Thursday, 5 January 2012

Toronto Diaries: Beat the Winter Blues!

Yes, Canadian winters are harsh and so are winters in many other parts of the world. So when I was moving to Toronto earlier this year, many people warned me about the freezing cold minus temperatures I would be experiencing this year. Having lived in London, I had an idea of how depressing winters can get and I was dreading the season in anticipation. But you've gotta keep going, whatever the weather. So here are a few tips to keep yourself active and out of winter depression:

1. Ice Skating: With the amazing winter gear you get here in Canada (Down Jackets, face covering woollies, gloves and snow boots) you don't have too much of an excuse for staying indoors. While you might not like getting out everyday, 1-2 times a week is very much doable. At the onset of winter, ice rinks become active around all neighbourhoods, some indoors while others outdoors, so its a great outlet and exercise to beat that winter muffin and coffee fat with ice skating at least once a week. Ice skates are quite inexpensive to get starting at about $30. Or you could just rent them at the rink if you like. 

2. Warm up and Host: Yes, all those summers you've been busy with outdoor activities, lazing around on beaches or perhaps been out of the country - so no one minds that you've been out of touch with some of your local friends but its time to get back in touch again. Winters are an excellent time to starting hosting some dinner / tea parties at your place. Sitting by the fireplace with a warm coffee, chit chatting away with a group of friends is an ideal activity for when outdoors just doesn't seem fun at all! While most people have already done that around christmas and new years parties - winters are long and cold enough to continue the trend even after the holiday season. 

3. Indoor Shopping Malls: Another escape from boredom is your nearest shopping mall. Not only can you do most of your shopping without having to go to the cold parking lot every now and again, but it also gives you a good opportunity to walk your legs. (some of the bigger malls are quite a walk, and sometimes people visit malls just for a walk!)

4. Read: Have you been putting off that book you were reading because summer outdoor activities were just so much more attractive? Well now is the time to catch up on your reading while you sip your hot tea or coffee, snuggled in the cozy blanket. (Or blog like me :-) - it's great way to stay busy if you're more a of a writer than a reader)

5. Visit Museums: Another indoor activity for your winter weekends. ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in downtown Toronto is on my winter to-do list. I have been going to downtown all summer but getting into a museum on a bright sunny afternoon for 3 hours just always lost its chance against cycling around or walking by the high street. 

6. Join a class/ Watch a Performance: Art, craft, baking and other interesting classes run all the year round at different community centers. Perhaps now is the time to take up a class in a warm indoor classroom environment. Check out Living Arts for not just courses but also other events and theatrical performances taking place during the winters. 

7. Ski: If you're more adventurous for the list above, skiing is definitely one of the best activities during winters. Two great locations to skii are: Blue Mountains Ski Resort & Kelso Conservation Area. I'm sure there are many more near your area but these are two I have personally been to and loved!

Cheer up! Happy Winters!!! 

Haute Hijab: for Hijabis with style

If you cover your head and live in the west - you will surely relate to at least one of these problems:

1. Most of your favourite brands of western clothes don't have the desirable length of shirts, or shape of neck or length of sleeves or thickness of material that you would consider appropriate to go with your head covering or scarf. You don't want to end up looking like a cartoon that cares about covering the hair but is showing off curves or skin in other places. 

2. A lot of times you have to buy two to three layers of shirts separately to make the outfit look decent enough, but matching colours and materials is a big hassle! When you look at fashion mags for latest trends, hardly a style is applicable to you because of your head covering. 

3. When you're looking for office wear you struggle to find professional ankle length skirts or jackets that cover enough. You are constantly fighting for the perfect combination of looking professional and not looking overly dressed and layered. 

Well, someone out there realised that many of us share this problem and decided to tackle this niche in the female apparel market. Haute Hijab, an entreprenurial venture of a young hijabi living out of Chicago, offers elegant and stylish designs that solve all the problems stated above. The owner being a Hijabi herself understands each and every detail and nuance of mixing western wear with scarfs and head coverings and offers her design expertise that can dress you in style without having to compromise on your dressing standards.

Who says hijabi's can't look stylish? Modesty is one thing, wrapping up yourself to look odd and out of place is another. Haute Hijab is for females who would like to strike a fine balance between style and 'covering more'. Even those who don't necessarily cover their head but are looking to wear something more covering for their body would fancy designs at Haute Hijab. 

So if you've been struggling with pulling your shirts down to make them look longer, and sulking over why that trouser had to be so damn tight and why your scarf doesn't always match your dress - Haute Hijab is here to the rescue! Check Haute Hijab out for yourselves and be delighted! 

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

BLISS: Education, Entrepreneurship and Empowerment for Young Girls

As a matter of fact, most young girls in the rural areas of Pakistan drop out of school before or by grade 5. That is only, IF they get a chance to go to school. While having no money to pay the school fee is more than often the reason why girls drop out of school, even free education becomes almost impossible to attain when families depend on their girls to earn during the day time so that they may share a meager meal before going to bed. BLISS (Business and Life Skills School) has come to the rescue to at least one such rural area, Attock, a small town in northern Punjab, province of Pakistan.

BLISS is unique in their approach and model. It is a model that allows young girls to use their talent to earn money and study under the same roof, so that they don't have to make a choice between the two. This solution is actually customised to the core reason why girls were dropping out of schools in Attock. In Attock, young girls are bread earners for their families and the only source of income for most girls is carpet weaving, a highly labor intensive job that pays very little for the amount of effort and time it demands. Girls are usually working 12-14 hours a day and one carpet can take up to a month to complete. Even then, the money they earn is not always enough to support their families. With 12-14 hour long work days, there is absolutely no hope and time for education. BLISS instead diverted these talented hands onto making something that takes fewer hours and earns a lot more money than carpet weaving. These are beautiful embroidered designer hand bags. Girls can spend 1/3 the time and earn higher wages by selling these bags into the cities in Pakistan and also in the international market.

A lot has been said and applauded about BLISS in the media over the past one year but I believe no amount of words and recognition are enough to support a cause like this midst the sea of social, non-profit causes where it becomes almost impossible to decide who is the most deserving of your donation. Saba Gul, the founder and director of BLISS is an inspirational youth figure who has put in her mind, skill and time into devising this scalable, sustainable, social entrepreneurial model for girls across rural areas in Pakistan. BLISS is different from other NGOs that only provide funds for school fee, or provide free education - where it is difficult to track whether the money was ever spent on education or on other needs of the family, or to monitor attendance of each and every student in the rural school. With BLISS, the parents are encouraged and almost forced to send their girls to school where they learn how to make these designer hang bags, which are then sold to provide for the family. Sending girls to school is a source of income for the parents and a source of education for the girls where in addition to 'bag making' they also study the regular school curriculum.

After going through the achievements BLISS has made over this short span of just over a year, I was highly enthused to support their cause. I have volunteered to help with introducing their products to the international market here in Canada. This is something BLISS had already planned on venturing out on after their successful exhibitions in major cities of Pakistan (Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi) . They have recently tied up with international ambassadors in UK, France and Seattle to market the brand and build a customer base outside Pakistan as well. (Link:Bliss goes global). I hope we can soon add Canada to the list of their international buyers.

If you're in Canada and interested in owning a BLISS bag that will help a girl stay in school - here are some pictures of their 2011 collection, Sozaankar. I have ordered a couple of pieces already as samples, so if you're concerned about quality and value for your money - you can always look at the real thing by getting in touch with me via my blog.

More on the BLISS Story: Check out this great MSN video - Bags for Bliss: Design for social change