10 Top Human Rights Anthems for Social Activists

I was at the Three Faiths Forum Interfaith Summit the other week and to end the evening we were introduced to range of music from different groups and faith traditions. The last ensemble – The Big Choir – belted out a lovely classic. I knew the song as soon as they announced the name but it wasn’t till I heard it sung that I realised I’d totally failed to take into account the lyrics. It had been years since I’d heard the song and now they were so much more inspiring. This then got me thinking…

There are some great songs out there for the socially minded! Music really has the power to inspire people to create change, to maintain hope in hard times, to build bridges and to remind us of what’s really important and the real struggles that many people sadly face. So, after a great refreshing reminder with this song, I put together my 10 Top Human Rights Anthems list. So, what was the song you may ask? Well you’ll find out when you reach number one on the list!

So here’s my countdown of my chosen top ten human rights anthems. Let me know what you think!

10. The Lighthouse Family – (I Wish I Knew It Would Feel To Be) Free / One
9. Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
8. The Scorpions – Winds of Change
7. U2 and Mary J Blige – One
6. John Farnham – You’re The Voice
5. U2 – Love and Peace or Else
4. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
3. Sting – Fragile
2. Simon and Garfunkel – He Was My Brother

Due to copyright – here’s a cover (alas sadly not the same!):

1. Labi Siffre – Something Inside So Strong


If you’re anything like me, you’ll have these on repeat over and over! Since I “re-found” my number one, I’ve been listening to it pretty much every day!

So, what are your top human rights anthems? Drop us a comment and let us know!

Salam! ♡

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Italy: Second generation immigrants wait for passports

The reform of Italy’s citizenship laws has caused hunger strikes, anti-racism protests and huge debates across the country. Today, one million people born on Italian soil fail to be recognised as Italian. For two years, they have been waiting for a law blocked in the Senate, and their struggle to be recognised as an italiano vero is all too real.

After being bombarded by the press and across television channels, the Italian government finally addressed the issue of reforming Italy‘s citizenship laws. The result was jus soli (a.k.a. birthright citizenship). However, masking over current legislative controversies with this new label means nothing. This new legislation would by no means grant those born on Italian soil the right to citizenship (as is the case in the USA). Instead, the government introduced the term ius soli temperato. This regulation underlines a temporary status, placing a series of incredibly detailed limitations and conditions on the right to obtaining Italian citizenship. This way, Italy won’t risk becoming “the breeding ground for Africans and terrorists,” as was described by certain national tabloid newspapers.

“Italy is a mother that doesn’t want us as children”

The immediate and most significant effect this new law will have – if it does indeed get approved – is that it will improve the lives of around one million people (a number estimated by the Italian statistical body Istat). These people’s legal status as Italian residents will no longer be a topic of debate, but instead become a reality. The issue around so-called second generation Italians (those who are born or grow up in Italy) is that whilst these people feel Italian, on paper they’re not. Above all, the law will bear favorably on those who, at around age 18, would only have been a year away for applying for citizenship. It will favor those who’ve passed through the Italian education system but who still have to wait ten years to start the expensive and exhausting bureaucratic process to obtaining citizenship.

The debate around citizenship arises from fear; fear of the ‘other’, fear of people’s failure to integrate, fear of potential terrorist attacks… At this time in Italy, talk about the danger of racial dominance, easy citizenship and the “Islamisation” of society is out in the open.

To deny the right to citizenship means saying no to people who are legally living in Italy, who are registered, who have a doctor, who go to school and who pay taxes, contributing to the national economy. That’s why, in the many protests that have taken place over the last few months, you can read: “Italy is a mother that doesn’t want us as children,” on many signs. With a lot of effort, some have managed to become officially Italian. But what needs to be done for the one million to get their citizenship, and what are the rights of these young people?

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture


Blessy and her endless expectations

“My parents were granted citizenship before me,” says Blessy Nambio bitterly. She was born in a hospital in Rome to Filipino parents, who have been in Italy for 30 years. Blessy is 28, speaks with a strong Roman accent, and was finally able to read the word “Italian” on her ID card just three short weeks ago. As a ‘non-resident’ for the first six years of her life, Blessy was unable to apply for citizenship at 18, despite being able to show evidence of going to school and receiving medical vaccinations.

She then had to renew her residence permit for more than ten years, first for family reasons, then for her studies. Having reached the age of 18 and being legally independent, she no longer met the income criteria required to apply for citizenship.

For Blessy, who now teaches Italian, citizenship isn’t what makes you Italian, but it does make a difference. “Paper talks,” she concludes. When she tells her students that she’s an Italian national, they’re not surprised: “Nowadays citizenship doesn’t have an ethnicity,” she explains.

Shehan and hidden racism

Back in 2011, the notion that the Italian citizenship law needed to be reformed had already been brought to light. In Milan people realised that, although the law existed, very few youngsters who had reached the age of 18 were realising their right to citizenship – presumably because they were not aware of it. Milan, like other cities, had overcome the lack of awareness on the issue with a special initiative: send letters to any foreigners turning 18 and remind them that they can apply for citizenship up until their 19th birthday. However, this solution was only introduced in some municipalities and promoted by mayors while the initiative never rolled out across the rest of the country.

Shehan Horawala, born in Milan, remembers the moment that letter arrived at his house. As a child, his classmates saw him as ‘foreign’ because of the colour of his skin. “People still think that you need to be white to be Italian, that you have to have certain physical features,” he says. The defeat of the State in the face of second generation Italians without a legal status is evident from Shehan’s words: “I have never felt so foreign in my country than when I was forced to queue up at the police station, along with my mother, to renew my residency permit.”

No one who has experienced waiting in line for hours at a time in the cold to be granted your turn to hand in documents, and have your fingerprint taken as a child, would say that it was a dignified and pleasant experience as an adult.

Now 28 years old, Shehan is a financial broker in the city where he was born and raised. He took his first trip around Europe at age 18 and for him, being Italian means “first of all having the opportunity to move and travel freely.” He’ll be moving to London in the hopes of continuing his career in the heart of the financial world. Perhaps, without the right information, Shehan would never have become an Italian Citizen.

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture

Cristina and European barriers 

Like Shehan, Cristina also considers being able to travel freely one of a range of rights granted to Italian citizens.

Like Shehan, Cristina also considers being able to travel freely one of the fundamental rights granted to Italian citizens. Cristina Mallak was born in Italy but her parents are of Egyptian origins. Her father came to this side of the Mediterranean to escape the persecution of the Coptic Christians, leaving behind his degree in economics. After being granted Italian citizenship, he passed his citizenship on to his daughter. In 2007, when Cristina was in her last year of middle school, she played the Italian national anthem as her father took his solemn oath to the Italian Republic.

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture

“Maybe not having citizenship would have stopped me from being able to travel around Europe and gain work experience as part of my studies,” says Cristina. Culture and education are two factors highlighted by this bill. In the case of second-generation migrants, Italy relishes in its schools of excellence but doesn’t safeguard the future (and present) of its country and people.

In her final years of high school, Cristina was rewarded by her region for excellent school results and has since continued her studies, graduating in international communication. She recently finished a year of civil service, which was previously off-limits to those without Italian citizenship. It’s thanks to a petition launched by four second-generation Italians, along with the ASGI (The Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration), that now even “Italians without citizenship” can undertake a civil service.

Blessy, Shehan and Cristina feel “fortunate” to have obtained Italian citizenship. However, to support all of the others who are still waiting in limbo for a passport, all three of them joined the protests in the piazza along with thousands of others to carry on daily battles and open new roads for the children of immigrants; ghosts not recognised by their own state.

Credits and acknowledgements

Author: Nadeesha Dilshani Uyangoda (translated by Elizabeth Arif-Fear), first featured via Café Babel (17/10/2017) (c)

Images: Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture (c)

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Marriage at 13, forced veiling and a ban on cycling – welcome to Iran for women

It’s no secret that abuse of human rights – or lack of human rights rather – is a major problem in Iran. Living in a theocratic State, religion (and in particular the government’s interpretation of it I should add!) rules every aspect of public life. A twisted extreme ideology is used to permit/prolong – and in some cases enforce – child marriage, domestic violence and forced veiling amongst a wide range of other abuses. Whilst freedom of speech is a right that citizens are not blessed with – young and old, male and female – for women and girls, life is incredibly tough.

Wanting to find out what really goes in Iran, I spoke to the group Iran Human Rights Monitor to find out what life is like for women in Iran, day in day out on the ground. Here’s what they had to say…

Thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview! As a human rights organisation fighting for change in Iran, it would be very insightful to find out what it’s really like for women and girls living in Iran on a daily basis.

President Hassan Rouhani was quoted during a post-election speech giving supposed support for women’s rights:

“There must be equal opportunities for women. There is no difference between man and woman in their creation, in their humanity, in their pursuit of knowledge, in their understanding, in their intelligence, in their religious piety, in serving God and in serving people.” (Fars News, retrieved 25/20/2013)

How does this fair to the reality to the daily life of girls and women in Iran today? Could you outline some of the obstacles which women and girls in Iran face on a daily basis?

Women are deprived of their most basic rights in Iran. No matter what they say, whether for national or international consumption, women are systematically discriminated against both in law and practice.

Women are not allowed to study in at least 70 fields at university. The unemployment rate among educated women and female university graduates is 85.9%. According to official statements, women’s participation in the job market is only 13%, while the majority of women are hired in unregistered jobs with salaries lower than the minimum wage and no insurance or benefits.

So, women have a really hard time earning a living. Every year, an average of 100,000 women are fired from their jobs. The situation is particularly difficult for women who head households and have to feed and provide for their families. The latest figures indicate that there are at least 3.5 million single women acting as head of the household in Iran. Only 18% of these women receive some small form of assistance from the government – the rest do not have any sort of backing.

Women are also not allowed in sports stadiums. They are not allowed to ride bicycles in public, and they are not allowed to perform at musical concerts or sing in public and are also not allowed to work in cafés. There have been frequent instances of women flouting government rulings which ban women from cycling, swimming, etc.

Of course, it is common knowledge that women do not enjoy freedom in choice of clothing and are forced to wear the compulsory veil, something that they are becoming more and more defiant about. Today, the regime is trying to control women who drop their veils behind the wheel.

The religious police enforce compulsory observation of hijab (Islamic covering). At what age does this apply? What are the penalties for not fully observing hijab?

According to the mullahs’ [religious figures] interpretation of Sharia, girls are considered to be adults when they reach the age of nine lunar years. That is less than nine years old and is the age when they are obliged to wear the veil and cover their hair. At this age, they can also be subjected to any punishment applicable to adults. The legal age of marriage is 13 years old, but fathers and grandfathers are permitted to wed their daughters at even younger ages (even nine or 10 years old), by simply getting permission from a court.

The penalty for not fully observing the hijab is usually a warning on the street, then women are taken into detention. Usually these women have to sign written pledges to conform with the official dress code. They have to pay bail and are then released. However, sometimes, the young women and girls are taken under the pretext of improper veiling to unknown locations and are sexually attacked. There have been incidents where women who get out of such detentions commit suicide because of what they have gone through.

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Being ordered to correct her hijab – Image credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (CC)

There are some severe lack of protections within Iranian law. There is no law against domestic violence and marital rape is not criminalised. If a woman has an abusive husband, where can she go for help? How does society respond to this?

There is absolutely no support for women who are subjected to domestic violence at home. The courts and police stations tend to encourage woman to return to their abusive husbands. There was a famous case in Mashhad where the woman had complained to the police station about the abuses of her husband but they sent her home, only to be tortured and burned by her husband for 21 days along with her two daughters. They were found accidentally by neighbours who heard their cries and moaning. As long as the laws discriminate against women, there is not much that can be done by the general public.

Women in Iran gained the right to vote in 1963 and can be judges/legal counsellors but cannot give final verdicts. Could you describe women’s role in the political and legal systems In Iran? How does this fair in Iran?

The Iranian regime ranks 137th on the international level among 145 countries in terms of gender equality and political participation, and 141st in terms of economic participation. Women are not allowed to run for president or become leader. As you already mentioned, women cannot issue rulings or be a de facto judge in Iran.

In the current Iranian parliament, there are only 17 women among 290 members of parliament, making up a mere 5.8% participation for women. In the administration of Iranian cities and provinces, women hold only 13 out of 2,653 positions as provincial governors, governors, district governors, and mayors. In a total of 500 big and small cities, only 64 women were elected as members of City Councils compared to 3,724 male members. That amounts to a meager 1.7% participation for women in City Councils. In reality, women have no role in political decision making and leadership in Iran.

Similar to Saudi Arabia, strict laws exist in Iran regarding nationality and marriage. Iranian nationality can be passed only through the father by law. For the child of an Iranian mother and father of another nationality, Iranian nationality can usually only be gained after residing in Iran for over one year after the age of 18. Why do you believe that such law exists? What is the impact legally, socially and culturally of such laws?

To understand the source of this kind of laws, you should first understand and study the nature of the Iranian regime which is a misogynistic regime. That means all the laws are based on the repression of women. To understand better please read this article.

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Female sports are restricted in Iran – Image credit: Anoo Bhuyan (CC)

For women (and men!) who speak out against the political system, what are the consequences?

They receive long prison sentences. There are many human rights and civil rights activists imprisoned in Iran. Prison conditions are very bad in Iran, and those who are imprisoned become very ill because of the inhuman conditions in prison and lack of basic medical services.

Could you talk a little about your organisation and what your goals and successes have been?

Iran Human Rights Monitor is a web portal working in collaboration with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Our main goal is to condemn the violation of human rights in Iran at international level – mostly the ongoing wave of executions.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Right now, we need the UN Special Rapporteur of human rights in Iran, Asma Jahanguir, to get more involved in the issue of executions in Iran. July was a bloody month with 101 executions but unfortunately we have witnessed a lack of reaction, condemnation and severity in dealing with this from international organisations and the UN.

We we also have started a new project regarding the 1988 Massacre in Iran [an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were killed on order of Ayotallah Khomeini]. After this massacre, no one was brought to justice. The perpetrators are still playing important role with the government of the Iranian regime and we want them to face trial. This is a call for a movement of justice.

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Image credit: gato-gato-gato (Flickr, CC)

What achievements are you particularly proud of within the movement for human rights in Iran?

Since last year, our movement calling people to action has been expanded. Many people have been informed about this massacre, whilst the Iranian regime has tried to remove any trace of it happening. However, our main goal hasn’t been achieved yet.

Where can we learn more about the issues discussed and how can we help?

You can learn more by visiting our new website calling for justice after the 1988 massacre and also by signing and sharing out petition.

Thank you for your time and participation and all the very best in your work for the future!

For all the latest information, follow Iran Human Rights Monitor on Twitter and Facebook and please sign the petition!

Salam!

Credits

Featured image: Chris Marchant (CC)

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A 10-year prison sentence for blogging? Meet Raif Badawi

Picture this: being passionate about justice and equality, you start a blog. Disillusioned with the socio-political reality of your own country you take to the internet and express your concerns about the religious authorities/senior religious figures. You write your thoughts and then bam!

You’re taken in for questioning…

You’re forbidden to leave the country and your wife’s bank accounts are frozen.

You’re accused of insulting your religion, accused of apostasy (and so your wife’s family later want a divorce).

As a Muslim, you’re accused of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and thrown in prison. Your original sentence is then increased and you’re eventually condemned to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes…

Sound surreal? Sound like an eerie film plot? No, this is the story of Saudi Arabian writer and activist Raif Badawi. Raif is currently in prison for writing a blog, criticising senior religious figures. He’s accused of insulting Islam and leaving his faith – a “crime” which comes with a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.

Raif has received 50 lashes and 17th June 2017 marked the fifth anniversary of his imprisonment. Raif’s wife Ensaf and three children are now living in Canada, having been granted political asylum, yet they want Raif back – free and safe. However, for being a Saudi citizen and speaking his mind in a theocratic country based on an extreme, toxic and Medieval form of Islam with no consent of private faith and free will in religious matters, Raif is now paying a heavy price. His sons and daughters long to see their dad again and his wife is carrying on his fight for freedom.

Take a look at the poem their 12 year-old son Doudi recently wrote:

 The Dream

A dream wakes me up every night
I wake up crying, feeling longing and desperate
I dream of you,
Father
I dream that you’re hugging me, kissing me and your tears filling me with love. Telling me that you love me, and I cry for joy. I can’t believe I’m with you, touching you, holding your face, kissing you, daddy daddy, you are with me and we are close again
How many years has it been?
I was only seven years old when we left you and left our country, Saudi Arabia
I didn’t know why we left you back then
I remember you hugging me, telling me goodbye, and asking me to be strong for my mom
I didn’t understand
I didn’t understand that you went for prison and didn’t understand the reason for that
But I know what is it like to miss you
To miss your love
Your company
Your smile
At school when the teacher asked us to talk about our families, I didn’t know what to say to them
My father is Raif Badawi, a writer and he’s Saudi Arabian. He went to jail because he loves his country and its people. He voiced an opinion that many people in Saudi Arabia agree with. But today my father is paying the price
My father is in jail because he loves his country.

A dream wakes me up every night
I see you in my dreams. I wake up. And the dream turns into imagination. The feel of your embrace was just my imagination
And I cry, feeling sad, feeling a longing
I pray for God, please bring back my father
I pray with love
With grief
May He answer my prayers.

Doudi ‘Trad’ Raid Badawi, aged 12
(written with the help of his mother, Ensaf Haider)

Incredibly, incredibly sad. Raif is not the first prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia and he won’t be the last but we must keep on his and his family’s fight.

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Ensaf Haider holding a photo of her husband Raif (Image credit: European Parliament – CC)

What can we do to help?

It’s really important to not let Raif’s case go silent. Raif needs to know that he’s not alone and the Saudi authorities also need to know that we’re not going to let his case go. Pressure needs to be continuously built, calling on the authorities to release Raif, in addition to public awareness to keep the issue in the spotlight and increase support.

Here’s a suggested list of actions courtesy of Amnesty International: 

1. Social media campaigning

Related Twitter accounts:

  • @Raif_Badawi (Raif’s account managed by his wife Ensaf)
  • @Miss9afi (Ensaf’s account)
  • @BorisJohnson (UK foreign minister’s)
  • @UKinSaudiArabia (UK embassy in Saudi Arabia)
  • @SaudiEmbassyUK (Saudi Arabian embassy in UK)

Suggested Tweets:

  • @KingSalman blogging is not a crime! We urge you to #FreeRaif today!
  • @Raif_Badawi has already spent 5 years in prison. Just for blogging. Tell @KingSalman that’s 5 years too many – he must #FreeRaif now!
  • Blogging can be costly in Saudi Arabia & @Raif_Badawi has paid the highest price: 10 yrs behind bars, 1000 lashes. @KingSalman: #FreeRaif!
  • @BorisJohnson: Help @raif_badawi see his family again – Call for his freedom today! #FreeRaif!
  • @Raif_badawi deserves freedom and dignity. 5 years is already too many – @UKinSaudiArabia should call for his release #FreeRaif

2. Contact Saudi authorities directly

You can send cards and/or letters to the Saudi Arabian embassy in your country or even give them a call.

Here are the details for London:

Mail:
His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz
Ambassador to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
30 Charles Street
LONDON
W1J 5DZ

Telephone: 0207 917 3000 or 0207 917 3288

Tweet, write – do whatever you can to let Raif and his family know that they are not alone. Even more importantly, let the Saudi authorities that we’re here and we stand with Raif. Freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of expression are universal human rights. It’s about time that Saudi Arabia joined the 21st century and started recognising these rights…

Peace, salam ♡

Credits, acknowledgements and further information:

To find out more about Raif visit:

Campaign materials: Amnesty International (UK, 2017)
Poem courtesy of Amnesty International (UK, 2017)
Image credits: Amnesty Finland (CC) (featured image)

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Raqqa: The city of ghosts

Yesterday I watched a very moving – and harrowing film – called City of Ghosts about an astonishing group of Syrian men who formed the movement Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered – a citizen led press movement to tell the world of the atrocities taking place in Raqqa. From fighting for political freedom under the Assad regime to living under the bloodthirsty rule of ISIS, they risked their lives – and continue to do so today – to spread light on the realities on the ground. Despite having since lost family members, friends and colleagues in “revenge attacks” both in Syria and Turkey, these brave inspirational men continue the fight for peace and justice and in 2015, the group were awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I’d like to share with you a message from the co-founder of RBSS, Aziz (Abdalaziz Alhamza), courtesy of The Syria Campaign to give an insight into life in Raqqa and the RBSS movement. Take a look at Aziz’s story…

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Abdalaziz Alhamza (Image: New America – CC)

Raqqa, the city where I was born in 1991, used to be the forgotten city of Syria. The TV weather forecast even missed us out. Now as the capital of the Islamic State, the name of Raqqa is never far from the lips of world leaders.

To me, Raqqa is the city where I grew up and where I have my friends and relatives. It’s the city where I speak my accent (I miss it now) and where I went to school and spent my childhood. Raqqa is a place where everyone knows everyone else. If you don’t know someone directly, you’ll know his brother. And if you don’t know his brother, you’ll definitely know his cousin.

When I grew up everyone wanted to leave Syria for work – usually to somewhere like Dubai. But that’s because the government was controlling 80% of the economy. A country that has oil, gas, historical sites, antiquities, ancient civilisation, tourism and so much more besides. We were tired of the government controlling all the money. When I joined the peaceful protests in 2011 it was because I believe I have a right to have a good life in my own country.

For decades we were so scared. There was no freedom of expression, we used to say the walls have ears. Everyone was a spy and you’d keep hearing that this neighbour or that neighbour was arrested for political reasons. Saying a single word against the Assad regime could result in 20-50 years in prison or being killed. You can’t imagine these conditions.

But in 2011 we realised that people have more power than the government. People were able to break the fear and go into the street even though they knew they might face death in any second.

Most Syrians outside of my city never thought or talked about Raqqa until March 4, 2013, the morning we woke up to be the first liberated city in Syria. After nearly two years of protest and revolt, our people had managed to push the Assad regime forces out the city, and Syrians nicknamed Raqqa the “Capital of Liberation”.

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Raqqa – the “Capital of Liberation” (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

That’s when for the first time in 40 years, civilians were running the city. We had a local and provincial council and dozens of civil society organisations. I was part of the Union of Free Syrian Students and we opened up the university again. Many people who were fleeing persecution from the Assad regime came to Raqqa and were able to have a normal life. Civil society organisations had more power than the armed groups – how it should be.

But then Isis came.

First they came in small numbers, and we demonstrated against them. Then they came with heavy weapons stolen from Iraq and those who were defending Raqqa didn’t have the means to stop them. Our city’s fighters pleaded with the international community for more support but it didn’t come and Isis took over.

But Raqqawis – people from Raqqa – never accepted Isis.

Less than 1% of locals joined Isis. That means that most are against Isis but they can’t show it, they can’t say it, otherwise they’ll be arrested or killed. Our people have been living under Isis for years but just keeping their heads low as civilians. This means no salaries and jobs. If they joined Isis they would get money, cars – even sex – but still Raqqawis refuse. This silent refusal is one of the most important forms of resistance.

In April 2014 along with a few of my friends we set up Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently to counter Isis propaganda.

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Children are growing up amongst violence and bloodshed (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

We began sneaking covert photos and footage out of Raqqa, publishing them on our social media channels, showing that this wasn’t the utopia that Isis claimed. We sprayed anti-Isis slogans on the walls of our town and published our own magazine mocking their propaganda. They hated it and hunted us down.

Many of us escaped Raqqa then but Isis responded by targeting our families. They released a propaganda video of the execution of the father of my friend and RBSS co-founder Hamoud al-Mousa. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever had to watch. But this didn’t stop us. Our anonymous colleagues in Raqqa continue to this day to sneak out footage and information which gets picked up by the biggest networks in the world. Our pictures and video from inside the heart of Isis’s capital have been broadcast by the BBC, CNN and other channels.

But today the threat to my city’s civilians is not just from Isis.

The US and its allies have been begun bombing Raqqa and the surrounding area recklessly. Since the beginning of the year these airstrikes have killed more civilians than Isis. This ‘scorched earth’ policy is because they want to defeat Isis militarily as soon as possible. But they don’t ever think about the day after defeating Isis.

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Raqqa – a destroyed city (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

In the coming weeks and months as Isis gets driven out of its territory, people will ask who is taking over. The Kurdish-led forces backed by the West have displaced people and burned homes. It is hard to see them welcomed by locals in and around Raqqa.

And then there are rumours that these areas will be handed over to Assad. This is the worst scenario.

Many would be arrested and killed – it will be a massacre. Worse than that, it will be a step back to the beginning of this mess. Assad created this extremism. Many people were radicalised because of how his regime treated its own people. Every single Syrian has a brother, friend, neighbour or relative killed by Assad.

I have been interrogated many times by Isis, they killed many of my friends and they tried to kidnap me. And yet still I understand that Assad is the main problem in Syria. This is the issue that the world needs to understand.

And yet I am hopeful.

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“Raqqa strong and free” (Image: Beshr Abdulhadi – CC)

I have an optimism deep inside me more than six years since we first took to the streets. That is because today people are still demanding their rights. I feel hope looking at people in the different cities who are demonstrating every day. Like people in Maaret al-Numan who drove out Al Qaeda with their demonstrations.

That’s why I still have hope. There are still millions who believe in the Revolution. People who are resisting not only Assad, but all groups who are violating our rights. These are things that make me believe that one day we will have democracy and a united country where people can have jobs in a thriving economy.

When people outside the country ask what should be done about Raqqa or Syria, this is what I tell them. Help us to achieve a government that represents all of us, that will help us defeat extremism and permit Raqqawis and other Syrians to return home.

There is no other way.

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These men have given their lives in the fight towards freedom. I definitely recommend watching the film. You’re taken into the lives of RBSS – their struggles, their losses and their futures. The film is directed by Oscar-nominated Matthew Heineman and was given a 5-star review by The Guardian who stated it “could be the definitive Syrian documentary”.

For those of you in the UK, information on film screenings can be found here. You can also watch it on demand at home (UK/Ireland). For those of you in the US and elsewhere, the film will be available on Amazon Prime from 13th October 2017. Do check it out but warning – some scenes are quite graphic.

To also find out more about RBSS and to keep up with the latest news on Syria, please visit the following sites:

Thank you to our Syrian brothers who have dedicated their lives to bringing the truth to the world about the atrocities in Syria. We can only but imagine the hardship you have all faced…

Credits and acknowledgements

Text written by Aziz (Abdalaziz Alhamza), as featured by The Syria Campaign (01/08/2017).

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Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all

Life is but a lesson of learning… The more issues you explore, the more people you meet, the more you learn about them and about yourself. In light of a recurring lesson of mine, I’d like to share with you a beautiful, simple yet oh so powerful poem. You may know it. Take a look…

First They Came

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

This short but very poignant poem refers back to the era of Nazi Germany and the failure of German intellectuals to stand up to the Nazis. Dating back to the middle of the last century, it is as relevant as ever in an era of rising hate crime, neo-Nazi/far-right groups and religious extremism to name a few, despite the public awareness of human rights, the availability of resources to learn about each others’ rights and the wide range of means/mediums to speak out (social media, lobbying organisations etc.).

This poem in fact highlights a few very serious key points, which can be summed up in the following famous quotes:

  • “Love for others what you love for yourself” (Prophet Muhammad, pbuh)
  • “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem” (Eldridge Cleaver)
  • “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke)
  • “I am not free while any women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (Audre Lorde)

What is the overall message you may ask? Well, put quite simply it’s this: you cannot be free whilst someone else is oppressed. You cannot advocate for peace whilst hating others and you cannot call for the rights of one group, whilst advocating hatred or intolerance for another. No one is saying we all have to have the same beliefs or opinions, but common decency and universal rights are not exclusive. Where human rights are concerned it’s in the famous words of the three musketeers (!) that things go: “It’s all for one, and one for all!”.

Imagine this: you want others to accept and accommodate your religious beliefs but you won’t do the same. Not very logical is it? Or you want women to have the freedom to wear what you want them to wear but not what they may or may not want to wear. Not a simple pick and choose is it? Bearing that in mind, I’d like to lay out the following scenarios. For simplicity sake, we’ll use the names “Mr A” and “Mrs A”:

  1. “Mr A” advocates for the rights of Muslim minorities in Europe but perpetuates anti-Shia, anti-Sunni, anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.
  2. “Mrs A” is outraged at the discrimination hijabis face but forces her daughter to cover and won’t accept difference of opinion related to covering within Muslim circles.
  3. “Mr and Mrs A” are campaigning for the rights of Palestinians yet victimise the Jewish community, refusing to separate faith from politics and fail to stand up to rising anti-Semitism
  4. “Mr A” is outraged about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but doesn’t put pen to paper and seek genuine dialogue
  5. “Mrs A” expresses concern for UK foreign policy in the Middle East yet stays silent about the famine in Yemen caused by the Saudi led war, the abuse of women in Saudi law and Iran, the suffering of the Uyghurs in China, the cause of the Tibetans etc.
  6. “Mr and Mrs A” stands up for the religious/cultural/ethnic rights of their personal communities but stay silent about the abuse and difficulties that others face.

What is the message in all of these cases? Well, the message is quite clearly this: they’ve got it wrong! They’re missing the point. If it’s human rights you want, if it’s justice, freedom and equality, then it’s all for one and one for all! So when you’re advocating for a specific cause, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I advocating a message of peace, non-violence, tolerance and unity? (Unbiased educated criticism is allowed but violence is counter-productive!)
  • Am I utilising the correct tools, networks and organisations which advocate peace and tolerance? (Giving/sharing a platform with an intolerant, bigoted group is also a counter-productive no-no!)
  • Is my message inclusive or exclusive? (Am I alienating or spreading hatred of others?)
  • What is my ultimate message and purpose? (Am I aiming for a positive outcome which will resolve conflict and abuse?)

Remember: calling out abuse is always going to ruffle a few feathers. That’s not the problem! The problem is when your method goes against the principles and purpose of what you’re fighting for – or if you’re cause is exclusive in the rights and aims you’re fighting for.

Think about this and remember, when we’re talking about rights: it’s all for one and one for all!

Salam

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Statement on Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017

July 11th is Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017. This year, we are recognising the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, during which thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered, simply because they were Muslim. It is vital to commemorate Srebrenica to take a stand against hatred and discrimination that targets groups based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any type of difference.

During the course of the conflict that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, and sadly in societies all over the world, including our own, there still remains a lot of stigma around sexual violence. This year, we are working with the charity Remembering Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide, and to reflect on the experiences of women in conflict. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme this year is Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide. This year is about recognising the strength and resilience of women who have survived conflict, standing committed to challenging sexism and gender based violence within our own communities. You can read more about this year’s theme on Remembering Srebrenica’s website.

Bosnia_Children of Rape_Women in Hell

Ten years since the war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, thousands of people are still deeply traumatised by the war. Here a woman cries for her sons and husband who were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica

It is now more important than ever for us to come together, no matter what our background, to celebrate diversity and to stand together in solidarity against hatred and discrimination. I wrote about the Srebrenica genocide in a previous post last year, which I urge you to take a look at. It is vital that we remember this tragedy in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour the memories of the innocent men, women and children who were killed, just for being Muslim.

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men_Cl.jpg

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men

I hope you will join us in mourning the loss of those who died at Srebrenica, and reflecting on how we as individuals, groups and communities can come together to build a better future without hatred.

Salam, peace ♡

Text and images: Remembering Srebrenica

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12 Simple principles to build peace in your community

If you switch on the TV news, open the newspaper or click onto a popular news website, there’s always news about a terrorist attack, war, ongoing conflict and a general lack of peace amongst different groups of people. In an increasingly globalised world, we should understand each other better, stand ever more united and strive for peace. Sadly, the truth is quite the opposite. There’s conflict in Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, all over the world in fact…

As individuals and citizens, how do we deal with this? How does this relate to us? How can we make positive changes to enable us to live in peace? Well, I’m not an expert in diplomacy or international relations and this is a blog not a thesis, so I’m not going to go into the deep depths of peace keeping and international politics, but I’d just like to reflect on a key few principles that we can follow to help make the world a better place. Inspired by a recent conference I went to on terrorism and peace building last March hosted by Uniting for Peace including President Vijay Mehta’s piece on “Ten Ways to Stop Terrorism”, here’s my take on community peace building.

Now, you may be thinking: “How can we honestly make a difference?” Well the reality is that change really does start at home folks! If we build strong united communities, we can fight hate crime, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and take a stand against divisive politics. These are real issues which work their way up from the bottom. If we fight toxic narratives, common misconceptions and negative stereotypes, the media and politicians lose their power to drive communities apart, scapegoat groups and divide people. Ultimately, that’s where conflict starts and that’s what war is – a lack of peace, tolerance, understanding, compassion and ability to live alongside others…

Rule #1: Treat others the way you wish to be treated

The good old Golden Rule says it all: empathy, tolerance and peace. This principle teaches you to love yourself and love others. It spans cultures and faiths and is a universal age old concept which can’t fail! For information on the golden rule across various faiths see here.

We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; now let us commit it to life..jpg

Rule #2: Listen to hear what others have to say, not to speak

Engage in dialogue with an open mind and the real will to listen to others. Only then will you be able to understand each other and build bridges. Change cannot happen and peace cannot be established if people are unable to communicate with others; to listen to their experiences and views and show empathy, understanding and compassion.

-Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.- --Stephen R. Covey (1).jpg

Rule #3: Accept difference of opinion

We all have different opinions and we may not all agree on the same things. Building compromise and mutual understanding is incredibly important. Sometimes we simply need to agree to disagree and recognise that there are different beliefs and forms of expression other than our own.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it..jpg

Rule #4: Do not fight violence with violence 

Violence is never the answer. Peace can only be brought through free will, dialogue, empathy and forgiveness. Do not stoop to same level as someone who is violent and therefore continue the vicious cycle. This does not change anything.

Peace if not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. (1).jpg

Rule #5: Fight extremism in all its forms

Do not categorise terrorism as a religious phenomena and single out or stereotype certain groups of people. Extremism is a human “disease” which can take many forms. All forms of extremism and hatred must be fought in unity as a community or else further division and conflict will arise.

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Rule #6: Accept that identity is fluid 

Any one person can have multiple aspects to their identity. Identity comprises many elements such as nationality, cultural-linguistic origin, age and religious beliefs. Identity can and does change, taking on many new forms and means of personal expression as we learn new languages, move home, adopt new beliefs, marry into a different tradition and experience life! Do not put people into a box. Avoid categorising people according to an us vs. them narrative and remember: we are all singular individuals with unique experiences. Such approaches and narratives are highly divisive and unproductive.

The key to the survival of liberty in the moden world is the embrace of multiple identities. (4).jpg

Rule #7:  Avoid stereotypes 

Take people for the individuals they are. Avoid misconceptions, stereotypes and toxic narratives and get to know a person instead. This will avoid offence, misunderstandings and ultimately help you to create a real bond with others based on true understanding, empathy and trust. After all, no one likes to be judged – especially from the outside.

Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest... (1).jpg

Rule #8: Approach the media with skepticism

Don’t just believe everything you see on the TV, in the newspapers or on the internet. Think objectively for yourself. Get to know the people and facts behind any story and don’t fall for media scapegoating. Stand united.

The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses..jpg

Rule #9: Be careful of the language you use

Your choice of language, alongside tone of voice and intonation all convey a message. Make sure that that message is positive. Be mindful of the language you use, avoiding anything with misogynistic, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic or anti-Semitic overtones. Do not underestimate the power of language – for better or for worse! And remember, it’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it.

Everyone smiles in the same language..jpg

Rule #10: Let go of the past

You can’t move on if you’re stuck in the past. Learn lessons but also learn to move forward for the greater good. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you agree with everything, it means you’re able to move on without grudges and resentment. Only in this way can communities heal and move forward together.

Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, (1).jpg

Rule #11: Stand up for others – not just your own community

If we only fight prejudice and injustice against our own friends, family and community groups then we ultimately fail to protect the wider community and society as a whole. Discrimination, bigotry and prejudice know no boundaries. For a community to live in peace and harmony, everyone’s rights and freedoms must be respected.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.Then they came for the Je (1).jpg

Rule #12: Celebrate diversity: learn about and actively engage with those different to you

Learn about other communities, religions, nationalities and people. If you don’t learn about others, you’ll never understand them and therefore miss out on the opportunity to build bonds, friendships and common goals and interests. If you don’t know your neighbours, then how can you come together as a united community? Learn about other people and have fun. After all, diversity is what makes the world so interesting!

Diverstity.jpg

So, there you have it. 12 simple principles to follow from the ground up to make the world a little more harmonious, understanding, tolerant and ultimately peaceful. Never think you can’t make a difference – you really can!

Salam!

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#ChallengingTheNarrative – Which narratives do you refuse to endorse? Here’s 10 I won’t…

Last month, in line with International Women’s Day, I attended the Nisa-Nashim conference in London. Nisa-Nashim (meaning “women” in both Arabic and Hebrew respectively) is a UK based organisation which aims to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build bridges, found friendships and develop understanding between the two communities. We’ve got more in common than you’d think: we both come from the Abrahamic family of faiths, we share many values and practices and  sadly, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – at least in visible terms – are on the rise worldwide including Europe and the USA.

However, this unfortunate trend appears to be bringing the two communities closer together. Back in February this year in the US, when thugs desecrated two Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, American Muslims raised over a staggering $140,000 to rebuild the graves. Likewise, when a mosque in Tampa (Florida) was attacked just day later, thanks to the support of Jewish donors, a massive total of $60,000 was raised to repair the damage. Gestures such as this go to show that we refuse to be divided by hate and that we actively challenge the narrative that “Jews and Muslims don’t get on” (due to predominantly Middle Eastern politics one would presume).

“Challenging the narrative” was exactly the theme of the Nisa-Nashim conference – a lovely day spent with lots of lovely Jewish and Muslim sisters (and one lovely gentleman)! We really are stronger together and we really do need to show that stereotypes, narratives and misconceptions must be challenged. During the day the question was posed: What narratives are you challenging? Other than by already being there, this made me think about what I am doing and what I can do – like all of us – to challenge people’s perceptions and to offer a different narrative. Here’s my list – what’s yours…?

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1. Islam and human rights are “incompatible”. Muslims hate “gay people”, agnostics, atheists, non-Muslims, Hindus, feminists, human rights campaigners etc.

I do not hate anyone. End of. God gave us all life and we must respect everyone – with no distinction in regards to ethnic background, nationality, race, religion or sexuality END OF. I myself am a human rights campaigner. I have a Master’s in Human Rights, I run a human rights blog and I’m a member of Amnesty International. I’m passionate about being active – online and offline – and I try and use my voice to speak out against injustice. This is my life, if I couldn’t do this well… there’d be trouble!

As a Muslim, Islam advocates feeding the poor, being just, honest, treating all humans (including women!) with respect, honour and dignity. Islam is serious about human rights. Unfortunately religious extremism, fear, sexism, tribalism, greed, intolerance, xenophobia etc. have all got in the way for many…

2. Muslims and Jews “don’t get on”

I’m Co-Chair of a local Jewish-Muslim women’s group in London as part of the Nisa-Nashim network. I respect and love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I may even have Jewish heritage (long story) and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m forever saying how I’d like to make some Jewish friends! I – like many Muslim women – attended the Nisa-Nashim conference and are involved in its activities. The main hall was full of love! Since then I’ve been able to attend an interfaith Passover Seder and will continue to be involved in interfaith work. We’re sisters in the Abrahamic family and we’re sisters in humanity. And no: being Muslim does not equate to being anti-Semitic or a terrorist just as being Jewish does not equate to being a Zionist or Islamophobe.

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Jewish-Muslim solidarity (Washington D.C.) – Image credit: Joe Flood (CC)


3. Converts are suspicious, strange or wannabe extremists

There are Muslim converts, Jewish converts, Sikh converts (people I’ve met!) – it’s a fact of life. However we come to our new faith, we usually do so with love and enthusiasm – we’ve found something dear. Converts need to learn, they need support and they’re on a journey but hey – we’re normal!

4. You can’t be (truly) British and Muslim

British, Muslim and proud – that’s me. That’s also millions of British Muslims across the British Isles. My history and heritage is mine – it’s what got me here – and Britain accepts me as a Muslim, for who I am. Having spent time in other countries which are far less tolerant – I can tell you I’m proud to be British. Muslims who have spent their lives here, whose friends and family are here or have been offered a new life here – are happy being British too.

There’s no reason why you can’t be British and Muslim. Britain is a multicultural multifaith society and Islam teaches you to respect the law of the land and to be tolerant of others. For those who don’t like “living in a kaffir land” as they say – do they really feel British when they hold such beliefs?! Likewise for Islamophobes who worry about a “cultural clash” – we’re here and we’re happy. If we weren’t we’d go somewhere else! Look at the Muslims out there in politics, education, business, the charity sector, all over – we’re leading integrated, fulfilling and satisfying lives. And for those of you who aren’t convinced: we had an absolutely fabulous time at the British Islam 2017 conference back in February!

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Protester at an anti-Trump protest (London) – Image credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC)

5. Today’s youth are apathetic and superficial

Not sure I quite fit into the youth category any more but here’s the point. We’re young, we’re passionate, we have a voice and we get out there. Going back to my previous points, like many young British men and women, I’m involved with groups. Just look at those standing up against Brexit related hate crime, xenophobia, Trump, Islamophobia, you name it. There’s millions of us focused on real issues.

6. Islam is Sunni or Shia

I’m Muslim. I’m not Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi, Ahmadi or anything. I am Muslim and Muslim alone. Having said that, there are billions of Muslims who identify under a particular sect or label. Those who label any other as non-Muslim perpetuate intolerant extremist beliefs. Ahmadis are Muslims, so are Sufis, Shias etc.

7. Muslim women cover themselves for men

I do not cover myself for my husband, my father, (male) Prophets or any person – male or female. I cover for Allah (swt) and Allah alone. As a Muslim, I believe that God is not human and has no gender. For more on this point, cick here.

Liz cropped - Copy.jpg

Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)


8. Women convert to Islam to get married/for a man

I converted – like all the other converts I know – for faith and faith alone. I also converted before I got married. In Islam, Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women so there’s no need for such ladies. In any case, such conversion would be insincere and invalid. Without faith, you cannot be Muslim. Read more here.

9. Islam is an “Eastern religion” which oppresses women

Islam is a religion for the whole of humanity. I’m not from “the East”. There’s Muslims across the US, Canada, Latin America, the UK, France, North Africa – you name it (see point number four). Islam teaches that each land had their own Prophets. Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) were from the Middle East yes but there’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as “East and West”. The “Clash of Civilisations” narrative is FALSE. There is the Western hemisphere, countries in the Eastern hemisphere etc. but we’re ONE world – a world that happens to be increasingly globalised. What’s more I’m me. I’m Muslim yes. I’m British yes. But I refuse to put put in a box. You’ll know who I am and what I’m like by talking to me, listening to me and getting to know me.

What’s more, I’m not oppressed. I’m an active feminist. In terms of women’s rights, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers to respect women. When the Qur’an was revealed women were treated as second class citizens with no rights. Islam gave women the right to own property, the right to divorce, a range of sexual, emotional and financial rights within marriage at a time when baby girls were being buried alive and women were sexually enslaved. Islam advocated for women’s education and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It forbade forced marriage at a time when women could be married against their will – used and abused for the pleasure of men – teaching people to instead respect their wife, mother, daughter(s), sister(s) etc. Read more here and here.

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Minneapolis (2006) – Image credit: Brian Wisconsin (CC)


10. A woman’s place is (solely) in the home

Women are the one’s who bear children, who go through pregnancy, who breastfeed and if a family can afford to have one salary – great, no reason why the lady can’t stay at home. There is no reason why a woman should be unhappy and unfulfilled staying at home.

However, woman also hold a valid place in society as a whole. We are half of the population. We cannot be completely cut off and shunned into the private sphere. Many women are mothers and carers whilst also holding a career at the same time or whilst being active in their community. Many women do not even have children. Women are doctors, teachers, educators, business women, politicians, writers, journalists, community workers, mentors etc. and as such we build (or aim to!) a more open, richer, more understanding world which represents the diversity of the population both in gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion.

We cannot allow half of society to be misrepresented or even not represented at all. Society needs to serve everyone and therefore be built by both women and women. I like millions of Muslim women work full-time. I am active and I love it! For my sisters who are at home – great. Each to their own.

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So there we are, let me know your counter-narratives. I’d love to hear!

If you’d like to learn more, see also my previous post on the most common misconceptions of Muslim women. You might be surprised!

If you’d like more information about Nisa-Nashim, check them out online via their website and across social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Big thanks to all those who have inspired and supported me for who I am, who I aim to be and in everything I do.

Images: artgraffCarnagenyc, Martha Heinemann BixbyStraßenfotografie Hamburg (CC) (featured image). Image licences available to view via Flickr

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Hey Mr President: Here’s 10 shameful human rights issues you need to get work on…

Dear President Trump,

I’m not an American citizen nor am I of American heritage (I do have Italian-American family mind!) BUT in any case,  I think it’s safe to say that your presidency affects every one of us worldwide. As global citizens, in an increasingly connected and globalised,  world we should be looking out for our brothers and sisters, advocating for human rights and denouncing both threats towards and violations against human freedoms and human rights worldwide.

Long since the start of your presidential campaign, you’ve gathered a lot of media attention. I myself, never expected you to take over office but well – this is theoretically your democratic right. The American people spoke! Out of ignorance, fear and hatred I may add BUT that time has passed. Now you’re ready to settle into the White House and are starting to take on your presidential duties. In light of this, I’d like to remind you of some core human rights abuses which the US needs to address. You state you are the “land of the free” after all… a land which is on show to the entire world…

  1. Abuse of the right to a fair trial: At the end of 2015, Amnesty International recorded a total number of 107 detainees at Guantánamo – most being held without charges having being pressed. These men lie in wait, without hope, facing torture and humiliation. If you believe these men (or anyone else) have committed criminal acts, then take them to trial whilst respecting their right to legal representation and a FAIR trial.
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  2. Abuse of the right to freedom of expression and permissibility of hate speech: Freedom of expression is an important right but that doesn’t mean that citizens should be able to spout inflammatory obscene, hate speech and harass other members of the public. Permissible exceptions to the First Amendment include: “incitement, defamation, fraud, child pornography, obscenity, fighting words and threats”. Well, take a look at some of these gentlemen in the videi below harassing Muslims on the streets and ask yourself, is this acceptable? Freedom of expression is one thing, hate speech and hate crimes are another….

3. Threats to religious freedomYou claimed in December 2015 that you will uphold the right to freedom of religion, when you stated:

“Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is our first liberty and provides the most important protection in that it protects our right of conscience.”

I would however like to compare that to the comments you made regarding Muslims entering the US and American mosques and draw your attention to the fact that since you became elected, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Islamophobic incidents. American Muslims, Jews – every rational person – is counting on you to respect their right to freedom of belief…

4. Denial of the right to adequate health careThere are a series of critical abuses and  health care issues which need addressing:

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An insurance based health care system often leaves citizens unable to receive medical assistance

Lack of a national health care system: Former  President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on 23rd March (2010). As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 32 million extra people will have health insurance by 2019 after the law is fully implemented. 32 million people will however remain uninsured. This is simply not good enough – every human has the right to emotional and physical wellbeing and to access adequate health care.

Abuse of mentally ill prisoners: Mentally ill prisoners have been beaten, pepper sprayed, shocked, burnt and have sometimes even died in custody. Staff training, resources, greater knowledge and awareness is crucially needed to address such inhuman treatment and provide the necessary level of care required. Further information can be found in the Human Rights Watch report – I urge you to watch this video (although I found it very distressing – simply because the reality is just that shocking): https://youtu.be/OCaKethFbEg.

Inadequate medical care for transgender women in custody: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced a new policy in June 2015 to provide transgender women in immigration detention with certain protections. However, despite this new policy, transgender women in ICE custody still receive inadequate medical care, as well as reporting sexual and verbal harassment whilst in detention.

Inadequate maternal health care: In a report published by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank (1990-2008), the USA is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality. In fact, the issue of maternal health has long been a concern for Amnesty International. In 2013, the maternal mortality rate was 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, with “significant racial disparities” among different racial groups – very concerning indeed. Native American and Alaska Native women who are raped for example, are faced with continuous lack of access to medical care including examinations and emergency contraception. African-American women are also almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white American sisters. I found a range of shocking information via “U.S. Public Health Emergencies: Maternal Mortality and Gun Violence” and Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report.

5. Abuse of the right to privacy: The US government continues to spy on its citizens by urging major US mobile phone and internet companies to loosen the security measures of their systems so the government can spy more easily on its citizens during criminal investigations. In May 2015, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on all countries (including the US) to respect citizens’ right to privacy and “refrain from weakening encryption and other online security measures” due to the fact that human rights defenders and activists across the world rely on the security of such tools and weakening encryption and other online security measures poses a danger to citizens own security. According to Human Rights Watch, although Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June 2015 which limits the government’s ability to collect phone records and detailed new measures for greater transparency and oversight of NSA surveillance, the law does not restrict surveillance by the government justified to undertake “mass violations of people outside US borders”. Human Rights Watch also highlight how the law does not look at several modern surveillance means from malware to the interception of of all mobile phone calls in any given country. Very worrying indeed…

6. Use of torture, inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment:

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Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees

Back in January 2016, former President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. OK – one change, but there is still a long way to go. Having already documented the abuse of mentally ill inmates, the torture of prisoners in Guantánamo is also no secret; including sexual assault, sleep deprivation, mock executions, being forced to watch other inmates being tortured – and the list goes on… Mr President, I’d also like to draw your attention to this comment you made regarding the waterboarding of prisoners/detainees:

“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works… and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us“.

Torture is inhuman, inhumane and in any case Mr President – it doesn’t work! “Evidence” and “confessions” extracted under torture are not reliable. We are living in the 21st century, where are you…?!

7. Use of police violence and arbitrary arrest: Following on from point number six, another tragic issue that has been featured a lot in the media recently is the abuse of black Americans by the police – even resulting in their death. We’re not talking about one-off incidents here, we’re talking about recurring patterns of violence, inequality and a culture of racism and abuse. Please don’t deny this. Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 US review records 43 deaths at the hands of police Tasers (across 25 states), reaching a total of at least 670 Taser-related deaths since 2001 (as of 2016). Just in case you think these people were a threat, most were unarmed and appeared to post no threat of death or serious injury when the Taser was used. It is estimated that the number of people who have been killed by law enforcement officials ranges from around 458 to 1,000+ people each year. This is however an estimate as the authorities did not track the exact number of people killed… How convenient… As we all know (and as backed up in the Amnesty report), black males are disproportionately affected by police killings…

8. Discrimination/inequality based on gender, “race”, colour, culture and sexual orientation:

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Black American men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their white brothers

This is such a big point – where do I start? I’ve already touched on several inequalities including treatment in maternal health care and the use of excessive police force towards black males, so let’s also talk about the fact that African-American males are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned than their white male counterparts for drug offenses committed at “comparable rates”  – according to Human Rights Watch who state that: “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

There is so much discrimination it’s difficult to even squish it into one post…but here’s one more documented by Human Rights Watch: “At time of writing, 28 states do not have laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, while three states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation but not on gender identity.” Everyone has the right to work free from discrimination. This just isn’t good enough!

And whilst we’re at it, women don’t just face inequality in the workplace but sexual violence crossing socio-cultural ethnic groups at disproportionate levels. Native American and Alaska Native women not only face inadequate levels of health care but are also dis proportionally affected by sexual violence. They are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped then other women in America. Such issues need to be addressed Mr President.

9. Detention of migrant and asylum-seeking childrenI’m quite frankly shocked and worried by your attitude towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees… We’re all human and we all deserve the right to a peaceful, stable life free from torture, persecution and war and a decent standard of living. What’s worse is that the US detains asylum seeking women and – wait for it – CHILDREN. The USA has the largest detention immigration system in the world, including a huge amount of asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America. Such treatment has a devastating psychological impact on these mothers and children. In June 2016, the government announced it would be limiting the practice of detaining mothers and children long-term for those who pass the first stage of the asylum-seeking process. According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2015, a federal judge ruled that the State’s family detention policy “violated a 1997 settlement on the detention of migrant children“. Policy has improved as those appearing to make a “legitimate” asylum claim are released within weeks but family detention still continues. Mr President – such children should never be detained and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must never be detained for simply seeking protection and US residency.

10. Use of corporal punishment in schools – including against disabled children19 US states still use corporal punishment in schools. Even more shocking is the fact that disabled children are disproportionately affected by such behaviour. Corporal punishment is – as I believe – wrong. Add to this the fact that such punishment will greater affect disabled children’s physical and psychological conditions, this is just completely unacceptable. Across the globe, 124 countries have criminalised such physical punishment in State schools. So why is the USA  – the so-called land of “freedom, equality” etc. – so far behind Mr Trump…?

So, there we have it. There are so many social, cultural, political, economic and human rights issues in the USA which need addressing Mr President, but here’s 10 to get you started. Why not show toady’s protesters something positive? Why not prove us wrong? It’s up to you…

Key information sources:

Amnesty International: United States of America 2015/2016

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: United States, Events of 2015

Image credits:

Donkey Hotey, Waywuwei, Justin Norman, Ben