Rod Liddle you’re a …… (fill in your preferred adjective) Election 2019

At a recent event, Margaret Attwood spoke about her book ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and made it clear – that if we don’t like the dystopian societies she describes then we need to do something about it as they can very easily happen. Hearing this, then reading Rod Liddle’s Spectator piece, stirred me to write this blog. His piece yet again effectively demonstrating what a hate monger he is . Whilst it came out a couple of weeks ago, I find myself seething every time I look at social media and see some troll spouting the same hate filled nasty rhetoric his commentary legitimises. Having written blogs before the elections of 2015 and then again in 2017,  I had made the decision that I was going to steer clear of writing yet another blog about why we must use our democratic right and vote, by placing an X beside the name of our choice on the 12thDecember 2019.

However, having read the vile diatribe produced under the guise of ‘journalism’ I felt compelled to say my piece. Considering he does have a reputation for writing such tirades vilifying certain groups, I think the vitriol he has had hurled at him, is well deserved.

Mr Liddell it appears, was having a bad day when he wrote his article. His ‘sense of humour’, unsurprisingly, seems to have gone over most people’s heads. His column was little more than an excuse to vent his resentment and fury at anybody he could take aim at. Politicians being described as mentally ill, students lazy, pig ignorant junkies, he showed utter contempt for women who have been sexually abused and made light of the #metoo movement. Nevertheless his commentary would have been incomplete had he not included Muslims in the torrent of abuse his supporters have claimed was merely ‘satirical’ ‘humorous’ and ‘taken out of context’. His article was not exercising his freedom of speech; under its’ guise, his Fascist anti-Muslims anti-women hate filled comments were morally and ethically abhorrant. The language adopted by Lidell and his ilk have a damaging effect on our society especially when aimed at those already marginalised.

In the run up to a general election, anyone who uses such hateful polarising language must be called out for the damage their divisive language has on society. The free will to elect our political leaders in this country is one of the freedoms we should value about living in Britain and being British. Everyone has the right to have their say in the electoral process. Whichever party you support, whichever party you agree or disagree with, voting is one of the fundamental freedoms of expression we have as British citizens. Think about some of the images we’ve seen on our TV screens from elections across the world. People who are forced to vote one way or another amidst threats of having family members kidnapped or murdered.  Others queuing for hours, votes being forged and others never even having the opportunity. There is a level of dishonesty that exists amongst individuals who want to live in Britain, enjoy the freedoms and benefits that being British citizens affords them, but not being prepared to fulfil their own obligations.

As a Muslim, this is something I am particularly aware of. I have grown up with an understanding of a principle that exists within Islam called “Shura” meaning consultation. This, in its simplest form is a way to harness the views and opinions of those individuals most affected by any decisions that may be made. The Prophet Muhammad would, as instructed by God in the Quran, consult his companions;  “And consult them in the affairs and when you have taken a decision, put your trust in God, certainly, God loves those who put their trust in Him” [Aal-’Imran, 159]. For those individuals who argue that the electoral choices presented to them do not represent the ideals of their faith in its purest form, there are always alternatives available. I can think of several theocratic dictatorships that they may like to consider as places of residency. For the rest of us, let’s make the most of the democratic freedoms afforded to us as British citizens. By voting, we are not violating any Islamic laws. We are making a decision as to who we feel is the best to govern the country we call home.

I am under no illusions that unlike other elections, this one is different. There are all sorts of factors at play, issues that will affect every single citizen depending on the outcome. The noise surrounding this election is toxic from whichever angle you look at it. However, we must and should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to us. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, domestic policies, foreign policy, social inequalities and yes even Brexit. Make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party you belief has the best interests of the things that matter to you.

However we must not let anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, prejudice and bigotry in any of its form, be turned into the battleground for this election. Nisa-Nashim, A Jewish and Muslim women’s network have this week launched a campaign to challenge those who use hateful and discriminatory language and have pledged to call out politicians, media outlets and users of social media who are generating this hate rather than acceptance and polarisation rather than social cohesion. They are asking everyone to #WatchYourLanguage.  We know that when unchecked, hate has the potential to ultimately turn to violence. So to Rod Lidell and those who support him, I ask, do we really want European history repeating itself?

Jack and the Beanstalk in Nepal – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam Part 2

I was heading for an ultra remote area in one of the poorest countries in the world. The flight would take me across Nepal to Nepalgunj, a city that lies on the Terai plains, just south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas. In a rickety plane I experienced some breathtaking views of mountain after mountain, with the furthest being covered with snow.  Ahead of me were remote villages and pothole laden roads.  Actually many of the villages I would be visiting had no access to proper roads and were several days walk away from any small town.

There is a saying that no two days are ever alike. The same can be applied to weeks, and without a doubt the second week I spent with Oxfam GB seeing it for myself was very different but just as enjoyable and enlightening an experience as the first. Week 2 saw us visiting a variety of programmes related to sustainable livelihoods, schools’ programmes, community discussion centres, cooperative boards and families of migrant workers.

The Sahid Samarika Higher Secondary school in Kamdi was one schools based programme I visited. Having been greeted by staff and students and a powerful song composed by the children themselves, I spoke to some of the young people who sat on the board of what was called the ‘children’s club’, or what we would know as school councils. The council is made up of two representatives from each year group and I was particularly pleased to see a fair mix of boys and girls involved. The aim of the club is to empower the young people to ensure they understand the benefits of creating a fairer society. They tackle issues around child marriages, women’s rights, domestic abuse and child trafficking. Child marriage in the region affects young girls and boys who were being married as young as 14 years old. The project aims to empower young people, form their communication and critical thinking skills to develop powerful advocates for their peers, parents and the adults in the community.

One of my favourite conversations was with a young boy, clearly committed and engaged with the programme. One question I asked him was “why are you involved in this – surely you should let the girls get on with it as it affects them, right?”.

His very mature response came back “why wouldn’t I be involved? These girls are part of my society, it is my duty to make sure we are being fair to them and not unfair just because they are girls.”

He went on to tell me the girls had every right to a decent education and choose who they should marry, when they were ready, not when society felt it was time. Another young girl very articulately reminded me ‘these are my brothers, it’s their job as well not just mine’. The aims of the young people in the school were very similar to those of the women who formed part of the community discussion centre I visited. They too wanted to make a difference, and saw the issues with what many see as ‘cultural norms’ and understood that things needed to change in order to help the next generation.  Meeting with the Oxfam Nepal team and partners, we discussed the work around social justice and it became evident the passion with which the work is conducted. Work around women, youth, drug abuse, ‘girls not brides’ and collective campaign for peace (COCAB). The community development work includes religious leader forums and other community forums to enable difficult conversations in safe spaces.

One of the projects I visited was a village where they were collecting wild honey. The beehives were established in tree logs approximately two feet in length. Each home in the village had between 5 and 16 hives and produced between 3-4kg of honey 3-4 times a year. Thanks to support from Oxfam, the farmers were being supported by developing hive boxes that would produce a bigger yield and would be easier to maintain. One farmer described how the worst possible thing for honey farmers was rain, as bees were unable to fly, which then affected the crop. The thing that surprised me most was the lack of safety clothing – in fact there was none! No hoods or gloves – in fact I have never been so close to so many bees. But this was how these farmers make a living. A far cry from the risk averse West!

In contrast, the crop farmers I met were grateful for the irrigation systems and wind tunnels installed by Oxfam that allowed them to grow crops throughout the year. It was at one such farm that I met a real-life ‘Jack’.

Most people are familiar with the childhood fairy-tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack if you recall, took his cow to the market and sold it for a handful of beans, that grew into a beanstalk that took him to a magical land where he found a giant, he stole a golden egg laying hen and lots of treasures. In Nepal I met a real life ‘Jack’ named Naurag who told me a similar tale, minus the giant and theft!

Naurag had been working in India for 15 years for a telephone exchange company when he returned to Nepal feeling he could not return to that life, a life without his wife and family. On his return, he discovered that his wife had joined the cooperative that had been set up in his village and he said, ‘a man gave me a handful of beans and said go and grow these’. Naurag was a bit unsure of exactly what this would lead to, but dutifully planted the beans, that gave him enough of a crop that he was both able to sell in market and still keep some back for his family. He decided that with the money he made at the market, he would buy different seeds and see what happened. Naurag now has a thriving business growing a variety of vegetables from cabbages, chillies and tomatoes. Thanks to Oxfam, he is able to water his crops with ease. He has a wind tunnel that means whether wind or rain his tomatoes are safe. He explained he was able to grow vegetables in and out of season and that a 6kg cabbage in season made 30 Nepali Rupees, but out of season the same cabbage would sell for 300 Nepali Rupees. His farm is thriving. He makes enough to support his family, sells a large amount at the markets and has even been able to set up a shop in the village.

Naurag is testament to what can be achieved with just a little support. I was reminded of the saying ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. This is what Oxfam is so good at. They teach men and women how to ‘fish’, grow crops, build houses, empower communities and generally teach communities how to work for their own furtherance. They teach, they train, they facilitate, they inspire, they energise and they galvanise. This is why I support Oxfam.

Two final livelihood programmes visited involved weaving and pottery making. The weaving workshop visited was made possible through funding by Oxfam of the hand operated weaving looms and work was underway on 2 of the four machines. A fifth machine was based in the home of one worker who wanted to work, but due to personal commitments was unable to go to the workshop. It was great to see flexible working conditions in place even in Nepal!

I was particularly interested in the pottery industry, as a Staffordshire resident I am quite used to seeing the smokeless chimneys across Stoke on Trent, a reminder of the world-renowned Potteries that sadly have dwindled over the years. Having visited the potteries and particularly the workshop of my friend Anita Harris, I was shocked at the comparison. The mixing of the clay was being done openly in the courtyard, but a number of machines were on hand to mix the clay mixture to the right consistency. My pottery skills were put to the test but alas fell short. The potter did not have a kiln and had to transfer his made pots to a nearly kiln to be fired and then returned to him for glazing. I spoke to the recipient of a kiln purchased by Oxfam who described how pots were fired before they had access to the kiln, what would happen if the weather was bad and how life had become much easier with a kiln. The Nepal potteries were a stark contrast to the Stoke on Trent pottery industry and the lack of wealthy investors were paramount.

It is very difficult to fully express just how much I have seen and experienced for myself as part of the Oxfam trip. This blog and the first one simply provide a quick overview, a sample, a taster. I have seen businesses being established,  machines being purchased, water tanks being dug. I have seen corn grinders being brought and chickens distributed to families who lost everything following the earthquake. I have seen bricks being made and houses being constructed. I have seen women digging for soil to paint their houses and women taking up the gauntlet in their communities and pledging to make the future for all women better. I have seen women and children being empowered and I have seen crop farming, apiculture and cattle farming being expanded and developed. I have seen women who used to carry 25 litres of water 5 times a day smile as they tell me of the water tap outside their door. These women tell me they can do so much more with their ‘spare time’; take care of their homes, their children, improve their personal hygiene and farm. Yet none of this would have been possible but for the support they have received from Oxfam, and the support Oxfam receives from their supporters. None of this would have been possible without the donations made my ordinary people to enable the charity to support the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world.

As a British woman, I am aware that after 2 weeks of witnessing first-hand the life of so many in Nepal, I have returned home to my very privileged life. A life where I don’t run the risk of losing my home and possessions in an eathquake. A life where I don’t have to build my own house brick by brick. A life where I have clean running water, electricity and gas. A life where I can jump into my car and go shop for anything I might want, but not necessarily need.  A life where I don’t have to worry about my child walking an hour each way to school. A life where my 13-year-old daughter has to miss school because the washing needs doing by hand. There was one other reminder for me travelling around Nepal, and that was of the land of my birth and all the commonalities they possess. I left Pakistan in the mid 1960’s. Had I not, my whole life would have been worlds apart from what I have today. My world may have resembled one similar to the worlds of Bhawana, Kayli and Shanti Maya. And I am constantly reminded of one phrase again and again – there but for the Grace of God go I.

 

 

 

The Power of Friendship

The power of friendship is something that we underestimate. We form friendships throughout our lives. My 2½ year old granddaughter takes great pride in telling us that her friends in nursery are Neha, Gracie, Frankie and Finley. Friends come and go, because we move away from an area, our circumstances change or we simply grow apart. But there will always be something about all our friendships, that, wherever we go, there will still be a part of that friendship that remains.

The two names I recall from my early childhood friendships are Gail and Rosemary. I was heartbroken when Gail told me she wouldn’t be returning to school after the summer holidays because her family were emigrating to Australia. We must have been 10 at the time. Rosemary and I went our separate ways when after primary school we went to different middle schools. Grace and Tasneem are probably two of my oldest friends that I’m still in contact with. Grace and I met at high school over 30 years ago and she now lives in Scotland. We manage to stay in touch thanks to social media. Tasneem and I grew up within the Muslim community in Leeds. Our mums were friends and our sisters were friends. We exchange the occasional text message, most often when one of my sisters tells me she bumped into Tasneem as a wedding or funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

Many people become friends and touch our hearts in the course of our lives. People of many different cultures and faiths, if we are lucky! But despite growing up in a very Jewish part of Leeds, I didn’t have any Jewish friends. I knew of Jewish people. Our local chemist was owned by Mr Booth, our family GP was Dr Levy and my father would only ever buy fresh bread and cheesecake from Chaultz bakery when it opened on a Sunday morning after Shabbat.

I met my first Jewish friends when I moved to Staffordshire in the early 1990’s and became involved in the local interfaith organisation. They were part of a very small Hebrew congregation based up in Stoke and were in the process of de-consecrating the large synagogue that had now outgrown the diminishing community. The thing I welcomed most about our friendship was the capacity to have difficult conversations, but still remain honest and maintain respect for the views of ‘the other’, and of course, Sydney’s never-ending supply of Jewish jokes!

One conversation in particular I recall was with Sydney and a Christian chaplain. We were discussing the Israel – Palestine issue. Sydney understandably had his loyalty to Israel, but totally accepted that as a Muslim I would feel affinity to the plight of the Palestinians. As our conversation came to a close, Sydney looked at me and said “honestly Hifsa if this is what it takes for the Messiah to come, I wish he’d just stay where he was”. Some might call this blasphemy, I call it one mans’ desire to see peace in the region.

Through my friendships with Sydney, Paul, Martin and many others I was able to discover so much more about Judaism. My father used to say to me – our name is Haroon {Arabic for Aaron} don’t you know he was the brother of Moses & that makes Muslims and Jews brothers & sisters? I became a regular at the synagogue and attended many Sedar meals there. Sadly, I was also able to go and pay my final respects to Sydney when he passed away.

Over the last century, Muslims have suffered terrible conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa and South Asia. But this is nothing when compared to the centuries of persecution faced by Jews; the Russian pogroms that saw the large scale targeted and repeated mob-attacks on Jews; and the Holocaust that witnessed the genocide of 6 million Jews, for example. But for the last 70 years our two great religions have been portrayed as being at war over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, it has been difficult to speak of Muslims and Jews without seeing things through the prism of the Middle East conflict. It needs to be acknowledged however that as a Muslim, it is natural for me to feel the pain of the terrible injustices and suffering faced by the Palestinians, whilst recognising that my Jewish friends will hold a deep connection to Israel and desire for a homeland which is safe and secure. Furthermore, just as I do not have to justify or be held to account for the actions of some Muslims, my Jewish friends do not have to account for the actions of the Israeli government.

Friendship is not about agreeing with everything the ‘friend’ has to say. Friendship is about the ability to listen to views and opinions that may differ from our own. Friendship is about trying to understand a different viewpoint and respectfully presenting your own. Friendship is about accepting that we don’t all have to be clones, it is ok to thing, believe and behave differently. True friendship is based on many factors but ultimately it is about recognising that despite all the things that we may disagree and differ on, our love for humanity is the one commonality that binds us.

Our faiths are different but the same. As Europe heads into uncertain times, the far-right and the far-left increasing in their vehemence towards the Muslim and the Jew, perhaps now is the time for us to rekindle old relationships. Friendship must always be used as our baseline. This is the foundation on which we build our communities and ensure they are interlinked & bound together, whatever our differences, in a way that will not allow minor tremors to bring down the structures we work so hard to raise.

{This blog post was first published on the website of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network at http://www.nisanashim.org/the-power-of-friendship/ }

Our annual conference will be taking place in London on Sunday 7th April and will be about Faith and Friendship Shaping the Future Together Please do join us and purchase your tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nisa-nashim-annual-conference-2019-faith-and-friendship-tickets-53727142329

 

Brick by Brick – Seeing it for myself with Oxfam in Nepal Part 1

At the end of last year, I was invited by Oxfam GB to visit one of their international projects, following an application I made to their ‘see for yourself’ initiative.  The scheme allows Oxfam supporters to personally observe the affect Oxfam is having on the lives of millions of people around the world. Having been an avid Oxfam supporter and fundraiser for a number years, I was being given an insight into the world of Oxfam where it really matters. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was founded in Britain in 1942 and campaigned for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade to starving women and children in enemy-occupied Greece during the Second World War. Oxfam International came into being 53 years later, having been developed by a group of international non-government organisations who aimed to work in collaboration to reduce poverty and injustice across the globe. The next two weeks will afford me the opportunity to witness if and how effectively our donations are being used by Oxfam to achieve these goals in Nepal.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, it was the worst the region had witnessed since 1936. Nine thousand people lost their lives; 22,000 were injured; over half of the country’s regions and 8 million people, one third of the country’s population, were affected. People not only lost their loved ones, they lost their homes, their possessions, their land, their crops, their livestock and their livelihoods. Above all they lost that independence and self-determination that all these things command and overnight they were let destitute.

Currently Oxfam are involved in facilitating 4 main programmes in Nepal around food sustainability & livelihood, water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) and water governance, women’s empowerment and humanitarian & disaster risk reduction & climate change adaptation. Kharanitaar is a small village development in the district of Nuwakot that provided homes for those displaced following the earthquakes. But the homes did not materialise overnight. Oxfam worked with local NGO’s, politicians and most importantly the community itself to establish homes for the newcomers and make them feel part of a wider community. The target is to build 70 new homes and to date 24 have been completed. Whilst raw materials and support was provided, so was training and both men and women were able to receive training in masonry to enable them to not only build their own homes but for others as well. I was completely taken aback when I saw Kayli in her hi-vis jacket, hard hat and shovel in hand digging away alongside the men. I asked Kayli if she was building her house and she informed me that no, her house had been built, she was now supporting her brothers in building homes for other people. I asked her why and she responded with a smile and said “why not? They built a home for me – if I have the strength and the ability to support my brothers in building homes for others, why shouldn’t I?” I tried my hand at brick building – it seemed so easy, the ease with which the men were shovelling the mix into the mould and compressing the plates to form the brick. It was not easy. Each house uses 2000 bricks – so they had 92,000 left to go.

Walking through the village, I came across two little girls at the water pump. Aged 10 and 13. I remembered my daughter at that age, running around the garden, laughing and being teased by her brothers. She had what most would describe as a normal childhood.  Actually, our children have a very privileged childhood – these girls were doing the households washing. One was rinsing the clothes, the other soaping them and passing them back for rinsing before hanging them out to dry. I wonder, how many 13 year olds in middle England know how to operate the washing machine let alone wash clothes by hand?

I stopped and sat with Shanti Maya who was cradling a young sleepy child. Throughout our conversation she had a beaming smile on her face.  She told me she was happy. Before the earthquake hit Nepal, there had been a landslide and her home along with all her possessions, had been washed away down the mountainside. They were left with nothing. Thanks to Oxfam and partners, she now had a house with a proper roof as opposed to the tin one her old house had. She no longer worried that the houses further up the mountain would collapse on top of hers. Her children could walk to school within 10 minutes and she did not have to worry about them walking through the jungle areas. She had running water right outside her house, she had a small plot of land to grow vegetables and was breeding chicken. As an only child, she needed to care for her elderly parents, one of whom was housebound and blind. But she again described herself as happy and grateful for what had she now had.

“The great Oxfam provided crucial support in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the theme of partnership working continues. Efficient working, effective working and above all transparent”

I was informed that without the support provided by Oxfam, there would have been total destruction and poverty. Oxfam have provided food distribution and construction, they have worked collaboratively and continue to provide support.

In Dhading we were able to see how running water has been provided to the remote village communities. I spoke to Swaraswati and Bima, two fiercely independent women who have both benefitted from the instalment of water tanks that now provide safe water to 320 households. Before the instalment of a water tap for every household, Swarswati’s day could start as early as 4.00am, with one hours walk to the water collection point. Once in the queue, she could wait up to two hours before it was her turn to collect 25 litres of water, that she would then carry home, on her back, with another one hours walk. Most days Swarswati could do this same journey 4-5 times a day. When I asked her what difference the tanks had made she said she now had so many extra hours in which she could look after her children, maintain a better level of hygiene, grow more vegetables and water her livestock. The water meant the vegetables she grew were enough for the family leaving some to sell in the market. Both Bima and Swarswati had married their husbands at the age of 14 and 15. Bima’s health was deteriorating and not having to spend hours carrying water meant she could take more care of herself and have some time to relax.

I have been privileged this week to meet some incredibly dedicated and committed Nepalise, people who work for NGO’s, Oxfam Nepal, local government officials and community representatives. But nothing has been as gratifying as meeting the numerous women who have taken the lead in establishing and securing safe and comfortable homes for their families. The all-women’s management committee in Aanptar that have been running planning and organising the safe water project have indeed become my ‘sheros’ for International Women’s Day 2019. I witnessed the women in action, the no nonsense approach to ensuring that in their community, water, the most basic requirement for survival, would not be seen as a luxury but a necessity easily accessible to everyone. And everyone would and should participate actively in ensuring that the water supplies were set up as quickly as possible.

The work being undertaken across Nepal by Oxfam should be seen, not just as a great achievement of Oxfam and their partners. It should be recognised as an achievement of every single individual who contributed to the Nepal earthquake appeal.  It should be acknowledged that without the funds, support and training provided by Oxfam all this could not have been achieved. And every single individual who has ever made a contribution to Oxfam should be uplifted in the knowledge that their donations have been put to good use. But just as the communities cannot achieve anything without Oxfam and their partners, so too Oxfam cannot survive without funds and fundraisers. Without funds, nothing will be achieved. Communities will not receive the assistance whether monetary or otherwise they require to get out of the cycle of poverty. There are many ‘Nepal’s’ across the world that still require that uplift and we have a duty to them. As Kayli said, if you are able to do it, why wouldn’t you?

 

 

 

The Unknown Fallen – The Muslim Story For Remembrance Sunday

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart beating. Not one of us is moving. Not even when the trenches went dark.”

(From The Diary of an Unknown Soldier)

“The Unknown Fallen – the Global Allied Muslim Contribution in the First World War” is a recent publication by the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation.  The deeply moving photography in the book captures the raw human courage, sacrifice and fellowship of soldiers during the World War One.  The pain and fear that, undoubtedly, the soldiers must have been experienced, permeates through the pages .  But the most powerful heart-stopping image for me depicts a group of Christian soldiers praying with a priest, possibly before going into battle, whilst just a few feet away, Muslim soldiers are prostrating, bowing their heads in worship.  Incredible stories of fear, hardship, courage and perseverance are told. The Unknown Fallen takes the reader into a dark world, full of death and separation and one that we can only hope the world never witnesses again. A world where Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy were fully versed in the methods of performing the last rites related to each other’s faiths. Because it was inevitable that at some point they would be called upon to do so. A dark world, but one where there was the utmost respect for diversity and ‘the other’ – because the other was my brother and they were fighting side by side, not just for each others lives, but ours as well.

Sunday 11th November 2018 marks exactly one hundred years since the guns fell silent and the world, finally, after four long years, saw the bloodiest conflict in history come to an end. A war that witnessed 16 million people die. Across the country at 11.00am people will stand in solemn silence, bells will toll and we will remember all those men, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews, who died so that we might enjoy the freedoms that, sadly, they never survived  to experience.

I was recently privileged to attend a memorial at the Peace Garden in Woking. The event was a dedication to those brave soldiers who fought and died as members of the British Army. But let me be more specific. The memorial was a dedication to the thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain in two world wars and subsequent conflicts, giving you, me and our future generations the freedoms we enjoy today. They fought against oppressors, racists, bigots and haters. They fought against nations that did not value democracy, diversity or the rule of law. The reality is however, that if you were to ask the ordinary man woman or child in school about who fought for Britain in the wars, very few would be able to tell you that recent figures estimate that four million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers.

One of the speakers at the memorial was Sophie Chisembele, daughter of Yusuf Mohammed Ali, the last serviceman to be buried at the site, which was then the Woking Muslim Military Burial Ground.  The burial ground held just 27 servicemen out of the many thousands of Muslim personnel who died during the two World Wars. She paid tribute to the Muslim servicemen who “died in their thousands in the service of Britain, then the colonial power.  They were born in a different place, centuries past, their lives ended prematurely by wars, and it is right that we and I’m sure generations to come, remember and honour their sacrifice.”

The Right Honourable Earl Howe, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and Minister of State for Defence reminded us of the “forgotten army. The first Muslim recipient of the Victoria Cross, Khudadad Khan, who is now well known for his selfless actions at the First Battle of Ypres, whilst the other Muslim VC recipients of the Great War, like Mir Dast and Shahamad Khan, have also been deservedly immortalised at the National Arboretum.. We honour not only those heroes, but the many thousands of less well-known Muslim soldiers, whose names adorn memorials the length and breadth of Europe, the Middle East and Asia and whose deeds helped preserve our freedom. We think of how they travelled thousands of miles to the mud and horror of Flanders Fields.”

There is nothing glamorous or thrilling about war and conflicts. Battlefields are not exciting places – they are places of horror, where friends and comrades have to witness each other being blown apart, bleeding to death, losing limbs and calling out the names of their loved ones who they know they will never see again. Wars are abhorrent, they are horrifying, they are destructive and they are never the way to peace. We must never forget the sacrifices made by all those brave men, but we must endeavour to ensure the world never sees such conflicts again.

It has only been recently that the contribution of Muslims to the world wars became known, and certainly this seems to be a very well-kept secret. Perhaps modern day populist movements might benefit from learning not just about the lessons and horrors of war, but about this secret as well. More recent estimates suggest that potentially 4 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers, a figure known largely in essence to the research undertaken by The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation and published in their book. This is a history book with a difference and one that needs to be part of every school library across the country. The book opens up a whole new dimension in relation to the wars and the contributions made by many nations including Pre-partition India, Africa, Russia, the Far East and the Middle East, which until today have been largely unrecognised. Until recently for example it was not known that British India sent 1.5 million men to war in Africa, Asia and Europe during World War 1 and of these 400,000 were Muslims.

“Among all the trials and danger, they kept their calm, their fatalism, and the enduring dignity of their profile”.

In 21st Century diverse Britain, we have a duty to salute, remember and make others aware of these heart-rending stories of all these individuals and the sacrifices that were made by Muslims. A group that sadly, is all too often, demonised because of the actions of a very tiny minority. Certainly elements within society seek to divide communities and use the actions of these elements to promote an anti-Muslim, racist narrative that seeks to demonise British Muslims.  We need to understand that these wars were not European wars fought just by white men. They were World Wars in every sense of the phrase, wars that saw people from across the globe, of all colours, religions, traditions and cultures, fight and die for the freedoms we enjoy today. This is not about glorifying war, it is about remembering those who those fought side by side hand in hand for the common good..

We must teach our children, in home and in school, that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all owe a debt of gratitude to ever single individual who gave their life, so we could live a peaceful one. We would do well to remember.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles M. Province 2005

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Boris Johnson, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Alt-Right – an unholy alliance?

Dear Mr Johnson

It was a pleasure to meet you earlier this year, at the reception hosted at Buckingham Palace for representatives of the Commonwealth diaspora in the UK. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see you there, as it gave me the opportunity to offer my thanks and congratulations for the excellent coverage of your visit to Myanmar that I had seen a couple of days previously. You showed true leadership and did not pander to the Burmese leader. You spoke with passion, referring to what was happening to the Rohingya Muslims as ‘industrial level ethnic cleansing’. So to be able to discuss this with you personally and hear about your visit gave me a sense of relief that our government was genuinely acting to ensure that Rohingya Muslims received the assistance they so desperately needed internally in the country and externally from the international community.

I also realised that day that unlike your media persona, you are in fact a very clever man and not a blundering buffoon. Unfortunately, your recent comments ridiculing women who wear the niqab are text-book Bannon and Breitbart.  I do not like the burqa or the niqab and certainly do not think it easily fits in with the society in which we live. The majority of the public think that too. But telling women how they should dress is not British either.

Some people are suggesting a national niqab day in solidarity with those who wear the niqab, which quite frankly is daft and will poison the genuine debates we need to have as a society.

Your choice of words in describing Muslim women who choose to veil in this manner were very badly chosen and reminded me of a conversation I had a few years previously. I was working with Muslim girls, discussing with them issues they were facing in their hometown of Luton. One young woman, a niqabi said to me “we are hit by both barrels of the gun. We walk down one side of the street and we are called letter boxes and bin liners by the EDL. We walk down the other side of the road and if we refuse to take the leaflets being handed out by Al Muhajiroun we are called traitors and kuffar. We can’t win”. This statement has stayed with me because of how upset the young lady was. All she wanted to do was go about her daily life, get an education, shop, and go out with her friends without having to face a barrage of abuse. And thanks to your comments, (I won’t even insult you by saying they were ill-thought, off -the-cuff comments because nothing you say is) abuse such as this is set to continue, very likely increase. Comments such as yours play into the hands of the alt-right, it legitimises their anti- Muslim hatred and gives them the green card to harass, attack and abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I heard yesterday about a woman who had been urinated on by three men simply because she was wearing the niqab. The abuse and attacks on Muslims will continue, and your comments will give some people the justification they need to commit these offences. The niqab debate is a very convenient rallying call for the extreme right wing anti-Muslim elements in society who will use this to scare people about the impending ‘Islamification’ of Britain and ‘creeping shariah’. What has not been covered in the press is that this is also a very convenient rallying call for Muslims on the extreme right, who see the niqab as a symbol for promoting a version of Islam based on theocracy and not democracy. To them I say no, thank you very much. I do not wish to live in a Muslim society based on a version of The Handmaids Tale. I do not want to be punished by the state for choosing to dress as I please.

There is absolutely no doubt as to who are the ultimate losers in this vicious dogfight – the ordinary British Muslims who simply want to go about their lives and practice their faith. Other minorities will inevitably be targeted after Muslims (some already are.)

I am a British Muslim. I value the freedoms that living in a democratic society affords me with. Whilst many people in this country dislike the niqab and what they perceive it to represent, they will be equally appalled by racist attacks on Muslims, that your comments have no doubt incited.  Albert Einstein said that a leader “is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity.” I hope that out of the clutter your comments have created, you will find the simplest and most honourable option is to apologise to Muslim women who choose to veil for your insensitivity and poor choice of words. This will hopefully provide us with the opportunity to draw a line under this saga, move forward and perhaps even have more grown up conversations about things that actually matter in society, not the banal and the ridiculous.

A big thank you from Stafford’s skydiving granny!

Have you ever looked up at the sky and wanted to touch it? Have you ever looked at the cloud formations and looked for signs and images and wondered what it might feel like to touch a cloud? Have you ever looked at a bird and wished you had the gift of flight, to glide through the skies and get a ‘birds eye’ view of the world below?

I’ve never been afraid of heights – whether that was climbing up a ladder into the loft or looking down from the Empire State Building. In fact i’ve always wondered what it would be like to jump from a high place (no I do not have suicidal tendencies, this is just the effect of something called cognitive dissonance apparently – look it up!) Doing a skydive is something I’ve always wanted to do, to experience that thrill, that fear of falling through the skies. And last week I did just that.

I decided to combine this crazy idea of mine with raising some funds for charity and decided to support an organisation I have admired for a very long time for the work they do worldwide in alleviating poverty and giving hope to those most in need, Oxfam. I also decided to support a women’s charity, Hestia, a London based organisation working with victims of domestic abuse and modern day slavery.

For almost two months I have harassed, cajoled and practically trolled friends, family, colleagues, followers and complete strangers in every possible way to *encourage* them to make a donation by way of sponsorship. I really am sorry and I hope you will forgive me, but it was for two very worthwhile causes! Thanks to everyones generosity and kindness, after gift aid was added we reached a grand total of £6195! All this money has now gone to the two charities and I have no doubt will be used to benefit those most in need.

As for the skydive – well that was quite an experience! I was delighted to be supported by family and friends on the day, the sun shone for us and the whole experience was one I can highly recommend (so long as you’re not afraid of heights!). Having seen the footage there are some moments which generated a sharp intake of breath, some of hilarity and others which renewed my faith in God! However there are three comments caught on camera that will forever sum up how much love I have been blessed with. The first is the sound of my husband, on seeing me land ask “is she ok?”. The second is my daughter exclaiming “oh my God, that was so stressful”. And lastly by granddaughter holding her arms out to me and saying ‘daado’ ”

Thank you again everyone for supporting me and my crazy venture. Thank you for helping me remind Oxfam that there are still many of us who value the work that they do and will continue to work side by side with them in their endeavours. And thank you for helping me help Hestia support some of the most abused and tormented in our society.

Enjoy the pictures – now what shall I do next year?

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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down. 

On the 21stJuly, I will be doing a tandem skydive in aid of two charities. Oxfam, a world-renowned organisation that supports people in over 90 countries, providing millions with the support they need to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  And Hestia a London based charity that supports adults and children in times of crisis. Last year alone they supported more than 9,000 people, including victims of modern day slavery, women, and children who have experienced domestic abuse.

The most frequently asked question since I made my intentions known has been “why Oxfam”? A question that I have been answering with a simple “why not”? However, perhaps it is time I actually made it clear as to why I have supported Oxfam and why I will continue to do so.

A report earlier this year in the media, that some members of Oxfam staff, including the Country Director, had paid women for sex during their emergency response to the Haiti earthquake in 2011, left many people saddened and disturbed as to what had been happening within an organisation trusted by millions. I am not going to dwell on who said what and why certain incidents occurred as I feel that more than sufficient column inches have been dedicated to this over the last 3 months. However what I will say is that as a consequence of the 2011 incidents, Oxfam have stipulated that they have been working hard to ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated. After the initial revelations related to the sexual misconduct in Haiti, Oxfam conducted internal investigations and subsequently improvements were made to their own procedures. This included the establishing of a whistle blowing hotline and the setting up of a dedicated safeguarding team to ensure that vulnerable individuals around the world were protected, with mechanisms in place to ensure reports of any misconduct were dealt with immediately. However Oxfam also recognise these processes did not go far enough and since February they have been working closely with the Government and the Charity Commission to expand their safeguarding capacity globally to better protect the very people they serve, ensure they are listened to and look after those who come forward as a result of the new measures. They are looking to establish an Independent Global Commission to review their approach to safeguarding and improve the organisational culture to safeguard women from sexism, discrimination and abuse. These are just some of the changes that have been put in place. Oxfam is committed to the work they do and are unswerving to ensure this never happens again.

Nevertheless, what probably shocked me just as much, was the reaction in the mainstream media and the unleashing of what can only be described as a massive media campaign to discredit one of the largest and most effective charities in the world, to prevent them from executing their work abroad. It appeared to be little more than a concerted attack on an agency that supports millions in more than 90 countries across the globe, not just with emergency aid, but also with their long-term goals – to alleviate poverty, run education projects and campaigns. Goals that ultimately focus on saving lives and improving the quality of life for many people. The media campaigns attacked international aid and ultimately affected Oxfam where it would hurt them the most. Fundraising.

The atrocities in Haiti were not committed by an organisation. Individuals who, unfortunately, worked for the charity committed them. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a number of very high profile cases in the media involving actors, philanthropists and politicians who have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. At no point have I seen the media attack the companies or political parties they are associated with, with the sort of venom I saw the media attack Oxfam. Maybe that has to do with the nature of the organisation. I am inclined to believe it has more to do with those groups and individuals who for whatever reason do not belief in international aid. Those who do not believe that as a rich, first world country, we should be contributing even 0.7% of our GDP to the poorest of nations providing a hand up and supporting them getting out of the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.

I have been supporting Oxfam for many years, because they tackle the very root causes of poverty, making changes that will not just provide someone with their next meal but many future meals. They support people with no shelter, no food, no clothes and no clean water. Oxfam have provided millions with the opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and has given them hope. I am a friend of Oxfam and if I can support them in raising some much needed funds to help the poorest in our world I will continue to do so. So I’ll be sticking around to support Oxfam for a while – will you?

A sure fire way to see who your real friends are, is to see who sticks around to help you when the chips are down.

Thanks for taking the time to read this – if you feel able to support my chosen charities, please click on the link below and donate whatever amount, big or small. It will be gratefully received.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=HifsaHaroonIqbal&pageUrl=1

 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Martin Luther King 

 

Men, Women and the Hijab – a never ending debate

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…..” (24:30-31)

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A few days ago I was asked by someone why I became so sensitive over the issue of the head covering being addressed. Today I’ve been reading about a young Kuwaiti woman being chastised because she publicly chose to stop wearing the headscarf – something that was being seen as an affront to God but also her father, a prominent Islamic scholar

Now I don’t claim to be a scholar nor do a profess to be particularly knowledgeable in relation to Islamic jurisprudenceBut I felt this was one blog I needed to write – for my own sanity and the sanity of other women who are constantly put under pressure, one way or another, in relation to the head scarf.

Most of us know that there are some topics associated with Muslims and Islam that are generally regarded as the proverbial “hot potato”.  Women in Islam is possibly seen as the most controversial, certainly in the eyes of non-Muslims. But the rights of women, particularly around dress and modesty seems to be an area that is much debated (I would add almost relentlessly) not by non-Muslims, or even Muslim women, but by Muslim men.

What is this bizarre obsession, this almost unhealthy fixation, I would say that borders on stalking, that some men have with how Muslim women dress & in particular whether they wear the head scarf, or what has become known as the hijab?

For those unfamiliar with the word, the Arabic word hijab actually means barrier or curtain. It is used on five separate occasions in the Quran. For example 

“Mention in the Quran the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away. We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.”(19:27-27)

“It is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will: He is exalted and wise.”(22:51)

Now it may be a revelation to many that both these verses and subsequent others do not use the term ‘hijab’ to mean a 24 inch square of cloth that covers a womans hair. It does however mean a barrier / curtain and way of seclusion. So what is this fixation about?

I have many good friends who wear the head covering for a variety of reasons, all very different. In fact, I wore the headscarf for three years as well in the 1990’s. Some wear it because they believe it is a religious instruction from God, who instructs them to cover up not just the bosom area but also the hair. Some don the head covering because it brings them closer to God, it becomes a form of worship in the same way that prayer and fasting are. Others use the head covering as an outward expression of their religiosity – literally wearing their faith on their head. Some wear it as it supports them in observing modesty, an instruction for men and women, in the Quran.  There are more and more women, particularly younger women who have adopted the hijab by way of protest – to make a political statement – ‘I am a Muslim and I have no issue with you or anyone else knowing’. And there are political movements were wearing of the head scarf is synonymous with political affiliations and groups. There are those women who have been ‘shamed’ into wearing the hijab because all the other women in the family wear it. Some wear it because it has become ‘habit’ and to remove it would mean they are no longer accepted as ‘authentic’ Muslims, would lose their credibility within certain circles and might possibly have to forfeit positions of authority within the community. And unfortunately, there are those women who wear it because they are forced to do so by their families, fathers in particular. And there are those who wear it because their husbands have told them they would divorce them if they didn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that women who choose not to wear the head scarf do so for equally valid and diverse reasons. Some believe you can be just as pious and modest without covering the hair. Others believe the Quranic verse does not extend to the hair as it specifically mentions the bosom area. And others are of the opinion that you can still appear immodest whilst wearing the headscarf.

Just as there are contrasting reasons behind why women choose to wear the head covering or not, we must acknowledge that there are diverse scholarly opinions  associated with whether or not the head covering is compulsory.

Eminent, outstanding scholars appear to have adopted various positions around whether the head covering is or is not compulsory.  Abdullah bin Bayyah and Abdullah al Judai, for example, are of the opinion that the view mentioned by scholars, in  their commentaries,  like Ibn Ashur (he says some opined it wasn’t necessary) and Muhammad Asad (he said it was all changeable by custom, as what is ordinarily shown changes from one society to the next)  are valid positions. They also opine that in societies where women who wear the head covering, are attacked , they are permitted to remove it. In fact, it may even be necessary to remove it. Hamza Yusuf said the same both in his books and speeches and has stated that

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. … The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

Abul Fadl also gave the same edict saying it may not be obligatory.  Others are of the opinion that the head covering is not obligatory on the basis that hair does not form part of the ‘awrah’ (intimate areas). In 2005 after the 7th July London bombings, the Egyptian scholar Dr Zaki Badawi issued a fatwa saying that women did not have to wear the head covering as it was unnecessarily putting them at risk in the current climate. An article by Sheikh Usama Hasan presents a very detailed piece on the issue of dress within the Islamic context,  and can be accessed here . What is clear is that there is no consensus and the topic of how women should or should not dress has been blown out of all proportion.  So, are men just incapable of looking at women whose hair is showing without lust? Can they not ‘lower their gaze’ as instructed? Why have they positioned themselves as custodians of Islamic ethics and integrity? Why do they feel they have a right to judge total strangers and compare 50% of God’s creation to inanimate objects whether they be lollipops or iPhone covers? Do they feel they have a God given superiority that allows them to dehumanise their fellow companions in the world?

I do not wear the head covering. Many of my friends and relations do not wear the head covering. Many of them do. But I will not be bullied into interpreting my religion from the eyes of anyone else. We are all more than capable of making our own decisions based on what we have read, taking into account the views of eminent scholars and teachers and our own understanding of the issue. If that does not comply with someone else’s interpretation, that’s fine. ‘To me my religion and to you your religion’. For me, the head covering is not the crux of my faith. On the day of judgement, I believe that I will be judged for all my actions – what did I do to help the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphan and the infirm. Did I lie, cheat, steal? Did I go to bed with an overfilled belly whilst my neighbours went to sleep hungry? Did I leave the world a better place for future generations or did I contribute to its destruction? Did I give water to the thirsty and food to the hungry? Did I bring up my children well? And yes maybe, just maybe, God will ask me why I didn’t I cover up my hair. But in the bigger scheme of things, I suspect that will come pretty low down on the list.

But ultimately these are my views – and God knows best!

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If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves “

(Hamdun al-QassarFrom Tafsir ibn Kathir)

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