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.