. A few of the exercises seem creepily like exorcisms (!) but I very much agree that overcoming fears is integral to writing. The beautiful part of this section is where Jepson explains how we can develop a relationship with the natural world through observation. As writers, we must see the Earth as a beautiful gift from the Divine which we must appreciate and care for.

The last chapter, The Warrior Road, was the one that I felt that came closest to Islam, and it is a shame Jepson has not drawn more from Islam in this book. The chapter focuses on honour and courage, perceiving writing as a battle for truth, justice and peace. Writing, Jespson says, is “finding the truest part of ourselves and having the moral strength to never waver from what we hold sacred”. She goes on to say: “it takes courage to write the raw, unvarnished truth: to expose your most private memories, dreams, and fears: to face up to what is wrong in the world and put it on the page; and to write with utter authenticity.”

Overall, Sacred Path is an excellent book for both well established and would-be Muslim writers, offering both spiritual and practical advice. It is a reminder to us that if we have been blessed with the gift of writing then we are “entrusted with sacred work” and it becomes our duty to write. As Muslim women, especially, we must write to reclaim our voices that are so often supressed from both within and outside our communities. We must let the world know that we too can write – we have our own voices, our own minds, our own dreams.


– Originally published in SISTERS Magazine, October 2015


Article | The World Needs Your Novel: NaNoWriMo 2015



Hafsah Zamir-Khan is a zealous NaNo-er and reckons you should be one too.

You’re asking if I have I ever wanted to write a novel?

Is that a silly question? I guess there a very few people who haven’t fantasized about writing a novel and becoming an international bestselling author overnight.

But I’m not talking about fantasies here, I want to know if you have ever had a story you felt the need to write, a story that has haunted you for years. A story that has developedin your mind day by day whilst you’re showering, washing the dishes or trying to sleep, to the extent that you may even have a full set of characters with various meandering and interconnecting storylines (I can’t be the only one wondering if all voices in the head are bad). I’m asking whether there is a story you feel is missing in everything you have already read and that you wish someone would write. As the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison has said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Well, now that you mention it, there is this one story that I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but who has the time to write a novel? Isn’t that a self-indulgent thing to do?

Why should we not be self-indulgent once in a while? More often than not, as women, we give so much of ourselves to our loved ones – our husbands, our children, our families – putting aside all our own dreams to cheer on everyone else. Fulfilling our own dreams does not mean we will neglect those who have rights over us. Would it be so terrible if say, out of the twelve months we give to others, we took out one month to ourselves?

Okay, you have a point. But why do I need to write? Because if I’m just trying to be self-indulgent, there are other things I’d like to do. Like taking a one way ticket to the Maldives.

Writing is not an act of self-indulgence. Far too often books are seen as frivolous pastime in Muslim communities and separate from our deen. But I agree with Jill Jepson who argues that “to write in service of a good cause is to offer the world a great and wonderful gift” and that “few forms of charity are as profound and long lasting as that of a writer who exposes social injustices and encourages others to do good works”.

There has never been a more important time for Muslim women to write: we are constantly exploited in the media, stereotyped and victimised. Yet the world is becoming more globalised day by day, helping us find ways to reach out to the rest of the world and reclaim our voices. There has never been a greater need for more diverse literature, for ourselves, for our children, for the generations to come. Let’s start telling our own stories.

If you have a story, you must write it. And NaNoWriMo is the best place to start.

Gosh, I never thought of it in that way! Sorry, what’s this NaNoWriMo thing?

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, or NaNo for shorter (ridiculous name, I know, but it pretty much sums up the zaniness of this endeavour) is“a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing” where participants from all over the world aim to write a 50,000 word novel over the month of November. You just sign up and start writing – it’s as simple as that. You can track your progress, get lots of pep talks and support, and you meet lots of fellow writers from all over the world.

50,000 words in a month? That sounds absurd.

No, no it’s not! It’s only 1, 667 words a day, really.

Ernest Hemmingway comes to mind:“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

NaNo is basically like bleeding out every ounce of creativity you’ve hoarded in your body for the past year or likely more. And thousands of people are doing it together, cheering each other on and competing with who can bleed the most in the shortest amount of time.

It’s work, but of the ridiculously fun variety. How many people can say they have written a novel in 30 days? If you were to take just one month for yourself each year, ignored the chores, let your husband deal with the tantrumming toddlers, spent less time preparing food each day – you could possibly write a novel Every. Single. Year.

You’re not exactly selling this to me. You just sound masochistic.

Ha! I know it sounds difficult and a tad masochistic but as Hemmingway points out, that is true of writing anyway. A fellow NaNo-er, Sazida Desai, made a brilliant analogy comparing NaNoWriMo to Ramadan: “before it starts, there is a whole lot of apprehension about how you’re going to survive the whole month with a load of changed priorities”. Like Ramadan, we are both excited and terrified about the endeavour, but what makes the ride so much easier is “the spirit of unity and togetherness with writers across the globe, who are going through exactly the same challenges right there with you every day”.

You might be writing on your own but you will never be on your own in the NaNo community – we will cheer you on, congratulate you on good days, pull you back up on bad days. As long as you keep connected, the support you’ll receive is absolutely amazing.

The best part of the month is what we, The Muslimah NaNo Team, dubbed ‘Word Warring’, more officially known as ‘NaNo Sprints’ by general NaNo-ers. In our Facebook group we compete with each other to write as many words as we can in a set amount of time, ranging from 5 to 40 minutes. There was some hot competition last year. Not only did we often easily reach our daily word counts each day, but we also had fun. As Saba N Taylor said to me: “Writing is much easier when you’re having fun”.

I can see how that could be fun! But it also seems like one heck of a journey! Is it even doable?

What if I told you that a bunch of us from the SISTERS community – including full time working sisters, wives to attention-seeking men and children alike (ha!) – managed to hit the 50,000 target? Although last year was not my first year of NaNo, it was my first year of keeping connected to other NaNo-ers and also the first time I won. Many others also won, some for the second or third time running.

And if that isn’t inspiring enough, Karimah Grayson not only won NaNoWriMo but went on to spend this year editing her novel and successfully self-published it!S

That’s given me butterflies! But where does one even start writing a novel?

Starting is probably the hardest part of NaNoWriMo. Janet Kozak has expressed the importance of getting a good start, much like a short distant sprint: “[you need] to get going and pumped from the minute the whistle blows”.

Many don’t plan before starting on November 1st, but it can make a huge difference to your first week if you spend some time in October figuring out the plot, the characters, the structure, and the different storylines. That’s not to say you won’t get stuck during the month, but a good plan will definitely help you build a strong foundation in the beginning.

Any other advice for newbie NaNo-ers? (gosh, I am using NaNo lingo already!)

Oh, that’s when you know you are converted NaNo-er!

My best piece of advice would be: don’t do it on your own! Moral support is extremely important to keep you going, so take to Twitter, join Facebook groups, make use of the forums on the website. And also find yourself a non-virtual cheerleader, someone who asks about your word count each day, gives you a pat on the back—maybe a hand massage, makes you a cup of tea (bakes you a cake, perhaps?) as you spill away at your computer.

Remember that the most important thing during NaNoWriMo is word count. So forget everything you hold dear in regards to punctuation and grammar and just write. Don’t correct typos, don’t check spelling, forget paragraphs and don’t even bother with speech marks. Get it written. Let your fingers type as fast as they can.

Also, spend 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of the day planning your next writing session, it’ll mean you won’t be sitting there staring at blank screen. Remember, you don’t need to write chronologically: if you get stuck or bored, you can move on to more exciting scenes later in the novel, or even go back and flesh out other scenes you’ve already written.

Just keep writing – don’t delete, don’t proof-read, just let it all out. You can figure out structure and shortlist scenes during the editing process that begins after November. NaNoWriMo is all about letting your raw creativity loose.

You’ve actually got me excited now! So where does all the fun stuff like Word Warring and NaNo cheerleading happen?

There’s lots of support and sprinting over on Twitter on both the NaNoWriMo accounts as well as the MuslimWomenNaNo account. The best fun, however, is to be had on our Facebook page for Muslim NaNo-ers, it’s basically a virtual literary boot camp.

But of course, you have to learn the NaNoWriMo cheer before you can join: “N – A – N – O / NaNo-ers let’s go! / Let me hear you say GO! / Lets write! Fight! Unite! (Did you just make that up?) Terrible isn’t it? I should stick to writing fiction.

On a more serious note, I truly believe that if you have been blessed with the desire to write, then it is your duty to use that gift for benefit of the ummah. The world needs your stories. And we can make it fun. Sign up, bring your notebooks, pens, laptops, mugs of tea and plenty of cake – and let the NaNo-ing begin!

Sign up: www.nanowrimo.org
Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/NaNoWriMo.Muslims/
Twitter: @MuslimWomenNano


Poetry | Catharsis


There’s something cathartic about a storm,

As if the heavens had imbued

All the torment and misery of this world

Into dark nebulous clouds

And reached a rumbling rage

Pain that could no longer be contained –

Like tears, it only takes an unchecked trickle

for the torrent to cascade

Cold, wet ice stones strike

Parched and inflamed souls,

Cooling, soothing, refreshing


The sky roars and weeps

Until all is purged again


– Hafsah @ Esoteric Sips

Originally published in August 2015 issue of SISTERS Magazine


Film | Great Expectations (2012)

great expectations 2012 dickens‘You’re in every thought, in every line I have ever read since I first came here. You’re in the river, the sails of ships, the sea, the clouds, the stones of London. Until the last hours of my life, you will remain in me.’ 

I’m surprised it has taken me so long to finally watch the 2012 film adaptation of Great Expectations, but I now have the advantage of not having the 2011 BBC adaptation fresh in my mind for comparison. Perhaps it is unfair to judge an adaptation based on those that have preceded it and should be appreciated – or not – based solely on what it is in itself. That is especially true considering one is a 3 part TV drama with much longer screen-time, and the other for cinema with a much smaller time frame and less time to develop the story and complex characterisation.

Often directors choose to focus on different elements, and of course every reader (and director) has his or her own interpretation of a novel. The BBC version had breathtakingly sumptuous cinematography and focussed more on Miss Havisham and the relationship between Pip and Magwitch. Mike Newell’s film, on the other hand, dwells on the hopeless love of Pip and Estella. It wasn’t the same relationship I remember when I read the novel – Newell’s Estella is not so cruel as a child and not so cold as a young woman. Holliday Grainger depicts a woman torn between the cold, manipulative woman that Miss Havisham has raised her to be and the soft vulnerability of a heart that is constantly denied. Grainger executes Estella’s anguish wonderfully.

Jeremy Irvin is still a little too pretty for a blacksmith, but he portrays the naive and simple Pip well, his love for Estella is strong and believable. Dicken’s Estella is cold and unmoving, and Pip – naive and easily manipulated – claims to love her against all reason, but Newell shows Pip to know Estella’s deeper softness, which is the reason why he loves her. This differs from the original but allows for further sentiment, turning it into more of a romance than Dicken’s novel.

It isn’t a perfect retelling of their lives, but I love that Newell’s depiction of Pip and Estella’s relationship is passionate without the need for sensuality or dramatic choreography. It is a very emotional and human love between two orphans wanting to escape their old lives. Pip’s speech to Estella when asking her to come away with him is poignant, and Estella’s resulting anguish very moving. For me, their relationship made this film.

There are some big names in this film, but I have to confess before seeing the film I couldn’t imagine Helena Bonham Carter playing Miss Havisham, nor Ralph Fiennes playing Magwitch. Carter was a complete disappointment as Miss Havisham – I read somewhere that Carter’s performance was like something out of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and I have to agree. I love the juxtaposition of humour and darkness in Dickens’ writing, but it seems all wrong here – Miss Havisham is not a comic character,  she is meant to be grotesque and tragic, not ridiculous. I actually have no words to describe her death in this film – I believe my exact words at the time were “WHAT THE FRIG?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be sick. This also meant that the mother-daughter relationship between Miss Havisham and Estella was entirely unbelievable.

Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, was wonderful. He didn’t play the conventional Magwitch that we’ve come to see – he wasn’t overly cockney or particularly savage. Even at the beginning of the film, when he manipulates Pip into bringing him food, there is an element of softness about Fienness’ look which immediately begs the audience for empathy, and grows as the film progresses. Pip’s relationship with Magwitch isn’t given enough screen time, however, and is overshadowed by Estella. We don’t, therefore, see much of the complexities of their relationship and how this develops by the end of the film.

As for the other characters, Jason Flemyng was absolutely superb as Joe Gargery. He has quite a creepy face and I haven’t overcome my sickness of his character as Alec D’Urberville, but this has completely softened me towards him! Ewen Bremner was also fantastic as Wemmick, as was Herbert Pocket played by Olly Alexander. It is through these characters that Neville managed to capture the Dickensian balance of humour and humanness. Bentley Drummle, however, seemed ridiculously like he’d just stepped out of Grease.

Overall, I enjoyed this adaptation, despite the disaster that was Miss Havisham.


Article | Could Crochet Save Your Life?


After deciding to make a gift for her niece, Hafsah Zamir-Khan found an abundance of benefits in her new hobby.

When my sister-in-law fell pregnant with my niece, the first baby in our family, I took up crochet so I could make my much-awaited niece something special, a keepsake, like those my Nan had made for me as a baby. I had tried and failed in the past, unable to understand my Nan’s old school Punjabi methods and completely flabbergasted by all the jargon and complexity of the patterns in crochet books.

But I was determined, and the learning itself became part of this gift from me to my niece. I found some easy to follow tutorials on YouTube, that wonderful place where anyone can learn to do pretty much anything, and surprisingly, I found myself taking to it quite quickly. I had been expecting it to be fiddly and frustrating. I was expecting to make something shabby and unpresentable, but after only a day of picking up my hook and yarn, I had made my very first, slightly wonky, granny square. A week later, I was stitching a whole blanket and a few weeks after that, I had progressed to making the cutest little pink baby booties. It was euphoric! I felt that I could do anything, and there was nothing beyond my abilities.

It sounds silly to think that a metal hook and some yarn could make me feel so much. My friend Beth, who suffers from bipolar disorder, often told me that she found crochet calming and aided her in improving her moods. Before I could crochet myself, all I could see were the awesome amigurumi figures that she made and sold at craft fairs. I just wanted to crochet pretty things.

And yet, when I began crocheting myself, everything Beth said began to make sense. Crochet became a daily habit that I looked forward to each day. After returning from work and dealing with all the housework and chores, I would settle down with my hook and yarn in the late evening, counting stitches as I caught up with period dramas and baking shows. During quite a stressful period of time, those evenings became my downtime, allowing me to relax, shut myself off from life’s expectations and responsibilities, and just do something for myself.

Not long after this, I came across a book called Crochet Saved My Life by Kathryn Vercillo, who writes about the role played by crochet in shifting her chronic depression. It is a very informative book: Vercillo has clearly done a great deal of research into mental health issues and how crochet can help alleviate the symptoms of many disorders.

She begins with depression, something she struggled with her entire life, and recounts how discovering crochet was able to help her pull through. Focusing on the act of crochet, Vercillo explains, assists in alleviating depression by encouraging mindfulness, which helps to regulate emotions and to break the cycle of rumination. The repetitive movements release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is best known for the role it plays in one’s moods and feelings of happiness, so that the knitter might feel almost instantaneous calm. Vercillo sees crochet as ‘positive replacement’ for ‘destructive downtime’. It opens up the possibility of feeling like a productive person when one is feeling at one’s most useless and therefore helps to build self-esteem.

Vercillo shares stories of other women who fought their mental health issues with crochet, illustrating how crochet can help tackle various mental disorders. Feelings of anxiety can be suppressed by the calming nature of crochet, which also helps moderate the moods of those suffering from bipolar disorder. For those suffering from OCD, crochet can be a healthy replacement for compulsive behaviour that involves the use of hands. For schizophrenics, crochet can make a person feel stable and sane by helping to ground them to reality. Crochet keeps the brain constantly stimulated and so could help those suffering with Alzheimer’s or other memory loss. Learning new things, as one does during various crochet projects, builds up the cognitive reserves in your brain. More generally, the distracting nature of crochet can help to manage those with chronic pain and also stress.

A recent study by CNN confirms what Vercillo argues, and reveals that crafting in general is beneficial in its many forms, from knitting and quilting to painting and sculpting. The effects of all these crafts are similar to meditation, working as natural anti-depressants and possibly protecting against aging.

Ever since I can remember, I have always looked for new creative projects and hobbies. As a teenager, I spent hours practising nail art, henna, making beaded jewellery for my friends and embroidering napkins. After my time at university, I took up dressmaking and baking. In the last year, I have taught myself crochet, and more recently I have begun to learn calligraphy, geometric art and pretty much any home crafts I come across on Pinterest. I even crafted all of the décor for my wedding. I have always just considered myself to be a creative person, but after reading Crochet Saved My Life, I have realised that my creativity has also been an outlet for stress and a way to build my self-esteem. In the past, I was an extremely shy person, quite anxious and emotional. My creativity has increased significantly in recent years, and I can now to see how much it has helped me become a confident woman and to be able to manage everyday stress and live more positively. The more I achieve, the more I feel that I can do anything.

Yet, of all the crafting that I have done, crochet has proved to be the most therapeutic. It doesn’t require much energy so I can be productive even when I don’t feel like doing anything. Now, I cannot watch TV unless I have a crochet hook in my hand. My husband teases me and calls me a granny, but I think, secretly, even he finds it comforting sitting next to me as I stitch away.


Originally published in SISTERS magazine, April 2015


Article | Made in Europe


Hafsah Zamir-Khan catches up with the exciting new happenings at the UK’s preeminent green Muslim youth organisation. 

We live in a world where half of the population is living in absolute poverty – that’s three billion people. MADE in Europe is a movement led by young Muslims who are assisting the Muslim community in leading the fight against injustice and global poverty. Very often, poverty denies people access to basic human rights, such as healthcare, education, the ability to earn a living and freedom of speech. These young leaders are also educating communities about the consequences of irresponsible and selfish lifestyles, such as climate change, and how we, people with great privileges, are not only destroying our planet, but also that it is the poorest in the world who are the first to suffer from
our irresponsibility.

Through these bright young leaders, the mission of MADE is not just to raise money, but to transform the mindset of our communities so that we may adopt a life that is smarter, greener and more ethical: “Our response is rooted in the Islamic traditions of social action, justice and environmental stewardship.”

You may remember earlier in 2014, the SISTERS team participated in the Live Below the Line challenge, one of a number of campaigns organised by MADE, which challenges participants to spend only £1 a day for 5 days on food and drink. The challenge was an opportunity not only to raise money for charity, but also for participants to appreciate and stand in solidarity with billions of people across the globe who live on this much money each day for all their expenses, not just food and drink. It was also an opportunity to experience the simplicity of the lifestyle of the Prophet (SAW) and to incorporate a degree of this into their own lives.

Live Below the Line is only one of a number of campaigns organised by MADE. We caught up with Executive Director Sarah Javaid to find out more about MADE’s latest work.

Sarah tells us about the #BuyPalestinian campaign which is a long-term initiative that addresses the daily injustices, discrimination and oppression faced by Palestinian farmers and workers in the West Bank at the hands of illegal Israeli occupation. Farmers are blocked from access to their land, forced to buy water from their oppressors who have taken over Palestinian water sources and are unable to access international markets for their products, whilst workers on settlement farms are exploited and face daily abuse. The lack of support these farmers receive means they may be forced to abandon their land which makes it possible for Israeli settlers to take over.

“MADE is working with Zaytoun CIC to create a market for Palestinian products to compete with Israeli products, support Palestinian farmers to work themselves out of poverty and provide for their families, and build a strong and prosperous Palestinian state,” Sarah tells SISTERS. The #BuyPalestinian campaign raises awareness in schools and mosques about the importance of working beyond the boycotting of Israeli products and actually supporting Palestinian farmers by buying Palestinian products and lobbying shops to stock them. MADE is also training young people to be #BuyPalestinan advocates and lead this campaign in their local communities.

“Behind every Medjoul date we produce is a community and a family. Selling our dates in the UK means everything to us. It means people are listening. It means that people are celebrating our dignity and supporting our future. We are Palestine.” Taysir Arbasi, Zaytoun Project Manager

MADE’s other current major campaign is Green Up My Community! The aim is to help Muslim communities become more conscious of the impact of our lifestyles on the wider environment and global community. The campaign also serves to remind the community that the Prophet (SAW) was an environmental pioneer: he lead by example, teaching his followers about caring for both humans and animals, protecting the environment, respecting natural resources and warning against wastage and the overuse of land. “We are working with mosques to become pioneers of sustainability by making changes to their buildings and the way that they manage resources such as waste and water, as well as educating communities to make changes in their own day-to-day lives,” Sarah tells us.

Recently, MADE held the UK’s first Muslim-led Eco fair at London Central Mosque where Muslim businesses and organisations that focus on ethics and sustainability were showcased. This included organic tayyib meat, solar-power gadgets, organic cosmetics and skin-care and Fairtrade cakes. “One of the initiatives which is really taking off is cycling,” Sarah tells SISTERS. “Our aim is to support more Muslims to make cycling a lifestyle choice to reduce vehicle-related emissions as well as having the opportunity to be out and about amidst Allah’s beautiful creation.” Beyond the cycling challenges, MADE are also looking to set up cycling clubs at different mosques around the country.

As part of the Green Up My Community! campaign, MADE also offers various educational opportunities for Muslim communities to learn more about living greener lives. They have developed a series of resources for Muslim schools to implement a global dimension into their school curriculum. These teaching resources, called Global Education, help students learn more about key global issues such as climate change, trade, women’s rights and the link between individuals and the communities in the UK and the wider world. Students are taught about agriculture and sustainable food production, children’s visits to a farm encourage the understanding of tayyib meat and an appreciation of how food is produced.

MADE also offers training workshops to young people – individuals, youth groups, Islamic societies or study circles – so they can develop important key skills such as critical thinking, team-work, communication and leadership. The students are introduced to various environmental issues from climate change to workers’ rights and ethical shopping, as well as maternal health issues like family planning, health services, education and community support.

To further this educational campaign, MADE has set up the MADE Café, a forum for young people interested in global issues to come together in an informal setting and discuss issues of global development, ethics and social justice.

Ultimately, MADE wants to encourage young people to become leaders of their communities – to develop a new generation that is active, responsible and can safeguard the future of our planet for the coming generations.

“Our individual choices and actions have a huge impact on the lives of people across the world. By starting with changing ourselves, we can help bring about the world that Islam envisions – a world free from injustice and poverty.”

To learn more or get involved, log onto www.madeineurope.org, like the Facebook page, or follow on Twitter.


Originally published in SISTERS magazine, April 2015


Article | Henna for Health, Interview with Farrah Azam from Bespoke Henna

Farrah-azam-bespoke-henna-sisters-magazineHafsah Zamir-Khan talks to Farrah Azam of Bespoke Henna about inspiration, process and well-being.

Hafsah Zamir-Khan: Please tell us about your background and the inception of Bespoke Henna.

Farrah Azam: As a graduate In Criminology and Psychology, my background is not one you would immediately associate with an artist. Although I have never studied art, I have always had a creative flair and only decided to put this into practice after I got married and had my beautiful son Zayd. While having my hands tied with a newborn, my lifestyle had become repetitive and I needed a creative outlet to de-stress. This is what led to the creation of Bespoke Henna. I wouldn’t say I am a henna artist per se as I don’t like to be labelled with anything that restricts my potential. Instead, I prefer to think of myself as an artist who is inspired by henna.

HZK: You say that you have never liked henna on your hands: what made you enrol in the Ash Kumar course? And you say that you were never really artistic, and even that you were one of the worst in the Ash Kumar class, it’s amazing to see how much you have achieved. How did you discover your talent?

FA: Don’t get me wrong, I think henna on the body looks beautiful in the primary stage. I’ve always loved freshly applied henna on the skin, when it has that striking three-dimensional effect. It is the fading phase that I dislike, when the stain becomes an orange-yellow colour. I enrolled in the Ash Kumar course because I love henna patterns; I particularly like paisley and floral motifs which are commonly used in henna designs. I also find the application of henna incredibly therapeutic. With regards to “discovering my talent”, I really don’t believe I had an instinctive talent; rather, it was just something I enjoyed and decided to spend many hours practising which in turn improved the quality of my work.

HZK: Your henna designs seem very different from Kumar’s style. Your work has a charm about it; it somehow feels both contemporary and yet classical at the same time. What are you inspirations?

FA: Although I was trained by Ash Kumar, what I learnt is quite different to what I do now. We learnt Body Art henna techniques and how to make henna cones, much of which I don’t put into practice in my work today. That said, it was a great foundation for embarking on this wonderful journey. I do agree that my designs are contemporary yet classical and have an ‘East meets West’ feel about them. I believe this infusion is a result of my own British Pakistani upbringing. I travel a lot and many of my inspirations come from my adventures, which can range from a painting in a museum to a coaster in a traditional Moroccan cafe! Inspiration is everywhere. I have always been fascinated by Eastern and Islamic Art and would attribute my greatest influences to these culturally rich art forms.

HZK: Most henna artists prefer to use acrylic paint when not painting on the body, but you use real henna on your products, applying paint only for embellishment. Why is this? Isn’t it more challenging to work with?

FA: I like to use real henna for the majority of my work because I feel it gives it more of a classical and ethnic look. The result is also more three-dimensional than what I achieve with acrylic paints. It’s a lot more challenging working with actual henna as the process is more tedious and involves numerous stages.

HZK: What would you say are your biggest achievements so far?

FA: Probably the vast media exposure Bespoke Henna has been fortunate to receive in the past few years. I was invited as a guest on several television shows and have also been interviewed by numerous magazines and newspapers to talk about Bespoke Henna. Last year, CNN news featured one of my images on their Eid gallery which was quite exciting! I also feel very proud of the training academy I set up in October 2013, which has been a great success.

HZK: What challenges have you faced since you began Bespoke Henna?

FA: Sometimes it’s difficult managing my time and putting all my ideas into practice. I feel there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’m often awake all night trying to meet deadlines. But as the saying goes, no pressure no diamonds!


HZK: You’ve said that you find painting on candles therapeutic. Do you feel that your work is an effective outlet for stress and has it helped you during difficult times in your life?

FA: I definitely feel it’s an outlet for stress and has been a source of great comfort in difficult times. When I’m working, I feel switched off from negative thoughts because my work requires a lot of concentration. I also enjoy it very much which naturally lifts my mood.

HZK: Much of your work seems to have Qur’anic ayahs incorporated into it and is reflective of the deen. How do you feel this has helped you in your work along the way?

FA: I think my religion has helped me on my journey in so many ways. Not only in terms of inspiration, but also in terms of how to conduct business in an Islamic and ethical manner. I believe that in order to be successful, passion and talent aren’t the only requirements – one must also carry out one’s financial dealings with integrity and must always be thankful and humble for what one has.

HZK: Tell us about how you’ve been using your business for charitable purposes for the recent events in Gaza.

FA: In the month of Ramadhan, when the atrocities in Gaza were at their peak, I decided to donate all revenue from my business to the victims. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with a doctor who was able to successfully get the money into Gaza. Much of the money was used to provide psychological support for traumatised children in Shifa hospital. On ‘Eid, children were given gifts and fun activities were arranged for them. It was incredibly heart-warming and humbling to be sent images of the children smiling after all the suffering they had faced and are still facing every day. I also designed ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirts which were very popular, completely selling out within just a few days. I donated 100% of the proceeds to Ummah Welfare Trust. I was lucky to have friends to support me in this project, may Allah reward them for their contribution.

HZK: How do you balance motherhood and your business? What advice would you give to mothers who feel that they cannot work whilst they raise children?

FA: It’s definitely something that I’ve had to get used to. Compromises have to be made, my own biggest compromise
being sleep! I am often working throughout the night and have to catch up on sleep during the day. My son has recently started school full-time which means I now have more time on my hands. The best thing about having your own business is that you can work at your own pace. There are weeks that I’m working intensely, but there are also weeks that I can go on holiday with my family and take a break. The flexibility is what makes it perfect for mothers. Continual support from family and friends is very important and is the reason I have been able to balance motherhood and my business adequately.

HZK: What are your future plans for Bespoke Henna?

FA: I would love to work more on garments such as the Palestine T-shirt designs I designed and would like to be involved in some sort of mass production for my designs. I have also done several collaborations over the past two years and would love to work with more exceptionally talented artists.

HZK: Thank you for sharing your time with us Farrah. SISTERS wishes you all the best for the bright future of Bespoke Henna. To learn more about Bespoke Henna and to see more of her designs visit www.bespokehenna.com. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.

Originally published in SISTERS magazine, April 2015


NaNoWriMo | Camp NaNo. Get Lost. Write.


That’s exactly what I need. To be told to Get lost and Write. Because, seriously, there is no way on earth I’m going to be able to edit those awful 50,000 words I wrote in November unless I do NaNo again. Oh I tried, in our Facebook group, NaNoWrimo for Muslims. We agreed to dedicate one day a week to work on our novels and that went down the drain real fast. I managed one day and lost the will when I realised just how much work needed to be done.

Then someone in the group suggested Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d never participated previously  and didn’t even know what it involved.

Camp NaNoWriMo is basically an open ended version of NaNoWrimo – a creative retreat for whatever you want to write, fiction of non-fiction. Word counts can be between 10,000 and 1,000,000 (seriously, who can write that much?) and there are two camps each year, one in April and one in July. And people like me really need these camps, because how else can I make myself write unless I have a deadline enforced upon me?

It will be a little different this time, as I have my novel written and I’m working on editing rather than writing from scratch – that means writing full, grammatically correct sentences and not something I would expect from an 8 year old. knowing myself, I will probably end up rewriting the original 50,000 words and since it takes longer to write worthy sentences, I can’t expect to rewrite the full 50,000. So, my aim will be 25,000 words. Good words. Awesome words. I would love to take on Camp July also, but I am aware that the first half of July will be Ramadhan and there is no way I could churn out the rest of the 25k whilst fasting. Perhaps I’ll join in the last 10 days for 10k.

I’m actually excited about this now – NaNoWriMo does that to you. For the past three months I’ve been dreading and avoiding my 50k like the plague. I did have a read through, and fellow NaNo-er Sazida Desai got us to write blurbs for our novels in our Facebook group and sharing them with each other for advice. Of course, mine sucked. Although I had both reached 50,000 and actually written the story from start to finish, there were many loopholes and other minor storylines that hadn’t been written.  I still had no idea how exactly my story was going to work. So that’s what I’m going to do from now until April – plan my story so that I have the basic structure done, and then I can just get on and write it. In good words. Spelt correctly. I’m excited.

Bring on Camp NaNo.


Update | Bloggerly ways

quote-life-is-too-short-to-dwell-on-that-which-we-dislike-hafsah-zamirI set up this blog last year as a change from my old blog where I was only reviewing books and period dramas. I wanted to dedicate a space for my own writing; I felt that blogging about about the work of others was holding me back from my own potential.

I visited my old blog recently and had a good read through all my reviews. When I saw that people were still visiting my blog, it suddenly hit me that, although I was writing about the work of other people, all the thoughts and words were my own and that is what people were interested in reading. I’d forgotten how much work I’d put into it all. So I decided to transfer my favourite reviews onto this blog- they all are listed in the Reviews page and posted with their original dates so I could keep things as authentic as possible.

Reading my old reviews made me a little sad, however: since deciding to concentrate on my own writing, I’ve lost that passion for finding exciting books to read or new period dramas and book adaptations to watch. I miss it terribly. Instead, my reading has been reduced to other people’s blogs and news articles; discovering my love for crochet has meant I’ve been counting stitches whilst watching Bake-offs, Sewing Bees and EastEnders. Really. Okay, there’s been a fair bit of Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and the likes but I’ve not been impelled to blog about them as of yet.

Another thing that made me feel sad about my old blog was all bad reviews I had given over the years, especially to writers. Writing bad reviews involves so much negative energy and I remember feeling particularly horrid each time I wrote one – I wonder that I carried on writing them. I guess I felt obliged to give an opinionated view on everything I read.

Since beginning my own writerly journey, I’ve discovered how difficult it is finding a voice as a Muslim woman writer in a world in a world that is constantly suppressing your voice. Becoming part of a community of writers, through both NaNoWriMo and SISTERS magazine, has taught me so much about the need for diverse literature and the importance of a support network, a driving force to fight everything we are up against.

For this reason, I only transferred the celebratory reviews on here, and I made a promise to myself that from now I would not post any negative reviews, at least for books, and that I would focus only on the positivity. That might not make me a credible reviewer, but that’s not what I want to be any more – I want to be an ambassador for women writers from diverse backgrounds, cultures and religions.

I hope you all enjoy reading all the reviews I have coming up for you – I’ve been making a long list of all the books I want to read and also all the period dramas I’m looking forward to watching (yes, I realise that my love for period dramas seems at odds with my little speech about being an ambassador for women from diverse cultures, but who says I can’t also appreciate classic English literature??). Gosh I am excited!

Oh, and you might also have noticed from the above image that I’ve taken up calligraphy. For me, the beauty of the written arts goes hand in hand with the beauty of words themselves and, although I won’t be blogging about progress of my calligraphy skills itself, I do hope to incorporate my amateur lettering into my blog posts. I hope you enjoy!