She Speaks We Hear

Bringing women's voices together, unaltered, unadulterated

20th May 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Women of faith must be seen and heard

Ramadan in lockdown has been interesting and it has created new and exciting opportunities for learning, for connecting, for developing. 

I have connected with the Qur’an and its teachings in different ways to how I have before.  As I get older and as I learn more, I have an interest in looking beyond the common narrative, thinking about the lives of people, trying to connect with those who have gone before us and thinking about how it must have been for them and how the teachings apply to me now, a woman in Britain in 2020. 

Photo by Tayeb MEZAHDIA

In the Qur’an there is a whole chapter called Mary, ‘Maryam’ in Arabic, relating to the mother of Jesus, peace be upon them both.  She is a central figure through the Qur’an and we learn about her character, some insights about her life and the lead up to the birth of her son. 

This year one thing that really struck me was listening to a commentary of the part of the Qur’an where Mary is basically in labour, in pain, wondering if she will be able to cope. As someone who has given birth four times, I can relate to that feeling!  The (male) commentator referenced the verse but spoke about it in a way I found surprising and I guess disappointing. He had taken her crying out in pain as an indication of her shame and embarrassment at being pregnant, without a husband, and wondering what people would think.  I discussed it with a few women friends and none of us saw it in that way! 

Over my 25 years of being around Muslims and more recently developing deep connections and friendships with women of all faiths, I have realised that so much of what we read, so many of the commentaries, so many of the books we use to help us understand our faith teachings, are by men.  And that in itself is OK, but not if that means that women’s perspectives and experiences are erased or simply not heard. 

We live in a world where there is inequality in every place you want to look. Board rooms, charities, communal organisations, government. And the gender pay gap is still a thing. Yes, things have shifted massively from where they were 100 years ago, but we can’t be complacent. 

And then we come specifically to religious spaces, to places of worship, to leadership positions in our faith communities. It is often an easy fix to speak about Muslim women as oppressed, to look at Islam as teaching that women are inferior to men.  Of course, even a basic reading of the Qur’an or a very brief overview of Muhammad’s life will show you otherwise, peace be upon him.  

The challenge for women like me is that when we highlight inequalities or show how biased towards men many of our spaces are, we are often accused of being radical feminists trying to change the faith.  

Dr Uzma Saed, image credit: BBC

Earlier this week a new Government task force was launched to look at how we move forward as faith communities and come out of lockdown, ease back into our places of worship and manage the risks as much as we can. A great and noble effort of course and really good to see all faiths at the table working together with government on this.  The problem?  All of the people listed on that taskforce are men.  How can that be OK?  Women’s voices are crucial at this time and they need to be heard and given a seat at that table too. Women’s perspectives and experiences are often different and can give an outlook that needs to be considered. As I like to point out, women are half of humanity and gave birth to the other half! 

So we as women of faith need to be seen and we need to be heard. We need to find more ways to come together, share our learning and challenge the status quo when we see it.  And to do that I believe we are stronger, together.  Our shared experiences of how our faith teachings play out in our lives are more common than many people realise. Muslim women have become an easy scapegoat for what are actually much wider inequalities: “the poor Muslim women who need saving from the evil men around them”.  While I am among those who will call out issues in Muslim communities where I see them, I also know that view and approach is patronising and counter-productive. We want you to walk with us, work with us, challenge with us. Let’s develop opportunities and strong voices, together, as women of faith.  We can highlight and challenge the bad, we can celebrate and bring to the fore the positives and inspirational. 

So I go back to Mary, mother of Jesus, to Khadijah, to Aisha, to Hajar, to Fatima al-Fihri (who established the world’s first ever university in Morocco in 859) and to so many other brave and noble women in the Qur’an and throughout our shared history. Let’s bring out their stories and those of other women whose names have been lost. 

I believe it is us as women of faith who can lead this, we have a vested interest, we see ourselves in those women’s stories, we want the world to know them and learn from them.  We must be seen and heard. 

Together, we can thrive. 

By Julie Siddiqi

Julie is a gender equality campaigner, community organiser and broadcaster.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

12th May 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

On VE Day why should British Muslims join the British Army?

Pirbright Army Training Centre

When I found out I’d be visiting the Army Training Centre Pirbright, along with the Chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, Akeela Ahmed MBE, I was slightly apprehensive. Visions of scary looking English men in army gear holding rifles filled my mind and I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

However after spending time with some recruits, officers, the chaplain and the Major General I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at the openness and thoughtfulness of everybody I met. Not only were there many soldiers of colour walking around, there were a lot of young female recruits on the training ground. At Pirbright, the fourteen week compulsory training required for all soldiers is carried out. It seemed friendly and relaxed, and not like an English Defence League breeding ground that I had perhaps naively envisaged it to be. But why do the British Army have such a bad reputation amongst some Muslims and other minorities?

Trainee recruits at Pirbright Army Training Centre

For most Muslims, joining the British Army can be a contentious subject or something they’ve never considered seriously. Looking at the numbers, there are currently only around 500 serving Muslims in the British Army out of an 80,000 strong army. That is less than 0.6% of the total army staff. Given the population of Muslims is around 4% of the population, this isn’t representative at all.

According to former British Army Officer Afzal Amin, the majority of the 500 in the army are immigrants, mostly from the Commonwealth and not British born. This is an interesting point as they are more likely to have a more romanticised image of being in the British Army than someone who hasn’t been brought up in the post-colonial shadow. Research also shows British born Muslims feel as British as their white counterparts, as the UK is their home. So what are the reasons?

In a study carried out by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies many reasons were cited for the low recruitment of Muslim soldiers to the British Army. One of the reasons was the risk to life, and Muslim parents like any other parents won’t encourage a career where you are on the front line. One of the recruits I met at Pirbright said his mum didn’t talk to him for weeks when he told her that he was joining the British Army, so clearly this is a concern for all parents not just parents from ethnic minorities.

A crucial point that often goes amiss is that being on the front line like most people imagine, is only 30-40% of what the army does. The rest is made up of jobs such as engineers, doctors, nurses etc. In fact there are over 65 departments you can train in. So whilst serving on the ground is what most people perceive of the British Army, there are a plethora of other jobs that are non-combatant. Clearly this message hasn’t been as clear as the British Army would like it to be. There are certain degrees that the British Army will even sponsor and pay for like medicine as it’s a much needed vocation.

However the elephant in the room cannot be dismissed. One of the key factors that contributes to the low numbers of Muslims joining the army is that the British Army have been integral in conflicts in Muslim countries. Not just that, but now deemed as unnecessary, illegal wars where innocent civilians (usually Muslim) have been killed. As well as this reported torture and human right abuse cases amongst not just American personnel but British too, have gone on record. 

For Muslims this seems to be the biggest hurdle and red flag when it comes to entertaining the idea of joining the British Army. It’s very difficult for a Muslim to join an organisation which has killed other Muslims in what turned out to be a failed mission with unethical motives. But the Iraq war started sixteen years ago and we live in a different world; in a world where human rights are acknowledged and championed more readily, and in a world where the British Army have had the disastrous experience of being in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

British Muslim women visited Pirbright Army Training Centre in February 2020

The British Army are trying their best to break down these barriers and engage with Muslim communities. Muslim Engagement officer Naveed Muhammad who has served in the British Army for over 20 years, visits schools and mosques regularly talking about his career and the positive aspects of joining the British Army. Major General Capps who is also a champion for the Armed Muslim Forces Association reminded us that the British Army were fighting ISIS and the Taliban who have killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. A well needed reminder perhaps? And also an indication that Muslims are very much needed during these conflicts to help the military personnel to communicate with civilians on the ground and help build trust and relations. 

Tim Petransky, Engagement Officer told me a story about how one of his Pathan colleagues managed to liaise with some Pathans in a rural area of Afghanistan which helped to appease an otherwise tricky situation, proving that diversity is essential within army personnel.

The other problem that the British Army have had to deal with is far-right extremism. With figures like Tommy Robinson posing with recruits, the PR hasn’t been great. The British Army has formally denounced any links with any far-right figures and takes it very seriously. The Padre (chaplain in the army) at Pirbright insisted any Islamophobia and other prejudices are nipped in the bud early on, and any recruits showing signs of any extremism are dealt with accordingly.

Can the British Army respect Muslim values?

All recruits who join the army have to go through a Values and Standards course taught by the Padre where the core values are taught over seven lessons. These are courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment. These essential core values are strengthened further by standards that all recruits have to live up to, and those are of being appropriate, lawful and professional at all times. Following this, case studies and real life examples are given where recruits have to decide what they would do in the same situation. 

This training is a fundamental part of being in the British Army as recruits come from all kinds of backgrounds. All these values are not only coherent with Islam but reinforce some of the basic principles of being a Muslim. Islam’s central teaching is around social justice and standing up for the oppressed. Some of the projects the army is involved in encompass these core values; for example migrant rescue, wildlife protection, restoring infrastructure, distributing aid and helping in disaster affected areas. The British Army is present in over thirty countries currently, mostly in peacekeeping duties. These are wonderful roles that the army take part in but are cast in the shadow of the disastrous wars in the Middle East. It will take time to shift this image.

What it comes down to, is conscience. As the Padre explained, it’s a choice you make as a person of faith. For the Padre there’s no question that him being involved in teaching ethics to new recruits and being a spiritual advisor to any army personnel is vital work and serves his conscience well. Also he has comfort as clergy are the only army personnel who don’t have to carry a weapon. But Islam is not a pacifist religion, and standing and fighting for the rights of the oppressed is a noble thing. 

The British Army is historically known for providing a home and career to those who need it. To vulnerable young people, or to those who’ve had a tough upbringing, a career in the army is ideal to give them some purpose and discipline in their life. The Muslim community currently has the highest level of unemployment and the Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic group has the lowest number of students in Russell Group universities. The British Army is ideal for those facing unemployment, poverty, and discrimination.

For Muslims, halal food is available, even halal rations as well as more tolerance for other religious requirements. The Armed Forces Muslim Association is a positive safe place for Muslim recruits to ask any questions with a dedicated Imam,  Asim Hafiz to provide any spiritual advice. 

Another important point for British Muslims and the wider population to remember is that 400,000 Indian Muslims fought for the British Army and 89,000 died in World War II so joining the British army is not an alien concept. British Muslims don’t need to show their loyalty to Britain by joining the army but it’s a reminder that is often needed about the contributions of Muslims towards Britain.

The British Army of 2020 is very different to what it used be. Like the population of Britain, it’s changed and adapted to the world we live in and joining an organisation like this should not be something that is dismissed by young Muslims or other ethnic minority groups based on past practices. The British Army, Royal Air Force and The Royal Navy need to make sure their strive for diversity and message of acceptance and tolerance reaches far and wide into all communities so they can reflect the beauty of British people within their organisation.

By Sharmeen Ziauddin

Sharmeen is passionate about politics and faith and you can find her tweeting about these things @sharm33n.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


12th May 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

How can the British Army engage with UK Muslims?

Photo credit: Hifsa Haroon Iqbal

This week, Akeela Ahmed, (Founder of SheSpeaksWeHear and chair of the UK government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group) arranged for a group of 20 Muslim women to visit Pirbright Army Training Centre. This incredible opportunity proved to be a real eye-opener in terms of forming a better understanding of the Armed Forces’ values, moral principles and ethos. The visit gave me plenty of food for thought, especially regarding what it means to be a British Muslim and our place in wider society.

Read on to understand more about this trip and some of my reflections from this important visit.

Driving up to the gates of Pirbright Army Training Centre initially felt intimidating, but this all changed when we were greeted with a warm welcome by senior members of the armed forces, and offered tea and biscuits. If there’s one thing that brings British people of all persuasions together, it’s the universal love of a good cuppa and a biccie.

Photo credit: Akeela Ahmed

Diversity and representation is crucial.

It is evident that the job of the British Army is to protect all the citizens of the UK. And, as the UK becomes increasingly diverse, so must the makeup of traditional institutions including the armed forces.

The British Armed Forces currently has around 10% women, which is still below the government’s target of 15%. There are currently around 450 Muslims serving in the regular armed forces.

Photo credit: Akeela Ahmed

Throughout the day, it became apparent that the army is extremely accommodating when it comes to faith. Padres are Christian ministers whose job it is to guide soldiers of all faiths and those without faith, with humanistic principles. In addition, there are also Armed Forces Chaplains available for soldiers of other specific faiths, including Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh.

Additionally, prayer rooms are available, as well as halal food on-site. The dress code can also be aligned with Islamic principles; Muslim men can wear a full beard, and for women, hijab can be incorporated within the uniform.

Universal human values and moral standards.

My personal highlight of the day was a presentation by Padre Nigel Kinsella, talking about the values and moral principles of the British Army. In particular, the military uses the mnemonic CDRILS, which stands for: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Selfless Commitment. It’s pretty clear to me that these values are universal human values, that align to principles at the heart of Islam.

The British Army has a duty to protect all UK citizens.

As Muslims, one of the biggest threats comes from radicalisation, especially given that the majority of the victims of terrorist attacks have been other Muslims. Radicalisation is one of the biggest problems in the world today, and it affects all of us. It seems to me that the British Army is there to provide protection against all threats that are affecting UK citizens, and that of course, includes the Muslim community.

It’s clear that the job of the army is to do the things that other people are not willing to do. This does not simply mean reacting to real-world events. It also means providing humanitarian aid, disaster recovery and providing assistance in the event of a large-scale emergency.

We will not be divided.

Islam is by no means a pacifist faith. As Muslims, we have a loyalty to the country we were born into and live in. In addition, the rhetoric of the far-right, including that of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, seeks to divide us. Major General Duncan Capps, Muslim Champion for the Armed Forces was unequivocal in disassociating this dangerous rhetoric from the values of the UK armed forces. Any form of racism or discrimination is taken extremely seriously.

Robinson, in particular has used the army to push forward his anti-Muslim ideology. The army has absolutely denounced Robinson’s attempts to hijack their cause and have signalled a zero-tolerance approach against all forms of extremism.

The Army needs to do more to champion diversity to connect with young British Muslims.

My perceptions of the British Army are very different after this visit. I now have a better understanding of what the British Army does and how it affects me as a British citizen. As someone with a background in digital marketing, I feel the army needs to be doing a lot more to get their message across. There’s definitely an information gap and more needs to be done to engage with people of different backgrounds.

A couple of years ago, the British Army released a new campaign video entitled “Keeping My Faith – This is Belonging”. The ad featured a Muslim soldier praying, overlooked by other troops. In my mind, this is little to do with so-called PC-culture, and actually pretty reflective of the army’s ethos of inclusion. The military is one of the few institutions that doesn’t care about your background, your upbringing, your lack of an education or what you have been through. For many recruits, it offers a second chance at success or redemption.

Although the focus on on recruitment, the objective should be to change the perception of the armed forces. It may take a generation for there to be more Muslims serving, but that journey begins with changing hearts and minds. Certainly, it’s not something that will change overnight, but undertaking initiatives for different communities to get to know each other better is a great first step.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Author Bio: Aliya Zaidi is a self-confessed geek, a blogger, an avid foodie, and a mother of two. Aliya is a freelance digital marketing writer and research professional, writing mostly about online marketing and advertising. Check out her page: or read her tweets at

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Can Brexit save us from Europe’s far-right?

As the Prime minister intends to press his Brexit bill through Commons in three days it finally seems like we’re getting ‘Brexit done’, imminently or in the next seven years, can the 2019 general election that is being called a landslide victory for the Tories, bring us together? Never in my living memory has the UK been so politically polarised since it has been since the 2016 EU referendum result. 

I look across to our neighbours in Europe, to ask, is it only us? Turns out we’re not alone, in fact in the UK we’re actually doing better. Much of Western Europe has been blighted with the rise of far-right nationalist parties which have been steadily gaining support over the last five years or so gaining seats in Parliament.

“The uncomfortable truth is, targeting minorities has been the main way for far-right parties to find their way back into positions of power across Europe.”

In October 2019 in Germany, the anti-immigration party AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) won 24% of the vote in a regional election in the East of Germany, beating Angela Merkel’s party Central Democratic Party by 1%. The new populist party only formed in 2014 and their election campaign was swarmed with Nazi slogans and anti-Semitic rhetoric. As well as this an attack on a synagogue in Halle which killed two people was carried out by a 27-year old who cited far-right motives.

In Spain, the third largest party is now Vox, which is described as an anti-immigration and anti-Islam party. It also formed in 2014 and has doubled its seats to 54 out of 350 in the recent Spanish elections. 

In Austria the Freedom Party is the only far-right party in Europe that is actually in a position of power, with the leading People’s Party forming a coalition. Recently a deputy mayor from the Freedom Party had to resign over an extremely racist poem he wrote comparing migrants to rats.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (formerly National Front) won more seats than President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche in the European Elections back in May. As well as this, France’s secular and anti-Muslim policies affect the already marginalised Muslim communities there. Only recently a Muslim mother was verbally abused by a far-right politician and told to remove her headscarf on a school trip to the Regional Assembly. The hijab is banned in schools and government offices, and now a law is being proposed to ban parents from wearing religious symbols on school trips. 

The ongoing refugee crisis gained attention across Europe and was used by nationalist and far-right parties as a means to stoke fear and divisions. The resultant increase in xenophobic rhetoric across Europe helped the far-right nationalist parties in their cause. The uncomfortable truth is, targeting minorities has been the main way for far-right parties to find their way back into positions of power across Europe. Using propaganda like that breaking point poster and focussing on immigration, election campaigns have been fought and won. Not to mention Facebook campaigns targeting voters, but that’s a whole different story.

In a study carried out in 2018 by Cambridge university, almost half of Leave voters (47%) believed the government was deliberately “hiding the truth” about how many immigrants live in the country, compared to 14% of Remain voters. Almost a third said yes when asked if they believed “Muslim immigration to this country is part of a bigger plan to make Muslims a majority of this country’s population”. Some Leave campaigners utilised anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in the run up to the EU referendum in 2016 to gain popularity, resulting in misconceptions and negative attitudes towards Muslims and immigrants.

Looking across the pond, similar problems can be found in America, where populist president Donald Trump is championed and supported not only by nationalistic Americans and fascists but those that are fed up of the status quo. The USA is a great example of how far-right politicians can become popular in a short space of time, and even take up positions in government.

This fear and hatred of immigrants has consequences beyond far-right nationalist parties and politics. A recent investigation by ITV found that there has been an 145 % increase in recorded racist attacks, physical and verbal on NHS staff. Many doctors of ethnic backgrounds have been sidelined by patients as they’ve requested white doctors. Racism is alive and kicking in the UK in 2019, and instead of getting better it seems to be getting worse.

The small but significant wins by fringe parties across Europe should be a push to mainstream political parties everywhere, to sort themselves out and realise that there are parts of the electorate who are totally disenfranchised. There is a risk, in response to this, that mainstream political parties may lurch to the far ends of the political spectrum, instead however they need to address the real issues causing people to be sympathetic to populist narratives. The drivers of disenfranchisement are multi-faceted, however usually stem from issues of unemployment, rise in crime and poverty leading to inevitable anger and frustration. In the UK, austerity has meant cuts in education, NHS and policing, the three things we need to keep our population functioning in a civilised manner. When funding is cut for these essential services, society suffers.

The blame game is much easier to play when you can blame others. Immigrants, refugees, Eastern Europeans and Muslims are all targets when our own government has let us down. Instead of acknowledging austerity and the politicians who backed and imposed these policies some of the British electorate prefer to pin the blame on Europe, and leaving it has somehow become the solution to the end of all their woes. Never has an election result showed this as much as the election on 12 December 2019 with the Conservatives breaking the red wall, and winning seats in Labour heartlands; towns where poverty sores and unemployment is high.

The Brexit Party made a significant victory in the European Elections in May 2019 by winning a whopping twenty-nine seats, followed by the Liberal Democrats winning sixteen.The Brexit party was only a few months old and beat the Conservative Party by winning over 20% of the votes. The party represents nationalism, anti-immigration and of course anti-Europe sentiment as well as a distaste for ‘the establishment’. Thus the 2019 general election was a Brexit election.

Nigel Farage despite standing as an MP and failing seven times is still a household name, and central to the UK leaving the EU. The Brexit party were annihilated in the recent general election mainly because they stepped aside in many Leave constituencies to let the Conservatives win the Leave vote instead of losing votes to them or to the Labour party. Boris Johnson also played a blinder by repeating the word ‘Brexit’ continuously in his campaign making sure he could get that Brexit party vote. President Trump also got involved by suggesting Boris and Nigel form an alliance. And they unofficially did, creating the most right-wing Tory party that we’ve seen in a while. So much so that the Conservative party’s own MPs including former deputy PM Lord Heseltine defected because of the direction of the party. 

Boris Johnson’s party certainly won the racist vote what with figures like Tommy Robinson, ex leader of the English Defence League endorsing him. Just a few weeks ago the leader of the now defunct Britain First, ex-convict Paul Golding announced he has joined the Conservative party. He said in a statement he wants to ‘help solidify Boris Johnson‘s control on the leadership, so we can achieve Brexit and hopefully cut immigration and confront radical Islam.’ It is also reported that a top aide close to the Prime Minister has said that the UK will have a ‘Special Relationship’ with Viktor Orban’s far-right Hungary after Brexit. Despite the fact that the Hungarian Prime Minister is known for his anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric.

You just have to look at Twitter to see that all outwardly racist and anti-Muslim tweets usually come from someone who supports Brexit or Trump in their bio. The obvious correlation between the two is not fiction. Not all Brexiters are racists of course but many racists are Brexiters and that’s a fact that is hard to deny.

Whether votes for far-right parties came from a disillusioned electorate that are unhappy with the traditional mainstream political parties or whether its coming from a place of fear and hatred of the ‘other’, more than likely a combination of both, the political landscape across Europe has changed. 

Despite endorsements from some notorious far-right individuals, the British government has rejected them and therefore is still relatively centre-right compared to some key European countries. Perhaps leaving the EU won’t be so bad for the UK after all. If it means European far-right politicians will have less of a say on laws in the UK then surely that can only be a positive thing.

Maybe this is the only silver lining when it comes to Brexit?

By Sharmeen Ziauddin

She is passionate about politics and faith and you can find her tweeting about these things @britpakgirl.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

7 Top tips to no-nonsense New Year job searching

1. Understand what your values are

A former British diplomat to Iraq for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office once said that in any career, there are three things we can dream of having:

  • A high salary
  • Flexible working
  • A job that is meaningful and/or interesting to you

There’s a catch though. He claimed that in most jobs, we can only prioritise two of the above goals at any one time. That doesn’t mean for certain you can’t have all three. But his advice poses a valuable starting point in the hunt for a job. Rank the above list of three things by importance. What is non-negotiable to you and what can you afford to compromise on? Build on these three key things by asking the following questions like:

  • What is my ideal salary in my next role?
  • Are there particular fields I want to pursue?
  • How many hours/days am I willing to work on my job in the week?
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Knowing your values helps you to know your worth, so you can pursue careers that will work for you. And with time, it’s also perfectly ok to re-evaluate your priorities. If your next job falls short of your expectations, it’s still a great chance for you to learn about your likes and dislikes.

2. Slide into those DMs

Not sure what a certain job or career might be like? Look out for people who in that industry and drop a personalised cold email, LinkedIn connect request or a Twitter DM to ask for advice.

Some jobs are not as glamourous as they’re made out to be and getting a real insight from the inside might be what you need. You’d be surprised at how helpful people can be and if you don’t hear back from them, don’t take it personally. There’s plenty of contacts out there to network with!

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3. Keep an excel sheet of deadlines

Once you have an idea of the types of jobs you want to apply for, organise your time. Create a table and include columns for the following:

  • Name of company
  • Materials required e.g. cover letter? CV?
  • Deadlines for application and interview stages
  • Any contacts?
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4. Don’t lose heart

The first application is the hardest but it’s a starting point to your future successes! Make sure you keep a copy of this and build upon it later for future applications.

5. Take care of your mental wellbeing

There will be rejections and your schedule can feel a little all over the place when you’re applying for jobs but make sure you take time out for yourself too, to stay productive.

6. Listen to feedback

Whether you do well or you don’t receive the outcome you hoped for, there’s always room to learn more about your strengths and the areas you can improve on. If there’s an opportunity to receive feedback, always request them to write it for you in an email. If the company tries to give you feedback over the phone, ask them to relay this in an email.

7. Enjoy the process!

The application process is as much of an opportunity for you to see if an organisation is a good fit for you as it is for them to see if you’re a good fit for them. If you’re reading this now, it’s because you have talent and skills to share – realise this is as much about you deciding where you want to share your value!

By Nimra Shahid

Nimra is an MA Interactive Journalism trainee, interested in data and social media habits (in the least creepiest way). She love’s listening to a good podcast and drinking a good cup of chai. You can find on her on Twitter @nimrashahid_

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Giving up our independence: living life with vulnerability yet strength.

Have you decided that if you want the job done you had better do it yourself? Does this leave you feeling like you’re trying to juggle life by yourself? Do you only feel connected when you read slogans telling you ‘you can make it on your own’? Are you strong and independent and secretly disconnected and lonely? 

Here in the West we tell ourselves that independence is a more admirable trait than interdependence and that we can achieve our destinies on our own. We don’t have the patience to teach people how we like it done and yet we must have things the way we like them. We assume people around us are too busy to listen anyway and that we couldn’t possibly burden them with our problems or our conundrums. Managing careers, families, body image and shiny smiles whilst being upbeat and brimming with confidence all by ourselves can lead to a frustrating and lonely existence.

In the words of John Donne 

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”

So what does that really mean?

It means that human beings need connection and intimacy. That we are not designed to exist being unknown and that we can use one another as resources to help one another grow. Despite the reveries of independence, research demonstrates that human beings are heavily influenced by and dependent upon positive social interactions. Our childhood experiences govern the quality of our future relationships and our ongoing exchanges shape our personalities. So despite the ‘make it on our own’ slogans we need meaningful positive interactions that feed our need for connection and intimacy and they are vital to our lives and well-being. 

Having people around you is not the same as being known by people around you and to be known we have to share of ourselves. Often we are stopped from opening up. It might leave us feeling vulnerable being fully known by someone else. However, we need to take comfort in the fact that we are all pretty much the same, we all have the same need to be heard and regarded. We are all struggling with something we need help with, joyous about something else and everyone has the same need to feel good about who they are. We can become resources for one another and support one another’s lives and choices.  

If being open, vulnerable and interdependent is synonymous with being hurt then consider what led to that conditioning. Consider also that who you are now is different and that you have a choice about who you would like to create meaningful connections with. Effective ways of doing this are to firstly decide that you would like to be close to other people and have them as a resource in your life and to be a resource in theirs. Give up controlling the outcomes of your interactions and enjoy the journey. Make authenticity a priority and share openly of yourself and listen intently to the person sharing with you. Allow them to sponsor your life and your growth and do the same for them.

Steven Covey, in his magisterial work, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ talks about an individual’s journey from dependence, to independence through to the highest realm – interdependence. Covey goes further to say that it is only with true interdependence that humans achieve their highest goals and ambitions. Interdependence relies upon us fulfilling the needs of others and, in turn, opening ourselves up enough to have our needs met by others. 

So before we decide to open ourselves up and be vulnerable it is useful to think about how and where we can do that and most importantly who with. 

Let us use this table to do that – 

Resources I have How they contribute to my life 

How can I access them When I will do that  

  1. List all the people who you would consider your resources, those who make you feel good when you engage with them. They might be partners, family members, friends, colleagues.
  2. Identify how each of them contribute to your life in a positive way. Really think about this task as it might not be in ways that you expect so be really honest. 
  3. Now consider if there are any obstacles to you accessing them and if so what they might be and how you will overcome them i.e. my partner is busy at work so to connect I will invite him/her on a date where we can talk. 
  4. To give yourself the best chance of it happening set a clear date in your mind when you will aim to do that. 

So take off the armour and open up the channels for meaningful connections, use and be used by others as a resource to love and be loved, support and be supported and to nurture and be nourished. No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

By Aamna Khokhar

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Interview with Activist and Chaplain, Zahrah Awaleh

To commemorate Black History Month we have interviewed activist and Hospital Chaplain Zahrah Awaleh. You can vote for your favourite Black Briton here and learn about others. For BHM events across the country you can go to

Thank you so much for taking part in this interview as part of Black History Month. First of all tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in Scunthorpe, South Humberside, in 1974 and grew up there till I was 12. My father came to the UK in the 1950s as a Commonwealth citizen, since Somaliland was a British Protectorate till 1960, to find work and responded to the call inviting subjects of the empire to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. My father, Ali Noor Awaleh, worked in the British Steel Corporation for decades, and I still see remnants of British Steel everywhere. For example, where I live in east London the street lamps are made in Scunthorpe as they have the name of the then owner, Corus, on them. That’s my dad, right there, and although he’s no longer with us, I feel his presence in so many ways, and that one was one I recently discovered and delighted me.

I went to secondary school in Sheffield, where there is a thriving Somali community right to this day. When I lived there in ‘86-’90 I was amongst the old seamen families from Somaliland, where my parents come from. Coming from a small steel town where racism was the norm and ethnic minorities were a tiny minority and moving to Sheffield  which had older established minority communities such as Yemenis, Somalis, Pakistanis, and Afro Caribbeans felt like I had joined society, I belonged in England and I became proud of my identity as a black child, a Somali, a child of diaspora, and a British citizen. I learned who I was, and how I got here and the Somali community and its centre on the Wicker was crucial to that formation. I felt I belonged to a distinct Somali community, having no blood family living in the UK, and I belonged or at least had a right to belong to British society.

“It’s not the job of minorities to “teach” white society how to be fairer and more equal, they know how to do it, they just need to act. “

What does Black History Month mean to you?

BHM is an opportunity to remind the wider British society how people of African and Afro Caribbean origin got here and the history of empire. We can all learn what they have contributed to British society in spite of all the various obstacles of discrimination, and what structural discrimination and injustices they still endure because of systemic white privilege and white supremacy. Society is not built for minorities to succeed or receive fair treatment, and that is a process of inquiry to ask why, and how is white society going to fix this or change it to make it fairer. It’s not the job of minorities to “teach” white society how to be fairer and more equal, they know how to do it, they just need to act. 

As a Black Muslim British woman, what identities do you hold on to?

I am a woman and love being a woman, despite the sexism I have faced within family, community and society. However, I can’t separate my identities and neither can anyone else, so I’m Woman, Black African, Muslim, British and Somali and foremost I am a Black African Woman because I relate to their experiences the most because we share them. The person that had the most profound influence on me after the Prophet Muhammad as I was growing up was Malcolm X. He articulated in precise and intelligent language the horror of white supremacy and how to question and challenge it as a Black person and relate it to the wider white supremacy of empire, colonialism and how pan-African unity was one movement to tackle it along with other similar movements. He blew my mind at the age of 16 and opened my eyes to global anti-racism, and he did the same for millions of others of African and other descent.   

Have you experienced any racism or Islamophobia growing up or in your adult life?

I grew up in a working class steel town where most people were decent I would say, but I lived with daily experiences of racism and micro-aggressions due to the culture and system of white supremacy in British society. I rarely experience Islamophobia now I think anti-black racism is more prevalent in my life and in the lives of my children from a predominately south Asian Muslim population where we live in east London. The school children that my children make friends with have been raised to see them as inferior, all of them, because it was the process of colonialism and white supremacy in India that brainwashed their ancestors and that has lasted till this day. That doesn’t mean that we should just accept it, on the contrary it is our duty as humane people and Muslims to speak out and stand up to challenge and tackle it. I discussed this with my children’s school and they are taking measures to address racism and anti-blackness within school and in wider society. I must add that within Somali communities we are also brainwashed by colonialism and empire, so I have experienced tribalism, colourism and racism within my family and community and stood up to it. 

You like to write, what do you write about?

I write about what interests me and have discussions about it on Facebook and love the way it brings people together to deconstruct issues and understand them from different perspectives. 

You’re a hospital chaplain, how did that come about?

I worked in youth careers guidance for 10 years and I decided to work more closely with Muslim communities again and support patients, helping to reduce health inequalities in the acute hospital setting. My sister had died recently, and I wanted to do something relevant to provide spiritual care to all patients, whatever faith or belief they had. I had been teaching yoga in the community too, and I hoped to bring it into my role as a chaplain, so when I approached Macmillan Cancer Centre at UCLH where  I worked and they welcomed me to teach, that was such an honour and responsibility and I loved it and learnt so much.

How did you get into Yoga and how does it help people with illnesses?

I have always loved sport and movement and I love to dance, so when I was introduced to yoga at university it just felt right. I still have contact with that first teacher and she is a close friend and mentor of mine. Yoga is a way to integrate the mind and body and rebalance the inner and outer of what we experience. We are so busy and preoccupied with the senses that we use for the external world, we forget about our inner world of emotion, sensations and even our physicality so our bodies suffer and we may become sick. Yoga can help prevent the build up towards illness by making us aware of what feels right and wrong, so we take action if necessary, including going to the GP and having specialist care when needed and using complementary therapies. We do not have to just get on with life in pain and suffer. Yoga can also be a therapeutic tool to cope with illness and life limiting conditions, reduce pain and increase mobility, and re-educate us about better use and integration (i.e. literally ‘integrity’) of our bodies and minds over our lifetimes to feel more human and whole.

“I hustle, I don’t juggle. Women have been hustling, i.e. using intelligent organisational skills and prioritising their time for their families and work, since time.”

How do you juggle motherhood, work and all the other projects you’re involved in?

I hustle, I don’t juggle. Women have been hustling, i.e. using intelligent organisational skills and prioritising their time for their families and work, since time. I allocate, I’m not a martyr and I don’t want to die an early death, actual or spiritual, so I ask for help and assistance when I need it. This is key, because often women think they need to do it all themselves, when they don’t, because men certainly don’t and have no issues with that so why should we?

Thank you so much to Zahrah for answering our questions in such an insightful and personal way. Interview by Sharmeen Ziauddin.She is passionate about politics and faith and you can find her tweeting about these things @britpakgirl.

Image credit: Elainea Emmott

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

The BBC’s “Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade” doc Reveals Some Ugly Truths

 “Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves.”


Last week, the BBC released a documentary called “Undercover with the Clerics – Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade”. The documentary highlighted that some clerics in Iraq are selling young girls for mutah, or temporary marriage, or as the documentary refers to them, pleasure marriages.

In harrowing detail, the film highlights that the cover of mutah is being used to sexually exploit women and rape young girls, in some cases, allowing men to rape children as young as 12. It is important that it is made absolutely clear that this is rape, as children are not able to give consent.

Given that the documentary is associated with cities that are home to some of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines (including Kāẓimiyyah and Karbala), the documentary has been accused of stoking sectarianism, promoting Islamophobia and presenting a biased view, particularly given that the timing of documentary is close to Arbaeen (the observance of 40 days after the day of Ashura).

After watching the film, although some aspects of the film were problematic, overall the documentary was well-balanced, providing the view of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (who unreservedly condemned these practices). This post looks at some of criticisms of the documentary, and why these criticisms are minor compared to the bigger, uglier truths depicted in this film.

If you love the Holy Prophet (SAW), and his Holy Household, then you must also love truth, and therefore, we need to recognise some of the facts that were presented in the BBC film, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Our discomfort at seeing such crimes is secondary to the pain and suffering of vulnerable women, who are raped, sometimes by men old enough to be their fathers, on a daily basis.

This is happening and we cannot turn a blind eye. It is not the first time that the western media has covered the issue of the exploitation of short-term marriages. In 2006, NPR’s Anne Garrels’ interview highlighted the rising popularity of temporary marriage after the fall of Saddam.

One of the criticisms of the film relates to the use of the phrase “pleasure marriage” as being inaccurate and sensationalist. This is a fair criticism, since the word “mutah” is more accurately defined as temporary marriage. Mutah is a point of contention among Muslims, and is a controversial and poorly understood practice. It can be utilised appropriately but it is also open to abuse.

However, the film was talking about the abuse of temporary marriage for a very specific purpose, i.e. primarily for sex, and so in this case, “pleasure marriage” is a phrase that encompasses the purpose of the men pursuing a temporary marriage for a distinct and specific purpose: for no strings attached sex in exchange for a price. In other words: prostitution. There is no other purpose than the pursuit of pleasure for the man.

In addition, such pleasure marriages violate the rules of mutah where there must be a two-month waiting period after the marriage expires.

Let’s make it clear that this practice as shown in the film is an abuse of religion and certainly does not reflect the beliefs of the majority.

A second criticism is that the film asserts that places of Shia pilgrimage are “dens of prostitution”. We don’t get an idea of exactly how widespread these cases of abuse are across Karbala or Kāẓimiyyah, but the film does state that many places around the shrines facilitate mutah marriage.

This takes nothing away from the sanctity of the pilgrimage itself. It is obviously not the reason why millions of pilgrims flock to the holy sites, year after year.

The key point is that it is happening, whether we like it or not, whether we choose to accept it or not. It does not need to be widespread to recognise it as an injustice.

In addition, it is crucial to understand that this abuse is not happening in the shrines themselves, but rather in the cities that are associated these shrines. And while Karbala of course resonates with Shia Muslims especially, as the final resting place of Imam Husayn ibn Ali (AS), the city itself is a city like any other city in the world, with normal people, and unfortunately, sinners, like in every other place in the world.

We cannot deny the reality of these crimes simply because they are happening in Karbala, a revered and holy place for Shia Muslims. Karbala holds a special place in the hearts of those who love Imam Husayn (AS), as a place where people go to seek truth, spirituality and nearness to Allah, and to pay their respects to the King of Martyrs.

However, it is also a city of abject poverty, widows, and orphans who have suffered in the aftermath of the Iraq war. And with poverty, comes desperation. It’s a toxic environment of desperation and poverty that allows sexual predators to exploit vulnerable women.

This injustice happens everywhere in the world where you have poverty and war. The bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure and fifteen years of war left people (especially women without a support structure) no option, but to resort to any means possible to survive.

It is argued that the so-called clerics shown in the documentary are fakes and charlatans, and have no standing in the Shia world. While this may be true, it is important to consider this from the point of view of the victims shown in the film. Potentially, anybody can claim to study at a hawza, or at an Islamic University and declare themselves an expert on Shia theology.

We see this clearly in the world of social media. The so-called “Imam of Peace” is neither an Imam, and arguably, nor does he stand up for peace. According to independent journalist, CJ Werleman, he’s nothing but a fake. He has also been denounced globally by many Muslims.

While it may be true that Sayyid Raad (shown in the film) may be nothing more than a pimp, from the point of view of women on the ground (and the men seeking such marriages), he is someone who claims to be qualified to perform the rites and rituals associated with temporary marriage. Women approach these kinds of clerics for help and charity, and some are advised to engage in temporary marriage as a solution.

The film could have made it clearer that the clerics were mutah brokers, although at least one of the men featured in the documentary was dressed in traditional religious garb. The film could have done a better job of getting commentary from more authoritative sources, although it was made clear that these men are abusing the religion. In no way were the men associated with the entire religion.

Of course, prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and it happens everywhere, but the key difference is that in Iraq, the men are falsely claiming abuse to have been made halal and religiously sanctioned. The film included a statement from “Ali” (who regularly uses pleasure marriages for sex): “This is not about religion, it is about money.”

In the majority of these cases, religion has been used as a tool for sexual grooming. Initially, the women are made feel that entering into a temporary marriage is a legitimate (and “halal”) way to alleviate poverty. It is only when they enter this dark world of exploitation that they find themselves trapped with no way out. It’s the shame that keeps them quiet; their groomers use the tactic of fear to keep them from telling anyone.

The documentary provides balance in three ways:

  • It makes clear that these so-called clerics are violating both Islamic and Iraq’s legal laws. In reality, the age of consent (or marriageable age) in Iraq is 15.
  • The clerics are offered a right of reply via telephone. The unabashed lying shown on camera makes it clear that these frauds have no moral standards and certainly no Islamic credentials.
  • Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani is approached and the respected scholar makes it clear to condemn this practice. It isn’t covered up, nor does the Ayatollah make excuses for these crimes.

I do not see the film as an attack on Shi’ism, nor is it anything to do with the holy pilgrimage itself. The power of Arbaeen, and the call of the prominent personalities is so great, that nothing will stop this movement. It is certainly true that the BBC could do more to cover Arbaeen, but I do not understand why we would expect the BBC to promote Shia beliefs. That said, in 2004, the BBC covered the pilgrimage to Karbala that many Muslims from the West undertake during Arbaeen, in their documentary ‘2004 Karbala: City of Martyrs’. In addition, this film isn’t about Shi’ism itself; it is about the topic of exploitative criminal behaviour by a minority.

It is quite possible to be nuanced enough to understand that sexual exploitation in Iraq is a reality, while also recognising that the BBC could do more to cover Arbaeen, which is one of the world’s largest peaceful gatherings. That being said, these critiques of the documentary do not reduce the authenticity of the narrative.

It is clear that so-called clerics (or perhaps more accurately, mutah brokers) are enabling bad men who take advantage of short-term marriages for their own sexual perversions.

There will be many who will use this documentary to make an attack on Shia beliefs, but that should not prevent anyone from exposing the practices shown on camera. Because this isn’t about Shi’ism, and it certainly isn’t about Islamophobia. It is about the victims, and this is happening everywhere.

Ultimately, as Ayatollah Sistani said in the film, it’s happening (and notably, the Grand Ayatollah did not deny this as a reality) because the police are not doing their jobs, and this is because women are not empowered enough to speak out. How can anything be done unless we recognise that this is happening? We need to stop putting our heads in the sand and wake up to reality.

We have seen this all over the world through the MeToo movement. By no means are sexual crimes or exploitation restricted to religious groups or the Shia community. It is happening in Hollywood. It is happening in mosques. It is happening in churches. It is happening in Hajj. And yes, it has happened historically at the BBC. This is not about particular groups of people. Sexual exploitation is about power.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves that just because someone wears religious garb or prays five times a day or “acts religious”, that such things are not possible.

Last year, female pilgrims spoke out about sexual harassment at hajj, which started the #MosqueMeToo hash tag on Twitter. Women used the platform to talk about their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault while they were at pilgrimage in Mecca. It is still taboo to talk about sexual harassment within the Muslim community, but things are slowly changing.

Just last week, GBBO’s Nadiya Hussain bravely revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child. Nothing will change unless women have a voice to talk about their own experiences.

This documentary is one part of the beginning of that journey, and the target of people’s outrage should not be the BBC. Rather, the focus should be on the criminals shown in the film who have the audacity to try to legitimise such heinous crimes in the holiest cities in the world in the name of Shi’ism.

Don’t be outraged that the truth has been revealed; be outraged that it is happening in the first place.

The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Women As Problem Solvers In The Refugee Crisis

We are extremely fortunate to platform a three part series focusing on ‘Women in the Refugee Crisis’ by Tazeen Ahmad the founder of  Humanity’s Heart , an organisation that was born following a volunteering trip by a small group of people to Calais (The Jungle) in June 2016. Travelling through Calais, Lebanon and Greece, Humanity’s Heart witnesses and shares the experiences of refugees, volunteers, spiritual leaders, politicians and local citizens in what is the biggest challenge the world has faced for over 60 yearsThe third and final part in the series reflects on how women create change and become problem solvers, through a series of short films.

Extraordinary women doing extraordinary things

Meet some of the extraordinary women helping solve the problems in the refugee crisis: 

In Lebanon (one of the country’s that has hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees), the refugee situation has brought women together in the capacity of problem solvers to the crisis

Hala Fadel Chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab and pioneer of the Innovate for Refugee competition has led teams over the last 3 years to help come up with solutions to the two million and growing numbers of Syrian refugees entering into Lebanon. 

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Farah Shams (Corporate Engagement Manager at MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab) shares:

“In my opinion women are at the forefront of impactful initiatives targeting the displaced community not only in Lebanon. Over 3 editions of “Innovate for Refugees” we’ve seen a constant 50% female participation, and 9 out of 12 social ventures that aim to alleviate the challenges faced by refugees that received funding from the program are female led.” 

Today, MITEF team has 11 females out of a team of 14. On the technology solution side as well, the female participation in IFR in general is at 50% and 9 of our 12 winners are female-led.  

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The Innovate for Refugee competition demonstrates beautifully how women are taking charge of the solutions to their own problems, bringing forward a rush of creativity and entrepreneurialism. 

Click the link to find out how a toilet can improve the lives of Refugees:

Another woman leading on the ground in the crisis is award-winning Jordanian-Canadian architect Abeer Seikaly. Facing the difficulty of finding basic shelter and a home to live in, she was inspired to come up with a solution to help transform the lives of refugees.

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Named ‘Weaving a Home’, this design uses a unique structural fabric composed of high-strength plastic tubing molded into sine-wave curves that can expand and enclose during different weather conditions, and also be broken down to allow an ease in mobility and transport.

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Aside from that, the tent can also collect rainwater and provide basic sanitation like showering, as the rainwater is collected from the top of the tent and and filters down the sides to storage pockets.

Leading On The Ground 

And it’s the volunteers I met such as Lisa Cambell for Do-your Part whose organisation, co-ordination and service benefit thousands of people who found themselves in refugee camps in Greece. 

Through treating each person with dignity, respect and humanity she leads by example, showing us how it should be done. 

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Her recent TedX Talk invites us to rethink our approach to this social issue proving that we care. 

And it’s women like Lisa and other volunteers who are helping us rethink the meaning behind the word “refugee”.

Where some Muslim countries have not taken in many refugees, it’s Saudi Arabian volunteer women like Madina Olomi who are making a difference. Her translation skills helping refugees and ease some of their frustrations in communicating with their host communities. 

These women weave the red thread of humanity drawing on their own past experiences and reminding us with “What if this was us? How would we like to be treated?”

For some of these women, they need to have courage as they risk being ostracised for turning up to help refugees.

Through turning up despite the worries and media perceptions, they are shining light on breaking down misconceptions when “meeting the other”.

Getting Education To The Future Generation

In Lebanon, women such as Suha Tutunji Acadamic Program Director for Jusoor Syria   realise the importance for Syrian children to keep up their education so that they are not a Lost Generation and especially for the refugee girls to receive their education. 

The difference, women like Suha and Asma Rasamny  from Malaak-Fills-the-Gaps with her colleague Joyce Rizk are making cannot be underestimated. 

Our film “Lost Generation” and Education film captures the importance of their work.

Last year Syrian refugee and cancer patient Hossamadeen died and shared with us his gratitude to women like Asma and Joyce. 

May the dedication, compassion and love of the women turning up to help and their meeting of those women who have had to leave their homes due to wars and terror and yet demonstrate courage, nobility and resilience bring more Light into this world. 

By Tazeen Ahmad

Tazeen is founder and producer of Humanity’s Heart. She is a daughter of a migrant, a British Citizen, a mother of two and a believer in the power of humanity. In June 2016, she traveled to Calais. The trip confirmed for her that we have far more in common than which divides us.

It also raised in her a deep curiosity about ‘what motivates others to turn up and serve?’. And ‘what spiritual lessons to humanity are emerging in the largest crisis since WWII?’ It was at that moment, she realised her background in broadcast journalism and finance, fundraising and philanthropy could be put to use. So humanity’s heart was born. She will be running a “How to make a documentary film workshop in June here is the link for the documentary workshop

Videos and images are the copyright of Humanity’s Heart  follow them on Twitter

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

30th January 2020
by She Speaks We Hear

Interview with Hanan Issa Welsh-Iraqi poet and writer.

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I was excited and honoured to be able to interview Hanan Issa an upcoming and talented poet and writer, from Wales, as I had seen her stellar performance in the Hijabi Monologues. We have been following her for a while on Instagram and I just knew we had to interview her once she announced the publication of her upcoming book.

Hanan is a Welsh-Iraqi poet and writer.  She has been featured on both ITV Wales and BBC Radio Wales and worked in partnership with National Museum Wales, Artes Mundi, Warwick university, Swansea Fringe, StAnza festival, Wales Arts International and Seren Books. Her work has been published in Banat Collective, Hedgehog Press, Wales Arts Review, Sukoon mag, Lumin Journal, Poetry Wales, Parthian, Y Stamp, sister-hood magazine and  Her winning monologue was featured at Bush Theatre’s Hijabi Monologues. She is the co-founder of Wales’ first BAME open mic series ‘Where I’m Coming From’. She was a 2018-2019 Hay Festival Writer at Work. Her debut poetry pamphlet ‘My Body Can House Two Hearts’ will be published by BurningEye Books in October 2019.

SSWH: Congratulations on your upcoming publication of your book a poetry collection! What was the motivation for you to publish your collection?

Hanan: Thank you Akeela. I had been working on this group of poems for some time when I saw that Burning Eye were holding a competition. My motto for last year was ‘why not?’ and so I entered and won alhamdulilah.

The roots of this pamphlet’s title (My Body Can House Two Hearts) came from two ideas that are very important to me: the power of women and raising up others along with yourself. The notion that a woman’s body is full of enough strength and power to harness ‘two hearts’ is based on a verse in the Quran. At the same time, as I was re-reading Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, I was struck by how much the words of a self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet’ resonated with my interpretation of this verse. She talks a lot about how women have this enormous capacity to love. She anchors this love, that isn’t selfless or sacrificial, in the practice of interdependence. Audre Lorde also encourages the rejection of what she argues is an inherently patriarchal behaviour: to see ‘difference’ as something we should fear or compete with. The concept of ‘two hearts’ also refers to how, as someone of mixed heritage, you tend to have split or multiple loyalties and identities which is very much a theme of the pamphlet as well.   

SSWH: Have you always been a writer?

Hanan: It embarrasses me to say that despite having always written, even since I was little, I couldn’t accept the title of ‘writer’. I remember meeting someone for the first time who asked me: ‘who are you?’, ‘what do you do?’ There was no pause between the two questions as if they were entirely linked. At the time I was working in a charity for Deaf and hard of hearing people. Although I enjoyed my work, something inside me whispered ‘but that is not who you are.’  I don’t know if being Muslim, being half-Arab, or being working class contributed to me not allowing myself to accept ‘writer’ as an identity but I think they all played a part.  It felt indulgent to wholly claim something that I enjoyed so much without any apparent benefit to others. Anyway about 3 years ago I dumped all of that baggage and started calling myself a writer without the self-deprecating cringe-face.  In January this year I quit my day job to focus on writing full-time. It’s been a scary 9 months but I am learning so much about myself from having taken this leap.  

SSWH: Please tell us more about yourself!

Hanan: I live with my partner Abdurrashid, my son Yousuf and our cat Trico and, apart from writing, I love beaches, trees, good food, good coffee and the occasional Flamenco class.

SSWH: Why poetry?

Hanan: Poetry is language at its finest, its shiniest, its most polished. Most poets will tell you they agonise over a word, a comma, how a line looks on the page. Thomas Gray said ‘poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn’. Then there’s spoken word poetry – I started off writing angsty, cathartic pieces that helped me make sense or navigate the changing world. The diversity in what constitutes poetry today is so so exciting- basically there is something for everyone!

SSWH: Could you tell us about some of the topics and issues your poetry covers? 

Hanan: I’ll admit I’m a little wary about this question. I used to feel compelled to write about certain topics or issues. Then I realised that, for me personally, this was that feeling of working for ‘the greater good’, to justify my writing ‘indulgence’, just manifesting in a different way.  So I stopped writing poems about hijab etc and started writing about anything and everything that took my fancy. So in this pamphlet I have some pieces that can be read as overtly political such as ‘Better version of bravery’ that circles around the MeToo movement and our individual responsibility to act. I also have a piece called ‘Ten Men’ that touches on colonialism and colourism in my own family history. But than I have pieces that are more interested in how global history overlaps such as ‘Offa’s Coin’ or how we deny/ remake our own history ‘Austrian Hands’. And then I have a poem that’s just about watching my son eat strawberries! 

SSWH: Doyour poems use a mixture of Arabic and Welsh ?

Hanan: There’s a sprinkling of both Arabic and Welsh throughout and that’s because I grew up with a sprinkling of Arabic and Welsh in my day to day life. I can’t say that I am tri-lingual, or even bilingual really, but both languages mean a lot to me and how I ground myself as a person.

SSWH: What would be your advice to anyone thinking about publishing a book, especially poetry? What were the biggest challenges?

Hanan: I would say its really important to feel passionate about the work you want to get published. If you don’t feel that strongly invested, why should a publisher? Also you will be spending a lot of time with this work – developing, editing etc so best to be something you really love!

If you don’t already have Twitter, make an account and start following lots of publishers and agents (create a list if it helps). Most publication call outs are promoted via Twitter, plus its a good way to see if your work would fit with a particular publisher by seeing other things they publish. 

Also, find a writing group, a writer friend/ mentor who will give you honest, critical feedback on your work. No one wants to be the person on X Factor who sounds like a strangled cat but when they get rejected says ‘but my friends all tell me i’m great!’ 

The challenge I mentioned above, of accepting myself as a writer, was very difficult. So much emphasis and pressure is placed on you to work for the betterment of the ummah, for others and I think as women we self-deprecate even more so. And writing is, by definition, a solitary practise.  Letting go of the idea that I was placed here with the sole purpose to nurture/ coddle/ ameliorate others was deeply empowering. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to help others. Nor does it mean I’m ignoring the power of ‘having a mic’. It just means I’m not afraid of societal disapproval or of having the appearance of working for my own career progression.

SSWH: Finally please tell us who or what inspires you?

Too many writers to mention! I’ve talked about Audre Lorde but also Toni Morrison. If I ever feel like I’m losing direction I turn to their work for guidance. Poetry by Zeina Hashem Beck or Terrence Hayes is almost always on my desk or in my bag, butalso Carol Ann Duffy, Derek Walcott and I had a real ‘how have I only just discovered you’ moment with Tarfia Faizullah recently! Some of the greats like Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, Chinua Achebe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Albert Camus, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood,, Khalil Gibran, Malorie Blackman and more recently Nnedi Okorafor, Guy Gunaratne and Max Porter. 

Thank you so much to Hanan for answering our questions in such an insightful and personal way. We wish her all the best with the launch of her poetry collection, which you can purchase either from Burning Eye or from Waterstones. Interview by Akeela Ahmed MBE (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)