The last few pieces drawn from the reporting I did in the Middle East late last year are now out.
For the Spring issue of the World Policy Journal, I wrote about how Syrian women in Jordan are adjusting to life without men.
Studies show that at least a third of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are headed by women – meaning that, as in Sara’s case, there is no male provider. This is not unusual in war-time, given that men tend to enlist or be drafted. The number of female-headed households was thought to be even higher among displaced Iraqis during the first Gulf War . . .
Many of these women, hailing from traditional societies where men are the primary household earners, must work for the first time, even as they care for their children. As they deal with tough economic realities, many are also navigating bereavement, trauma, and loss.
The piece is no longer available for free online, but can be accessed here, and the first few pages of the clipping are below.
In the Spring issue of the New Humanist, I wrote a piece about the persecution of minorities in Iraq, and how their cause is being taken up by the far right in the west.
Dalu’s anger stems, in part, from a feeling that people overseas are not paying attention to the suffering of his community. But the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq has been exploited by international actors for many years, in ways that often exacerbate the problem. This raises serious ethical questions not just about assisting marginalised groups, but about the way these issues are discussed. In an era of increasing divisions and a worldwide narrative of a “clash of civilisations”, the situation of minorities in Iraq has been used to feed a dangerous discourse that does no favours to people like Dalu. How can outsiders support these groups without worsening the situation?
I was absolutely delighted to be selected as a media fellow for a programme run by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The programme, titledReligion and the Global Reframing of Gender Violence, aims to question dominant narratives about gender based violence, with a particular focus on the Middle East and South Asia. Along with two other media fellows, I attended an academic conference in Jordan (a book containing all the papers should be out at some point this year), and then went on to do several weeks of reporting in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. My focus was on gender-specific issues in the refugee crisis; I’ve had a few pieces already out based on the reporting I did, with some longer articles in the works.
ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidi community were an international sensation – but despite this attention, many in northern Iraq do not feel they are getting the support they desperately need. I interviewed Yazidis who are taking action to help their community.
Telskof is a Christian village in Iraq’s Niniveh plain. It was occupied by ISIS – but now the militant group has been cleared out, and residents are moving back. I interviewed people there about the struggles of starting over.
Syrian refugee women are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to their precarious economic position and uncertain immigration status. In Lebanon, I met one particularly brave woman, who has escaped forced prostitution and is now working to help others in the same situation.
Women’s empowerment has long been a development buzzword, but a narrow focus on getting women into low-paid work may be marginalising them further. I drew on material from Jordan and Iraq to examine the occasional failings of empowerment programmes.
In Syria, over 60,000 people are missing – detained by the state or rebel groups. I spoke to a group of Syrian women – spread around the world – who are campaigning to find out what happened to their missing relatives.
During my time in Lebanon, I spent time at the offices of Women Now for Development, a remarkable grassroots organisation. They and other feminist activists in Syria and neighbouring countries are challenging patriarchal norms, to ensure they have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in rebuilding the country after the war.
While I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – where many Syrian refugees live – I saw a children’s choir, where songs drawing on traditional themes of longing, migration and land are giving refugee children a voice.
I’ve got a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist (out now) following up on the long piece I wrote about attacks on secularists in Bangladesh. The column looks at rising intolerance across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and at some of the historical reasons for this.
These tensions were enforced by colonisation and then by Partition; divisions encouraged to cement power. Occasional outbursts of horrific communal violence have punctuated the Subcontinent since it was carved up at the end of the British Empire. Indeed, India and Pakistan were born amidst bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947 that left an estimated 1 million people dead.
I also wrote something for The Pool, looking at the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK in the aftermath of the horrendous terror attacks in Paris. My piece took as its starting point the Sun’s headline that one in five British Muslims has “sympathy with jihad” and focused particularly on violence against hijab-wearing Muslim women.
The Sun’s headline, bigoted as it is, does not exist in a vacuum. It is the natural product of a political and media culture that demonises British Muslims at every opportunity, creating the spectre of a terrifying “enemy within”. This has real consequences.
I’ve also continued to report on UK politics for Deutsche Welle, including this article on Britain’s relationship with India and China, and this on David Cameron’s plans for airstrikes on Syria. I regularly interview different people for the New Humanist, where I’m assistant editor. One recent example is this Q&A with David Wootton, the author of a new book on the history of science. And I wrote this article for Index on Censorship about the situation for atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.
In Saudi Arabia, women will soon be able to vote for the first time in the country’s history. They can take part in the forthcoming municipal elections both as voters and candidates. The council has limited powers but it’s still a big step for those who have been fighting for women’s rights in the repressive Gulf state for years. I wrote a piece for the online women’s magazine, The Pool, about the monumental challenges still faced by Saudi women.
Some Saudi feminists say the driving ban is the least of their problems. The repression of women in all areas of life is enshrined in the deeply discriminatory system of male guardianship. Imagine this. Your male guardian is your husband, father, brother or son. Without his permission, you cannot obtain a passport, get married, travel, or go to university. Perhaps you apply for a job. No matter how old you are, some employers might ask your husband, father, brother, or son for his permission before hiring you. You’re sick. Some hospitals might not carry out a medical procedure that you need without his approval. You get married. Your husband can unilaterally divorce you, but if you want to leave the marriage, you must have his permission. He will usually get custody of the child. You cannot leave the country with your children unless the father gives his consent.
Other recent work includes this reportfor Deutsche Welle on the Conservative Party conference, and this opinion piece for the International Business Times about institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police.
Back in October, I travelled to Delhi. While I was there, I spoke to various women about how safe they feel in the city, and to activists about the long fight for change. It has been two years since the brutal gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus caused national and international outrage, prompted city-wide protests, and a series of legal changes. But did the incident have any lasting impact?
Sexual violence and violence against women is a global problem, and many of the issues that Indian campaigners describe are common to countries all over the world: a lack of funding for crisis centres and counselling, police refusing to record cases or making victims feel uncomfortable, a lack of female officers. “The police are generally very harsh,” says Dorothy Kamal, a rape counsellor for CSR. “People are afraid of them.” India’s police forces are chronically overstretched; and misogynistic social norms still dominate, for all the current public discussion. “Recognising the problem is positive, but when it comes to solutions, we are still grasping in the dark,” says Kumar.
You can read the rest of the article at the New Statesman website.
Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American writer and activist, emerged as one of the most prominent voices of the Arab Spring. In 2011 she was attacked by riot police in Cairo. They broke her hands and sexually assaulted her. When she spoke out about the attack, it made global headlines. Since then, she has continued her advocacy for Arab women, arguing that as well as the political revolution toppling dictators, a sexual and social revolution is required.
On Monday 2 December I appeared “in conversation” with Mona, at an event hosted by the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu). There are several videos of the event over at Caabu’s website. Here’s the first video:
I thought I’d share some links to some of my recent work.
I’m still blogging regularly for the New Humanist. My recent posts include this one on breastfeeding and whether state-funded bribery is the best way to encourage it; this post on the shocking conditions for migrant labourers in Qatar and other Emirate states; this on the National Sex Survey and our continued failure to have a grown up public discussion of sex; and this blog on the disturbing report that budget cuts are pushing domestic violence services into a “state of crisis”.
I also recently wrote a piece for Index on Censorship about declining press freedom in Bangladesh, a country I’ve visited many times in the past:
Journalists in Bangladesh face a double threat: Violent retaliation from Islamist groups on the one hand, and official repression on the other.
I’ve appeared on numerous Monocle radio shows, including a discussion of the new head of the Pakistan army on 27 November (podcast here), and of the new Pakistan Taliban chief on 8 November (podcast here). I’ve also continued to blog regularly for Middle East Monitor on various issues affecting the Arab world.
Is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? That was the central question posed for a panel discussion I took part in at the Royal Court on 31 October. Part of the theatre’s “Big Idea” series, the discussion was titled “I Speak for Myself: Feminism and Islam”. It’s a big topic and the discussion was wide-ranging and interesting. Also on the panel – chaired by Dr Laura Zahra McDonald – were consultant and researcher Humera Khan and writer and performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz.
After the event, I blogged for the New Statesman with some of my thoughts on the topic. You can read the full post here.
So, let me answer my own question: is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? Well, of course. As in any other large group of humans (there are 1 billion Muslims in the world, around half of whom are women), a huge range of views exist. Some of these half a billion women are not feminists; some are. There is a distinction to be drawn here between Islamic feminists who explicitly draw their feminism from their faith, and Muslim women who also happen to be feminists.