Thursday, 26 of November of 2015

Why #bringbackourgirls, Boko Haram and the story of an abduction that went viral is not so simple

Published on Saturday in The National

Like many people around the world over the past few weeks, I’ve been anxiously following the story of the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram.

The #bringbackourgirls campaign has grabbed global attention, most notably featuring Michelle Obama holding up a card with the hashtag. I can’t imagine that Boko Haram gives two hoots about a load of tweets, and I’m sceptical about clicktivists and the power of Twitter to frighten quite frankly looney groups like this. It’s possible that the global groundswell of anger may be giving heart on the ground to activists in Nigeria to strengthen their campaign, and is putting pressure on Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to actually do something out of shame. But it is a corrupt government, and one that Nigerians are angry about. This should alert us to the fact that this situation is not as simple as “crazy jihadis kidnap children”.

The well-being of the girls is paramount. But our concern for them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about why these girls have captured the attention of Ms Obama and the twittersphere. As some have pointed out, when she said “bring back our girls”, did she mean the ones killed by her husband’s drones in Pakistan? This spawned a counter campaign, #bringbackyourdrones.

We are sophisticated enough to be able to balance concern for the girls with analysis of the political forces at play.

Boko Haram hasn’t come out of nowhere. It was part of a wider reaction to local corruption that its members believed could be remedied by their strict version of “sharia law”.

Kidnapping children to engage in warfare is a scourge across west and central Africa and has been going on for many years in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

No one is even sure what “Boko Haram” means. In fact, we know very little at all about the region, its politics and its local tensions. Nonetheless they are portrayed as Islamists wielding barbarity through their Islam. The name is translated in the media as being a rejection of the West (“western education is haram”), designed to raise western hackles. But the alternative translation “corruption is haram” gives us better insight into the local problems.

There’s a strong feeling, once again, that this is about saving women from crazy violent Muslim men. Just like Afghanistan, we must “save” women in Nigeria. It is rather convenient that this is also the region where locals have been protesting against multinational corporations that have been exploiting resources and where oil companies have caused spillages, meaning many Nigerians want them out.

The infamous Kony2012 campaign saw a similar groundswell of global support for American intervention and combat troops were duly dispatched. Joseph Kony hasn’t been found, but the troops remain.

Boko Haram’s behaviour is horrific. While its members talk with the language of Islam, their actions are far from Islamic. But if it was foreign intervention and the propping up of a corrupt government that Boko Haram was set up to counter, and if this is what a wider number of groups in the country are fighting about, then American intervention will only exacerbate the problem.

These girls are important human beings who must be safely returned to their families. But they are also important for the insight they provide into how easily their horrific plight has been exploited for political gain, both by their abductors and by outside vested interests.

We should celebrate un-yummy mummies

My weekly news column published in The National today.

The annual celebration of “Mother’s Day” – held in March for much of the Arab world, held in May in the West – should be renamed “Super-woman Day”, or “I keep the whole house running and still smile” Day or possibly just “who else is going to do the laundry if I don’t?” Day.

Yes, it’s that annual festival of chocolates and flowers, symbolising how utterly amazing mothers are. But whether you’re a mother’s day cynic or not, I would still have that cup of coffee in bed, and a day – a whole day – to myself. Until an emergency at 11am only mummy can fix.

It’s tough to be a mother, it always has been. But it feels like it’s harder now than ever. Alongside the fact more women are working, we are still in charge of the majority of the world’s housework. And of course, being a mum is itself a full-time job. We get verbal recognition of this, but it feels like when we’re being awarded the medal, the pedestal we’re put on is ever higher and more exacting.

I’m not complaining that being a mother is lauded. If anything, the challenges of motherhood need greater accommodation in our social structures and attitudes. The problem is that motherhood has become airbrushed. The days when we’re covered in vomit, haven’t slept for 48 hours or will scream just as loudly as our toddlers are our shameful secrets, rather than just part of the ebb and flow of motherhood.

Instead, we’re supposed to manage motherhood and domesticity without breaking a sweat, look like we have stepped out of an advert for yummy mummies, cook gourmet food in our nightgowns like Nigella and still be the exciting women that our husbands first married.

A recent survey found 97 per cent of Millennial mums (those born after 1980) said their children are more important to them than anyone else. By comparison, only 86 per cent of Generation X mums (those born after 1960) feel the same.

And yet more than ever before, this all-consuming motherhood seems to be a source of stress, and something that mums might want to (at least occasionally) escape from.

One quarter of Millennial mums say they find parenthood a burden compared to 8 per cent of Gen X mums. And 30 per cent of Millennial mums feel like they’ve lost some of their identity compared to 10 per cent of Gen X mums. A whopping 34 per cent of Millennial mums say if they had to stay at home day after day with their children they would lose their minds, compared to 18 per cent of Gen X mums.

There’s clearly a conflict in the reality of day-to-day motherhood. Because when it comes to the grand overarching experience of being a mum, there is no doubt at all: 92 per cent agree that motherhood brings happiness. But beyond that it seems like mums are struggling to balance their own self-definition with that of being a mother.

This is a not a problem that critics of women working might characterise as women complaining when they try to “have it all”. This is a problem that when we put motherhood on a pedestal and define it as having to be 110 per cent engaged in children while looking perfect then a sense of failure is inevitable.

Motherhood is messy, unpredictable and a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures. If we want to recognise motherhood then we should celebrate the fact that sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible, and once in a while it’s just fantastic to sit in bed with a coffee and no kids at all. And that’s fine.

The War Over Muslim Women Must Stop

My weekly newspaper column published in The National today.

The war over Muslim women continues to rage, as though we are a territory to be owned, a missile to be deployed in the vested interests of others, and as collateral damage in a cosmic conflict.

If you open Western newspapers and there is a story about terrorism, you will find our picture next to it. If you read justifications of military action in Afghanistan, it is our “liberation” that is cited. If societies where Muslims live as minorities are failing, our niqabs, our economic inactivity, our supposed segregation is to blame. But also, if you listen to Muslim religious leaders we are responsible for being the buffer before a wave of catastrophic western evil. Our headscarves are the sandbags holding back the fire of western feminism. We are told that our fight for rights is a bid to destroy family and society.

This war is constant with no benefit to us as Muslim women. We are dispensable in the war effort but also required to be first in the line of fire.

In the UK this week, a police campaign was launched encouraging Muslim women to inform on any menfolk they suspect of joining the war effort in Syria. The British government is concerned about Muslim men who will become radicalised in Syria and then return to the UK. No mention of those who go abroad to join other armies.

Video entitled "A Mother's Thoughts On The Crisis In Syria"

The campaign is part of the UK government’s wider Prevent strategy that has been running for the last several years, targeting Muslim communities in the bid to fight terrorism. It is a widely discredited programme that invested money in deprived Muslim communities with the goal of averting them from terrorism. The flaw in the logic of course was that, as in all communities, just a handful inhabit a criminal fringe. And like all communities, if the authorities start to view an entire community as one collective homogeneous mass with only one defining factor – being a potential terrorist – then there can never be a relationship of trust with authorities.

Muslim women find ourselves on the sharp end of this demonisation. On the one hand we are nothing but meek, oppressed, submissive. The subject of veiling – whether it is niqab or hijab – is constantly on the radar. Political leaders and influencers talk about women “forced” to cover, needing “help”, and being “liberated” by embracing “secular” values.

Suddenly we Muslim women have the burden of responsibility to “save” everyone. Suddenly, we have been co-opted into spying on husbands and sons. Before the accusation is levelled at Muslim women that we share responsibility for society’s safety like anyone else, I want to be quite clear: we are not so stupid that we can’t work out right from wrong. We already work to safeguard our own families from any misguided sense of violent heroics. Already, we are under scrutiny as potential terrorists, presumed guilty. And now, if Muslim men do take part, then we Muslim women will be held accountable. We are both victim and criminal.

In this campaign, we don’t hear about Abbas Khan, who went to Syria to help as a doctor in the humanitarian cause. He was kidnapped and killed. It is his mother spearheading the campaign to find out what happened to him.

When Muslim women raise their voices for access to education and employment, or autonomy or rights, we are rarely listened to. But as weapons against the other, suddenly we become significant. I’ve had enough. The war over Muslim women must stop.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at

This week I’m going to Live Below The Line in support of eradicating poverty

Live Below the Line is a global campaign spearheaded by UNICEF and which I’m taking part in with Made in Europe.

More than 1.2 billion people around the world have just £1 each day for food and drink (and that’s adjusted for local prices!). Just £1 per day. Unbelievable, I know.

So this week, along with other participants and campaigners, we will be living on £1 per day as well to gain and share an insight into what this means. And yes, there are people in our own localities and countries facing this.

I’m doing the campaign with my husband, so we have £10 between us to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days. You can see the ingredients we have selected here.  The total came to £10.01.

If you feel moved to participate, please do sign up, we’ve just started today. Alternatively, you can sponsor me and your donations will go to Made in Europe‘s campaign against poverty.

Wish us well, and wish our prayers to relieve the actual poverty facing those around the world. I’m conscious that at any time I can eat anything I like. That’s not so for 1.2 billion people around the world. It’s a sobering thought.

My ingredients for Live Below The Line

Happy British Muslims, the nomakeupselfie and what viral campaigns tell us about society

The trend for happy dancing alongside Pharell Williams’ song may seem harmless, but it raises deeper questions for Shelina Jamohamed

My weekly newspaper column for The National.

Armageddon was almost upon us this week as a video was released in the UK with the hashtag #HappyBritishMuslims. The four minute film is part of a global trend creating videos overlaid with the singer Pharrell William’s hit song Happy.

Happy videos have been produced around the world – most big cities appear to have spawned one. But this one, tied explicitly to the identity of being Muslim, created a stir and generated nearly 1.5 million online views. The creators of the video say their aim is to show “British Muslims are just as happy” as anyone else.

The shock of seeing actual real-life happy Muslims nearly broke the internet, as a social media storm debated whether it was true Muslims really could be happy, whether critics of the video were by definition unhappy despite legitimate political, religious and social concerns.

Some felt there was no need to dance along to the insistent beat; that Muslims did not constantly have to demonstrate how “normal” they are. In fact, critics went as far as to liken the video to segregation-era Minstrels who were forced to perform for their white masters’ entertainment. There is undoubtedly pressure put, in particular, on minority Muslim populations to constantly prove their patriotism, and normality.

Other critics felt that the very essence of the video was contrary to their principles as Muslims and “proving” they could be happy didn’t require those principles to be compromised. They pointed to the problematic sexualised pop culture of chart music. These critics were quickly labelled as “unhappy” about fun and accused of not accepting difference of opinion and variation. A happy video sure generated a lot of unhappiness.

Outside of the Muslim community, the video was very well received – look! Muslims! Happy! Dancing! Normal! Who knew?

The intense fury of the discussion has now waned, and so both supporters and critics of the campaign should reflect less on what was wrong with those who opposed their view and more about what is wrong with our social mores that the core concept was so headline grabbing.

This year, a social media campaign called #nomakeupselfie encouraged women to take photos of themselves without make up to raise awareness of cancer and in the process raised £2 million (Dh12m).

Like the Happy British Muslims video, this generated huge controversy. But the same question arises for both campaigns: why were they considered so “different” and “daring”? Why should being without make-up be so subversive? It can only be so if society’s default expectation is that women should wear make up.

Why should being a happy Muslim be such a radical idea? It can only be so if society is conditioned to see Muslims as inhuman, and “other”.

The participants of these campaigns are not the root of the problem. We are. The campaigns and participants are just symptoms of wider social wrongheadedness in which we must all share responsibility.

There’s definitely something wrong with us if women need to be airbrushed in real life. There’s something wrong with us if human beings who happen to be Muslim need to prove they are normal and can feel happiness.

Social media is useful for highlighting social problems. But it’s our attitudes that need fixing. If we can do that, then I for one will be happy.

Eat pork or starve, say French politicians. Are we back in the Spanish Inquisition?

Belated posting from last week of my weekly column in The National.

France’s far right leader Marine Le Pen is offering Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren an impossible choice: eat pork or starve. Her extremist party, the Front National, has just won local elections in 11 towns around France. Schools that fall within these districts are proposing not to offer alternatives as they currently do when pork meals are served.

“We will accept no religious requirements in the school lunch menus,” said Ms Le Pen. “There is no reason for religion to enter into the public sphere.” Obviously this will affect both Muslim and Jewish children, as well as any children of Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians. But it’s the Muslim angle that gives Ms Le Pen the notoriety and headlines she craves.

Her hate-filled world is simplistic: pork versus halal, secularism versus food choices, France versus Muslim. All of them are false dichotomies to tap into the electorate’s growing wave of anger at mainstream political parties that don’t appear to be listening, and a distressing rise of extremism aimed at immigrants. The Front National, like other European extremist parties, is trying to hide its racism by pretending it is religion they are targeting. But the veneer is thin.

Europe is veering alarmingly towards the extreme right. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came to prominence in 2011 in the wake of austerity measures. In 2012 its spokesperson, MP Ilias Kassidiaris claimed the Holocaust did not happen. It is easy to dismiss such parties as fringe lunatics, but their proximity to power is cause for anxiety.

In France, the Front National is the third party. In Greece, a video last week showed the Prime Minister’s chief of staff leaking classified information to the Golden Dawn spokesperson.

Ms Le Pen’s school meals remarks are a modern echo of Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat pork!”

There is another, more disturbing, European historical echo: the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted Muslims and Jews who either fled Spain or were forced to convert to Christianity. To verify whether these “conversos” really had changed, Inquisitors would roam around their homes while meals were being cooked to ensure pork was used. Aromas were vetted and even rubbish was inspected to police pork consumption. The Inquisition was one of the most shameful episodes in Europe’s history, and yet, here we are again, with the same rhetoric of forcing pork down people’s gullets.

Ms Le Pen says her move is about “saving secularism”, a thinly veiled and despicable attempt to hide her hatred. Will forcing vegetarian children to eat pork save the secular state? And who knew that the French constitution enshrined food choices for its citizens? (Although if any country was to do this, it probably would be France.)

Like many who hide their hatred of Muslims under the guise of opposing halal, kosher food – which is prepared the same way – is not in their cross hairs.

France has no problem making money for itself from halal. According to the USDA, about 10 per cent of France’s annual meat and poultry exports are halal.

Ms Le Pen’s directives about what schoolchildren eat should stick in everyone’s throats. Her words have nothing to do with the relationship between the state and the citizen and everything to do with igniting hatred. We’ve been here before during the Inquisition, as during the Nazi era. Let’s learn lessons from history and avoid a hate-filled repeat episode.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali offers a simplistic and dangerous view of Muslims

This article was published yesterday in The National as my weekly newspaper column.

More than 12 years on from the events of 9/11, and the subsequent failed global “war on terror”, the false dichotomy of being “with us” or “with the terrorists” is still proclaimed without embarrassment.

This week, it was the turn of Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Hirsi Ali was scheduled to deliver a speech on the anniversary of the attacks at the Boston Marathon while receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University, which is located just outside Boston.

Somali-born Ms Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure. She fled to the Netherlands and claimed asylum on the grounds of persecution and escaping a forced marriage.

There she became actively involved in politics and was elected as a representative on the back of a far right rise in popularity against Muslims but she left the Netherlands for the US after it became clear that she had lied on her asylum application.

Over 80 members of Brandeis university faculty sent a letter to the school’s president demanding the withdrawal of Ms Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree invitation “owing to her virulently anti-Muslim public statements”.

In response, Ms Hirsi Ali published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Reflecting on the anniversary of the Boston Marathan bombing she managed to tie together the Boston Marathon, jihadists in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, a driving ban in Saudi Arabia and sexual assault in Egypt.

There was no mention at all of Chechnya, from where the bombers hailed, and the political problems there. There was no analysis of how the violence in Syria and the global political vested interests that spur on the killing is different to the social and political pressures on women in the Kingdom.

For Ms Hirsi Ali, Muslims are all the same. And for her, Muslims are the problem.

Of course, there was no mention of a global epidemic of violence against women, gun crime in the US, annexation in the Crimea or Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. If she had mentioned them, we could be talking about working across borders and boundaries to tackle global scourges. But no, in Ms Hirsi Ali’s world, all violence is due to Muslims and all Muslims are violent.

Ms Hirsi Ali’s analysis is both simplistic and dangerous, painting Muslims as all the same. She sees no variation. When she said Islam “must be defeated” she was asked if she meant “radical Islam” and her simplistic approach is clear: “No. Islam period.”

This makes her popular for those who cannot fathom the possibility of nuance among Muslims, 1.8 billion people who take Islam as their compass.

She legitimises hatred through a back story of “escape” from Muslims and “liberation” by the west. Yet the contradictions are already there in her own life story. Her own father was opposed to FGM. It was she herself who dropped out of further education despite her father’s insistence she continue. When she wanted a divorce, she got one without issue.

I’m loathe to give Ms Hirsi Ali publicity, but this idea that “all Muslims are the same” is dangerous and must be tackled head-on. Homogenising and dehumanising people is the foundation for hatred. Among 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, variation and differences of opinion exist. How ludicrous to paint them all the same.

That ‘joke’ about violence? It’s not funny.

This is my weekly newspaper column from The National published yesterday.

If you saw someone being punched black and blue, or beaten to death in the middle of the street, you’d never hesitate to say it was violence. The perpetrators should be locked up and made to pay for their crime. Any bystanders cheering on the murder, we’d also hold to account for their depravity.

Yet if we take violence out of the public space and into the domestic sphere, it becomes a joke about who rules the roost, and how gender wars should be played out.

As a teenager, I overheard the following “joke” being shared between men and women. “What should you do if your dishwasher stops working?” The answer: “Slap her, and she’ll start washing again.” Did you laugh?

The punchline fulfils the comic’s rule of subverting our expectations: we were thinking about the dishwasher as a machine.

It also plays on the gender stereotype that if women aren’t working in the kitchen, then a bit of violence is fine. After all, that’s a woman’s job, and if she’s not doing her job then what should she expect but a whack in the face?

In case you laughed, let me help you: this was not funny, because the idea that women should be beaten is not funny. We’re duped into accepting that it’s funny because it plays into the gender war stereotypes. This doesn’t mean those who laugh are all bad people. But if you do laugh you should be keenly aware of how “jokes” can transmit the idea that violence is acceptable and by telling the joke or just laughing at it you are condoning its acceptability. Violence is never acceptable under any circumstances. Not even as a joke.

Such jokes are so rooted in our psyches as “just a bit of fun” that if we do challenge them we are accused of not being “chilled out” or that we can’t see “the funny side”. But we’re all familiar with the adage “never a truer word than said in jest”.

Just as problematic are jokes about violence against men. The Times of India is showing a photo taken at a fancy dress competition. A little boy is dressed up with bandages and blood stains on his head and arms. He’s got a big black eye and wears a sign saying “I argued with my wife”> He won first prize. I’ve seen women posting up the picture indicating how funny they think it is. LOL! They exclaim.

That’s a funny costume, right? Don’t mess with your wife! We should take the funny side of it and chill out, right?

Wrong. It’s worth repeating: violence is never funny.

We wouldn’t laugh if a black child wore a sign saying “I picked a fight with a white boy” and there would be righteous outrage if a beaten girl wore a sign saying “I argued with my husband”.

If women think it’s funny because it gets back at men who commit domestic abuse, think again: it simply reinforces the idea that beating women in the home is fine. Besides, men can be victims of domestic violence too.

We must all – both men and women – be vigilant in stamping out “jokes” that perpetuate gender stereotypes and violence. Telling jokes might seem harmless, or just a bit of fun. But every implicit acceptance of abuse helps it to flourish.

To tell the joke is to be the bystander who cheers on the public brawl. It creates the environment for violence, and in the end someone will always get hurt. Don’t be the cheerleader. And definitely don’t be the one who thought it was funny.

BBC Radio 4 discussion: Islamic feminism

This morning I was on BBC Radio 4 discussing Islamic feminism.

If you can access BBC iplayer, you can listen to the discussion here, at 38 minutes into the recording

From MH370 to HarassMap, the power of the digital crowd

This is my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National.

The mysterious case of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has gripped the world. How could such a huge area be scoured for clues?

DigitalGlobe, a US-based satellite imaging company, came up with a way for us all to get involved in the search through crowdsourcing, where we can go onto their website and review detailed image files from their five satellites and tag anything suspicious. They will then use an algorithm to assess which regions are getting more tags than others.

They’ve taken a problem of vast proportions and are harnessing the power of the digital crowd to solve it. It shows the digital crowd has qualities that can be put to good use: mass resources, global connectivity and immediacy. It can address problems of a macro nature through the micro actions of individuals. It’s the digital world in one of its finer moments.

In 2010, Harassmap was set up in Egypt in response to the high levels of sexual harassment faced by women there. The incidents are reported and mapped using mobile technology.

In such situations, those who have been subject to unwanted advances or even sexual assault may suffer it so often that they feel compelled to get on with their lives. Alternatively, they may not know who to tell, and not want to spend large amounts of time in police stations when not only might nothing come of it but they might be told it is they who are the source of the shame.

Being part of the digital crowd can help individuals feel part of a bigger movement, where they see how speaking out, regardless of the barriers, can lead to seemingly insurmountable social problems being resolved.

The work of HarassMap highlights the digital crowd’s power when it comes to on-the-ground events. Volunteers often show the map in places where harassment had been reported and share eyewitness accounts. People are often shocked when they realise how common harassment is on their own streets.

The power of the digital crowd does not stop there. Crowdfunding first took off as a phenomenon in 2006 by raising finance through a wide range of investors. The digital crowd in this case becomes the resource as well as the impetus for creativity and results, bypassing traditional financial and corporate gatekeepers.

By pooling individual needs together, the digital crowd can benefit its individual components in a way that is not possible offline. MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer world-class learning to millions who cannot access it through conventional education due to geography, time, or finances.

The dynamic changes from the traditional one of a teacher instructing the class to one in which individuals are required to engage with other students as part of the learning experience via virtual spaces, with huge impacts on the future of education.

Of course, the digital crowd also has its dark side, such as disgusting revenge sites where intimate pictures are posted and others where groups promote distasteful views. Normal etiquette also seems easier to forget online when it turns nasty.

The study of crowd psychology has existed for nearly 200 years but we need to learn about the digital crowd’s ability to be a power for good, having already seen it harnessed in unimaginable ways. As Gustave Le Bon, the 19th century author of The Psychology of Crowds, tells us: “The improbable does not exist for a crowd.”