In 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.
I’ve been working on some longer projects recently, but thought I would share links to some other bits and pieces I’ve been publishing. In January I wrotethis columnfor the International Business Times about the news that a woman was suing Twitter over ISIS propaganda following the death of her husband by an ISIS-affiliated militant. I also wrote this blog for theNew Statesmanfollowing the terrorist attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, looking at the difficulty of stamping out long-established militant networks.
I still write news and analysis on UK politics for Deutsche Welle. Recent pieces include this reporton the case against radical preacher Anjem Choudary;this piece ahead of the results of the Litvinenko Inquiry; a report on David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the relationship with the EU; and this articleon the media circus surrounding Julian Assange and the UN panel that agreed he is being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorean embassy.
One of the most exciting campaigns in the general election in May was fought in Bradford West. Political outsider Naz Shah, standing for Labour, ousted George Galloway after a dramatic contest that descended into personal recriminations. As the dust settled from the election. I went to Bradford to interview Shah for the New Statesman.
Here’s the opening, and you can read the rest online here.
Naz Shah wept the first time she spoke in front of an audience. It was 1995 and she was a teenager, giving a talk to a group of students at Bradford College about the campaign to free her mother, Zoora Shah, who was serving a life sentence for murder. “I cried all the way through,” she said.
That harrowing experience of trying to secure her mother’s release helped prepare Shah for her entry into politics. On 7 May this year she ousted George Galloway and became the new Labour MP for Bradford West, the constituency where she grew up. Now 41, she had no background in politics, and secured the nomination in early March only after the local party’s first choice, Amina Ali, abruptly withdrew, citing family reasons. Although Galloway was favoured to retain the seat for the Respect Party, Shah won with a majority of 11,420 votes.
In the aftermath of the horrendous attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar in December, I wrote this piece for the New Statesman looking at the impact of such terror attacks. I also appeared on Channel 5 News to discuss the incident.
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.
I don’t usually write about (or even watch!) sports, so it was quite a departure for me to write a long feature about the history and current status of women’s football in the UK. It’s a fascinating story; during the First World War, women’s football was actually more popular than men’s, with tens of thousands of spectators turning out to watch big games. A Football Association ban on women using professional stadiums in the 1920s set the game back, and it is only now starting to professionalise. I spoke to players past and present, as well as other experts, to build up a picture of the women’s game.
While it is certainly true that women’s football lags far behind men’s in terms of prestige, funding, and commercialism, however, it is inaccurate to think – as many do – that it is a new sport. Women’s football first made a splash in England in 1895, when the Ladies’ Football Association was founded by women with links to the burgeoning suffragist movement. “There is no reason why football should not be played by women, and played well too, provided they dress rationally and relegate to limbo the straitjacket attire in which fashion delights to attire them,” Lady Florence Dixie, the head of the association, wrote in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1895. It was controversial to see women playing football, which meant that matches (there were two teams, “north” and “south”) were attended by several thousand people. But it wasn’t to last; the Ladies’ Football Association soon fell apart because of organisational issues.
I recently travelled to Kenya, the east African hub which is swift losing its status as a safe haven in the region thanks to a heightened terror threat from neighbouring Somalia. I was researching several in-depth features which are forthcoming, but I also wrote this short blog for the New Statesman about the impact that the terror threat is having on tourism:
The beach was deserted. Not just typical low season – slightly quiet, as you’d expect – but truly not another soul in sight. White sand, strewn with seaweed, stretched as far as the eye could see. It was an instant, brutally visible, result of international terror alerts.
On 16 May, the British Foreign Office warned that there was a “high threat” of terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast. Tour operators First Choice and Thomson Direct cancelled flights and evacuated 400 British tourists. The decision to evacuate was mainly due to insurance concerns but it was high profile and understandably caused panic among other holiday-goers. The US, Australia, and France also issued travel warnings about Kenya’s coast, particularly the area surrounding the coastal city of Mombasa. The hundreds of cancellations stretch all the way to October.
On 8 June, Taliban gunmen stormed Karachi airport, killing scores of people before they were eventually fought off by security forces. I’ve lived in Karachi and have many friends and relatives there. I wrote this quick response to the attack for the New Statesman:
What does this say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan? Firstly, it should be noted that this coastal megalopolis is not just the biggest city in Pakistan, but one of the biggest in the world. Home to around 25 million people, it is the economic hub of Pakistan and one of the most important cities politically. It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. To their credit, security forces were fast on the scene, but how did it happen at all? This comes at a time when the conservative government is emphasising the need for peace talks with the Taliban. Once again, this incident raises the question that many outraged commentators have posed: what is there to discuss? And where do discussions begin when one party seeks the destruction of the state as its basic starting point?
I also discussed the attack on Monocle radio and LBC. You can read the rest over at my New Statesman blog. A version also appeared in the magazine:
The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with 6.5 million internally displaced and more than 2 million seeking refuge abroad. The UK has been reluctant to offer sanctuary to a significant number of refugees, a decision that should be seen in the context of a dominant anti-immigrant political mood. While the British government has agreed to rehome 500 Syrian refugees, a small number have claimed asylum here already. Two of them told me their stories.
Ruqaiya was in her final year of university when she realised she couldn’t go home. In London on a student visa, she had missed the worst of the fighting in her hometown of Damascus: after the revolution began in March 2011, her family had told her not to come back for the holidays.
In May 2012, gearing up for her exams, she received terrible news. “My brother, who works in Germany, called to say that our father had been killed in an airstrike and the house destroyed. My mother had fled with my aunt to Jordan. Suddenly I didn’t have a home.” On the advice of an uncle living in the UK, Ruqaiya claimed asylum.
You can read the full article over at the New Statesman website, and here’s the (shorter) version that appeared in the magazine:
I wrote a piece for this week’s New Statesman about the horrific crime of acid violence. The piece looks at recent incidents in the UK, and explains some background about the crime globally. Here’s the opening, and the cutting is below.
Naomi Oni had left work and was on her way home to Dagenham, east London, when acid was thrown in her face. The attack took place in 2012 when she was just 20 years old. Oni is still undergoing painful skin grafts to rebuild her face.
In an emotional interview on Radio 4’s Today programme on 24 March, Oni, now 22, spoke of her isolation. “I didn’t choose this,” she said. “I’m only human.” She labelled the Metropolitan Police as incompetent: they initially suggested she had thrown acid on herself. They later charged Mary Konye, a former friend of Oni’s, with the attack; she was found guilty in January and jailed for 12 years.
You can read the full piece here. It’s not the first time I’ve written on acid violence. Last year I spent time with survivors in Pakistan – one of the countries where it is most prevalent. You can read that article here.