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

 

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)

Dear Mr President Trump

Dear Mr President

21st January 2017 marked the day when you officially became the most powerful man in the world and I find myself saying three words that in my wildest dreams I never thought I would hear myself say, let alone write. But I’ll come back to that at the end.

The result on the morning of  9th November was one that I was not expecting to hear, any more than I expected the result of the referendum in the UK on the 24th June. Brexit in June and your success in November saw the second half of 2016 taking a curious turn and one, as we know, you yourself were not expecting.

Your country, Mr President, is made up of over 325 million individuals, of which 72% are white, 13% are black, 5% are Asian and the remainder are American Indians, Hispanics and other races. 1% of Americans (that’s over 3 million people) also happen to be Muslims, just like me. Americans are proud of their diverse heritage, where not everyone is white, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone speaks English. However, everyone believes in hope and the American dream. It is your responsibility Mr President to make that hope and the American dream a reality for everyone. I am not sure about you, but that’s a task that would give me sleepless nights.

Unfortunately, you did engage in some rather inflammatory oratory during your presidential campaign. From expressing your opinions about undocumented Mexican immigrants who you described as “rapists” and “drug dealers”, outlining your foreign policy; “…..if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money … so we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance“. And not to mention the most distasteful, misogynistic terminology and characterisations you have used about women. But maybe, ‘the odds were always in your favour’. Less than a week ago you solemnly swore to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution that refers to “We the People”.

Sadly your inauguration speech has left me, a middle aged Muslim grandmother, even more disturbed, contemplating the world my children and grandchildren are going to inherit. I visited New York in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2016. The United States of America is a magnificent country made up of beautiful people of all faiths, beliefs, colours, shades and hues. Yet over three million Muslims will not sleep soundly for the fear you and your supporters have generated. A culture has been established where racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, anti-Semitism and homophobia are not only admissible but openly proclaimed. We have all been witness to the clips on social media sites of physical and verbal attacks on Muslims by those who proudly claim to be your supporters. I have heard many reports of Muslims receiving abuse on streets, in supermarkets, schools and cafes by people who have used you, Mr President, as the reason they can be flagrantly disparaging and abusive. Not quite the badge of honour I believe you want to wear.

Your patriotic speech spoke of the transferring of power back to the citizens of “our” country from a protected establishment in Washington and promised it was now all about making America strong, wealthy, proud, safe and great again. You have pledged to improve schooling, neighbourhoods, employment, defence, law enforcement and security. And you promised all this by placing your hand on not one but two bibles. Your own and the bible that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. The irony of which I am sure wasn’t lost on people. You took the oath of allegiance to ALL Americans by placing your hand on the bible that belonged to the President who freed slaves, abolished slavery and made them equal members of society.  As a consequence almost 150 years later we saw the election of the first black President of the United States. You spoke of a united America but America has never been more divided. Whilst your armed forces, your law enforcement agencies are made up of people of all faiths, colours, cultures and creed, you spoke of reinforcing old alliances and forcing new ones – uniting the ‘civilized world‘ against “radical Islamic terrorism“, “which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth“. That’s fine Mr President but what of radical Christianity, white supremacy and fascism? Terrorism has no faith, belief or religion and it is more pertinent to talk of eradicating hate, intolerance, bigotry, social injustices and discrimination in all it forms.

To say opening your heart to patriotism, leaves no room for prejudice is to not fully understand the power of emotion around patriotism.  Emotions that in fact encourage and permit prejudice to flourish. American citizens regardless of whether they are black, brown or white, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, do indeed bleed the same red blood and do most definitely and proudly salute the American Flag. Mr President do not disregard them. Do not dismiss over 3 million Americans because you believe they (and 2 billion adherents of the religion world wide) are all in some way associated with terrorism and the terrorist atrocities that have taken place in America, France, Germany, Australia, Pakistan,  indeed across the world. Do not forget that first, second, and third generations of American Muslims, men and women, have contributed to education, health, justice, defence, policing and government within America. America has been promised change but where is that change going to lead? The vocal crowds that gathered to oppose your inauguration will not go away. The women’s marches that have taken place in Washington, Detroit, New York, Chicago, London in fact in countries across the globe, have seen thousands upon thousands of women on the streets because they, like me, are fearful of what the future holds. This is real democracy in action. You have a long hard task ahead Mr President and unity is a long long way away.

However, you have made quite a transition,  from reality TV star to becoming the 45th President of the United States of America and if I may be so bold, I would like to end with a quote from the Quran and of course those three words I promised:

My people! Give full measure and weight with justice, do not diminish the goods of others,          and do not go about creating corruption in the land.” (11:85)

Congratulations Mr. President.

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