Thought I’d share links to some of my recent work. Last week I wrote a piece for the New Statesman about the “I, too, and Oxford” and “I , too, am Cambridge” campaigns which highlighted racism at elite institutions.
Of course, whiteboards do not have the space for the full complexity of the arguments about racial insensitivity, about prejudice at elite institutions, or about where curiosity ends and offensiveness begins – and nor did the original campaign pretend to. But those whiteboards serve the important purpose of articulating the small instances – the mundane comments, not always intended to offend – that are difficult to confront in the moment, but add up to a painful whole.
Legal reforms don’t tend to be headline news. But cuts to legal aid could have – and is already having – a devastating impact on our legal system. Lawyers’ fees are to be cut, and the criteria for eligibility for legal aid has already been tightened. Legal aid – ensuring access to justice and a fair trial regardless of wealth – is a crucial part of our justice system, and these swingeing cuts are putting it at risk.
This is already having an effect, as I found out while writing a feature on legal aid cuts for the New Statesman (published 13 January). You can read the full piece at the NS website, and here’s a short excerpt:
Taken together, the effect on both civil cases (like family law and immigration) and criminal cases (like assault or theft) is devastating. “What we’re seeing is the unemployed, the poor, the marginal, being prevented from accessing justice,” says Ben Bowling, professor of criminology and criminal justice at King’s College London. “The first thing that will happen, to put it crudely, is that people will be put off taking action against state abuses, for example. At the moment we have justice by geography and this will be justice by wealth. Allowing ‘ordinary’ people to seek redress in court is, in a sense, a way of defending the poor – and that is not a vote winner.”
The piece was well-received, with the shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter recommending it on Twitter, among others:
Since the year has drawn to a close (and I’m avoiding getting started on 2014), I thought I’d post links to some of the articles I most enjoyed working on in 2013. I had a brilliantly interesting year, in which I covered Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition in May, and lots of other great stories in both Pakistan and Britain.
This year was the first time that Pakistan’s “hijra” community were eligible to vote and stand in elections. I traveled to different parts of the country to meet the trans women breaking down boundaries to stand as candidates. Quite apart from the political implications, it was a fascinating insight into the world of a marginalised community.
I wrote this piece as part of a series on Pakistan’s minorities in the run up to the election, also including this piece on the Hazara, and this on the Ahmadis.
Much has been made of British men joining the fight in Syria. This coverage has mainly focused on the terror threat these men pose on their return, and on the luxury of the so-called “five star jihad”. In November, I had the opportunity to interview a young British Syrian who had a very different story to tell. Motivated not by radical Islam but by the desire to fight alongside his family, he returned traumatised and disillusioned. This is one of very, very few interviews with a British veteran of the Syrian conflict to appear in the press.
Published near the beginning of the year, this long article for Prospect took a detailed look at the scope of militancy in Pakistan and different counter-terrorism programmes attempting to combat it. What I particularly enjoyed about researching this piece was discovering a whole world of innovative – and often, it seems, effective – programmes to tackle militancy, ranging from “deradicalisation centres” to programmes to teach mothers critical thinking so that they would be empowered to question their sons.
It’s behind a paywall at the Prospect site, but the PDF is published here.
This was another article written during the run up to the May election in Pakistan. It was an election that saw a record number of female candidates including, for the first time, some from the conservative tribal areas. I interviewed female politicians and looked at the role they played in the last parliament. What I loved about doing this piece was not only speaking to inspirational women fighting extraordinary odds to secure representation, but presenting a side of Pakistan which is not often seen in the western media.
I was still living in Pakistan when the horrendous attack in Woolwich took place. I watched from afar as the images of the murderers were broadcast – and as far right groups like the EDL attempted to monopolise the incident for their own ends. After I moved back to London, I wrote this in-depth piece about the ensuing backlash against British Muslims, asking whether this is something that we, as a society, need to worry about.
On Monday 16th December, I appeared on the BBC News Channel’s paper review, discussing the next day’s front pages with the broadcaster David Davies. I’ll be appearing regularly on the show, with my next appearance on 14th January.
During December, I also appeared on BBC Radio Five Live’s Richard Bacon show, discussing the week’s headlines, and on several shows on Monocle radio, discussing the Afghanistan-US security pact, among other topics.
I’ve written a few more blogs for the New Humanist, including this oneon gender stereotyping in schools and the assumption that girls can’t do science, and this piece looking at the shifting definition of modern slavery.
Earlier in the month, following the death of Nelson Mandela, I wrote this piecefor the New Statesman. It recounts my interview with Mandela’s right-hand man, Ahmed Kathrada, who served 26 years in prison with him in Robben Island. Here’s a short excerpt:
I met Ahmed Kathrada on a chilly autumn day in 2010. A book of Nelson Mandela’s personal papers, including transcripts of taped conversations and letters, was being released. Mandela, even then, was too unwell to travel to promote the book, so Kathrada – his closest friend and adviser – was doing the media rounds on his behalf.
About a decade younger than Mandela, Kathrada was in his 80s and needed assistance to walk. He told me that in the last few years, they had started to call each other “Madala”, or “old man”, a sign of their affection and mutual trust. There was good reason for this trust: they both stood in court at the high profile Rivonia Trial, and subsequently spent 26 years in jail together. After their long captivity and the end of apartheid, they stood in parliament together, too; while Mandela was president, Kathrada was a member of parliament for the African National Congress (ANC).
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.
I’ve written a long feature for the New Statesman exploring anti-Muslim prejudice in modern Britain. What do we mean when we use the term “Islamophobia”? Has there really been a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime after the Woolwich attack? And why, two years after Sayeeda Warsi warned that this prejudice had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable, are we still debating whether it exists at all?
For the piece, I spoke to representatives from several mosques that have been attacked in recent weeks, to victims of hate crimes, and to experts. You can read the full piece over at the New Statesman website, and here is a short excerpt.
While arson attacks and petrol bombs at mosques are at the most extreme end of the spectrum, smaller incidents still create an atmosphere of fear and distress. “When I speak to people up north, they say that if there is something negative in their local press about Muslims, in the next few weeks there’ll be an attack or something happening in the street,” says Akeela Ahmed, a member of the government’s working group on Islamophobia. “Sometimes these things are at a low level – flour thrown at the mosque, or graffiti. I don’t think it was until Woolwich that people at a national level took notice.”
I also appeared on the Nick Ferrari Show on LBC on 26 September, talking about similar issues; namely, this BBC survey which found that “a quarter of young people don’t trust Muslims”.
This blog looks at the stereotype of the “angry Arab”, arguing that such media narratives matter because they shape the way the world understands events.
Ending child marriage
On 30 September, I took part in a New Statesman/World Vision fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. It was an interesting panel discussion, at the Town Hall, and I’ll post audio when it’s available.
I’ve recently started blogging regularly for the New Humanist, which is the magazine of the Rationalist Association (and hosted at their website).
At Bagram prison in Afghanistan, prisoners are kept without charge, trial, or access to a lawyer. On 3 September, I wrote a blog for the New Statesman, The other Guantanamo, asking what will happen to this prison after the US pull-out next year. The main sticking point is the fact that there are more than 60 foreign nationals being held at the prison, who are stuck in a legal black hole, subject to lengthy repatriation negotiations and bureaucratic delays.
I also wrote a featurefor US-based website Alternet, published 14 September, looking at the prison – and the plight of the prisoners there – in more detail. Here’s an excerpt:
Ayaz was 15 when he traveled to Afghanistan, from his native Pakistan, to take a job in a restaurant. He had been there a few weeks when American soldiers entered, asked for him by name, and took him away. That was in 2004. It was the start of a six-year nightmare. Ayaz was held first at a military base, and then at the notorious Bagram prison. To this day, he does not understand why he was detained, but believes a co-worker falsely accused him of being a terrorist in exchange for a reward.
During his imprisonment, he had little access to justice. “They said that I was a suicide bomber and that I want to bomb the USA,” he said. “I had a representative who was not a lawyer. He would often make my case worse.” In 2011, Ayaz was repatriated to Pakistan. He claims he had been cleared two years earlier, after US officials determined that he was not a combatant and there were no grounds to hold him.
I wrote the piece with the help of Justice Project Pakistan, a not-for-profit organisation which is representing some of the Pakistani nationals held at Bagram.
I’ve written a piece in the latest issue of the New Statesman about how banned organisations in Pakistan are increasingly embracing social media. It was an interesting piece to work on; I spoke to the “social media wings” of several banned groups about how they are using the internet to change their image. I was quite surprised at how tech savvy and organised these groups were.
Here’s the opening of the piece:
On 22 November last year, a new magazine sought writers through an advert on Facebook. “Dear brothers and sisters, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Now you have a chance to use this mighty weapon,” said the ad, which was posted on Umar Media, the Facebook page of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The previous month, the same page had announced “online job opportunities”, including “video-editing, translations, sharing, uploading, downloading, and collection of required data”. Offering an email address on which to contact the Taliban, the two adverts urged readers to spread the word in case the Facebook account was deleted.
You can read the rest over at the New Statesman website, and the cutting is below.
Over the last seven months, nearly 20 polio vaccinators have been shot dead in Pakistan while delivering potentially life-saving immunisations to children. It’s a nihilistic and senseless campaign of violence that has shocked even the most hardened observers of Pakistan. Why target healthcare providers? How can misconceptions about the vaccine be tackled? And who are the brave people risking their lives for a fee of £1.50 per day to vaccinate Pakistan’s children?
I met polio workers from the most dangerous areas of Pakistan and spoke to experts in the field to explore why this upsurge of violence has happened. You can read the full piece over at the New Statesman website.
“It’s another way of trying to control the population through fear,” says Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International. “The aim is to terrorise, to make people scared, to make their conditions worse, and in that way to influence the society. Polio is not socially sensitive in the way that, for example, reproductive rights are: it is a very basic health requirement. When you’re attacking people’s access to these basic rights, you’re attacking their ability to live a normal life. And I think that is the overall objective: to control and to suppress the society.”