Prospect: Humaira Shahid on the five fundamental rights given to women by Islam

It’s impossible not to be impressed by Humaira Awais Shahid. Raised in Kuwait but a long-time resident of Lahore, this Pakistani journalist has pushed her fierce advocacy of women’s rights through the media and parliament, in a country not always welcoming of the idea. Hearing her speak on issues of inequality—both gender-based and otherwise—she is eloquent and emotive.

Shahid has spent her career working to put women’s rights issues on the agenda in Pakistan. When she took on the job of editing the women’s section of the Daily Khabrain, the independent newspaper owned by her husband’s family, she emptied the pages of celebrity gossip and fashion tips, filling them instead with stories of the daily injustices suffered by women, from acid attacks to the trading of women to resolve disputes in rural areas. Later on, as a member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab, she pushed her fellow politicians—mostly male, and often deeply conservative—to back legislation that supported justice for women. She now represents 200 women’s organisations advocating for the adoption of the International Violence Against Women Act in America, which would see the US addressing global violence against women through foreign policy.

…Read the full article here on the Prospect website.

Prospect: The Milton Keynes of the West Bank

Perched in the hills of the West Bank, nine kilometres north of the administrative capital Ramallah, a new city is rising from the ground. Currently covered in cranes and rubble, Rawabi (“Hills” in Arabic) will eventually be home to up to 40,000 Palestinians, complete with 23 different neighbourhoods, cinemas, a 15,000-seat amphitheatre for outdoor performances, parks, a shopping district, restaurants, public and private schools, a conference centre, mosques, a church and endless views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill.

This is Palestine’s first planned city—the “Milton Keynes of the West Bank,” as I’ve heard it described. During a visit to the site, I’m taken through extensive models, a 3D presentation film featuring smiling and glamorous would-be residents, and explanations of the design’s focus on sustainability and the environment—harvesting rainwater from roofs for irrigation, for example, and reducing CO2 emissions. It’s unexpectedly high-tech and high-end, catering to the Palestinian middle class. “We’re trying to attract international [retail] brands to open their first branches [in the West Bank] here,” one of the project managers tells me. “Palestine doesn’t have these things.” Representatives from chains including Mango and Victoria’s Secrets have apparently visited the site. The 600 apartments that have so far been made available for purchase sold out, and 8,000 people have registered interest to buy the 6,000 flats that will eventually be built…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 12 March 2014.

Prospect: Can you be an atheist priest?

Ollie Killingback spent most of his career as a clergyman for the Church of England—and for much of that time he was an atheist. “I had doubts before I entered the Church,” he says. “The study of theology [during ordination training] was supposed to relieve those.” It didn’t and he entered the ministry anyway. “I’d been on that track for so long… [but] I found myself with more and more unsatisfying situations where I couldn’t, with what I had been taught, find an adequate answer.”

Other priests go further. “Iain” still works as a Protestant minister in Ireland. In an interview with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, he referred to God as “total and absolute nonsense” adding that trying to instil religious faith in children amounts to abuse. His congregation doesn’t know this, only his wife; he can’t look at her while he’s preaching. Ollie and Iain are members of the Clergy Project, an international online group of more than 530 clergymen and women who do not believe in God. Many have left the ministry, but about a quarter have not and use pseudonyms online. The project, founded in 2011, receives about 50 applications a month (although not all join—the group has a stringent screening process to protect the anonymity of its members). Some of the newest members are imams in Islamic countries…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 12 December 2013.

Prospect: Sexism goes underground

Challenged at a party a few months’ ago as to why I think we still need feminism in Britain, I mentioned a nasty encounter I’d had earlier that week. After meeting an old friend for dinner in central London after work, I caught the Tube home from Piccadilly Circus. At the next station, three men got on. At first they just stood near me, talking to each other. I noticed they kept looking at me, but I buried my head in the Evening Standard and ignored it. But the next time I looked up from the newspaper they had turned to stand in a circle around me so that I was cornered in the edge of the carriage. All three were staring down at me, grinning. “She’s cute,” said one of them. “She’s really cute,” said another. “Who’s going to take her home then?” the third asked. There were a few people sitting near us, but I’m not sure anyone even noticed. “You should have her,” one of them said, signalling to his friend, who just stared at me, grinning and nodding. The doors opened and I took the opportunity to push my way through the men until I was out on the platform—it was a huge relief when the doors closed and the Tube pulled out of the station.

I thought the guy at the party would be surprised to learn that such things happen regularly to women travelling on public transport alone. Instead, he burst out laughing. “That’s not sexism!” he said. “That’s just banter.”

For me, harassment on public transport is a very clear expression of latent sexism in society, partly because it happens so often, and partly because people think so little of it. Most women I know have experienced something unpleasant on the Tube or train—and much as people might try to pass it off as a joke, it is indicative of troubling underlying attitudes towards women. But if you complain, you’re told it doesn’t matter, or you’re making it up, or “it’s just banter.”…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 21 November 2013.

Prospect: Are you an activist?

Activist (‘aek.ti.vist) n: advocating or engaged in activism; someone who takes part in activities that are intended to achieve political or social change

I was at The Other Club—the club “for women who do,” in central London—with my colleague Serena last night, enjoying a dinner of duck egg risotto ball. We’d just had a Q&A session with Inna Shevchenko, a lead activist in the Ukrainian feminist group Femen—known, of course, for their topless protests—and a talk from the editors of a new book, “Let’s Start a Pussy Riot.” We were a having a little post-talk discussion.

“Who in this room,” asked Joy Lo Dico, co-founder of The Other Club, “would call themselves an activist?” It was only once my hand was stuck confidently in the air that I realised nobody else had raised theirs. I tried to backtrack, running my hand through my hair as if that’s what I’d been doing all along. But it was no use; my hand had been raised too high, too self-assuredly. “And what do you do, Jessica?” asked Joy, all eyes on me. I thought of Femen, allegedly assaulted by the KGB as a result of their protests, and the members of Pussy Riot still in prison. I swallowed a mouthful of buttered spinach. “Oh, well, you know, I sort of talk about it… well, I write and… you know, try to kick up a bit of a fuss…” There was silence in the room. I lowered my hand, turning back to my crispy risotto ball, suitably embarrassed…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 31 October 2013.

Prospect: 20,000 lives lost in Mediterranean waters – something must be done

The EU summit that begins today is supposed to focus on the digital economy and monetary union—but there’s a good chance it will be overshadowed by concerns about immigration.

Almost 20,000 people have died attempting to cross into Europe via the southern Mediterranean over the past 20 years. Earlier this month, after yet another boat carrying undocumented migrants went down, the Maltese Prime Minister claimed that we are turning the sea into a “cemetery.” The Italian Prime Minister described it as a “tomb.”

Twenty thousand is an unbelievable figure, yet, until recently, not many people have been aware of it because it rarely makes the news outside of the areas directly affected—Cyprus, Greece, Italy and my own country, Malta; Europe’s “frontier” nations and the small islands like Malta, Sicily and Lampedusa that mark the entrance to Europe for those travelling from Africa and the Middle East. Here, residents receive regular reports of boats capsizing or running into trouble, the occupants being pulled from the sea in lengthy rescue operations…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 24 October 2013.

Prospect: For all our sakes, don’t scrap the Human Rights Act

Yesterday, Theresa May announced that the Conservatives would pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) in their next election manifesto. This has popular support mainly because of one high-profile recent case, in which the deportation of Abu Qatada, a suspected terrorist, was delayed due to concerns about the use of torture in Jordan. This caused huge embarrassment for May (already red-faced after the cat debacle of 2011). But scrapping the HRA could be a disastrous response.

The HRA is the vehicle through which the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British law. Opposition to it is grounded in the idea that it reduces our sovereignty—the British government was unable to deport Qatada, for example, because this action was blocked by the European Court. The Conservatives would take us out of the European Convention and replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights.

To begin with, it is not clear how the Bill of Rights would differ from the HRA…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 1 October 2013.

Prospect: How to dress like a political wife

It is the fate of all “political wives” (and it is always wives, sadly) to be treated like a mannequin by the press. Their wardrobes are dissected almost as thoroughly as their husband’s policies—it is now such an expected feature of media coverage that details of their outfits are sometimes sent to journalists in press releases.

As a result, there are certain rules that must be followed:

1) Whatever you wear, it must be “from the high street.” When the press provides a detailed description of what you were wearing, it is guaranteed that they will also mention the price (“The wife of the Tory leader sported a £65 dress from Marks & Spencer…”). The message this sends to voters is that you are an “ordinary” family, with ordinary concerns. Wearing an expensive designer dress would be a telltale sign that you are, in fact, not. (Sam Cam made a mistake in 2010 when she wore a dress worth £749—or, as The Guardian put it, “36.8 first-child benefit payments”). In any case, if your husband is willing to spend £1,500 on a dress, God knows what he’ll do with the economy…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 24 September 2013.

Prospect: Ukip’s little earthquake

The opening speech at this year’s Ukip conference culminated in a cry: “We’re looking for a referendum on Europe. Now!” No huge policy surprises there, then, but it seemed to please the crowd, who met the announcement with raucous applause.

This was different to previous conferences, though. “A lot of interest this year,” the steward had said proudly as he led me to my seat. He was right—unlike previous years, the place was filled with journalists and camera crews. It’s the first time in five years that their conference has been held in London, and it was held in Westminster Central Hall, on Parliament Square, as if presenting a challenge to the politicians currently residing in the building opposite.

Since earlier this year, Ukip has pushed ahead in the polls to become Britain’s third most popular party. Throughout the morning there were efforts to stress that, despite its reputation for conservatism and traditionalism, this is the party of the future. “We’re forward thinking, we’re modern,” declared deputy leader Paul Nuttall. A Ukip billboard van parked outside the building even referred to the three “old” parties—not the “other” ones, but the “old” ones…

… To continue reading click here to visit the Prospect website. Originally published 20 September 2013.

Prospect: The niqab ban – why aren’t we having a debate about banning high heels?

Once again, the “national debate” over the niqab is filling the pages of our newspapers. The latest discussion comes after Birmingham Metropolitan College reversed a decision to prevent Muslim students from wearing the veil, and a Lib Dem minister suggested that the government should consider a ban to ensure freedom of choice for young girls.

Continue reading “Prospect: The niqab ban – why aren’t we having a debate about banning high heels?”