Friday, 21 December 2012

India is the worst place to be born a girl

India is the worst place to be born a girl.

So begins chapter four of my new as yet untitled and unpublished novel. It is the voice of my sixteen year old protagonist who speaks to the reader about the horrors experienced by many Indian girls. 

Here’s an unedited paragraph:
I mean, really, to be the biggest democracy in the world and yet we are lumped with Saudi Arabia where women can’t leave their homes unaccompanied or drive, Afghanistan where the Taliban ...well ... do we really need to go there, and war torn Congo which is the rape capital of the world. Hard to believe I know  but where else in the world are girls sold off to settle a debt, engaged as toddlers and married off before reaching puberty , burned alive for non payment of dowries and sexually harassed every single day  ... and let’s not forget the girls who were not even allowed to be born. There are millions of them, aborted for being an xx chromosome rather than an xy.

I’ve been researching the treatment of women in the world’s biggest democracy. The picture is not pretty. It is so bad in fact that India was voted the worse place to be born a girl in a poll of G20 countries in 2012. The poll no doubt irritated a few Indians but hardly made any headlines. A few months on and the news story splashing globally is the gang rape of a 23 year old paramedical student on a moving Delhi bus on Sunday night (16 dec). 

Here’s some background: After watching a film the girl and her 27 year old male friend  boarded a private bus at night outside a well-known city mall. Six men on the bus raped the girl and beat up her friend before throwing them both out onto the road. The girl is in intensive care with injuries so severe that she has had to have her intestines removed.

Scan the world section on news websites and we see an India in uproar. Women activists are demonstrating on streets, the President of the ruling Congress party Sonia Ghandi has visited the victim and there are public calls for the death penalty to be given to the accused. Amidst all this is the raging debate about why the rape occurred in the first place. Shockingly blame is being placed left, right and centre but not directly at the rapists. To list a few: Bollywood with its sexy dance numbers is ‘creating’ sexual urges in men, Indian women are aping western clothing and therefore inviting men’s advances and the most pathetic of excuses - young men marginalised by the globalisation of India who need to vent their frustration at the successful Indian woman. 

Somehow the debate has become all about how women ‘tempt’  or ‘cause’ the men to commit rape as though the latter are animals with no control over their sexual urges. I won’t deny that the rapists demonstrated animalistic behaviour, but I completely reject the idea that they had no choice in the matter. They could have chosen not to rape the woman but they did. 


They did it because India’s patriarchal society views its women as second class citizens and not equal human beings. Sons are placed on pedestals whilst daughters are seen as burdens and commodities. If I need to convince you of this then please re-read the paragraph from my book above. 

The Delhi bus rape was not a sex crime. It was a gender crime. It was about the power and control that the privileged male feels he is entitled to. It had nothing to do with sexual urges or mental images of a Bollywood heroine sashaying to the camera.

Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the girl was violated with an iron rod. Where is the eroticism in that level of violence?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Published Writer of the Year 2012

Very pleased to have received the award for Published Writer of the Year at the 2012 Brit Writers Awards in London on the 1st of December for Secrets of the Henna Girl.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

An Indian trip

Brr! Britain feels cold.
I’ve just returned from a gloriously hot India where I was promoting Secrets of the Henna Girl. Thank you to Penguin India for organising the book signings across Mumbai.

 At the Kitab Khana bookshop at Flora Fountain in Mumbai.
Gorgeous old world style decor inside. Would recommend all book lovers to visit if ever in Mumbai.

In a rickshaw in Bandra, Mumbai.
I also spent time conducting research for my new book. 
My as yet untitled novel is part set in Mumbai and part set in London. My main character resides in an area which much of the world would call a ‘slum’ but which its residents actually call a ‘township’ in the heart of Mumbai.
Dharavi is the place. Here are some pics that I took on my visit. 

A regular home in Dharavi

No room to sit inside the 6 by 4 home
The kitchen inside

A queue for kerosene fuel

Dharavi mosque...most residents are Muslim

 This is Laxmi who works for the Acorn Foundation. She is a single mother who lives in a 6 by 4 space which she calls home. Her daughter attends the local government school and hope to become a doctor one day. One of the most surprising discoveries of my visit was the aspirations held by the residents. Despite their humble origins, the people I met were dreaming and working for a better life. 

Thank you to Vinod Shetty for answering all my questions and helping me make sense of the contradiction that is Dharavi. 

Vinod leads a project called Acorn Foundation which encourages young slum kids who work as ragpickers to get involved in activities like football, art and music, and then veer them towards education. If you’d like to make a donation to encourage slum children to read and write, see their website:

A library provided by Acorn Foundation

Slum kids expressing themselves through art

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mentoring on the London Eye

The EDF London Eye, the Egyptian pyramids, the Empire State Building and other sites around the world were lit up in pink on October 11th 2012, to celebrate the first ever International Day of the Girl.
One in three girls around the world is denied an education by poverty, discrimination and violence. With education and the right support, girls can choose their own future and be a force for change. 

As I made my way to the London Eye early on Thursday morning to take part in a mentoring session with young school girls, I couldn't help thinking of Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen year old girl shot two days earlier for wanting an education in Pakistan. I pray she recovers soon.

Here I am marking the day with the wonderful children's charity Plan UK, on the London Eye and at the Southbank.

In a pod on the London Eye with girls from a London school and some very impressive women from the world of TV, radio and publishing.

Sarah Brown talking about the difference that education can make to a girl's life chances.

with the lovely Fiona Phillips, TV presenter and Plan UK ambassador.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Book festivals

A good day -  have spent the whole day preparing for three book festivals next week.

Monday - Wimbledon Book Festival
Tuesdsay - Ilkley Book Festival
Friday - South Asian Lit Festival

Oh and I found out that Secrets of the Henna Girl has been shortlisted at the North East Teen Book Award.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Finalist at Brit Writers Awards 2012

Oh wow. Just found out that I have been shortlisted as a finalist in the Published Writer of the Year category in the Brit Writers Awards 2012.
Read about it here:

International Day of the Girl

I’m looking forward to next week. 
The 11th of October will see the first ever International Day of the Girl, as declared by the United Nations. It’s a day to spread the word that the power of investing in girls’ education is extraordinary. Educating girls is a vital strategy for helping to end poverty and supporting girls to realise their potential and claim their rights.
I’ll be marking the day with Plan UK in association with the Southbank. They’ve organised a wonderful event called ‘WOW Girls – International Day of the Girl’ which will be launched at the London Eye and will host over 200 UK schoolgirls. I’m honoured to be one of the mentors on the day.  
Read about it here:

I’ve participated in Plan UK’s events before. Earlier this year I joined the girls from South Hampstead School to walk 10k to raise money for girls. Read about it here:

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Forced Marriages in the USA

I’ve just got back from a fab trip to the USA this week. It began in Washington DC where I attended the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) annual convention. It was a wonderful gathering of American Muslims and I was part of the Islamic Writers Alliance stall to promote my Zahra books and Secrets of the Henna Girl.
Here’s a pic with Junaid Jamshed, Pakistani nasheed superstar. 

The trip ended with two days in Delaware where I was invited as guest speaker to an Eid brunch by the Zakat Foundation ( on the issue of forced marriages. The following is my speech on the practice which is on the rise in the USA.

As salaam alaikum
Thank you for that very generous introduction and for the invitation to speak to you all today. Sister Nayma and Brother Murat kindly asked me to talk about my new book ‘Secrets of the Henna Girl’ and the issue of forced marriage. 

‘Secrets of the Henna Girl’ was launched earlier this year on International Women’s Day at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. It’s a story about a young sixteen year old girl who is informed by her parents that she is expected to marry a cousin who is eight years older. The novel is part set in England and part set in Pakistan, and highlights that it is culture and not religion which encourages this practise.

A friend of mine who is a prosecutor in the UK describes forced marriage as a tsunami, an event that brings an aftermath of marital rape, domestic abuse and even child protection issues because of the level of frustration and hostility within the marriage. 

I decided to write this story a while back and I wanted to share with you the reasons for it. In my previous career I worked in the Houses of Parliament. For those unfamiliar with UK politics, Parliament is where we make our laws. So I was working for a government minister about eight years ago and I came across a very small group of women who called themselves survivors of forced marriage. They were women who had been though traumatic experiences and who had found the strength to rebuild their lives. These women had also found the courage to speak up against forced marriages and campaign for better protection for other young girls who were potential victims. They were speaking to politicians about this injustice and revealing really to mainstream society that this was happening in a western country in the 21st century.
The reaction to these women?

It was mixed. 

The feminists and human rights minded politicians offered their support. They argued that there needed to be better awareness of the issue in support services like social work, the police and especially teachers. But eight or nine years ago there were plenty of mainstream politicians who did not offer their support because they were either of the view that ‘this is a minority community’s culture and we mustn’t interfere’ or they feared that they would be accused of racism. 

Why the racism factor you may ask?

Quite simply there were plenty of people within the South Asian communities who wanted to issue of forced marriage to be swept under the carpet. They didn’t want to recognise the issue within the community, let alone see mainstream politicians debating how young girls could be better protected from being wed against their will. 

The campaigners against forced marriage faced open hostility but they did not weaken and continued to lobby for support and legislation. Their tireless campaigning bore fruit. In 2005 the UK government set up the ‘Forced Marriage Unit’ in London. It incorporates a Helpline and a rescue service by working with our embassies abroad. They also designed and distributed leaflets to schools to raise awareness of the help that can be offered to potential victims. 

Last year in 2011 the Forced Marriage Unit reported that they dealt with just under 1500 cases, the oldest victim was 87 and the youngest 5. 22% of the victims being pressured into marriages were male. At this point I should highlight that contrary to the general perception, forced marriages are not exclusive to people of South Asian descent. They occur in some African and Middle Eastern communities as well as Irish traveller groups. 

The Forced Marriage Unit provides an invaluable service. They can help access charity groups and lawyers who can request a Forced Marriage Order. This is a legal document which is very effective in the prevention of forced marriage. If one is taken out it basically means that the young person cannot be taken abroad and cannot be made to marry in the UK either. 

I believe the FMO has been highly effective in preventing forced marriages. 

Earlier this summer the UK government declared that it would criminalise forced marriages. There has been a mixed reaction to this. Some argue that this will drive forced marriages underground as young people will feel conflicted to ask for help. After all the people doing the forcing is their own parents and love and guilt play big parts what a person accepts for themselves even if they don’t want it. 

Personally I welcome the symbolism of the law. It is important for society’s condemnation to be clear. However I do believe that prevention is better than prosecution and that within our Ummah we should address this injustice openly. We should not sweep it under the carpet and more importantly our brothers need to raise their voices a whole lot more than they do. When Muslim men will condemn the practise and quote the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) hadith that ‘You must obtain the consent of the virgin before you marry her’, only then will we really see the practise abandoned. 

I’d like to end by applauding the work of the Zakat Foundation. We have many charities within our Ummah but very few really focus in the assistance of women who suffer different types of abuse. It’s not enough to say that our Prophet (peace be upon him) was the first feminist in history and that he preached about women’s rights 1400 years ago. Our actions have to support our dinner party conversations about how Islam protects women.
Thank you.