I don’t mean to be self-pitying – but…

April 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

over the last few days I’ve been acutely, painfully aware of how easy it is, as a Muslim in Britain, to feel utterly helpless in the face of a barrage of sterotypes – both imagined and in-your-face real. It makes you want to run screaming through the streets and hide in a corner all at the same time.

On Thursday I came across this advert from the International Society of Human Rights. On first glance, some bin bags at the side of the road. Look again, and one of them is a woman in a burqa. The caption at the bottom reads “Opressed women are easily overlooked” (and underneath – support us in the fight for their rights). That image made me feel physically sick and I am still struggling to work out exactly why. It’s clever, sure. But it is also utterly demeaning. In trying to show (presumably) that the burqa objectifies women, what it actually does is imply that what a woman is is entirely dependent on how others perceive her – whether this woman (or, by extension, any veiled Muslim woman, because of course the image is a symbol) made her own choices or not is irrelevant. She doesn’t exist because people don’t see her. The image does two things which turn my stomach: 1) it insists that Muslim women are victims. And this may be difficult to understand, but even as a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear any kind of veil in day-to-day life, it is like a personal attack on me and my life choices. In trying to help, it only suceeds in alienating. 2) it makes a woman a non-entity, it objectifies her in every sense of the word, far more than any burqa or piece of clothing could (in fact, in the Afghan society that the image seeks to allude to, the burqa is what makes a woman visible as a woman, it doesn’t negate her existence).  It assumes that there is only one kind of oppression, and only one kind of liberation. I think it’s dangerous to forget that oppression lies in the discriminatory attitudes towards women that lead to the burqa (or any manner of clothing or behaviour) being enforced, not in the clothing itself. I recoil from any concept that someone else can dictate the terms of your liberation. It’s one thing to support women to access their rights and determine their own choices, it’s quite another to tell them what their choices should be.

Friday I had another stomach-curling experience. Heading towards Regents Park Mosque after Friday prayers, I and a couple of friends encountered a gathering of protestors outside the mosque gates (a little caveat here – a sign inside the mosque grounds states that no political gatherings are allowed). Google  reveals that the group has a name – Muslims against the Crusades. The Muslim version of the EDL, then.  One of the black and white printed signs explained the reason for this protest – “Terry Jones burn in Hell!” So they heard about Pastor Jones’ little reported (sometimes the media does get it right) Qur’an-burning spectacle all the way in Florida. Pointelessness of the sign aside, I can understand why his blatant disrespect for Islam and Muslims got these people angry. But talk about self-fulfilling prophecy. We spoke to some of the women protestors, trying to ask what they were hoping to achieve with their angry shouty protest (ok, at this point I was assuming it would be angry and shouty. Turned out I was right). I’m still not sure they had any answer, let alone one that made sense.  As the protestors started to march, the other signs revealed themselves – “Islam will dominate the world” / “Muslims will annihalate the Crusaders” and one I can’t quite remember about democracy destroying things – a little ironic since the protestors were expressing their democratic right to freedom of speech and being protected by a bunch of non-Muslim policemen while they did. There were some less aggressive signs too, but the general sense was of a loud, threatening mob.

Watching the people come out of cafes along Baker Street to watch the spectacle (and record it on mobile phones for YouTube later…), we debated what we could do – 2 women in hijab and me against the presumptions of the public and the idiots making all those presumptions appear true. Should we try to talk to the protestors? The woman making a video on her phone? One of the girls suggested hijacking the megaphone.  In the end, she went up to the group and tried to talk to one of the guys (what she was planning to say is beyond me!) – only to be told disdainfully to “talk to the sisters!”  – at which point we realised that this march was segregated! Men at the front, a gap of about a metre, a giant banner, and then all the women – 99% niqab-wearers. Yikes. Surely this is enough to demonstrate to everyone watching that the protest represents a tiny minority of UK Muslims? As we walk away (my friend in tears) , the tightness in my gut says probably not. The people who watched this protest will just see Muslims, living in this country and hating it. The curse of this world is that those who shout the loudest are the only ones anyone takes notice of. All the rest of the Muslims, at home, at work, in the mosque, in the park with their kids, are invisible, getting on with life like everyone else and regularly finding themselves at the receiving end of torrents of verbal and physical abuse because of the actions of this minority and the assumptions of the general public.

Which brings me to today, and the story of a woman and her family in Scotland, attacked because of her hijab. Any rise in racism in Scotland, that most tolerant of countries, sets my hair on edge. I don’t even know who to blame anymore, but I’m inclined to point the finger at “us” – the Muslims who shout and those who don’t, the right-wing fearmongers and the rest of us who watch and shake out heads at the TV, the bile spouted by the Daily Mail and those who innocently read it thinking it’s “news”… 95% of the time I am sure that whatever I or anyone else does to counter the negativity, our voices will get drowned out. The rest of the time I carry on trying to do something anyway and hope for the best. If we look to history, we might still find a way to learn.


One for Roger Waters

March 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Thank goodness for people who have courage – a great article by Roger Waters in support of BDS

“Where governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal. For me this means declaring an intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government’s policies, by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.”

“Artists were right to refuse to play in South Africa’s Sun City resort until apartheid fell and white people and black people enjoyed equal rights. And we are right to refuse to play in Israel until the day comes – and it surely will come – when the wall of occupation falls and Palestinians live alongside Israelis in the peace, freedom, justice and dignity that they all deserve.”

Egypt for the Egyptians

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Events in Tunisia over the last few weeks have sparked a mass movement of people in countries across the Middle East – Jordan, Egypt, Yemen are all suddenly plastered across the newspapers. Lebanon too is experiencing angry protests, albeit for different reasons and in a very different political context. Is this a revolution that will change the face of the Middle East?

Tahrir Square

Midan Tahrir, Cairo - copyright unknown

One thing is clear – the dictators and unelected rulers who have for so long suppressed and punished any dissent or criticism are terrified by the mass protests by people who will no longer accept the crushing status quo they have lived under for so long.

Egypt has blocked the internet and telecommunications networks in an attempt to prevent people contacting each other and coordinating demonstrations, but it has failed entirely to quell the protests of the last few days – today’s have without doubt been the biggest, still continuing well into the evening. For me, seeing this happening in Egypt is a significant indicator of the extent of built-up anger and frustration. After a few weeks in Egypt, listening to taxi drivers rant about the government and their daily struggles, only to end the sentence with ‘ma3lesh, na3mil eh?’ – ‘never mind, what can we do?’ – we started joking that change would never come to Egypt because people had no belief in their own ability to orchestrate it. That was in 2008. But there was certainly anger back then, too. I remember my epic minibus ride from Nuweiba back to Cairo, sitting in the passenger seat listening to the driver reel off a huge list of items which had gone up in price over the last year alone. It was excellent Arabic practice – but again, inevitably, the final word was ’ma3lesh!’.

Evidently what was missing then was the catalyst. Now, Tunisians have proven that, even in the Middle East, the people do have power to drive change. Last year’s food price protests in Egypt were quickly quelled when Mubarak solved the immediate problem by setting limits on the price of bread. But the protests of the last few days are not just about the ongoing problems of mass unemployment and price rises – they are the result of decades of smouldering anger amongst ordinary Egyptians at the corruption, suppression and extreme poverty that has been the result of over 3 decades of Mubarak’s rule. Tunisia, combined with the wave of dismay following Egypt’s most recent ‘election’, has spurred Egyptians into action.

But note the tone of the protests – there is anger of course, but also optimism, determination and a certainty that change must come about. The protestors – so unjustly called rioters in so many UK papers – have not come out with any thirst for violence; rather the reports are that they began marching after the Friday prayer with calls of ‘peace, peace’. Robert Fisk noted in the Independent today that, despite justifiable anger against the US for propping up Mubarak for so long, not one American flag has been burnt so far.

Of late in dictatorships propped up by Western money and support, dissent has been easy to crush – simply give it the label ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ and you’re sorted. But suddenly this is no longer possible. Tunisia’s ‘jasmine revolution’ was far from Islamist – it was a mass movement of people from all walks of life, demanding their rights in language that was blatantly non-religious. Egypt’s protests too are impossible to label as Islamist – certainly the Muslim Brotherhood are involved, but they have no ownership over these protests. This movement was organised by numerous groups, using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word and gather support from across Egyptian society. This is a movement of all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliations. And this is perhaps the key reason that it cannot be suppressed so easily. The regime’s current attempt to create an information blackout is proof that the widespread support for the protests – not only from across Egypt, but across the world is a real threat to its power. We can only hope that the crackdown fails and the will of the Egyptian people triumphs.


January 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

was at netroots yesterday with hundreds of other people who campaign online and offline for various wonderful things and wanted ideas of how to do it better. it’s always exciting to be suddenly surrounded by people who are passionate enough about something to be willing to go far out of their way to do something about it – and when it comes with a free lunch, free media training and some pretty awesome speakers, there’s not really anything to complain about!

one of the workshops i attended aimed to address the question of online campaigning appears to be – overwhelmingly – a man’s world. admittedly, the slightly stuffy room got the better of me and i had to leave for fresh air, but nonetheless, the 2 speakers I heard – particularly blogger Lisa Ansell – got me thinking. I’ve never stopped to consider why it is that men are generally more vocal than women in online campaigning – or even IF they are. I genuinely don’t know.

But I think it might be true to say that in the virtual world, as often in the real one, women are to an extent expected to delete their gender in order to be taken seriously – as campaigners, as political/social commentators, as individuals in their own right. I know when I write for a general campaigining audience, I self-censor without really thinking about it. I try to draw attention away from my female-ness (and often from my muslim-ness) so that people take me seriously as someone with something worthwhile to say – rather than someone with an agenda. Of course, that makes no sense, because being a (Muslim) woman is often directly relevant to my life, my values and the issues I choose to campaign on. Yet when I write about extraordinarily emotional issues like child detention, I make my style a little more wooden so that I’m not written off as over-emotional and missing-the-point. I go a little over-the-top making sure that people I don’t agree with see that I can see where they’re coming from – to make sure they know I’ve done my research because I worry they will assume I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Actually, I don’t know if any of this is because I’m a woman, or just because I’m me – but I’m sure, to some extent, I’ve absorbed the idea that i need to make my female-ness negligible in order to be judged for who i am rather than simply what i am. A little worrying, no?

New things, old things

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

So, this has been my first full week of living in London. I moved 3 weeks ago, but have spent the last 2 weekends in Yorkshire so hadn’t had a chance to really do anything in London other than go to work, come home, find the nearest supermarket… that sort of thing.

No matter how often I move homes/cities/countries, I’m always surprised by how fast you settle in. I don’t have a real routine yet, but nonetheless, when I come back to the house I now feel like I’m at home. I’ve started to associate my old walking-to-uni soundtrack with my walk to work. I’m looking forward to spending time in the park nearby in summer and going to the theatre when I can afford it. I’ve rediscovered the joy and inspiration of student activism, a year after leaving university. I’ve met up with friends I originally knew in Edinburgh and Wakefield. In some ways, I’m basically doing much the same as I was before, but in a different place.

This week I’ve also spent a lot more time on buses and tubes – and realised I don’t actually hate either as much as I thought. I’ve also discovered that my perception of Londoners as generally unfriendly and unhelpful to strangers on the street may not be true at all. Some examples of unsolicited London kindness:

1. Several people giving directions when asked
2. One lovely man, seeing me and a friend poring over a map, comes up to ask if he can help
3. A man sprinkling salt on his drive suggests that I walk on the road where it’s less icy and advises me to “tread carefully dear!”

and – contrary to my expectations – people DO smile at you on the tube! And offer up their seats to others on a regular basis, even if it means they then have to stand with head squashed up against the roof hanging on to someone else’s bag-strap to stay upright.

Awesome. London is not at all living up to expectations. Suddenly I’m very excited to be here.

Human rights and the UK asylum system

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news this week that the events leading up to asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga’s death on a deportation flight on 12 October 2010 were entirely different to those given in the Home Office’s account of the incident is, unfortunately, not very surprising.

This is certainly not the first time the private security firm G4S has been in the media spotlight as a result of mistreatment suffered by deportees at the hands of G4S security personnel. Claims of abuse suffered by deportees on deportation flights are routinely dismissed by the Home Office as inaccurate and misleading, with very little attempt made to actually investigate the claims. The difference this time is, because Jimmy Mubenga died on a scheduled flight with other passengers on it, rather than on a charter deportation flight, there were witnesses who saw how the events unfolded and were thus able to challenge the official account. Otherwise, this would still be an “accidental” death caused by Mubenga suddenly falling ill prior to the flight.

The fact is, the UK government wants to be able to deport as many asylum seekers as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s not too fussy about human rights when it comes to getting things done. It’s also not very fussy about where it sends people back to. In the past year, despite opposition from the UNHCR, the UK has tried to send people back to Iraq and concocted a plan to forcibly return asylum seeking minors to “rehabilitation centres” in Afghanistan, not to mention the routine forced deportations of failed asylum seekers from various trouble spots in sub-Saharan Africa.

The New Asylum Model, introduced in April 2006, aims to speed up the asylum process so that decisions on claims are made within a maximum of 6 months. While on first glance the idea of speeding up the asylum process seems like a positive step, it doesn’t at all take into account the significant trauma that the majority of asylum seekers have gone through prior to and during their journey to the UK. It doesn’t take into account the difficulty of sharing such trauma with a complete stranger before you’re had time to process it yourself. It doesn’t take into account the fact that people make themselves “forget” in order to be able to get on with their lives. In a nutshell the logic of the New Asylum Model is simply this: faster processing = faster deportation.

The various tactics employed – turning up to detain and deport people without prior warning, preventing them from contacting their legal representatives and friends, hiring private security firms like G4S to do the dirty work, using chartered flights at odd times of the day to carry out deportations – are all means to this one end. Get people out the country before others – whether individuals, legal representatives or organisations – have the chance to do anything about it.

The attempted deportation of 10 Iraqi asylum seekers
in June this year is a case in point – government lawyers asked high-court lawyers to refuse to consider “last-minute” judicial reviews of asylum cases “because of the complexities, practicalities and costs involved in arranging charter flights.” Of course, the reason last–minute judicial reviews are necessary at all is because the people being deported are not given enough – if any – advance warning that they are about to shipped out so have no way of contacting their legal representatives beforehand.

This recent investigation by The Independent documents instances of physical and verbal abuse as well as the so-called “control techniques” routinely used during removals. It seems that any concept of the human rights appears to go out the window when there’s time and money at stake. Money, mainly. Money seems to be the crux of the matter.

UK politicians and media claim that immigration (including asylum seekers) is a drain on our resources and finances. But our current asylum system appears determined to ignore simple facts:

1 – Asylum seekers on the whole DO NOT choose to come to the UK for benefits, most of them don’t even know where they’re going – they pay someone, hide somewhere, and arrive (if they’re lucky).

2 – Asylum seekers are often highly qualified – doctors, lawyers, politicians, activists – we can use their skills, instead of forcing them to live on benefits that barely cover the cost of basic subsistence.

4 – Deportation flights are ridiculously expensive, psychologically damaging and, particularly in cases where people are being returned to unsafe countries, inhumane.

Basically, it would be a lot more cost-effective to allow asylum seekers to work and use their skills. From my experience of working at Scottish Refugee Council, most volunteer in various roles in order to help others in similar situations, in order to take their minds off their experiences, in order to be doing something. Allowing asylum seekers to work would take any financial strain off the state, generate a fair amount in tax money and help them to start integrating socially and economically into their new communities. And that last point is the problem. While we hear debate after debate about immigrants (generic) failing to integrate properly, keeping to themselves, etc etc, when it comes to asylum seekers, the government doesn’t WANT them to integrate. It wants to send them home, as quickly and easily as possible.

A colleague on a training course said that he’d heard of an instance where an asylum seeker had received a letter from his case owner informing him that his claim has been rejected because he had said that he feared guerrilla attack and, “after consulting with the WWF (yes, the World Wildlife Fund), we do not think there are any guerrillas in your area.” Admittedly, my colleague wasn’t sure if this story was true or not, but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if it were. The aim of our current asylum system is not to provide protection and safety, but to wash our hands off as many cases as possible.

So how do we create a more effective asylum system that doesn’t penalise people from the start, that doesn’t assume immediately that people are lying about their experiences? How can the UK better fulfil its obligations under the Refugee Convention?

The obvious answer would be to start by reconceptualising the way we perceive asylum seekers from the top down – from policy makers to the media to the general public. Unless the real reason for our illogical system is an underlying racism, a desire to “preserve” some undefined nugget of so-called “Britishness”, we should be prepared to have our ideas challenged by the facts… no?

Why is boycott a dirty word?

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

(first posted on Political Dynamite, 10/10/2010)

It seems that the very concept of boycott, sanctions and divestment in relation to Israel makes people back off. Why? We know that boycotts can work. We know it takes time for change to happen – the struggle against apartheid in South Africa took decades. But it succeeded.

Boycotts are a non-violent form of grassroots resistance, something small that anyone can participate in, that can make everyone feel capable of making a difference. And they hit the place where it hurts the hardest – the economy. Surely BDS should then be something that would appeal to people campaigning for peace? In any case, surely calling it an illegitimate tactic is unfair?

Caterpillar protest London, copyright Stop The Wall

I’m not by any means suggesting that all concerns about the BDS movement are baseless. Certainly, I don’t think representatives have always been clear in their aims – there is a strain in the Palestine Solidarity movement that makes a lot more noise than it does sense. The problem, as with anything, is that those who shout the loudest tend to get more coverage. In fact, I completely understand some of the criticisms of BDS. For example, I am sceptical of the wisdom behind saying that Israeli politicians shouldn’t be allowed into Britain. I believe that everyone should have a chance to make their point – no matter how unsavoury their arguments might be. I am equally sceptical of the arguments that Ahmadinejad should be banned or the BNP prevented from participating in public debate. I also think that the fear that boycott may isolate Israelis and stifle debate is legitimate, at least in the short-term. I am well aware that several (not all) Israeli and Jewish groups pushing for an end to occupation consider BDS to be a hindrance rather than a help and, again, in the short term, I think their concerns are right. However, I think that in the long-term, the BDS movement is the only real opportunity we as campaigners have to push for a peaceful resolution. I also think the BDS movement needs to be clearer about WHAT it is boycotting.

By divesting from/boycotting those institutions, organisations and businesses that either publically support, prop-up (financially or otherwise) or profit from the occupation, we make an explicit statement that we won’t accept the continuation of the situation as it stands. The academic and cultural boycott – though not unproblematic – aims to make a stand against the continued stifling of Palestinian academia, culture and sport, the restrictions on movement which all Palestinians, including academics, artists and athletes, are subject to.

Sanctions are a tool which the international community has used repeatedly as a means of pushing individual states to respect international law – why are they never used in relation to Israel? Given the recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza, surely an arms embargo would be sensible? We, the international community, have spent too long trying to pacify Israel. We say “stop building the settlements”, “the wall is illegal”, “don’t use white phosphorous” – but when Israel ignores us, we don’t back up our words with actions. That’s why the BDS movement is important. It means that the international community no longer has to rely on its leaders to do something. We can use this active, non-violent tactic to make a point.

None of the aspects of BDS have anything to do with delegitimizing Israel’s ‘right to exist’*. Rather, the movement is about refusing to accept that it is legitimate for Israel to claim that, in order for it to exist as a state, it has to maintain the occupation and continue to restrict Palestinians in all aspects of their daily lives. Of course BDS won’t work on its own, but it does play a significant role in putting pressure on Israel to work towards peace.

Far from cutting links with Israeli society as a whole, the BDS movement should be a way for Palestinian and international anti-occupation/ peace campaigners to build links with their Israeli counterparts, thus enabling us to create a stronger, more cohesive movement for peace. We need to work on making this happen, but it should be one of the core aims. Israeli and Palestinian campaigners need the support of international activist groups in order to strengthen their calls for change. I don’t think we all need to agree on whether BDS works in order to work together – we simply need to agree that we are all, in different ways, working towards a just, practical solution for all involved.

Many people argue that it’s hypocritical to target Israel. What about all the other countries committing human rights abuses around the world? This is one argument I can’t countenance. I find the “but everyone else is doing it too!” argument unforgivably childish. So what? If everyone else is in the wrong does that make it justifiable? Should we just all sit back and let everyone get on with doing whatever they want because we can’t “single out” any one of them? I’m tired of hearing “Why Israel? What about Iran/Egypt/Saudi Arabia?”(it’s always the same list of countries…), and to be completely honest, I just don’t understand the logic. Demanding Israel abides by its obligations under international law is not the same as turning a blind eye to violations committed in China or Iran or Sudan or Saudi. I would hope the majority of campaigners can see this and are able to speak out against injustice regardless of who the perpetrators are.

It’s late, and I fear I might start getting more and more long-winded. Let me leave you with the transcript of this highly articulate roundtable discussion on BDS led by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rebecca Vilkomerson.

* I use inverted commas because I’m not sure any state has a ‘right to exist’. I believe people have the right to self-determination, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.