History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Hurrem Sultan was the Ottoman empire’s femme fatale

I first encountered Hurrem Sultan, the red-haired Ottoman Empress in a Turkish soap opera series, titled The Magnificent Century, which aired in Pakistan a few years ago when I was a teenager. Since Pakistan shares a special affinity with Turkish shows, the show was dubbed in Urdu and became a cult favorite amongst the prime-time audience. 

So this is what I, along with many Pakistanis, learned about Hurrem Sultan from The Magnificent Century

Hurrem Sultan was brought to the imperial court as an enslaved person during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1520-1566). Within the span of a few weeks, she ascended the ranks from a slave girl to the Sultan’s favorite concubine to the Sultan’s chief consort (Haseki Sultan) and eventually his wife. Her trajectory towards the throne was swift because of her power-hungry nature. She crushed all opposition, luring the Sultan towards only her. She turned him against his former favorite concubine, Mahivedran, who had also birthed his first son, Shehzade Mustafa.

Out of jealousy, she demanded monogamy from the king during an epoch where Ottoman emperors had only practiced polygamy. She demanded the King marry her, which broke all traditions in the Ottoman era where Kings did not marry women due to legal complications, but instead only used them to bring heirs into this world. She birthed more than one child, which was a stark violation of the “one concubine, one son” rule that allowed her to wield a monopoly of heirs. 

And lastly, she disobeyed the custom of Sancak Beyliği, which dictated that when the sons came of age, they were to be sent to rule a faraway province with their mothers. The mothers could not return to Istanbul unless the son succeeded to the throne and they became Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan). She insisted on staying put at Top Kapi Palace. 

One transgression after another. She was a serial rule breaker. 

Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner.

She was a threat to the status quo. And in a show which glorified the greatness of the empire, the audiences immediately disliked her. In fact, she entered the show in the space of the “other woman”. And her role in the execution of Shehzade Mustafa, her stepson along with the grand Vizir, Ibrahim Pargali, did not help her popularity. She was the bloodthirsty, manipulative seductress. In fact, in one scene she is seen seeking help from a sorceress to make sure the Sultan remains bewitched by only her. There was even a half-baked subplot about her wanting to marry the Emperor for revenge for the traumas she had had to endure in life. 

To be honest, I could not help but hate her. Every show needs a villain, and she fit the archetype perfectly. Everything from her expressions to her dialogue, to the background soundtrack, emphasized her treachery and deceit

With Netflix airing the show a couple of years ago, and with my recent intrigue for Ottoman history and some nuance in my perception, I decided to re-watch it. I decided to re-watch it, not through the eyes of a gullible audience, but one that can detect the infiltration of fiction into the narrative. I was taken aback, by the concoction of popular history and the host of myths surrounding the most influential woman in the Ottoman Empire. I delved deeper into her life and this is what I found:

Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics.

Alexandra or Roxelana (her original name remains obscure) was captured brutally by a bunch of Crimean Tatars who sold her to the Ottomans. She was separated from her hometown and her family as a teenager. As a Christian, she entered a predominantly Islamic empire and was considered acceptable only as a slave girl or a concubine. When she decided to convert to Islam, her decision was met with skepticism. She navigated through a maze of court conspiracies which ranged from murder plots to being ostracized.

She fell in love with the Sultan deeply, wrote poetry in letters to him when he was on military expeditions. She birthed six of his children. After becoming a mother of the first child, she wanted to be freed of her status as a slave so that she could be with the Sultan out of consent, not coercion. The Sultan named her “Hurrem” (the cheerful one) because of her positive demeanor. But this “positive” woman also witnessed much heartache; one of her own children was executed by his father (the king) for causing much unrest in the empire. Brutal? I know. But where legacy and power is concerned, blood ties begin to mean little. I mean, we’ve all watched Game of Thrones, right?

Anyway, I digress. 

She was a philanthropist who commissioned many public works including a charity soup kitchen in Mecca for poor pilgrims. She advised the King on matters of foreign policy and helped diplomacy between the Ottomans and other foreign states owing through her unique vantage point as a foreign empress. Today her final resting place is in Suleymaniye mosque (Istanbul) which was built as an homage to her. 

See what I mean? 

[Image Description: Hurrem (played by Meryem Uzerli) standing next to Sultan Suleiman (played by Halit Ergenc) in a still shot from the Magnificent Century.] via Turkey Country Guide
One is the narrative spun with the threads of court gossip which we now know as popular history. Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner. It can be titillated by the exotic Other who once seduced their Emperor into challenging the tradition.

The counter-narrative is hard historical facts supported by evidence. Within this narrative, Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics. She was a foreigner stuck in an alien land, which insisted on objectifying her. She was just learning the language (literally) of the people who bought her. She was just insisting on some dignity in her personal relationship by requesting the King not to see other courtesans. Maybe she was just competing for her husband’s attention, not an Emperor’s favors. 

 It’s the same woman – just two different ways of looking at her. 

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Let’s talk about how the West hypersexualizes Arab culture

I first encountered the image of the harem in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Now before I say anything else, you must know that I have a lot of Millennial nostalgia attached to the movie. Like all other Disney movies, it shaped my understanding of love and life. Jasmine’s feelings of confinement in her home and her longing to explore a whole new world and Aladdin’s adventurous spirit resonated with most impressionable 90s minds. 

But with some awareness and some hindsight, I have to acknowledge that the movie was a perpetuation of Orientalist stereotypes. So, what is Orientalism you might ask? Orientalism is a complex and even contradictory discourse of Western ideas and representations of the region including the Middle East and South Asia. This discourse emerged during the time of French and British Imperial power and continues to form the foundation of Western perceptions of the “East.” 

So what I considered a Disney masterpiece growing up was actually a series of racialized caricatures and stock images. The “Arab culture” which the movie invokes is as fictional as the city of Agrabah, where Aladdin and Jasmine live. The portrait of the city includes all stereotypes one can possibly summon; the entire region is nothing but deserts and harems. It is a world of turbans and tigers, henna, and harem pants.

The real diversity and richness of the Middle East are subsumed by this whitewashed monolith of what Americans think it is. This representation is dangerous. Yet it is the first exposure to Arab culture many white children might have. Hell, it was the first exposure to Arab culture I had! And I am brown! And that is really telling. So for the longest time, I thought the Middle East was all desert and decadence. I know that is a paradox. But that is exactly what the Orientalist appropriation of the harem was; paradoxical and conflicting. 

In the fictional movie, Jasmine lives inside the harem. The harem, in Arab and Ottoman history, was basically the inner domestic space of the court or palace reserved for women. This is where the king’s family and concubines lived. So Orientalists, with their lack of access to the private courts of Muslim women, conjured this hyper fantasy of the harem as a place of desire, where the king would interact with his women.

Many Orientalist paintings of women lounging around in suggestive poses bearing cleavages and midriffs are not historically accurate. In fact, considering that the Ottoman Empire was relatively conservative because of its Islamic values, it is highly unlikely that any foreign travelers ever even glimpsed the inside the harem. 

So the idea of Arab men with untamed libidos, multiple wives, and a culture of indulgence was propagated. This in turn added to the exotic appeal of the Middle East for Western audiences. 

But while Arab men were written off as being insatiable, women, as it appears, could only be one of the two: veiled, meek, and submissive (from the King’s family) or sexually promiscuous (slave-girls). In the case of the former, they were considered as oppressed and caged, unable to leave the harem. This Orientalist perception, of course, was not formed through any proper ethnography or interviews, but just an assumption of what Arab women felt when they were veiled in public. 

In much of American and European pop culture today, the harem remains inherently sexualized. Remember how Jafar (the villain in Aladdin) tried to capture Jasmine? That is what many Orientalists thought it meant to be an Arab woman, to be treated like a commodity or a property which was transferred from man to man, from harem to harem.

But a fact overlooked by history is that many women in court exercised political power. As was the case for the Sultanate of Women in the Ottoman empire which was a century when women reigned supreme in the court. This era produced figures such as sultans Kosem and Hurrem who have been celebrated by Turkish pop culture and chronicled on TV.

The actual historical harem was not the same as the harem fantasy which occupied the mind of the Orientalist for centuries. Even the etymology of the word harem stems from the Arab world.  Haram simply means prohibited. Somehow another culture claimed the word that does not belong to them and transformed its meaning with plain ignorance. 

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History Forgotten History

The “alternative” history of the Partition that school didn’t tell you about

 Trigger warning: Mention of sexual violence.

Imagine you are living in the subcontinent in 1947 under British colonial rule. Imagine it is the last few months of India and Pakistan being one country. The Indian Independence Act declares the existence of the countries as two sovereign states. A border is about to be drawn through the center of your country. No one knows fully which city would fall on which side of the border. No one knows if the neighborhood they live in would be a part of Pakistan or India.

An atmosphere of anxiety and treachery pervades through the streets. Communities, once celebrating diversity where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs lived in harmony are suddenly painfully and awkwardly silent. Everyone is unsure of their allegiances. Religious bigotry is palpable in the streets and in Parliament alike. And then amidst all that uncertainty, Cyril Radcliffe draws an arbitrary border. Chaos breaks out. Mayhem takes over. Neighbors turn on each other. Your once-loved class fellow or colleague is suddenly the Other. And an unprecedented moment of violence in history ensues.

And amidst all that, imagine if you are a woman. Or even a girl. Imagine your family telling you to hide in the darkest corner of the house in the middle of the night, every time they hear a mob of rioters with their swords clinging pass your home. Your father tells you you might have to commit suicide with the other women of the neighborhood before the Other reaches you and taints your “honor.” Your father has already received a set of bangles at your house, his temper swelling at the mockery of his masculinity. He fears his “pure” bloodline may be contaminated if the enemy lays hands on you. Though your family might be displaced any minute, losing their home and all their belongings, their “honor” and pride resides in preserving your shivering body. 

“Hundreds of women jumped into wells in order to protect their honor. But sometimes when they jumped into wells, they did not die because the wells were already brimming with dead bodies. Many men, Sikh and Muslim, would kill their wives to prevent them from being raped by the enemy. If the “enemy” was spotted at a distance, mothers would hide their girls under opaque surfaces.” Shakeela Khan*, a resident of Dehli and 10 at the time of the partition recalled her own experiences from the time as I interviewed her. “A lot of dramas have been made and novels published such as Dastaan have been published about this topic.” She continued to say.

The mention of Dastaan struck a chord with me. The television series, adapted from Razia Butt’s fictional novel by the name of Bano, that aired during my teen years was my first exposure to this alternative, grass-root history of my own country. Of course, the module of partition was always taught in rigorous detail in school. We were taught about Quaid-e-Azam, Allama Iqbal’s prophetic dream, and Gandhi’s peace-loving resilience. We were taught about colonial Britain’s divide and conquer policy. However, all of this was done in the light of a certain kind of nationalistic romanticism. The founders of the nation were at once established as heroes, to whom we owed our “independence” and life. The human cost of their decisions was carefully left out.  Dastaan, however, chronicled the life of a girl who on the eve of her engagement is abducted and subsequently raped by an enemy mob. She eventually returns to her family years later where she no longer feels welcome.

It was then that I realized that somehow the nationalistic agenda of history failed to mention these many millions of women. Eventually, their stories were silenced at the state level. Real people and their real stories were hushed and shoved under the rug of martyrdom. The sheer dissonance between official history and real histories inspired me to pursue my undergraduate thesis in the narrative of silenced women during partition years later. 

“Many women had to sacrifice their honor for our independent homeland,” Khan emphasized, careful to not use the actual word, “rape”. In fact, most of the interviewees I encountered often used euphemisms, all revolving around the word “honor”. “Yet, when these women returned to their families, they were often not accepted and sometimes sent back to their abductors.” Khan’s observations made one thing clear: though women were elevated to the status of martyr, they were certainly not rehabilitated or celebrated as war heroes are. 

Such conversations raised some important questions for me: why was mass abduction and rape (of an estimated 75, 000 to 100, 000 women on both sides of the border) a weapon of choice? Was it because the enemies knew to hit where it hurts a patriarchal society the most? And why is mass rape so popular in history? From the rape of Nanjing in 1937 to the Partition of West Bengal in 1971, there are multiple other dark moments in history where this is a disproportionate number of atrocities committed against women. 

*The name of the interviewee has been changed. 

Family Gender & Identity Life

Hey working women, feeling overwhelmed by your second shift?

For many working women, a nine to five workday is merely a fantasy. So much work is done before nine and after five such as changing diapers, washing dishes, cooking meals, setting tables, and more. Yet, as we know, this isn’t the kind of work that translates into GDP figures or economic output. Rather, the aforementioned chores are considered the private duties of women. Consequently, far too many women in M|F couples spend their after-work hours toiling away in a vicious cycle of thankless labor.

Across varying cultures globally, it has been estimated that on average, women spend twice as much time on household work as men and four times as much time on childcare. 

Scholars in past decades have studied the lives of working women, both in the professional and domestic sector. They’ve termed the phenomenon of women’s over-extending labor, on and off the clock, the “double work burden” or otherwise, “the second shift.” Unlike women’s professional jobs, which may also have their own difficulties due to workplace misogyny or lack of equal pay, their “second shift” at home is not compensated. As a result, working women are crushed under the weight of this invisible labor, which is hardly ever acknowledged and rarely appreciated. 

So where did this inequality originate?

The “double shift” phenomenon is based on stereotypical gender roles: men are the hardworking breadwinners while women are child-bearers and homemakers due to their inherently “nurturing” nature. Now, however, the gendered division of labor fails to serve as an efficient economic system

Previously, women used to mostly cater to domestic responsibilities because they were not permitted to work outside of their household. Men, on the other hand, were tasked with wealth accumulation for their family unit. However, since World War II, the global economy has seen an exponential rise in working women. Therefore, social and economic institutions should also evolve in correspondence to the progressing societal role of women.

In many cultures, such as mine, it is believed that men are still primary breadwinners, since only two-thirds of women are employed in the workforce, and women only bring additional income to the family. In such cases, it is thought that men are not to participate in domestic chores because they bear the sole responsibility of being “providers.”

But for a minute consider a couple that works equally. In that case, do men step up and take charge of household duties? Not so much. According to research conducted by PEW, about half of parents in households wherein both the mother and the father work full time say, in their family, the mother does more in terms of managing the children’s schedules and activities.

The social construction of gender roles is such that it projects women as inherently domesticated individuals who are more than willing to undertake household responsibilities. For example, most household and cleaning products are advertised to women. This is because capitalistic, patriarchal structures simply expect women to undertake housework in lieu of the males within the home.

And sadly these advertisements also depict daughters helping mothers, whereas the sons and fathers of the family aren’t shown participating in traditional household chores. These frequent portrayals of only having women acting out tasks and chores within the house, risk perpetuating these stigmas onto future generations of women. 

On another note, the idea that household chores are “labors of love” gifted for the entire family on behalf of mothers, has debilitating consequences for the mental and physical health of women. Women, on average, lose up to thirteen hours of sleep per month due to fulfilling domestic duties. 

Additionally, if you are a working woman and feel you don’t endure the second shift because of financial privilege, check again. Even if you have delegated household help or staff of nannies and cooks, consider who is managing your employees. Who trains the staff, orders groceries for the family, or manages the finances at home? Even the seemingly simple task of managing household chores takes up ample mental space- which is what feminists refer to as “the mental load.”

Ultimately, the double work burden is a by-product of oppressive gender roles coupled with capitalistic evaluations of labor and value outcomes. Sometimes, demanding household chores are more physically demanding and emotionally draining than office work. But somehow, the household chores is the work rarely appreciated.

Why? Probably because there is no economic compensation for household chores nor does capitalism value work that doesn’t benefit the economy. Just think about the amount of money that is saved by women undertaking tasks that would otherwise be costly, such as caring for sick family members. Many countries don’t even invest in social care; instead, these countries completely bank on women to do domestic work.

[Image Description: A tweet by Bridgie Casey, reposted by the Indian Feminist.] via Instagram
Working women, next time you find yourself stuck in the oppressive monotony of household chores, please know that you are not alone. Many women around the world feel and relate to the weight of domestic chores on top of working full-time. So, if no one has told you already, the work you do is, in fact, valuable and very much appreciated!

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History Forgotten History Lost in History

Before Rumi there was Rabia Basri, the first female Muslim Saint

To read more stories about the forgotten legacy of powerful Muslim women from history, check out our series on Iconic Muslim Women. 

With Oprah Winfrey and Ivanka Trump all using the word “Sufism” to describe their own spiritual journeys, Sufism has been all the rage in pop culture in the past century or so. Though it is a branch of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness to God, its popular perception these days is in a secular space, symbolized by qawalis and the dance of the whirling dervishes.

The origins of Sufism have at best been traced back to the 13th-century Persian scholar, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, more popularly known as Rumi. Lesser known, however, is the figure of Rabia Al-Adawaiyya, more commonly known as Rabia Basri, who lived centuries before Rumi and consolidated many beliefs and doctrines for Sufism when it was in its incubatory phase. So a tradition we may see in hindsight as being a male-dominated universe actually had one of its pioneers as a woman. 

Who was Rabia Basri? Well, today her biographical details are so intertwined with myth that it is difficult to separate the two. She was born in 717 CE in Basra, Iraq (during the Abbasid Caliphate). Legend has it that she was born into poverty, raised during a famine, and eventually sold into slavery. At each of these phases, however, were signs from God, prophecies, and premonitions to people around her, of what her stature later in life would be. Farid Al-Din Attar, a Persian poet, and philosopher from the 12th century wrote that when she was born, her family was so bereft of all material possessions that they did not even have oil to light a lamp or a piece of cloth to wrap her up in. And with her first night in the world, the Prophet appeared in her father’s dream saying

“Your newly born daughter is a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many people to the right path.”

After being orphaned during a famine, she fell into the hands of slavery. Upon finishing her chores tirelessly during the day, she would hold night-long vigils praying. And it was during one of these nights that her master saw her devotion and apparently also a halo surrounding her, which compelled him to free her. It was a sign from God, he thought.

After being freed from slavery, she dedicated her life to God completely. She never got married or had any children of her own. With no family or existing blood ties to speak of, she became a figure of solitude and celibacy. Not only was she distant from people but was also devoid of any material possessions. Her biographers claim that when she passed away, she had nothing but a reed mat, a pottery jug, and a bed that doubled as her prayer rug. It was this airy and light existence that allowed her to lead a nomadic life. It has been said that she once embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca on foot which was to take seven years at the time. 

[Image Description: Tomb of Rabia Basri in Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.] via Islam Information Portal
Her identity was multifaceted: she was the first Muslim saint, she was a poet, and she was a preacher. She preached outside mosques reciting poetry about the transience of this world (a feat that would shatter stereotypes of Muslim women in today’s world). The fragments of poetry that exist today, though, are perhaps as scarce as her material belongings. Much of her poetry is in verses that were transmitted orally. One of her famous verses are the following: 

“O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,

then burn me in Hell;

If I worship You because I desire Paradise,

then exclude me from Paradise;

But if I worship You for Yourself alone,

then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.”

These words establish one hard fact about her: hers was an identity of renunciation. Not only did she renounce worldly luxuries but also any form of indulgence in the afterlife. In these iconic words, she overturns reward and punishment, hell and heaven, in a relentless yearning for the Divine. Her expression of her love for God transcended the material, the bodily, the worldly, and even the afterworld-ly. 

Encountering this enigmatic woman in history meant that I had to unlearn much of my existing knowledge of Sufism. As an avid reader of Rumi’s biographies, I had always noticed how the women in Rumi’s family were overshadowed by his spiritual complexity. With his meeting with Shams-il-Tabriz, it seemed as though, at least at that point in history, it was only possible for men to achieve a certain spiritual status. Because women, often being child-bearers and caretakers became increasingly tied to their own body and their families, traditional gender roles would rarely allow for a woman to spend life in seclusion and asceticism. Rabia Basri’s life, however, denied subservience to any being, much less a man. Her only allegiance was to her Lord. And that servitude ironically was the greatest source of liberation for her.

So why has she not been canonized as much as Rumi? Is it because of the fact that Rumi reigned from an affluent background and had scribes writing down each of his words? Could be. But it could also be because of her gender. Perhaps that is why few to none white men have picked up her existing poetry and life and have decided to write about her, or even tried to excavate the truth about her. Perhaps there is some level of internalized misogyny that prevents writers from incorporating her in mainstream culture, the age-old question: how can a woman transcend the bodily and the worldly, to become nothing but a soul. After all, in all other traditions and religions most saints have been men. 

Whatever the case may be, it was she, the mother of Sufism who taught future mystics, the doctrine of Ishq-e-Haqeeqi (true/Divine love). In the words of Farid Al-Din Attar, praising Rabia Basri’s unparalleled status as a female Sufi saint in the Conference of the Birds:

No, she wasn’t a single woman,

But a hundred men over:

Robed in the quintessence of pain

From foot to face, immersed in the Truth,

Effaced in the radiance of God,

And liberated from all superfluous excess.

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Culture Life

Are influencers actually a bad influence on us?

Consider this a rant. 

Another morning. Another day of Instagram. Another day of an incessant barrage of filtered posts and stories. Influencers reign on social media as quasi-celebrities. They curate a maze of illusions. They create a never-ending labyrinth of flawless faces and perfect lives.

Of course, we all have bought into the aspirational appeal of the blogger culture. I, too, thought that it was an avenue for individuals to channel their creativity, for fashionistas to share their personal styles and a great place for potential consumers to find honest product reviews. We all took part in the voyeuristic culture, getting a tiny glimpse into the lives of well-connected insiders, their glamorous houses in the Hamptons, and their affiliations with high-profile brands. 

But this year, along with the pandemic, changed a lot. During the pandemic, when everyone’s attention was suddenly diverted towards survival and safety, the last thing anyone wanted to see was an influencer flexing their Hermes Birkin collection. When the Black Lives Matter protests reignited debates around racial inequality, Tik Tok dances were not the way to cope. And with one of the greatest economic recessions in modern history anticipated, influencers flaunting their Chanel bags in different colors really failed to resonate with anyone. It was all simply in bad taste considering the state of the world. 


So gradually, I began to unfollow account after account, trying to preserve some of my sanity. But it was too late. The toxic influencer culture had already inaugurated a new age of online validation. Normal, everyday people now aspire to emulate this aesthetic. Their self-worth, calculated by followers and likes. 

The new Instagram aesthetic has become the benchmark for a post. Every darn look is the same. You have the classic beauty blogger makeup look- the voluminous eyelashes, the chiseled jawlines and cheekbones, and the luscious Kylie Jenner lips.

Where is the individuality? Where is the diversity? Everything is so airbrushed, the world has probably even forgotten what normal looks like. 

And the pressure to meet these unreal expectations exacerbates insecurities and amplifies anxieties for many. A recent survey found that more than half of 18 to 34-year-olds feel that social media, along with reality TV, has a negative effect on how they see their bodies. 

You might say “if you don’t like it, just unfollow it.” But this is not just about logical adults setting boundaries. It is about all the impressionable minds out there, the teens and pre-teens whose self-image is currently being cast in this awful filtered light.

You might also say: If your life is actually that glamorous, why hide it? Here is why I think flaunting culture is a bit disingenuous. There is a fine line between inspiring and showing off. Let’s consider an actual celebrity like Jennifer Aniston. Just take a look at her Instagram account: 

[Image Description: A screenshot of Jennifer Aniston’s IG account.] via Instagram
Now there’s no doubting her glamor quotient. She’s been on magazine covers and movie posters. She’s obviously traveled the world enough. Yet, her Instagram account doesn’t look like a painted version of reality. 

 But now let’s take a look at your quintessential blogger: 

[Image Description: A screenshot of a blogger’s account.] via Instagram
Look at the filters, the editing, the post-production. It is all so very curated. This is a manipulated reality that might not even exist in this world. 

I mean, no one’s life is that perfect. And certainly, nobody wakes up looking like the babyface filter. But then again no influencer will ever confess to this reality. There is an utter lack of transparency which has generated unrealistic expectations for everyday people. Nothing less than perfect will do. 

So when we scroll through Instagram after a bad day, it seems as though the world is all rainbows and bursts of sunshine. In our vulnerable moments, we compare our lives to those of others, including the seemingly perfect influencers on our feed.

The illusion of flawlessness is deceptive but few people call it out for how bogus it is. Even fewer people acknowledge that. Gullible consumers become collateral damage in their rat race for followers and the hustle for sponsorships. We fall prey to the subtly masqueraded yet persistent advertisements: phrases such as “this is one of my holy grail products”, “this product was a game-changer” etc. What we don’t realize is that many of these unwarranted advertisements are paid, often up to thousands of dollars per post! Kylie Jenner, the queen of Instagram though, is paid anywhere in the six-digit category for her endorsements per post! So much for the honest reviews right? 

So how are well-meaning influencers supposed to navigate this cesspool of narcissism and materialism? For starters, be a little more organic about your content. Use your platforms and your clout to shine a light on pressing social issues. Be political. Take a stand. Be transparent. Let go of the numbers game. For once, try to view the world without a lens. 

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Best Friends Forever Life

11 warning signs that you are actually the toxic friend

I often see Instagram posts giving advice on how to handle a potentially toxic friend or relationship. These posts say things like, “walking away from toxic friends is an act of self-love” or “detox your life from negative people.” So naturally, traits you associate with “toxic people” are malicious individuals who exude negative energy. People who tend to intentionally disrupt your energy and your day.

However, toxic people aren’t monolithic. What if I told you that you have also, at some point, exhibited toxic traits? Of course, it is easier to identify the demons in your own life, but it can be difficult to admit that you could be a villain in someone else’s story.

Since it is often easy to be shortsighted regarding your toxic flaws, here’s a list of red flags signaling you might be the person on the wrong side of a friendship. 

1. You talk more than you listen

[Image description: Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks talking with a serious expression. ] via Giphy
Have you ever returned home from meeting a friend and wondered why they didn’t update you on their life? Well, it might be because you were talking about yourself the entire time. Although many of us have a tendency to be slightly self-absorbed at times, being excessively self-involved is definitely a toxic trait. To combat this, lend an attentive ear every now and then.

Make sure you ask about how your friend is doing and make sure you don’t occupy more space in the friendship than the other person. After all, friendship is about equality. You might be the lead role in your life, but your friends are certainly not the supporting cast! 

2. You play divide and rule to conquer social groups

[Image description: GIF of character from Mean Girls saying "you can't sit with us!" Via GIPHY
[Image description: GIF of character from Mean Girls saying “you can’t sit with us!” Via GIPHY
You often find yourself amidst other people’s drama because you love exclusionary social politics. You’ll corner one person, only to later pretend to be sympathetic towards them. You also tend to turn people against each other so that you can benefit from their mutually degrading friendship. All of this chaos makes you feel alive, relevant, and perhaps even powerful. 

3. You love giving unsolicited advice

[Image description: Regina George, played by Rachel Mc Adams, in Mean Girls saying her iconic line.] via Giphy
Here’s the thing about unsolicited advice: it’s typically unwanted! Learn to keep your opinions to yourself, and only give advice when it is asked for. You might have your heart in the right place when you call somebody out on their sartorial choices or when you criticize your friend’s appearance. You may even tell yourself that you’re only helping your friend improve so that someone else won’t give them harsher criticism or insults.

However, being perennially critical does not help anyone. Instead, it often comes off as mean-spirited.

4. You find it easier to talk about people behind their back rather than to their face 

[Image description: Rachel, played by Jennifer Anniston and Amy Green from Friends gossiping.] via Giphy
Have you ever been guilty of intentionally breaking someone’s trust? Do you relish in idle gossip? You tell yourself that you’re only “talking” about your issues with someone else. But guess what? That counts as backbiting too! The more mature and kinder route to take when having issues with someone: talk to them face-to-face. Address the person who the issue concerns. And don’t gossip about someone else’s business with parties not directly involved in the conflict. 

5. You often find yourself projecting your own unresolved issues onto other people

[Image description: Blair Waldorf, played by Leighton Meester making an angry face.] via Giphy
Simply put, your coping mechanism is to project your deepest insecurities onto other people. You may also interfere with other people’s mental well-being by planting seeds of self-doubt in their minds. For a moment, your confidence and mood are boosted with a false sense of superiority. But that is short-lived. Your unhealed trauma persists, still disrupting your mental peace. And the cycle continues.

Here’s the catch: immense self-awareness is needed to even recognize this pattern. Projecting onto others is so deeply ingrained in your behavior that it feels normal for you. So, how do you prevent this cycle from continuing to consume your mental health? You seek therapy. You discuss your childhood traumas and address them in a healthy manner with a professional.

This is the most effective way of ensuring you do not further propagate your own wounds, especially onto others. 

6. You neglect genuine friendships for social media clout

[Image Description: Best friends in Vegas taking a selfie.] via Giphy
Imagine this scenario: you’re at a party or social event with your closest friend. You then neglect your friend whilst taking way too many selfies with people who you think make you look better on social media. All the while your friend is sitting in the corner, bored, and regretting their decision to go out with you.

There’s no harm in indulging in socializing and networking while out, especially if your friend has no interest in the matter. But should disingenuous socializing come at the cost of your actual friend’s feelings? Next time while you’re out, try to spend more time investing in genuine conversations with the friend(s) you came with. Or befriend people because you click, not so that you can tag them in your Instagram posts, only using them for social media clout.  

7. You struggle to respect boundaries 

[Image Description: Michael Scott from The Office.] via Giphy
The concept of consent is important in friendships too. Do you get infuriated when a friend says no? Do you get offended when they stand their ground and try to protect their financial, emotional, and physical boundaries? Being entitled to impose onto others while disregarding their boundaries is toxic behavior. So is guilt-tripping your friends when they say they are busy.

In addition, while we’re on the subject of practicing self-awareness, next time you call a friend to rant about your day, ask if they have the mental capacity to listen to you, or if they are overwhelmed by their own problems. 

8. You think the world revolves around you 

[Image Description: Kim Kardashian takes a selfie next to Kris Jenner in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. ] via Giphy
Think of a situation in which your friend is going through something and needs you. Maybe it’s a relationship gone wrong or a personal tragedy. Do you find yourself doing a mental eye roll when the subject is not on or about you? Do you become tempted to then redirect the narrative to involve yourself? In the future, consider: if you have the right to occupy space within a friendship, what about the other person? Friendships should look more like a democracy, not a one-person dictatorship. 

9. You find it hard to be genuinely happy for others 

[Image Description: Rachel, played by Jennifer Anniston, giving her version of the middle finger.] via Giphy
When a friend breaks good news to you, are you happy for them? Or do you find yourself questioning outcomes surrounding your own problems? Thinking, “when will those things work out for me?” While it is natural to feel slight pangs of jealousy sometimes, it is important not to allow the occasional jealousy to develop into full-fledged envy. Don’t let schadenfreude get the better of you! Now is your time to be a supportive friend. Trust, that your time will come. 

10. You like to control people

[Image Description: Khloe Kardashian talking to Kylie Jenner in an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.] via Giphy
You struggle to be around opinionated individuals, and you thrive off more submissive personalities. You prefer having someone who will blindly follow instructions rather than having a friend with more autonomy. Someone with their own views and ideas. You struggle to accept people the way they are and feel the need to micromanage them completely.

All of these are red flags, so beware!

11. You love comparing some of your friends to other friends 

[Image Description: Kim Kardashian makes a funny comment in an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.] via Giphy
Do you find yourself uttering phrases like, “[insert name here] is so much more fun to be with compared to [insert another name here]?” Instead of appreciating individuality, you try to assess all friendships with the same yardstick. Little do you realize, comments like that prevent friendships from developing naturally. 

These are just some of my humble learnings throughout life. So if you feel like you identified with any of these tips, reflections, and suggestions, consider this article an intervention. Don’t corrupt your friendships with toxic behaviors or attitudes. Ultimately, it is important to be the kind of friend you want to have!

For those of you who are at the receiving end of a toxic friendship, there’s no shame in asking for positive vibes only! 

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TV Shows Pop Culture

“The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” reveals the not-so-fabulous side of Bollywood

In an industry where the debate on nepotism resurfaces every time a star child makes his debut, a show especially featuring the lives of star kids and star families is bound to be a source of intrigue. With Sushmita Sen’s daughter, Renee Sen’s debut in Bollywood rekindling this topic, and I could not help but watch the recent show, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives with some intrigue and some skepticism.

The show is a homegrown, South Bombay version of Keeping Up with the Kardashians meets Desperate Housewives meets Wives of Beverly Hills. In other words, it is the first of its kind Indian reality TV series that gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Bollywood elite.

But does it? What we expect to see at the very least are wives of A-list celebrities- such as Shahrukh Khan and Amir Khan. What we end up with actually is the periphery of the inner circle: Neelam Kothari, Maheep Kapoor, Bhavna Pandey, and Seema Khan. All wives to moderately famous and marginally relevant actors.

Yet, the show was trending on Netflix as No 1 in both, India and Pakistan for weeks after it released. Why? Because of our inherent voyeuristic impulse? Because of our perennial curiosity about how the crème de crème of society lives, what they eat, what they wear etc? Fair enough. This formula of granting the audience an insider lens into this otherwise inaccessible world under the guise of reality television has been a successful one. Hell, it made the Kardashians who they are today. It gave them the platform to launch several multi-million-dollar businesses. And of course, such content is insanely binge-worthy and makes for an awesome guilty pleasure watch. This is exactly what I was expecting from The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. But it missed the mark by a mile.

Yes, it was scripted, staged, and contrived. It committed all the cardinal sins of reality television in general. But I was willing to settle for that. The shallowness and superficiality could have still been palatable, had it not been reeking of political incorrectness. What triggered me was the display of privilege, morphed with entitlement and tone-deafness.

The show features sexism, classism, ageism, and most other isms you can think of. The series opens with Maheep Kapoor, obsessing over le Ball (a debutante ball in France, kind of like the one in Gossip Girl that Blair and Serena attend) which her daughter had had the honor of being invited to, saying that only “predominantly prestigious families” were invited to this event which is an opportunity for “girls to come out into society”. In another instance, Neelam Kothari tells her husband that it is different for him to do intimate scenes on camera because he is a man. In behavior reflecting a mid-life crisis of sorts, the women also seem awfully obsessed with looking younger and weigh out their options from spiritual treatment tightening their skin to “going under the knife”.

[Image Description: A still from the le Bal event in The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives.] via Netflix
But to be honest, in an industry where the “shelf life” of women is considered their mid-30s (a notion which is just recently being challenged), I could not expect any better. And though these archaic and regressive beliefs are institutionalized via the rigid class system, what emerged the most problematic for me was Bollywood’s own controversial “N” word that was invoked and defended many times- “nepotism”.

[Image Description: Neelam Kothari talks about fillers and botox.] via Netflix
The nepotism debate has been one of much vigor in the past few years, with “outsiders” revealing how the barriers to entry within the film industry are ridiculously high for talented individuals and obnoxiously low for star kids. The show, through its characters, chimes in its two cents on the debate too. You’ll see actors like Sanjay Kapoor (Anil Kapoor’s brother) saying that if nepotism was the key to success, he’d be the most employed person in Bollywood. You have his wife talking about how hard it is for star kids because they are trolled just that much more for their privilege and access to roles.

Now it comes as no surprise that the show was produced by the digital leg of Dharma productions, Dharmatic, owned by Karan Johar who has been touted by his opponents as being “the flag bearer of nepotism”. So excuse my conspiracy theories of him having an agenda and using his clout and platform to defend him and offer the “other side of the story.”

All the four protagonist’s children appear on the show in brief cameos. All of them want to become actors. Do they have the talent required? Only time can tell. But the sheer idea of one inheriting a place in a democratic industry by virtue of family connections is enough to make one shudder.

[Image Description: Maheep Kapoor talks about her daughter Shanaya Kapoor being trolled on social media.] via Netflix
What the show seeks out to do is garner sympathy for star families and kids. But that backfires. What it ends up doing is further cementing the audience’s growing disregard for nepotism. It reveals on a glaring screen the inadequacies of the aspiring actors: Shanaya is invited to le Bal for no achievement of her own, but by way of being a famous actor’s niece. Her brother, Jahan, too, aims to be a Hindi film actor but does not know the language yet. The show inadvertently ends up proving the impotence of nepotism.

This is particularly relevant in the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide this year, which quickly elevated into a proxy war within Bollywood and brought the casting and production process into scrutiny. It revealed the dark underbelly for outsiders- the depression, the rejection, the exclusion based upon class and hierarchy. It revealed that the elite of Bollywood is in bed with tabloids, driving the propaganda and narrative a certain way, swaying the public opinion, encouraging blind items to be written, and isolating many despite their raw talent.

The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is a celebration of the very ideals that have been brought into question recently. The show’s release is not only highly untimely and tone-deaf to the existing moment and but also very insensitive. What was needed was a heightened sensitivity, a thorough privilege check on behalf of these families, but what the show does is present a stubborn insistence on the status quo.

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History Forgotten History Lost in History

Leo Tolstoy’s legacy will forever remain indebted to his wife, Sofia Tolstoy

“All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” 

The opening words of Anna Karenina are profound in their understanding of dysfunctional families. One might wonder: to what extent was the family life of its writer, Leo Tolstoy, dysfunctional? Tolstoy was a man who has heralded a reputation as being one of the greatest literary figures in Russian literature and one of the voices of dissent against the Tsarist regime. But he led a tumultuous family life that has been veiled by the magnanimity of his works.

How did Tolstoy achieve this tremendous success? As the old cliche goes, “behind every successful man is a woman.” In his case, it was his wife, Sofia Tolstoy. 

[Image Description: Leo and Sophia Tolstoy with eight of their children in 1887.] via The Daily Mail UK
Leo Tolstoy married Sophia Behrs in 1862. It was a union with an age difference of 16 years (he was her senior) and resulted in 13 children. Though his name precedes hers today, she was a woman with literary inclinations of her own. She was a diarist. She was a photographer who took about a thousand photos chronicling her family life. She acted as copywriter and editor for his magnum opus, War and Peace. She wrote and rewrote the manuscript from end to end, from cover to cover six times. She did so after dark when the children were asleep and domestic responsibilities had been taken care of. Turkish writer Elif Shafak writes in her Black Milk that Sofia “inspired, indulged and assisted” Leo.

When they got married, she internalized much of his identity: his name became hers. His passions reigned through her. Her artistic premise was based on his artistic creation. And in her diaries, she wrote mostly about him. So how did a relationship so ideal turn so sour? 

Alexandra Popoff, a biographer of Sofia Tolstoy said: “It was not she or the family who changed. It was Tolstoy who changed. It was he who walked away from them. The family instead of being an ideal had become an obstacle.” 

Tolstoy’s ideological and spiritual quest alienated him from his own family. His increasing empathy for the Serfs of rural Russia paralleled his detachment from his family. The pulses of the marriage fluctuated with his mood. Towards the end of his marriage, the couple began to quarrel over what to do with the family estate, as Tolstoy intended to give all his wealth away. While one may adore his philanthropic attitude, it is important to view it in light of Sofia’s sacrifices. Before exalting him as a great socialist, one must explore her thoughts. 

Excerpt from Sophia’s diary: 

26th August 1892 

“It was 20 years ago when I was young and happy that I started writing about my love for Leo Tolstoy in these diaries. There is virtually nothing but love in them in fact. Here I am sitting up all night on my own reading and mourning its loss. For the first time in our life, he ran off to sleep alone in the study. We were quarreling over such silly things. I accused him of taking no interest in the children and not helping me look after Elia who is sick. Today he shouted at the top of his voice that his dearest wish was to leave his family. I shall carry the memory of that heartfelt heart-rending cry to my grave. I pray for death. For without his love I can not survive. I knew this the moment his love for me died. “

So why did a man who would plow in the fields to empathize with peasants not empathize with his wife’s burden at home? His selective empathy bore no fruit for Sophia Tolstoy. With his family, he remained as distant as ever. Sophia Tolstoy lost three of her thirteen children while Anna Karenina was being written. Maybe that is why she felt the need to protect her children’s inheritance. He had distributed books freely in order to democratize literature. But where was this altruism when it came to his wife, who stood by him all these years? 

Perhaps this is the luxury “great” men are afforded. The luxury of obsessing over grand political ideas while their personal lives can take a back seat. 

And with this privilege comes some artistic indulgence. 

While Tolstoy took the liberty to immortalize himself by crafting Anna and Levin as surrogates or proxies of himself, Sophia had no such space to garner fame. Her space was denied by time, by logistics, and by her body which for a large portion of her life was spent giving birth or nursing. Tolstoy became a great philosopher, a great writer by breathing his existential plight into his characters. And Sophia Tolstoy became a bitter woman, paranoid and insecure about her future. She became the ostracized countess of an eccentric man when he was excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1901.

Without Sofia, Tolstoy wouldn’t have written the literary masterpieces we remember him for. The debt of her contribution to will never be repaid.

In Sofia’s diaries, it is also found that Tolstoy told Sophia not to “nag” him, not to let the children disturb him. And the mutual resentment grew. In return, he granted her a tiny space in Anna Karenina. She became the blueprint for the character of Dolly as he wrote: 

“Looking back over her fifteen years of married life, nothing but pregnancy, sickness, mind dulled and indifferent to everything and, most of all — the disfigurement. the births, the agony… the hideous agonies that last a moment, and then nursing the baby. The fearful pains- Dolly shuddered at the fearful recollection of the pains she’d endured from sore nipples she’d suffered from almost every baby. Then, the children’s illnesses, the everlasting misery. And on top of it all, the death of those children, the cruel memory that never ceased to tear the mother’s heart.”

[Image Description: A portrait of Sophia Tolstoy and her daughter Alexandra Tolstaya.] via Wikiwand
In these few words, Tolstoy inadvertently conveyed the extent of Sophia’s grief, loss, and resilience. Yet somehow, many years later, he denounced his aristocratic status and fled from home to die in solitude, away from his wife’s “incessant nagging”. 

The debt of her contribution to his literary legacy was never repaid. He left behind a woman with many unrealized dreams who will forever remain overshadowed by her husband’s lofty ambition.

It was only recently that her personal diaries have been dug up and published. But still, this was done not to understand her domestic plight, but to get a glimpse into Tolstoy’s personal life. This just makes me wonder: how many women, how many wives with suppressed passions are forgotten in history only to be rediscovered later in personal mementos? 

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History Forgotten History

Wait, Jesus Christ wasn’t actually born on Christmas?

Read more of our holiday stories here!

As the last leaves of autumn fall, a splash of crimson and a spectacle of Christmas trees and colored lights takes over. The celebration of feasts and eggnog, of holiday sales, and Santa Claus are touted as Jesus Christ’s birthday. In most churches, sermons on the 25th of December reiterate the classical Biblical narrative: Jesus came into this world through an immaculate conception – a miracle, a divine intervention of sorts. However, little emphasized is the fact that the Bible does not specify an exact date for the birth of Jesus.

With our age-old association of Christmas and snow, it might be difficult to envision the most popular holiday of the year at another time. But the sparse references that do exist in relation to it in the Gospel of Matthew gesture towards a season other than winter. Researchers have speculated spring as being the accurate time due to the references of sending sheep into fields around Jesus’s birth:

“And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

So how did humans suddenly decide Christmas should be in December?

The celebration of winter solstice can be traced past the inception of Christianity and all the way back to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) people. Most early Europeans celebrated the dark days and nights of winter with pagan customs. Germans honored the pagan god Oden through their mid-winter holiday and the Scandinavian people of Norse celebrated Yule from the 21st of December. Even the Romans celebrated Saturnalia to honor the God of Agriculture, Saturn from the middle of Winter.

Okay, so the middle of winter was clearly a popular time for early Europeans due to the abundance of meat and wine then. But why did December 25, in particular, become Christmas?

Venerated above all other pagan gods by the Romans, was Mithra. The Greco-Roman Hellenistic deity considered the God of the Sun was thought to be born on the 25th of December. And so the date marked the single most holy day in the Roman Empire.

[Image Description: A statue of the Roman sun God Mithra at the British Museum.] via The National News
So when Pope Julius I decided to institute Christmas as a holiday in the 4th century in order to inculcate Christian values, there could be no better day than what was already the most popular festival in the Roman Empire. The Church came to realize that they could not fully purge society of pagan customs and rituals that had been an integral part of the culture for so long. But they could change them up a bit. And that is exactly what they did. Instead of changing the date altogether, they changed the cause of celebration instead.

While the holiday was transformed from pagan to Christian, the rituals also had to follow suit. What was previously a festival of intoxication (akin to Mardi Gras today), had to be subsumed by a peaceful, family-oriented holiday. Throw in Christmas trees, symbolic of the Garden of Eden and their red ornaments, symbolic of the forbidden fruit, and you got yourself a Biblical celebration.

So you must be wondering: did anyone ever try to abolish Christmas due to its lack of Biblical authenticity? Well, there was a time when Christmas was canceled. Puritans from the 17th century (reinforcing pure and undiluted Christian ideals) disapproved of Christmas altogether. Similar sentiments were felt by many during the period of religious reform in Europe. With the accession of Charles II to the throne in Britain, Christmas came to life once again. Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens revived the occasion through his work A Christmas Carol, whilst Washington Irving emphasized the virtues of charity and gratitude in a time of class conflict through his works.

The capitalistic Christmas extravaganza that we know today is so quintessentially American that most Christmas movies are set in the Big Apple. It may come as a shock to you that America only officialized Christmas as a federal holiday in 1870! In fact, even the Pilgrims arriving in the Americas purposely left Christmas out of their baggage. Through some of the 17th century, Christmas was made illegal in Boston and some other colonies and virtually never reached America till much later.

Though the holiday finds its origins in religious tradition, today the holiday has come to take on a more secular space where it has become a cultural and commercial phenomenon for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even agnostics, and atheists alike. From Paganism to Christianity to Puritanism – Christmas has evolved through it all!

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World News Coronavirus Policy Inequality

Pakistan seems to have embraced Christmas but not Christians

As I sit in a buzzing restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in Karachi, I see an artificial conifer tree near the entrance. It is draped with fairy lights and decorated with Christmas decorations with artificial presents around it. This time of the year, in the largest metropolis of Pakistan, this sight is more prevalent than the amount of Christians in the country. Most restaurants, malls, and even storefronts tap into the holiday spirit by investing in some festive decorations. I find this extremely amusing; not because Pakistan’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim; not even because this level of enthusiasm is not granted to another major minority (Hindus and their festivals who also make up 1.6% of the country’s population), but because this paints a falsely progressive portrait of our society.

In a country that was built upon the basis of religion, Islam, and its basis is upheld as ardently as ever, the symbolic inclusivity of Christmas is impressive. Yet it is also a deceptive veneer masking the grotesque truth about religious persecution. Just this year, the International Christian Concern (ICC) documented about 80 cases of persecution in the country, ranging from discrimination, sexual assaults, abductions, forced conversions, blasphemy accusations, and murder.

In this same year, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja was abducted and subjected to forced conversion and marriage to a 45-year-old Muslim man, who initially tried to prove that she was 18 and consented to the marriage. While the incident caused an uproar on social media, the authorities were slow to take action, prioritizing the investigation of her actual age through a medical board. Though horrifying, Arzoo Raja’s story was by no means rare. According to a study conducted by Birmingham University, about 1000 girls each year are “abducted, forcibly converted, and married off to their abductors.”

In Pakistan, minority women are a lesser citizen

While such perverse instances make headlines, the religious discrimination of the Christian community is common in most spheres of Pakistani life. They are also relegated to the peripheries of the economy and the workforce: due to bleak employment opportunities owing to lack of education and financial privilege. Thus many Christian women specialize as nursing staff or as beauty workers in salons. Growing up, the fact that the majority of salon workers were Christian, with few to none Muslims was a source of intrigue for me. But when I learned that Christians make up to 80% to 90% of Pakistan’s sanitation workforce, I understood it was a mix of discriminatory hiring practices and the idea of hygiene and caste (which is also prevalent in the Hindu caste system where there exists a sweeper class). Ironically, many of Pakistan’s Christians actually descended from low caste Hindus who converted in order to escape the caste system. But at the same time, in my years of visiting salons, I have also witnessed seemingly enlightened, privileged women walk in and request only Muslim girls do their services. I later discovered that as a result, many salon workers had adopted more Muslim sounding pseudonyms: a Maria was actually Mary.

On my last trip to the salon, I decided to ask a worker how it felt to be on the receiving end of such discrimination. I have been a regular client for this particular person and she’s otherwise quite cheerful and talkative. When I asked about her experience as a Christian in an Islamic state and the rights and liberties granted over Christmas, she was quiet and awkward. But her reticence gave me an answer that echoed loudly, the trauma of silence that her community has had to endure. Unaware of the full repercussions of the state’s blasphemy laws, I had asked a very personal question. The stringent blasphemy laws and their misuse, which in part sought to homogenize the populace of Pakistan into Muslim affiliation, have permanently robbed many of the right to freedom of speech. It was then that I realized that her reluctance to answer stemmed from her insecurity and vulnerability and my privilege as a Muslim in this country. I could record her for slander and blasphemy and have her charged just like many hardliners in my country historically had. Rather ashamed, I apologized for my momentary ignorance.

Two years ago, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman was finally acquitted after spending nearly a decade in prison under false blasphemy charges. But on her way of leaving the country, Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a group of hardliners, broke out into violent protests. She was accused of blasphemy after an argument with some coworkers in 2009. A year later, a local judge meted out the death sentence to her and this verdict was upheld by the High Court of the region. Shahbaz Bhatti (then Minorities Minister) and Salman Taseer (then Governor of Punjab) were both assassinated for advocating for her and criticizing the blasphemy laws. Her family went into hiding and there was a bounty awarded to anyone who could kill her. Ultimately public outrage combined with humanitarian efforts had her acquitted.

[Image Description: Asia Bibi pictured on the extreme right, with her family in Canada where she now lives, after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan.] via The Guardian
Even now, while the world has been battling with a pandemic, Pakistan also has to curtail its very own epidemic of religious discrimination. The ICC also reported that Christians were deliberately left out of many food distribution efforts that happened in the wake of Covid-19. In a village in Kasur, about 100 families were denied food aid because of their “Christian surnames”. The organization also expressed concern over efforts using food aid as bait to convert vulnerable Christians and other religious minorities.

Truth be told, I don’t know why Muslims in Pakistan celebrate Christmas. Of course, the holiday coincides with the birth of Quaid-e-Azam, the nation’s founding father, which is already a Federal holiday. Maybe it is something we have picked up from television. Maybe the quaint and vintage vibe appeals to us. Maybe it is our lingering colonial complex that makes us want to appear more Eurocentric. Maybe we want to partake in the biggest consumerist frenzy of the year. Whatever the case is, the events of this year have revealed it is certainly not because we respect other traditions, cultures, or religions. The harrowing history of prejudice and discrimination leaves a stark reminder that we are only able to demonstrate tolerance and hospitality to a Christmas tree and decorations, not actual human beings.


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TV Shows Pop Culture

25 Christmas episodes to binge this Christmas… and then some

Read more of our holiday stories here!

If you’re feeling lonely this holiday season because of the COVID restrictions, here’s a good way of bringing that festive feeling without actually seeing people or stepping foot outside. How about curling up with a cozy Christmas episode? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of shows out there? No fear, we’ve got you!

Here are our top 25 picks for Christmas episodes from everyone’s favorite TV shows.

1. Friends: “The One With the Holiday Armadillo” (Season 7, Episode 10)


Ross tries to replace Ben’s obsession with Christmas jingles and Santa with some knowledge about Hanukkah. The result? A Chrismukkah featuring Ross as the Holiday Armadillo, Chandler as Santa Claus, and Joey as Superman. Rachel calls this hilarious mix the “Easter Bunny’s funeral”. 

 2. Modern Family: “Undeck the Halls” (Season 1, Episode 10)


While Phil and Claire threaten to cancel Christmas and tear down their home Christmas tree to discipline their children, the Pritchetts argue over American and Colombian Christmas customs. But all ends well with a family feast, as Jay says: “This was the year the word ‘tradition’ got a lot bigger for me”. Watch if you’re in the mood for a major Modern Family throwback! 

3. Gilmore Girls: “Forgiveness and Stuff” (Season 1, Episode 10)


Ah, Gilmore GirlsThe whimsical snow-covered Stars Hollow is as magical as fictional Christmas sets can be. Throw in the town’s performance of the nativity scene, Christmas jingles, and fairy lights and you got yourself a wholesome Christmas episode. But what is Christmas without some family drama? Lorelai’s tension with her family peaks and is resolved by forgiveness, in true holiday spirit. 

4. How I Met Your Mother: “Symphony of Illumination” (Season 7, Episode 12)


This personal favorite flips the title of the show on its head and gives us an episode of “How I Met Your Father” narrated from Robin’s point of view. In this exceptionally profound Christmas special, Robin panics through a pregnancy scare and is pulled in different directions: maternal instincts, her career, her individuality, and her independence. Recommended for the twist at the end! 

5. Hitchcock special: “Back for Christmas” 


Who says Christmas specials can only be about good cheer? If you enjoyed Psycho or The Birds, watch this nail-biting suspense in Hitchcock’s signature thriller style. His story of a Christmas gone so very wrong will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s a Wonderful Life is not the only black and white vintage Christmas throwback you can watch over the holidays! 

6. Gossip Girl: “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Season 2, Episode 12)


While the show’s Thanksgiving episodes are more memorable, this Christmas episode is certainly up in the ranks. There’s no Christmas like Christmas in the Big Apple, and Gossip Girl shows us how to celebrate it pure Upper East Side style. Thinking of holiday presents on a budget? Take some tips from Dan and Serena who seek out personalized presents under $50. If not, consider it a catalog for holiday looks. After all, nobody does fashion better than Gossip Girl.

7. Cheers: “Christmas Cheers” (Season 6, Episode 12)


Searching for something refreshingly nostalgic? Check out this episode from Cheers, the Friends of the 80s. In this Christmas special, the entire ensemble cast makes an appearance. We catch the characters in their habitual bar where everybody knows their name. Rebecca makes the bartenders work long hours, but hey! At least they have It’s a Wonderful Life playing on the bar TV to cheer them up. 

8. Everybody Hates Chris: “Everybody Hates Christmas” (Season 1, Episode 11)


This rare Black spin on sitcoms was way ahead of its time. Airing in 2005, this Christmas special addresses the intersections of class and racism. Chris wants a walkman (millennials, you know what I’m talking about!) but can’t afford it. His sister Tonya comes to face the reality that Santa isn’t real. It is one big reality check, sugar-coated with humor and childhood innocence. I feel if this episode had come out this year, it would have gotten the attention it deserved. 

9. Downton Abbey: “Christmas at Downton Abbey” (Season 2, Episode 5)


Americans aren’t the only ones obsessed with Christmas. The BBC production Downton Abbey’s second season finale is proof of that. Weaving together loose strands of subplots, the episode is like a Pinterest palette of vintage Christmas inspiration. Touted as “retro festive wallpaper”, the episode is truly eye candy culminating in the ultimate romantic moment (SPOILER ALERT!) – Matthew’s snow globe inspired proposal to Mary is a sight to behold!

10. Seinfeld: “The Strike” (Season 9, Episode 10) 


This episode begins in Hanukkah, is set in the Christmas season but demands a holiday for the secular and invented, “Festivus”. In true, cynical Seinfeld fashion, the witty humor and abundance of inside jokes make the mundane 23rd of December a day of importance through Frank Costanza’s slogan of “Festivus for the rest of us!” 

11. The Simpsons: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”  (Season 1, Episode 1) 


An ultimate throwback dating back to Season 1, Episode 1, with Homer as Santa and the rather broke Simpson family singing “Rudolph-the red-nosed reindeer”, might be THE animated Christmas special you need to see! The Simpson family does not give presents to each other, they play pranks on each other. And Bart removing Homer’s beard is the kind of slapstick I’m in for!

12. Friends: “The One Where Rachel Quits” (Season 3, Episode 10)


Rachel quits her job at Central Perk as a waitress. Meanwhile, in true Christmas spirit, Ross helps a Brown Bird sell boxes of festive cookies to help send her to space camp. Phoebe’s conscience about wasted conifer trees will make you question the environmental hazards of Christmas decoration altogether! 

13. The Office: “Christmas Party” (Season 2, Episode 10)


This episode has almost unanimously been voted the internet’s favorite out of all the Christmas episodes of The Office, a show which has given us gem after gem of memeable content. This is an iconic episode too, featuring the legendary teapot that Jim gifted Pam during the gift exchange, which Michael hijacked, as Michael would. 

14. New Girl: “The 23rd” (Season 1, Episode 9)


I will stand by this opinion for eons, Nick Miller and Jessica Day’s arc on New Girl is one of the best on TV, ever. This episode is a prime example of how much they cared for each other, without even dating (I won’t give any more spoilers). It also features significant developments with Schmidt and Cece, as well as Jess and her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Winston just does his thing, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

15. Schitt’s Creek: “Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” (Season 4, Episode 13)


Every episode of Schitt’s Creek just gets better and better, but this one hits you in all the feels. Johnny Rose, the benevolent father of the Rose family, wants to have Christmas together this year, after reminiscing about the grand parties they used to have when they were rich. His family members are less than enthused, however, and Johnny has to come to terms with letting go of his extravagant past. Like all its other season finales, this episode is packed with hilarious one-liners, delightful Moira-isms, and just all-round wholesomeness – a perfect package for Christmas!

16. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Christmas” (Season 1, Episode 11)


In this episode of everybody’s favorite cop show, Captain Holt gets death threats and assigns a delighted Jake Peralta to protect him. Jake loves his new role and uses it to lord over Captain Holt while he can, but he soon realizes the gravity of the situation. Throw in Charles worrying about missing his flight, and Amy trying to get Rosa to smile for a Christmas card, and you have yourself a merry Nine-Nine Christmas. 

17. Glee: “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” (Season 3, Episode 9)

via Tenor

You know a Glee episode is going to be amazing when it opens with a Mercedes solo, as Whitney Houston, singing the classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. It’s a triple treat! Christmas is synonymous with Christmas music, and this episode is filled to the brim with classics like “Let It Snow”, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Blue Christmas”. The Glee kids are faced with choosing between having a Christmas special aired on PBS, or serving food for the homeless. Because the club disagrees on which one to do, we get to see both situations – a delightfully corny Christmas special in the style of Star Wars and Judy Garland, as well as heartwarming scenes at the homeless shelter. Klaine fans get plenty of material to swoon about too! 

18. Community: “Regional Holiday Music” (Season 3, Episode 10)

via Tenor

This is a controversial choice to put on this list, because everyone knows the definitive one out of all the Community Christmas episodes (and possibly television as a whole) is “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, where the episode is shot in stop motion animation and deals with profoundly bittersweet themes. However, “Regional Holiday Music” is the very antithesis of the Glee episode mentioned just earlier on the list, so I felt it was fitting. This was not the first or last time show creator Dan Harmon has poked fun at Glee, and in this episode, the study group is lured into Glee Club one by one by the increasingly manic Glee Club director (Taran Killam). Complete with classic Community running gags and warm Christmas spirit, this episode is a must-watch (after Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, of course). 

19. Arrested Development: “Afternoon Delight” (Season 2, Episode 6)


Ah, Arrested Development. What a gem of a show. In this gag-filled episode, Michael and Maeby begin to spend time together after feeling ignored by their respective family members. Meanwhile Gob discovers that his attitude has been annoying his employees, and that they would not be toasting him at the Christmas party like he had expected. Lucille misses Buster. There’s not much one can describe about Arrested Development episodes in words, so I’m just going to let you watch it.

20. Fresh Off The Boat: “The Real Santa” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Jessica pretends to be Lau Ban Santa, Fresh Off The Boat
[Jessica pretends to be Lao Ban Santa, Fresh Off The Boat] via Imgur
In typical fashion, Jessica Huang wants to ‘fix’ Santa for her son Evan. Why? He doesn’t have an advanced degree, he’s only a toymaker or a glorified delivery man, and either way he’s labor, not management. When she finally blurts out that Santa is Chinese, the show then asks the question, why can’t Santa be Chinese? Fresh Off the Boat has always created light-hearted but refreshing conversations about race, and this episode is no different.

21. 30 Rock: “Ludachristmas” (Season 2, Episode 9)


30 Rock has proven on several occasions to be one of those rare shows that do absurd comedy exceedingly well. In “Ludachristmas”, the 30 Rock gang is planning their annual Christmas party, but Tracy (like in real life) has been ordered to abstain from alcohol, which he finds difficult. We also have a delightfully spiraling meeting between Liz Lemon’s family and Jack Donaghy’s mom, and you’re sure to be in stitches by the end of the episode!

22. Superstore: “Christmas Eve” (Season 3, Episode 7)


Superstore has been touted by many as the spiritual (albeit not equal) successor to that pinnacle of workplace comedy, The Office. Set in a big box store similar to the likes of Walmart, Superstore is a very underrated show providing hilarious jokes along with timely addressal of socio-political issues. In this episode, Mateo is not too excited about the prospect of Christmas, and Glenn sets out to prove him wrong. Meanwhile, Amy wants to show everyone that she’s more than the stuffy person they think she is, and Sandra gets a Christmas miracle. The whole episode ending not quite how one would expect, but definitely in line with the wacky core of the show.

23. Veep: “Camp David” (Season 5, Episode 8)

Gary and Selina look at each other, Veep
[Gary and Selina look at each other, Veep] via IMDb
Anyone who knows Selina Meyer would know she would be the last person to get sentimental about holidays. Which is why, when she suggests a family getaway to the presidential retreat of Camp David, you know she has her personal agenda in mind. A Chinese diplomatic envoy, tough negotiations and colorful hijinks ensue in this hilarious episode also featuring the ever-welcome Minna Hakkinen.

24. The Middle: “Christmas Tree” (Season 5, Episode 9)


The Middle has always been about finding the joy in the ordinary and the usually crappy moments in life, and what better time for these themes than 2020? In this episode, Frankie is disappointed, for the umpteenth time, in Mike’s usual lack of outward affection for her. Brick has begun questioning the Bible on Christmas, which horrifies Sue, who recruits Reverend Tim Tom to help out. Meanwhile, Axl makes a new friend. In the end, it all ties together for a Hecking lovely Christmas.

25. Blackadder: “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” (Special)


To many, the show Blackadder represents the very pinnacle of British humor (aside from Monty Python, of course). It brought together Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Tony Robinson, with frequent cameos from other British greats. Loaded with sarcasm, elaborate insults, and its trademark wit, Blackadder’s Christmas special is a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It opens with Ebenezer Blackadder, the nicest man in England, being visited by the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane a.k.a Rubeus Hagrid), and seeing how successful his life might have been if only he had been meaner to everyone around him. 

BONUS – 26. Mr. Bean: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean” (Season 1, Episode 7)


More Atkinson! His most loved character remains the iconic Mr. Bean. Atkinson has the rare ability to make you laugh without uttering a single word, and the Christmas episode (available on YouTube) is no different. However bad your day might be going, a good dose of Mr. Bean’s antics would definitely cheer you right up, from his new and improved version of the Nativity scene to his newfound choir conducting skills. Gather around with the whole family for a good dose of nostalgia and light-hearted fun!

BONUS – 27. Dash and Lily – the entirety of Season 1

‘Dash and Lily’ is the genuine cheer you need in 2020, even if you hate Christmas

Seriously, this show is for everyone. No matter if you love or hate Christmas. You should watch it, because it will warm your heart.

Here you have it! Everything you need to indulge in for a seasonal delight. Watching Christmas specials of your favorite shows can now be your new essential holiday tradition. These episodes will have you feeling all kinds of things- from holiday nostalgia to uninhibited laughter. Lucky for you, we selected the ones with the widest of cheers, the loudest of laughter, and the warmest of sentiments!

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