The Truth Is More Painful Than Fiction: A Journey to Palestine

These pictures were taken in 2012 on an old iPhone 4 whilst travelling from east Jerusalem to the West Bank and then through to Haifa and the Dead Sea.

It proved to be a deeply emotional and physically intense trip. Travelling through Hebron was the first time I witnessed an apartheid state. I went through check points and was treated like a criminal at the airport based on the colour of my skin and faith. As humiliating  and troubling as this was, it was only a tiny snapshot of what the Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

Despite all of this, Jerusalem and Palestine were one of the most interesting places I have visited. Beautiful terrain, amazing landmarks and always interesting conversations with the locals. It brought my political and historical knowledge to life in all its pain and complexity.

I’d encourage everyone to visit.

George Galloway’s comments on forced marriage are a dangerous abuse of power

This article first appeared in The Guardian, Comment is Free

Like Naz Shah, I survived a forced marriage, and I know that the most important thing we can do for women in this situation is to believe them

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It is 10 years now since I left my forced marriage but it took me a very long time to accept that I had been a victim and that those who had harmed me were my family – the people who should have loved and protected me the most. Admitting that you have been a victim is painful, because no one wants to be seen as weak; no one chooses to be a victim.

Now George Galloway has played politics with the experience of survivors of forced marriage. At a public hustings event in his Bradford West constituency, he questioned whether Naz Shah, the Labour candidate, is a survivor of a forced marriage. Shah has spoken openly about her experiences, which included being emotionally blackmailed by her mother and the abusive nature of the marriage.

As the hustings event became increasingly ill-tempered, Galloway challenged her. Having obtained a copy of the nikah, or Islamic marriage certificate, from Pakistan, Galloway claimed that Shah had not been 15 at the time, as she claimed, but was in fact 16, and that because Shah’s mother was present the marriage cannot have been forced. Labour says that it has a copy of her original certificate that proves she was a minor and have accused Galloway of breaking election rules.

I cannot believe that Galloway is so ignorant as to allege that because Shah’s mother was present, the marriage was not forced. Galloway was an MP in Bethnal Green and Bow and now represents Bradford West, which both have large Asian communities. While forced marriage is not exclusive to south Asian cultures, he has, no doubt learned about the practice from his constituents.

My family were present at my Muslim wedding ceremony in India 10 years ago, along with 500 other guests at a huge reception. I wore the ornate clothes and jewels of an Indian bride, my hands were patterned with henna; but this outward appearance did not – and does not – change the fact that this was a forced marriage in every sense. I had repeatedly told my parents that I did not want to go through with the ceremony, but to no avail. Like Shah I was emotionally blackmailed. My mother threatened suicide if I did not comply because of the dishonour it would bring on our family.

I left my the person I was forced to marry because staying felt like spiritual death. I had nothing left to give and I wanted, desperately, to live. Despite the shame I knew I would bring my family, I realised – for the first time – that my intellect, emotions, spirit and physical being mattered more.

After leaving I carved out my own life, surviving as best I could. For a time I was able to shut out my experience through keeping busy with work and seeing friends. But after periods of acute mental ill-health, I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Admitting I had been a victim was the hardest thing to do, but it was necessary in order to heal and process the trauma.

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The ramifications of Galloway’s rhetoric are extremely worrying. By using Shah’s experience in this way, he puts future victims at risk. Using his platform and position as an MP he denies Shah the right to speak about her experiences by calling them into question. Shah says she was forced and emotionally blackmailed into her marriage – we should believe her. I worry about the impact Galloway’s comments will have on other survivors when they seek support. They already face the barrier of having to overcome the “honour code” which is drilled into them from childhood. The most important thing is to believe us victims of forced marriage when we say our parents were the perpetrators. Start with the premise of believing the victim – this in itself would be a revolutionary act.

As a British Asian Muslim woman it worries me hugely that someone like Galloway, in a position of power, can make these comments. Bradford has the largest proportion of Pakistanis in England (20.3%), which is almost a quarter of Bradford’s population; 24.7% are Muslim and they experience some of the highest rates of deprivation. Galloway’s anti-Iraq war stance and pro-Palestine views have gained him trust and support.

But by playing politics with Shah’s history as a forced marriage survivor Galloway has revealed himself to be both unscrupulous and dangerous; I hope the voters of Bradford West reject him.

Girlhood: just add a glimmer of hope

First published in the F Word blog

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There is a scene in Girlhood in which Marieme/Vic, the main protagonist of the film, played by the beautifully enigmatic Karidja Touré, dances joyfully with her three friends to Rihanna’s Diamonds. Symbolising the comradery between these young girls, it is also a rarity: it is not often that four black people, let alone women, are the stars and not the sidekicks in a film.

Directed by Céline Sciamma (of Tomboy and Water Lilies), Girlhood is a feminist love story, a tale of the solidarity forged between four young girls: Vic (initially introduced as Marieme), Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Touré). It focuses on the life of Marieme, a young black Parisian girl, living through violence at home and a lack of options at school.

Belonging to the group of girls gives Vic a sense of purpose, identity and support where this is sorely lacking

The film begins with Marieme desperately pleading with her (white) teacher to be allowed to retake her school year. Because she has failed her class more than once, the only option available to her is to take up vocational training, which she refuses. This proves to be a pivotal moment as it’s when Marieme meets three other girls and gets her new name, Vic for “Victory”. She begins the film as an awkward young girl, struggling to survive violence at home from her brother, and her new ‘gang’ (the film’s original French title is Bande de filles, literally translating as “girl gang”) becomes a catalyst for change.

On the face of it, this is a grim tale of gangs. There are moments of violence in the film that leave the audience gasping. When Vic has a fight with a girl from an opposing gang, the victor is to leave the defeated girl in just her underwear. In this instance, Vic has come with a pen knife and she cuts off the girl’s bra. The video goes online and the girl’s humiliation is compounded.

Through being part of the group, Vic has found a substitute family, an antidote to her home life where she has to endure her brother’s violence. The girls give her a sense of purpose, identity and support where this is sorely lacking. Reflecting the reality, perhaps, of why many young people may join gangs, this points to the failings of society where young people are forced into such situations.

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The film is beautifully shot by Crystel Fournier, a cinematographer who collaborated with Sciamma on her previous films, in the sparse and stark setting of the most deprived parts of Paris. The crescendo of the music does well to accentuate the peaks of the story. But perhaps most reflective of Vic’s journey are the changes to her hair and clothes: going from a young girl with long braids, to the straight weave she dons when she is with the gang, to her peroxide blonde wig when she is dealing drugs and then to her very short braids and baggy clothes in the end. It is a remarkably arresting transformation to watch and Karidja Touré does it with aplomb. It is even more startling to realise that she, like the other actors, is entirely inexperienced and was selected through street casting.

There has been some criticism levelled at Céline Sciamma, as she depicts the lives of young black teenagers through the eyes of a middle-class, financially stable and professionally accomplished white woman. Certainly, there are many stereotypes of young black people involved in gangs in the film that I am uncomfortable with myself. And perhaps it is what an outsider would perceive the reality of black teenage life to be.

The film would benefit from a diversity of characters’ experiences and a glimmer of hope

The stars of the film have defended it and, while they come from diverse backgrounds, agree that there are parts in the film that reflect the reality for young black Parisians. This can be seen when Vic is unsupported by her teacher, steadfast in opposing her wishes to repeat the year and work towards her baccalauréat. These low expectations are a reality as long as institutionalised racism exists.

The violence inflicted on women is also well reflected both in Vic’s home life and the low-level harassment she experiences when going home on the estate. Her private space is repeatedly violated through casual sexism.

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Some of those stereotypes of young black people could have been addressed in Girlhood by showing diverse experiences and including characters with different opportunities. However, by saying this, I am as a reviewer perhaps projecting what I think reality should be, when such idealism is not the point of the art of cinema; an artist reflects on a slice of life and not the breadth of all experiences, which in turn can be limiting and open to criticism.

Girlhood has been keenly celebrated, which is to be applauded, as it gives a focus to the experiences of a community often marginalised and hidden. And it does celebrate these young girls: their beauty, their clothes, their solidarity, their dynamism and their humour. The film would benefit from a diversity of characters’ experiences and a glimmer of hope, when the stories of young black girls could be not just about struggling to survive, but being able to achieve and flourish.

Girlhood opens in cinemas nationwide on 8 May.

All pictures courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.

First picture is showing four young black women in a smart room with low light, laughing and hugging each other. They all have long hair and wear party dresses.

Second picture is of two young black women, Lady (Assa Sylla) and Marieme/Vic (Karidja Touré). They are outside, both have long hair and the woman on the right is wearing a golden pendant that reads ‘Vic”.

Third picture is of two young black women, Karidja Touré as Marieme/Vic and Simina Soumaré as Bébé, sitting opposite each other on a commuter train with yellow interior. They hold each others’ hands and look at each other seemingly worried.

The Courage of Zayn Malik and Why Strong Men Cry

Media Diversified

by Huma Munshi  

On the face of it Zayn Malik leaving One Direction shouldn’t really resonate. At 34 years old, I am past fawning over boy bands. Even when I should have been gripped by Take That fever, I had a lot more affinity with the music of old codgers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. However, there is something about Zayn that does appeal. In part, it is the fact that he’s that rarest of species: an Asian boy band member in the British mainstream – and he is pretty striking at that.

15th NRJ Music Awards - Red Carpet Arrivals

But it was his recent departure from One Direction, which finally struck a chord. He laid bare the impact mental distress can have on a person. Having experienced significant mental ill-health myself, his honesty mattered. The workplace is a much cited cause of mental ill-health: you have to navigate difficult workplace relationships…

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From a survivor to the new government: every woman matters

Media Diversified

by Huma Munshi 

The prevalence of violence against women and girls remains unabated. We have become all too familiar with the statistic that two women are killed a week by their partner, with women of colour and migrant women disproportionately impacted by domestic homicide. Rather than properly address the issues that protect women and young girls, the government undertook a draconian round of cuts to public services and has been too eager to pass legislation such as criminalising forced marriage, without properly addressing the cause of violence against women and girls. They have failed us. As a survivor, and in advance of the main parties issuing their manifestos, here are my suggestions for how the new government can effectively combat violence against women and girls.

Make sex and consent education compulsory in schools. I imagine things have come a long way since I was in school

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The Salvation Army campaign: black erasure and white dominance

Media Diversified

by Huma Munshi 

At first glance, the Salvation Army’s campaign to raise awareness of violence against women seems a bold move. Turning on its head, the dress that broke the internet, and the often transparent marketing tricks that large advertising campaigns deploy. It sheds light on the horror of domestic violence. 1.2 million women in the UK alone are victims and survivors of domestic violence each year and two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. But what may seem like a well-intended campaign perpetuates notions of the perfect white victim adorned with the visible scars of domestic violence.

Salvation-Army-1We as a society are complicit in the sexist and euro-centric mind-set that a ‘sexy blonde’, white, able-bodied, cis woman, in a tight-fitting dress, posing provocatively is the pinnacle of womanhood. That she should be used to sell everything from cars, to food is a nod…

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International Woman’s Day – a time to strive for change

This Saturday I will be speaking at an event which looks at mental health through the experiences of women of colour. This is part of International Women’s Day which takes place each year to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women globally.

The event I will be speaking at, for Time to Change and Media Diversified, will look at issues such as stigma and shame associated with mental health problems and the part activism and speaking out have in addressing this. Events such as these not only highlight the disadvantage women experience but also the power and energy we have when working collectively.

When you see the stark statistics inequality women experience it is easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder how we can best harness our efforts to affect change. In reality, we all have a circle of influence where we can strive to influence, inform and energise those around us. International Women’s Day is a good focus when campaigners and women’s organisations across the world will campaign and lobby for change.

What could you do to mark International Women’s Day and affect change within your circle of influence?

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