Journalist, Producer & Researcher

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Gender Segregation at Student Islamic Societies

I took part in a debate on BBC Radio 4's Woman's hour on the issue of gender separated events at universities in the UK:

You can watch it here (skip to 33 minutes):

OR check out the YouTube version:

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Domestic Crusaders: Review

Ever wondered what happens at a gathering of American Pakistani families? Then you must head to London to catch The Domestic Crusaders-a play about immigrant Muslims living in the American suburbs.

Written by Wajahat Ali in the after-math of the 9/11 attacks and debuting in 2006, the play made a sensational hit in America by aiming to remove the stereotypes associated with American Muslims-similar to what TLC's reality TV show, All American Muslim ,intended to achieve. Now the play comes to London, open to the British public and hosted by the Tara theatre on until 11th October. 

The play centres around three generations of an American Muslim family get-together to celebrate the 21st birthday of their youngest son Ghafur. It portrays a day in the life of a Muslim Pakistani-American family in a post 9/11 era, bringing together the varied personalities we see today within the Muslim community -not only in America but also other parts of the world. 

These personalities are shown through six electrifying characters -A grandfather and a retired Pakistani army officer, a middle aged son who wants to become an Islamic teacher rather than a doctor his parents had dreamed of, Fatima, the activist and lawyer daughter who believes in civil liberties and was once arrested for protesting. A successful businessman more Americanised than Pakistani plays the eldest son, and Salman and Khulsoom are the typical Pakistani parents wanting the American dream for their children. 

For me, I could relate to almost every aspect of the play. The dialogue between Fatima and her mother reminded me of conversations I have with my mother (excluding the constant reminder of being arrested) around marriage, activism and independence of Muslim women. The dialogue and humour mixed in with religion made it sound almost as if it was one of my own family birthday dinners-substituting the Pakistani references for Indian of course. 

The Domestic Crusaders also highlights some of the political challenges American and British Muslims are struggling with in a post 9/11 era-specifically around the media and Islam. Throughout the play, we witness sound bites of the media's negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims-a difficult task Muslims across the world are struggling to counter. The introduction of Salman to the play holding a newspaper and complaining about the media is a simple portrayal of the gravity of the issue. 

Though the play is centred on an American Muslim family, it also relates to Muslims in Britain. What was really refreshing was the construction of a Pakistani-American identity rather than a generic American Muslim one. Applying this to Muslims in Britain, we are too often bombarded with narratives of integrating into society and ‘Britishness’, with the term ‘British Muslim’ being used to identify oneself as adhering to British values. This celebration of Pakistani identity is completely refreshing and rejoices immigrant communities in America. 

Creating dialogue through the arts can be a powerful tool in bridging the gap between communities. Here in Britain, it is no secret that Islamophobia is on the rise. In March 2013, a Muslim helpline set up to tackle Islamophobia logged over 630 anti-Islam incidents over a 12 month period-58% of them involving women. And recently, figures released by the Metropolitan police showed a 92% increment in Islamophobic hate crimes between August 2012 and August 2013. Initiatives such as Wajahat Ali's Domestic Crusaders can be a very powerful tool in creating education and awareness about Islam and Muslims in Britain. The portrayal of domestic challenges humanises Muslims by showing the same problems afflict families across all cultures.

The only downfall to the Domestic Crusaders is that it is only playing in London, which means only a few people will have the opportunity to see it. However, the trip and £27.50 return from Birmingham to London was well worth it for me. A must see for all those ever wanting to know "what Muslims living in the west think" or "how immigrant communities live."

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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Saturday, 21 September 2013

Niqab veil is the 'woman's choice' - Today Programme debate

I took part in the Today Programme debate on the Niqab. You can listen here:

21 September 2013 Last updated at 09:43 BST 

The Muslim face veil, Niqab, has been prominent in the news of late.
Firstly there was a court ruling over whether a defendant could wear it in court or not, a home office minister calling for a national debate, and now there is to be a review into whether NHS staff in England, should be allowed to wear full face veils. 

There has also been a U-turn last week by a college in Birmingham, which first banned the Niqab, and then after pressure from students, changed its mind. 

The Today programme's Zubeida Malik met a group of British Muslim women to discuss the issues raised, and what they really think of the Niqab. 

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday 21 September 2013. Listen here

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Female Genital Cutting in South Africa

I took part in a debate representing Islamic Relief South Africa on the issue of Female Genital Cutting for Voice of Cape Town Open lines show. You can listen here:

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The faces behind the veil: Muslim women speak out against ban

As Birmingham Metropolitan College bans students from wearing facial coverings, we hear from those affected

The niqab, or what is often known as the religious veil, has been a subject of debate this week after Birmingham Metropolitan college banned Muslim students from covering their faces. 

The college claims security reasons are behind the controversial decision, but Muslim students across the UK have deemed it an attack on Islam.

Mainstream British media often depicts veiled Muslim women as oppressed, stay-at-home mums who spend their days shopping and cooking for their husbands. Yet, on the other side of the spectrum, there are Muslim women who wear the niqab, work, engage and participate fully in mainstream British society.

While the niqab can be a symbol of oppression overseas in places where women have no choice in the matter, here in the UK it takes on a very different symbolism - one of women refusing to be part of the present-day society’s vapid consumerism and sexualisation.

I spoke to four Muslim-veiled women who shared their experiences of wearing the niqab and considered what a ban might mean for future generations. All outlined their frustrations on common misconceptions of veiled women as “unintellectual” and “immigrants.”

Aysha, 23, is a masters student from London who started wearing the niqab when she was 17.

“I decided to wear the Niqab because I wanted to feel closer to God. I started covering my face in my second year of college and didn’t encounter any problems. I expected stares and questions but was treated no differently than when I didn’t wear the veil. Despite the majority of my teachers being male, I had a strong rapport with each of them who all helped me to succeed both academically and professionally.
“When wearing the niqab it comes down to the individuals involved. My teachers were very open-minded - they did not see it as a barrier to the British way of life but respected it and treated me like a normal person. I have no problem interacting with male colleagues or teachers; the veil is there to protect me as a Muslim woman.

“I think the ban by the college is criminalising and discriminatory. Hundreds of women across the UK wear the veil; by banning it you are taking away their right to education, alienating them and hampering community cohesion and integration. This is not a security issue at all - ask anyone who wears the niqab and most of us will remove it to identify ourselves.”

Saadiyah, 22, is a cover supervisor at a school in the Midlands and started wearing the niqab aged 13.

“A friend of mine inspired me to start wearing the veil. I was really young at the time and had to convince my parents I was ready for it. I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham while wearing the niqab and never saw it as a barrier.

“My lecturers treated me like every other student; I took part in classes, did presentations and interacted with students both male and female. People were curious and always asked me questions but never in a negative way.

“I think the issue of security is just a cover for the college. Most colleges now have secured gates and operate access on ID cards only -  they could implement the necessary security for Muslim women if they wanted to.

“I now work as a cover supervisor at a catholic school and one of the requirements is to show your face while teaching. As a result, I remove my niqab while at work.

“The way you dress should not determine whether you can access the right to education. One of the great things about Britain is that it is an open, democratic society. How can people respect other religions if our MPs and institutions are attacking this basic freedom?”

Samina, 35, is a full-time PhD student, researcher, consultant and mother of two, who decided to start wearing the niqab four years ago.

“It was very different when I started covering my face. While studying and at work, it was not an issue - most people understood why I was wearing it and respected it. Interestingly, male colleagues admired my decision and got along with me, while I had a harder time from some female counterparts.

“When out in public, I’m always living in fear as people are very hostile towards me. I’ve suffered verbal abuse on numerous occasions and almost got knocked over in a Sainsbury’s car park because of the way I was dressed.

“The banning of the niqab will impact negatively on Muslim women - how a woman dresses should not define her. When conducting interviews for jobs, I don’t look at religion or the way people live their life, I look at their skills, abilities and intellect.”

Former chair for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies’ Welsh division, Sahar is a molecular geneticist for the NHS and began covering her face at 14.

“Wearing the niqab gives me a sense of strong Muslim identity, character, dignity and freedom. It's totally a personal choice, I'm not oppressed, I'm not isolated, I'm highly educated and I'm a Muslim British and an active citizen.

“I’ve never had a problem wearing the niqab while studying and working. My work colleagues and managers might disagree with me wearing it but they believe in my right to wear it and this leads to mutual respect. This is what I expect from our British and civil society, which celebrates its freedom, diversity and multiculturalism.

“The college decision was made for security purposes, which is not a valid reason when you know these women are happy for our identity to be checked. We’re wearing the niqab as an act of worship and not to cover our identity.

“There is no place for discrimination and racism in 21st century and actions like banning the niqab are destroying the fabric of our British society.”

Some names have been changed and the women are not pictured.

Published by The Independent on 12 September 2013. You can read it here 

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Book Review: Soldier Box by Joe Glenton

Meet Joe Glenton. In 2009, he dominated the headlines by being the first British soldier to publicly refuse to serve a second tour in Afghanistan on legal and moral grounds. Arrested on AWOL charges, Glenton served his sentence in prison and faced widespread criticism by the army and some members of the British public for openly condemning Britain’s involvement in the war on terror. 

Glenton accounts his experience in his memoir: “Soldier Box, Why I Won’t Return to the War on Terror.” In this first ever of a kind revelation, Glenton goes deep inside the war on terror and takes us on a step by step journey on how he we went pumped as a soldier,  committed to ‘’fighting Britain’s enemies’’ to refusing to serve in Afghanistan by “realising we were not guests but invaders ” in the country. 

Glenton portrays life as a serving soldier and divulges his accounts of racism, bullying and deficiencies within the British armed forces.  Despite suffering symptoms and requesting treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he was largely ignored and received minimal treatment; which he reveals is a procedure more widespread within the armed forces than what is depicted in the media.   Glenton also exposes the lack of democracy within the system. After being told he was to be deployed to Afghanistan for a second term, Glenton refused on grounds he didn’t agree with it and was silenced with the words: “You don’t have to agree with it…It doesn’t matter what you think, you’ll do what you’re told. You’re a corporal in the British Army.” 

Elegantly written and mixed with humour, Soldier Box is powerful and a must read story by anyone who dares to speak out either in favour or against the war on terror. 

Now a world renowned anti-war campaigner and writer, Joe Glenton remains the alternative hero to those around the world fighting for justice. 

Solider Box by Joe Glenton is available on Verso Books

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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Sunday, 4 August 2013

This Ramadan, I've declared war on hunger

The world produces enough food to feed its 7 billion inhabitants. Yet, around 870 million people do not have enough to eat. Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year--five million deaths.
The holy month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days in order to reflect on the millions of people across the globe who struggle to find a sip of water or a bite to eat.  It is also a time when millions of dollars are given to local and international charities to combat poverty and suffering. 

This Ramadan, hundreds of people around the world have joined Islamic Relief - one of the world’s largest independent Muslim NGOs - to take the fight against poverty a step further by declaring war -  not on man - but on hunger.

War on hunger
Too often, hunger is only portrayed as an unavoidable situation – for example, as something brought about by natural disasters such as droughts and floods.
But, in reality, a large proportion of world hunger has man-made causes such as war and economic injustice. 

From the current conflict in Syria and Afghanistan to across sub Saharan Africa, Islamic Relief is urging Muslims and the wider public to look beyond the politics of war and terrorism – and, instead,  to look at the ordinary people who are suffering the terrible consequences of war, disease and injustice. 

In Afghanistan, while media attention focuses on the war on terror, it ignores the voices of those Afghans who are bearing the brunt of the conflict. People like 8-year Nazia and her twin sister who lost both their parents to the conflict.  The fighting in the country has led them to seek shelter in a cave from where they go out to beg for food during the day and at night they huddle together to withstand the freezing cold. They have no education and find basic communication difficult.  Each day their grandmother is faced with an impossible task of whether to spend what little they have on food or fuel.  She has to choose whether these children die from starvation or death. 

In Syria, over 100, 000 people have been killed in the conflict and 1.6 million are refugees. An estimated 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country. While the world’s attention is focused on how to end the conflict, the plight of the millions who are suffering is in danger of being ignored.  

Across Africa, tribal and ethnic violence often halts any chance of long term development in some of the world’s poorest communities which already suffer the consequences of climate change. In Ethiopia, for example, cyclical drought and escalating food prices have left 50-year old Medina bankrupt and dependent upon food aid from charities like Islamic Relief to feed her children, disabled brother and elderly father. 

In Mali 22-year old Ousmane is forced to choose between education and providing for his family. Only if he receives food parcels from Islamic Relief can he afford to attend school. 

In Pakistan, people are forced to deal with political killings, bombings, natural disasters and a rapidly shrinking economy. As a result, forty million people are now living below the poverty line.

This is a world that that we have created through our greed and conflict. War damages homes, disrupts lives and destroys the hopes and dreams of those who have had the misfortune of living in a particular area. What is even more disturbing is the large number of children who are caught up in the cross-fire. In the Syrian crisis, more than half of the 1.6 million refugees are under 17 years of age and 38% are younger than 11 , while the conflict in Mali has forced the closure of 58% of schools in the north- denying millions of children the right to an education. 

By declaring ‘War on Hunger’, Islamic Relief is forcing world leaders to look and deal with the consequences of their actions and address the growing hunger crisis. We want to show that the answer to hunger lies not only in providing short-term food aid but also in long-term support for agriculture, water systems, health care and the education projects needed to lift millions out of poverty. 

Ramadan is a time of reflection
Muslims believe that fasting forces one to feel the pain of those who are suffering from hunger - and indeed it does have this affect.  Coming from Barbados and accustomed to 14 hour fasts, 19-hour fast in 30 degree heat in the UK was difficult and really made me wonder how those millions in poverty around the world really manage to cope with life. 

My discomfort was only a fraction of what these millions actually go through – with no real relief at the end of the fasting month.  At the end of the day when it comes to sunset, we have and abundance of water and food, shelter and secure homes.  These people have none of that and some walk for hours in sweltering conditions to fetch water.
Despite their immense suffering, every story I hear is full of immense gratefulness for what little they have and a belief that relief will come to them soon – even if only in the after-life. 

This Ramadan let us remember that the world produces more than enough food for everyone.
Let us all take a stand and declare war - but this time not on man but on hunger and let us not stop until hunger is really eradicated. 

Published by Barbados Today  

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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