Eid mubarak!

“Understanding Islam” is a very welcome new initiative from the Coexist Foundation.

So much discussion of religion is a mere battery of assertion, unhindered by any proper grounding in theology. This ignorance is typical not only of committed atheists, but of an enormous number of people of faith, too, whose practices and beliefs often owe more to habit than to their sacred texts or the dissertations of their scholars.

So, as Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, I'm pleased to write about an initiative by the Coexist Foundation that may help to remedy this unfortunate situation, which is at least one of the causes for the dogmatism and hatred that flourish around matters of belief and unbelief.

The foundation, set up in 2006 and run by James Kidner, a former diplomat and deputy private secretary to Prince Charles, is in the process of building three interactive online courses to explain Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They should be a magnificent resource for anyone wishing to learn about these faiths but bewildered by where to start -- perhaps slightly daunted by the prospect of beginning by reading the whole of the Torah, Bible and Quran.

The first course, "Understanding Islam", is already up and running (and available, for a fee, at understandingfaiths.net). It is divided into 15 units, each of which concentrates on a particular area. So "A Long Line of Prophets", for instance, explains that the Quran lists 25, 21 of whom are also in the Bible, and that every people in the world was sent at least one (even if today we have no idea who they were or what their message was). Muhammad's was the final revelation, not the only one; but the one that perfects and corrects those given to Jesus (the "Injil") and to Moses and the Jews (the "Taurat").

Each unit is narrated by Chris Hewer, currently fellow in Christian-Muslim relations at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City of London, who wrote the course with four Muslim advisers from across the major traditions in Islam.

The units are subdivided into pages of roughly one or two minutes' length, during which the listener can pause to note the very useful Quranic references scrolling down the right-hand side of the screen or the information provided in the elegant, minimal graphics. From time to time, the narrative is broken up by a video commentary from one of the four Muslim scholars. At the end, or halfway through the longer units, the reader is invited to take a test to ensure it is all sinking in.

There is a wealth of fact and explanation here, from the history of and reasons for the split between Sunnis and Shias (how many western policymakers appreciated the significance to the latter of the Iraqi city of Karbala before the invasion, one wonders), to the origins of "Gibraltar" -- the name of that bastion of Blighty's being a corruption of "Jabal al-Tariq" ("the mountain of Tariq"), after the Muslim general who led the conquest of Spain in 711.

But it also manages to shed light on aspects of Islam that may seem matters of alien ritual to outsiders, such as the Hajj or the Sufi practices that aim for an altered state of consciousness. Much that strikes some as harsh and unyielding is presented in context and with justification, taking care to stress that sharia -- "the path laid out for all" -- is more about the rewards of a forgiving God and the benefits of developing taqwa ("God consciousness") than about the amputations to which Islam's enemies constantly reduce it.

It is true that this course does not answer some of the hard questions, and it paints a pretty conservative picture of the rules governing family life and dress codes. Are women really not supposed to go out alone with any man who is not a "mahram", a family member too closely related for marriage? Can men be expected to prize piety above all else when choosing a wife -- GSOP instead of GSOH, never mind (let's be realistic) physical attraction?

Unaddressed, too, is the thorny, but critical, question of how Islamic law can be accommodated with pluralism in states that are constitutionally defined as secular -- whether Muslims are a majority there or a minority.

But such a course (it lasts seven hours on a straight-through viewing, though the approach I would recommend, with note and test-taking, would require considerably more time) cannot deal with every query and criticism. Its aim is to promote understanding of Islam, not least by pointing out the connections between the Abrahamic faiths. The cousin of the Prophet's wife Khadija, for instance, was a Christian, as were those who came from Najran to pray at his mosque in Medina; and the constitution of that city, declared in 622, gave equal status to Muslims and Jews.

There will be those who criticise the course for its positive view of Islam, but it will be invaluable for police officers, doctors, teachers -- anyone working in the community, in fact -- as well as for those serious students of religion and international affairs who want a detailed and thought-provoking introduction to this faith tradition. Its range and detail are remarkable, as are its technical features and feel.

Given that the course may also be used by troops going into combat in the Middle East, I, for one, am very glad that it seeks to emphasise what we have in common rather than what divides us. That way, one is rather more likely to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.