things i would tell you“The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write” is a fantastic anthology, published by Saqi and edited by Sabrina Mahfouz. It contains writing from a wide range of women – poetry, short stories, essays, plays – from established writers like Kamila Shamsie and Ahdaf Soueif, as well as from young spoken word poets published here for the first time. I’ve got an essay in the book, a personal piece about the first time I travelled to Pakistan as an adult with my mother. It’s in good bookshops and, obviously, on Amazon.

There’s a big schedule of events planned for the book; the launch at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in April was a joyful occasion full of laughter and brilliant women. I spoke at Asia House, and will also be appearing at the Hay Festival on 3 June with Sabrina (the editor) and Aliyah Hasinah Holder.

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Karachi Ambulance Driver 020.jpgLate last year, I travelled to Karachi to spend a week with Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation. This is a huge charitable empire which fills many of the gaps left by the state – including the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service. In Karachi, a city that for years has been riven by gang crime and terrorist violence, the job of an ambulance driver can be perilous. The Edhi Foundation also tends to unidentified corpses, along with a dizzying array of other services.

Karachi’s ethnic conflict and violent gang war was in full flow. On his first day, Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets. He couldn’t look. The other driver slapped him in the face. “What do you think this is?” he said. “It’s a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this?” Safdar picked up the corpse.

“It takes time to get used to this work,” he says. “A lot of people leave after a week or so as they can’t take it. They have fear in them.”

The profile of Safdar and the Edhi Foundation was originally written for Mosaic, a magazine run by the Wellcome Trust. It was syndicated by the Guardian’s long-read section, and will be appearing in Esquire Malaysia along with a few other places. It’s accompanied by wonderful photos by Akhtar Soomro (a full gallery is available on the Mosaic website).

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2016_48_edlThe English Defence League (EDL) is notorious: a far-right street movement known for its racism and its sometimes violent, messy protests. Born in Luton in 2009. the movement rapidly grew in size, although its size and influence is now waning. What happens to people who want to leave these movements?

During a visit to Luton earlier this year (writing this report on the Brexit vote for Politico), I met Darren Carroll, one of the founding members of the EDL, which was led by his nephew Stephen Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson). He spoke about realising that he did not want to be part of a racist movement, and the personal challenges of exiting the movement. I wrote up the interview for the New Statesman, and you can read the full piece here.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

I am still covering UK news for Deutsche Welle; some recent pieces include this and this the court challenge to Brexit, this on Britain’s approval of “three-parent babies”, and this on British responses to the Trump victory.

hero-landscape-grunwick_jayaban-desai_gettyimagesThis December I wrote a couple of pieces for The Pool, looking at different aspects of integration in Britain. The first dealt with Louise Casey’s government-commissioned report into integration. My piece dealt, particularly, with her disproportionate focus on Muslim communities and her emphasis on patriarchy and the oppression of women.

Casey talks a lot about not shying away from “tough questions” but much of her report covers common ground, reflecting prevalent prejudices and offering little in the way of new solutions. What good would an oath to Britishness do? Surely more effective strategies would be better funding for local services that can seek to access isolated woman with English lessons or simply information about the support that is available to them; for careers training, community groups, English teaching, and women’s refuges. This type of small-scale, local level community work has fallen out of fashion in favour of sweeping statements about extremism and a failure to integrate, but it is where our best hope lies.

You can read the full piece here.

My second piece for The Pool was totally different in tone. It looked back at the Grunwick Strike, a historic moment in 1976 when Indian women factory workers led a strike that was backed across the country. It was a remarkable moment of solidarity with the “strikers in saris”, which feels particularly poignant given the current political climate.

The Grunwick strike failed after 23 months. The factory refused to reinstate sacked workers or recognize their right to a union. But regardless of this ultimate defeat, it was a victory in race relations at a time when the broader political picture was bleak. The strike was significant because it was started by immigrant women bravely standing up to injustice – but even more so because it was not limited to those women or those immigrants. It became a wider movement against injustice and unfair working conditions, where people from different communities stood side by side. For 20,000 people to stand alongside a small group of disenfranchised Indian women was a moment of huge symbolism.

The rest of the piece is here.

bgnsIn August, it was reported that Kadiza Sultana, one of three teenagers who had left their homes in Bethnal Green to go to Syria, had been killed in an airstrike. The three girls had become one of the best known cases of young Brits travelling to join ISIS, their photographs published on the front of every newspaper. In this report for the New Statesman, I spoke to the family lawyer and people from local communities about what happened, and interviewed experts about why young women might decide to make this journey at all.

In Syria, out of the glare of the world’s media, Sultana soon regretted her decision to join Isis. Her husband, an American fighter of Somali origin, was killed in late 2015. She was scared. “She simply did not feel safe or comfortable there, she didn’t feel she could trust anyone other than her immediate circle and she didn’t want to stay in that environment any longer,” says Akunjee. Sultana spoke regularly to her eldest sister, Halima Khanom, who is 33 and lives in London. It was difficult for her to convey her fears given the risk of phone calls being monitored by Isis.

The full piece is available at the New Statesman website, and a clipping will follow.

In this June 29, 2010 photograph, Pakist

During my latest trip to Pakistan in spring of this year, I traveled around the country and reported on different aspects of extremism. I recently wrote a long feature for the New Humanist (Summer 2016 issue) looking at the country’s notorious network of madrasas (religious seminaries), examining their relationship to terrorism and the reasons why successive attempts at reform have failed.

Mohammed Ishfaq and Naeb Amir, two of the teachers, stepped outside to talk to me. “Things were good before this, but now there are problems teaching and praying here,” said Amir. “The number of students – even boys – has decreased. People are afraid to visit. Many don’t want to send their kids here.”

Ishfaq jumped in. “We are teaching an approved syllabus to the boys, but we don’t know what Halima was teaching the girls. There’s no evidence that she changed the syllabus, and we didn’t know about it if she did. We never heard her mention Syria or ISIS or sectarianism. Everyone was surprised.”

I asked what they thought of Cheema’s actions: had she done the wrong thing in going to Syria? “She did wrong,” Ishfaq said, immediately. “Women cannot travel without the permission of their husband. She went against Islam.”

The full piece is available at the New Humanist website and the clipping is below.

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Luton Extremism

In the aftermath of the EU referendum on 23 June, I wrote a few reported features from different parts of the UK, talking to different communities.

For Politico Europe, I went to Luton, one of the few places in Britain where the “white British” are a minority and famed for both far right and Islamic extremism. Luton has a substantial ethnic minority population, yet voted in favour of Brexit. I spoke to local residents to find out why.

But in Luton, class concerns — cutting across the town’s disparate ethnic groups — may have played a more decisive role in driving the Leave vote. The vast majority of jobs on offer in Luton are low-skilled. Both white and Muslim Asian communities are worried by the wage depression caused by Eastern European migration.

For the New Statesman, I visited Bradford, another city with a substantial ethnic minority population and a history of racial tension. In this post-industrial northern town, unemployment and economic decline certainly played a role. (The clipping is below)

More often than not, young people in search of skilled work are forced to leave. “People who graduated with me in biomedical sciences are working in retail because the jobs aren’t there,” says Samayya Afzal, a recent graduate of the University of Bradford and a Remain campaigner. “It’s bleak. Bradford is my home – my family is here – but I can’t see a future here. It’s difficult to describe how that feels.”

For Al Jazeera, I interviewed members of Britain’s Roma community, an already vilified minority concerned about its future in the UK after the referendum result.

“Roma migrants tend to have the double whammy: they’re not just Eastern European migrants, they’re also Roma Eastern European migrants,” says Shay Clipson, an advocate with the National Alliance of Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma Women. “They may be Czech Roma, or Slovak Roma, but the other Czechs and Slovaks don’t particularly like them either. Many are here because they are escaping persecution in their countries of origin. They are not just here to make a living, they are here so that they can live,” says Clipson.

I’ve continued to report regularly on UK politics for Deutsche Welle, including this piece on Theresa May taking office, this on racism in the UK, this on hate crimes against Polish nationals, and coverage of this year’s party conferences.

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