Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Joys of Orbiting Pluto

''The outer space beings are my brothers. They sent me here. They already know my music."

- Sun-Ra (Jazz musician, 1914-1994)

Uproar over the niqab continues and a just few days ago an eighteen year old woman in France actually bit a police officer who tried to arrest her for wearing Muslim garb. Frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more biteyness over this issue as the niqab has turned into a shrill political obsession among the middle classes who have little better to do than wonder ‘Is this good for women?’ (WITHOUT ASKING THE WOMEN INVOLVED on both sides of the argument) and ‘Can a woman wearing a niqab really be a citizen of society?’ (when it is laws such as those passed in France that effectively bar women donning Muslim garb from full citizen rights). The experience of listening to a debate about Muslim women that is so distanced from real human-to-human dialogue with Muslim and ex-Muslim women has been both frustrating and surreal. Everyone wants to talk about them but few want to talk TO them and make sure they’re getting real human perspectives from both sides of the argument.

I’ve basically liked two pieces on this issue, one by Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship ( and the other in Vice Magazine ( Amazingly, Vice took the time to talk to women who aren’t white and don’t live on a side-street off Upper Street. Wowzers.    

I’ve made a conscious effort to NOT write lots of pieces for my blog on this issue, but it’s hard to say nothing. The level of the debate has been so low I didn’t want to contribute. Also, I’m a woman who’s a bit ‘ethnic’ and was raised Muslim, so few days pass without me getting a little annoyed by a dismissive article in the press. Being from a certain background can mean that you’re constantly up against situations where, if you intervene at every point, you find yourself defining your own identity in a purely defensive way. As a 35 year old woman who’s living my own life (and was never, ever beaten into wearing Muslim garb) I think I want my writing to be defending what’s right but also breaking into new ground. Surely the privilege of being 2nd generation means I can dream beyond certain pre-destined cultural roles? I hope so. Dreaming is pretty much my favourite pastime, and thus the kid’s book I’m writing at the moment isn’t a diatribe on the niqab but a fantasy novel called Tribe of the Snow Leopards. Magic, furry creatures and sequined headdresses galore.

When I was growing up life was kind of boring and not much fun but I liked writing and often dreamt I was flying on the back of a robot through the back streets of Eltham. My father’s abuse defined the family landscape, and while I loved school and daydreaming in the park I was continually informed that what was 'out there' was 'Western', 'bad', and a place where I'd never be accepted. Stay and be abused, leave and they’ll corrupt you. Being a wizard seemed a great way to make my own world that wasn’t Muslim or ‘Western’ but just everything I needed it to be… my true native land.

Precisely for this reason I was so excited when I learned of Samira Ahmed’s interviews with Asian women from the suburbs, revealing a similar obsession with other-worldliness in the shape of David Bowie. When I came across her BBC Radio 4 documentary 'I dressed Ziggy Stardust', like an image-hungry urchin I wanted cry out ‘They’re like meeeee!!!!!!’. Well, sort of… Like me, Samira grew up in the suburbs of South London, where the South Asian diaspora was rather thinly spread in the 80s and where the far right had gained some confidence on the streets. The BNP headquarters were shut down after a rather excellent ANL demo in ’94, but the memory of those brats who killed Stephen Lawrence (they were known to be involved in a BNP-related gang) was unpleasant enough.  I remember my mother coming home from Sainsbury’s saying 'I saw them! They were on the other side of the street and they kept looking at me a laughing and spitting on the ground!'. She said all this in Urdu so I had to have it repeated a few times before I copped on. She meant, of course, the killers of Stephen Lawrence, walking free after the trial. I sat with her for a bit, drank tea, saw her get on with things after a while, and I went back to reading my awesome novel. It by Ursula Le Guin novel and it was awesome because it detailed the life of this kid who didn't seem to have a place in the real world until he discovered his magical powers. HE WAS A WIZARD!!! Wow. I loved every word. Words were my magic and they whizzed me off to worlds that just seemed nicer and more empowering than the real one around me.

Unsurprisingly, I grew up to adore the likes of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Natasha Khan, people who grew up in the suburbs and made their own identities.

I was reminded of Samira again when I looked at the Guardian Guide a week ago and nearly wet my pants because Khan (AKA Bat for Lashes) was on the front cover. I went straight to my computer and listened to all three albums, ‘Fur and Gold’, ‘Two Suns’ and ‘The Haunted Man’. Sometimes the outer-world experiences of Khan and Sun-Ra are a refreshing take on dealing with ‘difference’. Khan is better known for her glittery, shaman-like image than the fact that she has a Pakistani Muslim dad and was expected to have an arranged marriage. She was saved by her parents' divorce, but one listen of 'Sirens' summons a picture of the monsters (and men) that still haunt her imagination. It’s no coincidence that while creating glittering, far-out artistic identities for herself Khan has had to cut off all with the Pakistani side of her family. But she’s also not defined by what she thinks of Islam or race. She’s defined her own narrative. One minute she’s naked on an album cover carrying a man on her shoulders (she decided against hair-removal and make-up for the photo shoot); another she’s a Native American wizard. It makes you think. Sometimes the best way to be a woman is ignore Caitlin Moran's book and do whatever the fuck you like. Carrying various kinds of oppression on your shoulders when growing up can definitely engender an intolerance for being told what ‘women like you’ should be thinking or doing or writing about or singing about...

Every time I read yet another tedious piece by Alibhai- Brown or Keith Vaz, or get a request for my opinion on the niqab, I wonder 'Is this the only crap we get to talk about? Is this what they want to publish by people like me?' 

The debate so often defines difference as disadvantage and utterly fails to consult the 'disadvantaged' themselves. By these rules women from my background  must be the subject, never the authors of our identities, doubly disadvantaged by the dominant narrative of two cultures. Do I want to be a pawn in that sort of world? I'd rather fly to Pluto, dressed as a shaman. All hail the 3rd Space.

Monday, 27 May 2013

My nephew, the volunteer

22nd May, 2013, London. Two men behead a British soldier in Woolwich. They shout ‘god is great’ in Arabic. They were Muslim converts who had contacts in the banned UK organisation Al Mujaharoun and the Somali organisation Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen  (Al-Shabaab), which means ‘Mujahideen Youth Movement’. ‘Mujahiddeen’ means ‘those who struggle’ and ‘Jihadi’.  Jihad basically means struggling for what is spiritually good.

23rd May, 2013, Idlib, Syria. A young British-Asian Muslim from Willesden dies while working in a field hospital. Dr Isa Abdur Rahman was volunteering as a doctor in a country where medics treating civilians have been tortured and killed. Hospitals are routinely attacked and there is a dire shortage, therefore, of medical staff willing to work under such circumstances.

Isa was my nephew. He was 26. His name means ‘Jesus’, who is also named as a prophet in the Quran. In the Quran, Jesus’ death is different but he still dies a young man striving for good. My nephew felt that he absolutely had to go to Syria and that he would awful as a qualified doctor to not go to a region so in need of his skills. He was supportive of the toppling of the dictators in the Middle East but was not fighting as a rebel but as a medic treating the sick and wounded. He was trying to do what he knew best to help out in a hard situation a very, very long way away from home. Trained as a doctor at Imperial College London, he put his career on hold to help the charity Hand in Hand, one of the few charities still getting aid through to Syria.
Isa felt this was his ‘jihad’, his ‘struggle for good’. It’s hard to imagine two actions so different committed in the name of god, the one in Woolwich and the one in Idlib. Hard to imagine two Londoners with such a different vision of what their faith means to them.

Isa wasn’t a British soldier, he wasn’t white, he wasn’t a murderer who was also a ‘troubled young Muslim man’ and he wasn’t a young man in ‘crisis’ with his masculinity any more than any of us are at crisis with who we are. He was a young Muslim man who had kind parents, four brothers and sisters and a young wife.
We feed our fantasies with images, plug ourselves into the internet until we’re bursting with criticism, anger and helplessness. But our lives are better than those of many. We’re the lucky ones. Our children are lucky. Where there’s life, there’s hope… but we don’t celebrate it.

My nephew did what he felt was right and kind. He cared for strangers in trouble.  

I want people to stop and think. It’s not just some Muslims who kill people; it’s people who join gangs, who believe in attacks and reprisal attacks. Can we really keep just blaming religion per se when so many young Muslim men lead good lives and the use of knives and machetes in London are actually prevalent in forms of gang culture that have nothing to do with religion? I was struck by how the men in Woolwich tried to film their actions on their and other people’s mobile phones. It’s, well, very much like what gangs do – film awful things on their phones and upload them onto YouTube.  To see the phenomenon as just ‘Islamic’ with no holistic view is crazy. It’s undeniable that certain groups are deeply problematic and this needs to be tackled, but it is them who (like the EDL and the BNP) actually want an ‘us’ and ‘them’ war to erupt, and we can’t let humanity lose out to that view. It would let them win.

My nephew was an amazing young man. It’s so hard to lose someone so young. But I’m proud of him and I’m also proud of all my nephews and nieces. If we are the ‘responsible adults’ in society, let’s celebrate and love and nurture our youth – not just our own children. That’s what real love is and that’s the real ‘jihad’ that my nephew fought, the real ‘struggle for what is good’ in the face of adversity: saving lives, valuing lives, respecting lives.

True terrorists do not recognise the existence of ‘innocents’ in societies they don’t like. Don’t be guilty of the same thing.

My nephew died saving innocents and he was just 26 year old. He gave up his future for them.

As I write, civilians continue to be killed in Syria with little international support. Donations are welcome to the charity Hand in Hand and any other charity getting aid through to Syria.

RIP, Dr Isa Abdur Rahman (1986 – 2013)… a young man who helped because his open eyes could see no other way.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Amina Tyler

It's a bit sad, really... one woman goes partly naked on her own Facebook page and the world goes nuts. Mainstream culture - both “east” and “west” - seems not to know how to react when girl reveals she's naked under her clothes. Newspapers have a field day - "look, it's news but with boobs!” Facebook groups against FEMEN spring up, with photos of women holding up signs that read "My hijab is my dignity" and "Nudity doesn't liberate me". There have been accusations of cultural imperialism and racism.

But no one can shout 'imperialist' at the fact that it's been a Tunisian woman - Amina Tyler - who has founded FEMEN's branch in Tunisia, and that the timing of FEMEN's growth into North Africa and the Middle East is pretty unsurprising. The Arab Spring has been deeply inspiring but the movements that have come to the fore are now largely Islamist. What we see in in some countries is similar to the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution: secular forces are being repressed and women - as in Amina's case - are being watched by violently right wing 'morality police'. Her family have been acting in accordance with these principles and few institutions have greater power than the internal morality policing of family structures in these situations.  

In a video released today (  Amina reveals that she was kidnapped, beaten, forced to see a doctor, sedated, and given a kind of exorcism by an imam. When asked if the police did this, she says, chillingly: 'No, not the police... my brothers, my cousins'.

This isn't 'culturally specific' oppression. The misuse of psychiatric drugs to sedate women was rampant in the UK and the US and in the 50s and 60s. Death by exorcism has been the horrible ending of various women's lives at the hands of Christian ministers, including the Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco who beat a woman to death in 1995 (they were trying to drive out her demons, apparently). FEMEN, who claim they will not stop fighting Islam as long as the stoning of women forms part of its teachings, have not singled out Islam as its main enemy and came to notoriety through its protests against the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe.

So let's look at these accusations of 'imperialism'. Many of those on Facebook (mis)using the word 'imperialism' are, it seems, Western-based Muslims who have grown up under liberal laws. They have no idea what it's like to actually live in a country where you might be forcibly silenced for your politics. In my opinion, you do have to be pretty privileged to cry out the word 'imperialism' so often and with such wild abandon. What is really and truly awful is not that some Muslim women feel upset, but how playing the victim can so effectively erase the original victim herself, in this case Amina. There where whole days of outrage and little concern for where Amina was. It turns out she was being tortured by her family, her aunts stripped her naked to force a 'virginity' test on her and she was made to recite passages from the Koran against her will.

We need to be very wary of giving political credence to those who cry wolf, screaming ‘imperialism’ to create a smoke screen every time they don't want to be challenged. You really have to ask the question 'what are you trying to hide?’ Accusations of racism are becoming a way of demolishing the confidence to show or even feel solidarity with those across national and cultural boundaries (boundaries I don't happen to believe in). It's becoming a way of making people feel guilty about caring, of making women feel like they can't say anything about human rights in another country. It's a strategy to force silence on those who have something to fight for, like Amina.

I grew up in a Muslim family in London and I believe that Islam is a religion a lot like its close relatives, Christianity and Judaism. A lot of the culture I grew up with wasn't that Islamic, it was more rural Indian than anything else. 'What the Koran says' was about as important as 'what will other people say?' in my mother's eyes, and often it seemed that what the Koran actually had to say was a bit less repressive than what Mrs Khan from Sevenoaks thought ("My daughter wears high heels and goes to office but she can't even make aloo ghobi" *tutting/ pursed lips all round*).

In the end, I got into other ideas, the way teenagers often do, and decided I was a socialist more than anything - a description of myself that still holds true. But I think there are times when some liberals and lefties (not all of course!)  bend over backwards so hard to not be racist that they end up listening to the same sort of people who'd send their daughters back to the village and confiscate their passports if they declared themselves radical. It's at best a naive misjudgement, and at worst cowardly and unprincipled. Are non-white women to be considered “separate but equal”? I know how that tale ended.
Women in Muslim countries deserve at least the same rights as their western counterparts, and no one in Amina's case - not even FEMEN - thinks Islam is 'bad' without also criticising other belief systems across Europe that repress women.

I think it's important that we don't not lose sight of Amina and her safety. Whether I'd do what she did has nothing to do with it. She's been let down by her country and her family and I'm not about to do the same by turning this into a 'racism' issue. I personally don't find the hijab or nudity all that liberating, but I think Amina's protest pictures were amazingly brave. For me it was the slogans that she wrote across her body, as well as the cigarette and the book and that look of sultry defiance, that elevated ‘that image’ to the level of protest-art. Bloody well good on her!!!


Thursday, 31 January 2013

''The greatest crime in Auschwitz was to be pregnant''


This week, I learned about Gisela Pearl. She was a Jewish-Hungarian doctor who worked in Aushwitz and performed secret abortions to protect women from Nazi "experimentation" and death.

The policy on pregnant women in Auchwitz was simple to start with - they were gassed as soon as the pregnancy was discovered. But the Nazi Dr Mengele started to devise alternative plans for these women and asked Perl for all pregnant women to be sent to him personally for separate treatment. He said this would involve milk and extra food. As soon as Perl discovered that these women were in fact being used for horrific experiments, she stopped sending the women and tried, instead, to end the pregnancies herself.
In all, she performed approximately 3000 abortions in the hope that the women would survive and later be able to bear children, if they chose, in freedom

Perl also risked her life giving medical assistance to men and women who had been deliberately poisoned, or otherwise experimented on by Mengele. She did this during the night, hoping she wouldn’t be caught.  She had no medical equipment and very few drugs but she did what she could...
"'I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn't know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.''

Perl survived but many of her family did not. Years later she said in an interview with the New York Times, ''It is worthwhile to live.” (Quotes from taken from New York Times interview, 1982:

Perl’s place in the Nazi machine was deeply complex, given her position as a woman, a Jew and a physician working for the Third Reich, and her actions have been deemed controversial by some. She was operating within a system where sterilization and the termination of Jewish mothers, babies and foetuses was actively encouraged as part of the Nazi policy to eradicate all traces of Jewishness and ‘impurity’. Perl’s actions did not, and could not possibly, subvert this project. She was aborting the same ‘bad’ foetuses, and in some cases killing those same ‘impure’ babies that Hitler wanted dead. But within the death machine that was Auschwitz, the children of women inmates could not possibly survive. Babies, too, were experimented on and killed. Mengele devised ways of observing babies starve to death – he taped one woman’s breasts to watch her baby try to suckle day after day until it died.

It goes without saying that the Nazi’s forced abortions had nothing to do with women’s choice. Both ‘Aryan’ and non-Aryan women didn’t really have one.  In 1933, the director of the women’s clinic of Berlin’s Charite Hospital claimed “the nation’s stock of the ovaries a national resource and property of the German state” ( Bavaria’s official medical journal declared abortion a type of treason when carried out on ‘pure’ women (quoted in the above article). Sexism was an innate part of Nazism, and just as racially ‘pure’ women were ordered to produce as many children as possible, ‘impure’ women were forbidden to reproduce, or to have children who would live.  All women were the forced-curators of a cultural heritage decided by others – by Nazi men. Agency was forbidden. Therefore women prisoners who tried to end their own pregnancies, or to help other women to do the same, were punished by a trip to the gas chambers. By eking any power at all for themselves – including power over their own bodies - they were not behaving as absolute subjugates, and this threat had to be destroyed.  (Hedgepeth & Saidel (2010) Sexual Violence against Jewish Women in the Holocaust). [2]

In the context of Auschwitz, Perl’s actions were about as subversive as they could be. She informed women of their fate if they continued with the pregnancy and worked to save the mothers’ lives. Unlike the more controversial figure of Lucie Adelsberger, an inmate physician who performed abortions to save women but often without - and sometimes against- their consent,  Perl has been so far been spoken of positively by survivors. The issues of consent and coercion are not clear, however. Some survivors never forgave the abortionists who claimed to have acted in their interests. And very little must have felt clear to the inmate physician, whose job had been to nurture and care for human life, when operating in the context of what was ultimately a death camp. It doesn’t bear thinking about and it is hard to judge these things. Rightly or wrongly, physicians even today would see it as their job to work in the interests of the patient when the patient isn’t deemed well enough or ‘sane’ enough to make their own decisions. The women in the camp would have been starved, ill, and deeply disturbed. The issue is one of women’s rights but also, more broadly, the rights of the patient in a medical environment.

At something of a loss myself after writing about these events, the only way I feel I can finish is with this poem by Avrom Sutzkever. The third stanza is a painful reminder of the women and children who couldn’t be saved. 

Let us never forget.

 Frozen Jews
By Avrom Sutzkever
July 10, 1944

Have you seen, in fields of snow, frozen
Jews, row on row? Blue marble forms
lying, not breathing, not dying.

Somewhere a flicker of a frozen soul -
glint of fish in an icy swell. All brood.
Speech and silence are one.
Night snow encases the sun.

A smile glows immobile from a rose lip's
chill. Baby and mother, side by side. Odd
that her nipple's dried.

Fist, fixed in ice, of a naked old man: the
power's undone in his hand. I've sampled
death in all guises. Nothing surprises.

Yet a frost in July in this heat - a crazy
assault in the street. I and blue carrion,
face to face. Frozen Jews in a snowy

Marble shrouds my skin. Words ebb. Light
grows thin. I'm frozen, I'm rooted in
place like the naked old man enfeebled
by ice.

[1.]  Gilsela Perl, NYT interview.

[2.] It is possibly pertinent to point out here that while the fascist British National Party here in the UK claims it is in opposition to Muslims because Islam is unfair to women, it is also constitutionally against women of all colour having reproductive rights. This is essentially the same old belief in ‘bad heritage’ needing to be wheedled out to purify the nation, while women of ‘good heritage’ are expected to reproduce whether they want to or not.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Some thoughts on shouting at women on the web...

Until now, I haven't really 'done' twitter or blogging....  that whole thing of constantly reading updates and responding with lightning speed, while juggling that with other writing and teaching and taking my washing out of the machine before it smells wrong. It's probably to do with my style of thinking, which is a bit slow and old-fashioned. But apart from all that, there is another reason I haven't done it, which is that I am terrified of what happens to women on the web.

Recently, Suzanne Moore closed down her Twitter account after a flood of online comments that probably drove her nuts with anger and frustration. She had written a brilliant piece on women's anger and inequality (see:, but made a comment that provoked outrage and the accusation that she had made a transphobic remark. The rest is all over the web, and it has left me feeling incredibly upset and disempowered - I almost cried, in fact.
Having a feminist close her twitter account down isn't a great thing. I've thought about it long and hard (while making sure my clothes aren't going stale in the washing machine)...

Surely the manner of speaking, not just the point of the speaking, is important? It can make things toxic. Suzanne Moore was basically shoved about on Twitter in a way that I find both terrifying and familiar – it’s the sort of thing I got online and in person a lot when I was a campaigner and Vice Chair for Abortion Rights,  and it's part of why I haven't had a twitter account or a blog. I find that while "comments" on blogs may have validity to them, they often come in torrents of abuse that uphold a very brutal sort of world.

Being a woman speaking on the web is hard ... a lot harder than being a man. While women writers used to use male names to get published, now anonymous men can shout down women on the web without respect, accountability or conscience.

It's very 'internet' rather than 'real' but also incredibly basic: it's bullying. 

Look at Stella Duffy's blog on this (  - she says "I know that I, for one, will be much less likely to mention trans at all, in any context, because the upset and anger over ‘getting it wrong’ (and it does seem there are some varying reactions, so this too is subjective) is too painful. And so we shut up. And nothing is said. And that’s really depressing."

Shouting women into silence is never the answer. It's too familiar. It's what men have done to us for centuries. It's horrible, outrageous and unfair. Fine, someone might be wrong, there may be more to a debate than has been conceded, but as Duffy says on her fantastic blog, shutting down debate with vitriolic abuse and the constant and insensitive use of language that people DON’T BLOODY UNDERSTAND isn’t the answer…

“I do believe dialogue is the only way forward. Ever… I’m glad I have my Buddhist practice to remind me both to listen and to try to be compassionate – AND to speak from my heart when I feel moved to do so.”

It was great for me to read those words, to find sense amid all the absolute bollocks on the web at the moment. And no, I’m not going to apologise for the use of the work ‘bollocks’. And no, I didn’t know what ‘cis’ meant until the day before yesterday…. I don’t need to in order to feel solidarity with all those who are oppressed and in order to continue supporting the right to self-determination for all people.