​My self (at 35)

*Edited version of a piece written for Mama Riot*

Where to begin, middle, or end?

The self is a jumbled chronology, with moments that bleed like watercolour on blotting paper. I read somewhere that it’s made up of what we choose to forget, remember, create, and tell. I like that explanation and the way it compartmentalizes time, qualities and thoughts, as if they were tangible, practical things. Some suggest that female identities are cyclical, rather than linear. Combine that with the way patriarchy imposes myriad roles on us and skews power dynamics and it’s clear that, whether by choice or social construct, we become many women during the course of our lives.

I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me. 

– Anais Nin

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve changed. People often talk about not feeling any different at 35, 50, 80, whatever, to when they were 20. But I do. I’m rewritten. Sometimes letting go and ‘forgetting’ who you were is an organic, autonomous thing. At other times it’s simply the least painful option. An act of self-preservation. My body, the births of my children and my motherhood journey, have all taught me that who I am isn’t static. Like a tide that washes up detritus some days and on others licks the shoreline clean, each morning brings a new me and a new perspective. In the words of Walt Whitman, there was never any more inception than there is now.

Art by India Evans

The night I started to write this a friend sent me photos from our uni days, about 15 years ago, and a ‘me’ that I’d switched off was suddenly illuminated. There I was: dishevelled, raucous and wanting it all. My stomach flips when I look at photos from that time. I’d been disowned but was incapable of acknowledging it, and so I was dealing with pain the way most 20-something’s do. It could have gone so horribly wrong. In some ways it did. But you fuck up and break and heal and move on.

Whether it’s to ‘save’ ourselves or those we love we’re all inclined to conceal our broken bits, our shitty choices, the moments that knock the wind from us and tear us apart, the parts of us we view as flaws. But they are as important in the construction of our self as our successes.

The Japanese art of Kintsugi highlights breaks in pottery with precious metals. Rather than concealing cracks it shines a light on them, celebrating their role in the objects identity. We could probably learn a lot from that process.

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

– Song of Myself, Walt Whitman.

It’s only recently that I began acknowledging the cracks in my past, mostly because a) talking about them totally fucks off the people I love and b) I’m missing chunks of my life – it’s a running joke how bad my memory is. But then motherhood worked its voodoo and so many of the memories came flooding back. I wasn’t prepared for that part of becoming a mother. No one told me that bringing children into the world would mean my own rebirth. I’ve had 2 children, so that’s 2 rebirths. The first was gentle and lured me into a false sense of security. There was a new rawness to me and I began questioning my past, but only tentatively. I was still choosing, subconsciously, to forget the parts of me that hurt. The second pregnancy and birth were hurricanes. I was torn open and laid bare. It started early on in the pregnancy. With each passing day I became more unsettled, memories danced around my peripheral vision, I blinked to keep them out, but the breakdown was inevitable.

I was forced to convert to a strict form of Islam as a child. It was a traumatic time that stripped me of autonomy and opportunity. I left home, was disowned, rebuilt my life and buried that part of my story. And then I became a mother and it was a siren call that demanded I unearth, remember and disentangle myself from the past. It was an emotionally exhausting, drawn out process. I spent a long time pleading, through writing, to be set free from a path I never chose. I wanted an acknowledgement of the disownment, of the pain and isolating judgement that I (and the people I love) experienced, of my right to be free. Instead I learnt about internalized misogyny and what Rebecca Solnit calls the slippery slope of silencings.

I was taught during adolescence that the world was to be endured by women, rather than enjoyed. That it wasn’t my place to ask questions or to demand more. Later on, when I wrote to make sense of my pain, the response was awkward silence, broken by criticism: I’d got it all wrong, I was too emotional, too far from home to understand. It reminded me of my superfluity and invited me back to silence and the burial of my self. Thankfully my greatest passions: feminism, writing, and my children, have slowly, slowly lifted the fog of self-doubt and taught me what I should have known all along: women don’t need permission to reject anything, not least identities they never chose.

Let go of the old light. That is what the evening is for.

– Nayyirah Waheed


When the hijab is forced


1. this is my story
2. this is not the story of all Muslims
3. this is not the story of all hijabis
4. there can be more than one story

Once upon a time (about 14 years ago), in a land far away (South East England), I wore the hijab. It’s surreal looking back. I’ve spent a long time actively detaching myself from that part of my identity, so I feel almost fraudulent claiming it as my own. Even now, after 14 years of fixing myself up and reclaiming all the bits of me, I struggle to talk face to face with people about the hijab. My experience was bad, and the word and the memories still stick in my throat. This post is about how more than 5 years of forced veiling affected me.

Here, wear this lion costume…
I was ordered to cover my hair after my parents began practising Islam. To say I was upset is a monumental understatement. The idea of wearing the hijab was  alien to me, the theological reasoning behind it seemed nonsensical, and it was obvious (to me at least) that it was happening because certain men felt threatened by my sexuality. But, at the time, all those things were irrelevant, there was no room for compromise or debate. Almost 20 years have passed since then, but when I think about it (which until now I’ve avoided) I remember feeling utterly trapped. I remember the panic, the ache in my muscles from holding back the tears, and the feeling that life had taken on a surreal, nightmarish quality.



It’s difficult to describe being forced to veil. The closest I can get is this: imagine you’re made to wear a fancy dress costume every time you leave the house, let’s say it’s a lion costume. You wear a mane, huge paws and a tail. No one asks you if you feel comfortable dressed as a lion, because it’s politically incorrect to question the norms of minorities. Only your immediate family know how ridiculous you feel, but after a while even they convince themselves that your costume is an act of freewill. So, you’re a lion, every day, for more than 5 years. You have to act normally and take yourself seriously despite your costume. It’s impossible. You start to hate yourself. Your physicality changes, you walk quickly and with a slight hunch. You want to take up as little space and time as possible. You want to disappear. Being forced to wear the hijab taught me that shame evolves. Months, weeks even, into wearing it and I was ashamed not only of the square of cotton on my head, but of my thoughts, my body, my lack of faith, and the daily charade of being someone I wasn’t.

The hijab didn’t make me feel protected or liberated, as some women claim. I felt like a walking sex object. The idea that I was effectively hiding from men who were incapable of defining me by anything but my body, filled me with shame. And it represented something else, even more insidious; it was a mark of ownership and control. When I wore it I was no longer my own person; I belonged to my stepfather, my brother, and in years to come, my husband. I was the girl dressed in a shroud, half-living, staring vacantly at the walls of my family home, a space beyond which I had very little presence. I willed the years to pass so I could be free. And then, finally, it happened.

Beyond the veil
After falling in love with a non-Muslim at university I was disowned. By this point I’d stopped wearing the hijab and I was at last free of the all-consuming control of religious men. But the huge expanse of freedom was as distressing as it was liberating. I was dizzy with the disassociation and self-loathing that comes with disownment. I spent my nights searching for ways to dull the pain of abandonment. Escapism became self-annihilation, but at the time it felt like the only way to get through the process of creating an identity from scratch, and of lessoning the gulf between myself and all the ‘normal’ people around me – people with families who loved them, despite themselves.



Making the leap away from religious misogyny was the best thing I ever did, but at the time I didn’t realise I’d be walking out of one sexist culture and straight into another. After spending years wrapped in cotton wool I was woefully unprepared for reality, whether that be the practicalities of surviving independently, or the pervasive culture of sexism. I attracted attention that only perpetuated my self-loathing. Despite leaving behind the bind of religious misogyny, I was still treated as a body that existed for the use and judgement of men.

The hijab and autonomy
The Qur’an is pretty ambiguous when it comes to the hijab. Wow. Typing that sentence without a Muslim yelling his disapproval in my general direction is liberating (that fact alone should give you an insight into how contentious the issue is, and how little room there is for dissent). The ‘party’ line is that different Islamic schools of thought have different opinions on the hijab. In my experience ‘schools of thought’ is another way of saying ‘men’. Some men argue ‘passionately’ (think: smoke coming out of ears) that the hijab is unequivocally commanded by Allah in the Qur’an. Other men disagree. As with any prescriptive text interpretation is everything. Personally I’ve no time for dogma that demands women dress a certain way. Conservative religion is cruel, detached from reality, devoid of any understanding of what it is to be female, and it tends to express the following basic ‘truths’: men know god best, men have divinely commanded authority, men fear women, men fear sexuality. And because of these ‘truths’ women suffer.

Of course many women are happy to wear the hijab. Some claim it offers a form of protection, and that it allows them to be understood and appreciated on the basis of their personality and intellect, rather than their appearance. Others believe it encourages men and women to focus on the greater jihad – the struggle for piety and a relationship with Allah in a world filled with distraction and superficiality. None of these things happened for me. The only thing I felt was a disconnection from reality and a deep depression. So, while I celebrate the rights of all woman to dress however they wish, I’m concerned about those who aren’t afforded that freedom. In my brief stint online I’ve come across vast numbers of women who are being forced to veil and practice religions that they disagree with.

When I think back to the convert community that I grew up in I remember very few women actively choosing to wear the hijab. I’m talking about real choice. The kind of choice you make from a position of autonomy. The kind of choice that means whatever you decide there’s no backlash, no guilt tripping, no shaming, and definitely no exclusion from the community. I do however know women who kid themselves into believing their hijab is an act of freewill when it’s not. I was one of them – after a few years of indoctrination and socialising only with people who argued in favour of the hijab, my sense of self was all but obliterated. The unspoken reality is that many girls and women within Muslim communities have little say in the hijab. As soon as parents recognise their daughters as sexual beings they are expected to veil. It’s a rite of passage. Once a girl starts to wear the veil she’s seen as having made the right ‘choice’, the only choice, and for that the community celebrates. In contrast the handful of women I know who made the difficult decision to stop veiling were met with a barrage of judgement and negativity from their respective communities. It’s often assumed that when someone stops wearing the hijab she’s been led astray, she no longer knows her own mind and she’s been morally corrupted. Initially the response is one of concern and encouragement to return to Islam, this can soon turn to outrage, disgust, and finally, exclusion.

The dangers of a single story
The biggest challenge, I find, when discussing the hijab and being Muslim (albeit a pretendy one) is that people aren’t great at are RUBBISH at understanding that my story (and the stories of other women I know and mention) doesn’t negate theirs. It’s pretty tedious having to explain this each time I blog, but just so we’re all clear: this post isn’t about judging Islam and Muslims en masse, it’s about calling out those who use religious dogma and culture to limit female autonomy. Even so I know this piece will be an inconvenient truth that many would rather I didn’t share. In the past radical Muslims, cultural relativists, and anti-Muslim bigots, have either taken issue with my story or used it to support their own hateful agendas. Ex Muslims with terrible experiences of Islam are generally expected to (silently) ‘man-up’ and be grateful for the fact that they’ve come out the other side of their shitstorm, or take one for the team – lest their talking whips up Islamophobia. It leaves us in a no-win situation. Wider society and the press find us tricky – our stories are too contentious and nuanced to be written about with ease, so we’re left to the internet, where we find solace in one another’s existence and either try to avoid, or plunge head first, into the wrath of people who wish we didn’t exist. However, on a more positive note, the tide is turning. Organisations like The Council of Ex Muslims of Britain and its affiliates are promoting voices that, until now, have been side-lined or silenced. And it was a pretty special moment last week when Janice Turner wrote about the experiences of ex Muslims in The Times – Ex Muslims, I should add, who documented their experiences in these brilliant videos.

When it’s worn freely the hijab is a political, religious and social statement, but when it’s forced it tells a very different story, about control and repressed sexuality. My hijab was endured rather than enjoyed. I felt no conviction. I wasn’t making a statement, it made a statement of me. Thankfully the misogyny I experienced is over, but it was life changing and it’s left me with uncompromising views about female autonomy and forced religion. My opinions aren’t welcomed by everyone, including many of the people I love. Indeed the more I talk about my past, the smaller my family becomes, but that’s just part and parcel of internalised patriarchy. It’s painful but it won’t stop me. In the words of Deeyah Khan, “being a woman is a provocation”. We must provoke, resist, debate and challenge, until the choice of every woman is hers and hers alone.

I don’t want this for my children

As we inched closer to the result of the British general election the days took on a surreal, limbo-like quality. I was distracted, desperate for change, and I genuinely hoped we’d see a cultural shift within government to allow for fairer, more humane politics. As it stands more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty in the UK, and the latest figures from The Trussell Trust show a 163% increase in demand for foodbanks over recent years.  Our loudest political and media voices depict benefits fraud and immigration as the source of Britain’s financial and social problems, and actively dismiss the huge elephant in the room: tax evasion. We have the world’s most billionaires per capita and our richest 1% has reached giddy new heights, having accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55% of the population put together. These facts have undoubtedly contributed to Britain becoming the only country in the G7 group of leading economies with worse inequality than at the turn of the century.

On the day of the election result I woke up and grabbed my phone to check the news. I was nervous but hopeful. It didn’t seem possible to me that things could get worse, not when inequality is forcing so many into destitution. Within seconds social media informed me that the Conservative party had achieved a 37% ‘majority’. I was devastated. The day itself was a blur, punctuated with tears, anxiety and people wondering why on earth I was being so dramatic. Inside I was reeling from my own political naivety and terrified about Conservative plans for a further £12billion in cuts to the welfare state; a system already so underfunded and brutally managed that it’s driven people to their death.

In the days that followed a host of articles were written in defence of our new government and its plans for continued austerity. Each time I read one it felt like a kick in the guts. But contrary to popular opinion, my upset wasn’t sour grapes at ‘losing’ the election. It wasn’t even frustration that privileged white men are once again dictating the future of our country. It was fear. I’m frightened because British politics perpetuates a culture of victim blaming that labels the vulnerable as tiresome, dispensable inconveniences. I’m frightened because I understand what it’s like to be vulnerable and to fall from a tiny precipice of financial security. I’m frightened because after escaping relative poverty once already I’m within touching distance of it again.

Growing up in a low income household taught me early on what it’s like to have no money. In simple terms: it’s shit. All those typographically pretty motivational quotes about happiness not coming from what you have, but who you have are all well and good if you’re an adult with a bit of cash in the bank, but they mean nothing when you’re 13 and the house becomes glacial with tension each time the food runs out. Or when you’re 8 and bailiffs try to force their way through your front door and the only thing stopping them is your step-dad, hulk-like, but exhausted, pushing back with everything he has. My memories of growing up with little money are less about a lack of ‘stuff’ and more about an abundance of stress. I remember the tension and tears. The resentment and envy. The false hopes. Feeling helpless, hopeless, and always so bloody ashamed.

Then I went to university, before the days of epic fees (which, incidentally, the Conservatives haven’t ruled out raising beyond the current £9000 a year) and my world opened up. I met people, learnt ideas and had experiences that I wouldn’t have done at home. Suddenly it seemed to me that with a lot of false confidence, a shift in my language and by brushing over the details of my socio-economic background, I could ‘better’ myself. I studied to post graduate level, got a middle class job in a ridiculously middle class establishment and, despite the odd blip where I felt like I’d sold my soul, I finally felt safe, immune from inequality. I wouldn’t make the same ‘mistakes’ as my parents. I knew better. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Several years later and the cold hard facts are staring me in the face: I come from a low income family, I left home almost 15 years ago without a penny to my name and almost zero life skills to boot, I studied to postgraduate level (hello mountain of debt) and in the last few years a succession of health problems have massively impacted my family’s income. But despite all that I’ve never struggled to feed my children and I’m not welfare dependent. Go me, right? Wrong. I haven’t ‘earned’ my way out of poverty. I haven’t been ‘saved’ by my middle class job, or the fact that I work really bloody hard. What stops me from being caught in a welfare dependency trap is that I married a man with privilege.

In simple terms I’m kept safe by middle class privilege. That is: the economic extras the middle classes gain, mostly through virtue of birth. Things like wealth, cultural capital, status, a support network, and a good education. These opportunities are passed down through the generations to become inherited characteristics, and they have a phenomenal impact on a person’s life chances. Just take a look at THIS. Please. It’s just brilliant. It’s this privilege that means my family is lucky enough to have a network of people with the desire and the resources to catch us each time we fall. And this is why I find it so hard to listen to the Conservatives (who are overwhelmingly made up of the three most privileged groups in our society – white, middle-class, men) perpetuate the cruel, self-serving, half-truth, that success is a consequence of hard work, and poverty the result of ‘idleness’. Even David Cameron’s former advisor, Steve Hilton, acknowledges the inherent social closure that reproduces wealth and privilege within government and media circles. As George Monbiot says “many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.”


Politics has always been the preserve of the most privileged in a society and our new government is proof that we won’t be getting rid of that awful dynamic anytime soon. As Ian Martin writes, “the uncomfortable truth is that despite knowing precisely what will happen to NHS patients, disabled people, hard non-working families, refugees and whoever else Iain Duncan Smith decides may now be hunted like foxes, this country has returned a Conservative government. “We” did it. This is who we are now. Our country is 37% Tory”. This is something I have to accept. The voters voted. But I refuse to accept the inhumanity of Conservative politics. It’s abhorrent to me that the most vulnerable among us are punished though cruel rhetoric and policy, like the capping of benefits at £23,000 per household (for a 2 person household this works out at below minimum wage), cutting the access to work scheme that helps disabled people into work, and excluding under 21’s from claiming housing benefit. This is all despite the well documented dearth of well-paid jobs, the rising number of people classified as ‘working poor’, the 55% increase in homelessness under the coalition government, and the fact that for many young people housing benefit is the only thing that stands between them and the streets.

Our government seems blind to the fact that most people in poverty are in working families, and nearly 5 million work for employers who pay below the ‘living wage’. Perhaps it’s wilful ignorance. Perhaps it’s because utilitarian Conservative ideology justifies the discrimination of minorities for a ‘greater good’. Or perhaps it’s because a life of privilege tends to blinker reality. After all, unlike the majority of us, those in government probably aren’t overly concerned about mental or physical illness, redundancy, the breakup of a relationship, a sick partner or child, or a multitude of other unforeseen circumstances plunging them into financial destitution. They have the freedom to believe the myth that poverty is a choice born from apathy. They can choose to ignore the truth; that financial security is a fragile construct underpinned by social privilege.

^^ It Could Be You. A short film by Child Poverty Action Group ^^

When it comes to human rights and equality, it seems the Conservative party harbours a certain nostalgia for the Victorian era. Just consider the following ‘interesting’ selections for the new Conservative party line-up:

Micheal Gove and Dominic Raab have been appointed justice secretaries. They will no doubt play a significant role in scrapping the Human Rights Act to make way for the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that is being introduced in a bid to entrench ‘British values’. Michael Gove is better known (to me, anyway) as the man who made teachers lives hell and British education more elitist, outdated and unfair, but he’s also on record as saying he’d like to bring back hanging, he criticised the Stephen Lawrence report for “McCarthyism”and he helped block a public inquiry into a cover-up of child abuse by politicans in Westminster (after more than 100 Home Office files related to allegations of child abuse went “missing”). Dominic Raab on the other hand voted against making it illegal to discriminate on grounds of caste, and attacked the ‘obnoxious bigotry’ of feminists.

Justin Tomlinson, our new disabilities minister, voted against protecting the benefits of disabled children and patients undergoing cancer treatment, and in favour of the bedroom tax. It’s worth noting that sick and disabled tenants make up two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax, and that the costs of disabilities are often so high that they can’t be met by existing disability benefits. Leaked plans suggest an increase in the bedroom tax may be imminent.

The new Tory equality minister, Caroline Dinenage, voted against gay marriage and said the state had ‘no right’ to introduce it.

New junior health minister, Ben Gummer, said he was “personally and principally opposed to abortion” in 2008.

New employment minister, Priti Patel, is another minister who would like to see the return of the death penalty, and rather interestingly considering her new role, she claimed that British workers are the “worst idlers in the world”.

As if these appointments aren’t enough, there are other signs that the Conservatives have little intention to preserve the rights of the common person, or govern in a humane way. Leaked plans indicate that statutory maternity pay may be abolished. There is to be a ban on strikes unless 40 per cent of people vote in favour for industrial action, which seems particularly exploitative at a time when workers are face growing insecurity at work and the biggest cut in living standards since Victorian times. The snoopers charter will require internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year – this move to massively increase surveillance is “a clear indication of the forthcoming assault on the rights of ordinary British citizens” according to Carly Nyst from human rights watchdog, Privacy International. There are also plans to repeal the ban on fox hunting – David Cameron who has previously ridden with the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire, says he believes in the “freedom to hunt”.

And I have other fears, like the continued privatization of the NHS and education (did you know that BAE systems, Europe’s largest arms firm, is sponsoring a failing British school?), the huge cuts to services and networks protecting women from domestic violence (Refuge experienced a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011), Conservative support for fracking across the UK, deep cuts to legal aid, plans to privatise child protection, and the gentrification, or “social cleaning” as some call it, of urban areas that results in the displacement of low-income families to make way for properties and renovations for the affluent (if you’re interested in this, take a look at Focus E15, an incredible group of young mothers living in a hostel for young homeless people who were served eviction notices and told they’d have to accept being rehoused in private rented accommodation as far away as Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham. They are just one example of a city-wide process of social cleansing, with low income people being forced to the fringes of London and beyond by soaring rents, benefit cuts, and a shortage of social housing). None of these Conservative measures will do nothing but exacerbate inequality. And it’s not just us ‘lefties’ who are worried. When Tory councillors across the UK warn that the next round of funding cuts will devastate local services, harm the most vulnerable in society, and result in serious consequences for community life, social care, and the NHS, then you know things must be bad.

I could go on, but I have chicken poxy children to care for and work to do, and I’m guessing that if you’re still reading this then you’re probably desperate for me to wrap it up. This blog post wasn’t the easiest to write and it’s left me feeling frazzled, but it’s important to me. Part of my job as a mother is to teach my children to care about those in need, and that role is more pressing now they’re growing up alongside a political and media culture that vilifies the vulnerable. I want to teach my boys that the poor and minorities and those with the least in society should never be held accountable for the greed of a self-entitled few: fraudulent bankers, tax evaders, and a political elite reproducing inequality through wilful ignorance about the power of privilege and the scale and complexity of poverty. I want my children to understand that very few of us are immune to inequality. There but for the luck of the socioeconomic draw go each and everyone of us. I want them to know that poverty should never be explained in simplistic, dismissive, binary terms. I hope I can show them that our political voices can be used to help institute fairness and justice.

If what I’ve written resonates, take heart from the fact that there are many thousands of people resisting, in various ways, the changes that the Conservative party want to ring though. I spent a good few days after the election caught in a fug of creeping depression and I know I wasn’t alone. But now is the time for each of us to act, by making whatever difference we can. The following links are the best calls to action and suggestions for resistance that I’ve seen:

Raising bears

5 ways to deal with a full blown conservative government


Donate to your local foodbank

Take part in the anti-austerity demonstration

Reasons to march

And if you’d like to march, but can’t, take a look at wecantmarch.com

Take a look at 38dgrees and change.org for online petitions against unfair government cuts and legislation.

For those of you who plan to resist and educate, good luck, and for those of you who don’t, here’s a pretty wonderful thought from Laurie Penny:

“This is not a moment for people who happen to have made it through the past five years with moderate financial stability and our consciences intact to accept the narrative that we are assigned politics by class. That the best way to read our ethics, our understanding of the worth and purpose of humanity, is off the back of a bloody bank statement. This is not a moment to throw up our hands, open a packet of biscuits and say – fuck it, I got mine. Because that’s a disgusting thing to do…Right now, the important thing is to take care of ourselves and one another, and to be as kind as possible. Because there’s a big fight ahead, and kindness is more important now than ever. Kindness is mandatory. Anger is necessary. Despair is a terrible idea. Despair is how they win. They won’t win forever.” (Source)

In celebration of discovering feminism, Caitlin Moran, and chips with curry sauce

We all have a story that taught us about the disparity of opportunity between men and women, the brilliance of Caitlin Moran, the joys of rosé straight from the bottle, and the epicness of chips with curry sauce.

*atmospheric music*

This is my story.

I was about 17 and in an A level English class when my teacher went off on a tangent about Greek mythology. I listened to her talk excitedly about a sisterhood, goddesses and powerful women who led men and commanded insane levels of respect, and I was left speechless. But it wasn’t just her stories that rocked my tiny little world, it was that she didn’t finish with a guffaw, or a dismissive statement, she was full of conviction. She taught me one of my favourite lessons to date: that strong women aren’t a joke. It was the most brilliant revelation to me. I felt as though a door had been flung open in a dark, dank room. The light! The air!

I didn’t realise it then but Mrs Gregory’s tales about female strength came at the perfect time. My parents had converted to a strict form of Islam a few years earlier and by this point every aspect of my life was being controlled – where I went, who I was friends with, what I wore. My gender became a deadweight that dictated my every move. All of sudden I was expected to follow a bewildering array of rules thought up by men terrified of their own sexuality and incapable of seeing women as anything other than walking vaginas. My new life was constructed from an epic list of commands that I had no choice over, so I spent a lot of time perfecting my evil grimmace, silently swearing at and wishing testicular calamities on men, and rolling my eyes at the utter stupidity of each new rule. Rules such as:

1. Jeans are evil: Satan lives in your jeans. Both legs. But mostly the booty area.

2. Your hair must be covered: it’s just too bloody sexual. It’s like your booty, except on your head. How the hell do you expect anyone to take you seriously, or respect you, or not, you know, get rapey with you, if you’ve got Satan’s nest all up in their face? COVERITUP.

3. You were born to reproduce: no one cares if you want to explore the world and learn from your mistakes and kiss boys and feel the wind through your hair and the sun on your skin and discover writing and art and human beings who’ve absolutely nothing in common with you. Your ovaries make that little pipedream impossible, sweetcheeks. Also, COVERITUP.

4. God isn’t meant to make sense: yeah, He’s confusing. Yeah, He’s contradictory. Yeah, His book is insanely terrifying. And YEAH it justifies heinous acts. But it’s all contextual. And relative. And you don’t need to ‘get’ it because He’s God and what We say He says goes. STOP TRYING TO ‘GET’ IT.

There were other ridiculous rules. So. Many. Other. Rules. But as a teenager these seemed particularly frigging awful/nonsensical. My body became a battle ground and my moral compass was reset – chastity, humility, purity and submission (all male-defined, natch), were the only measures of goodness. I was told that women should never be leaders (they’re too emotional), that marital rape and domestic violence are grey areas, that the education system is a dangerous place encouraging destructive freedoms, that women should walk behind their husbands, that unmarried women shouldn’t leave the house unaccompanied, that my body and my sexuality made life dangerous for me, and that gender equality was a fallacy invented by the West. It was, quite frankly, a bonkers time. I spent many an evening hatching my escape route and fantasising that I was in the middle of a Truemanesque practical joke. Cue conversations with God that went like this:

“Dear God, if you exist, I TOTALLY get it; it was all a test. Good one! You had me for a minute/years! But in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve passed with flying colours! You plopped me into this insanely illogical existence where my vagina dictates my every move but, despite that, I haven’t committed GBH. So, where’s my gold star? Can I start living for real now?”

A few years later, I went to uni, fell in love, was disowned, and began a long process of forging an identity from scratch. There were moments of joy, but mostly it was a relentless slog with some truly hideous forks in the road. God works in mysterious ways and all that jazz *cynical snort* Aaaanyway, I’ve moved on. I no longer apologise for my body, or my thoughts, or my voice, I no longer radiate shame, I know I’m as good and as capable as any man, I don’t stand for misogyny or sexism, and to top it all, I bloody LOVE being a woman. And that’s been made possible for a variety of reasons, not least because I discovered the deep, deep joy that is being a feminist.

My feminism started out as a slow burner. Every so often the universe whispered to me “it doesn’t have to be like this Steph, resist the bollocks” and it gifted me with moments that chipped away at my passivity. Moments like listening to Mrs Gregory’s stories, seeing my mum cry with laughter at gutsy, anti-establishment comediennes on 80s TV, looking at my younger sisters and knowing they deserved more, feeling the disappointment as the men I loved screwed up monumentally, time and time again, and knowing the women I loved would fix it back up as best they could. I was taught painstaking lessons in female fragility and male dominance, and while I sat quietly taking in all the hate, the women in my life danced furiously and silently across my horizon, carrying the weight of our world, like pissed off ballet dancers. These moments were snapshots of technicolor breaking up the black and white static. Clarity amidst the blur. I took them all in, until something snapped, and a little, shakey voice inside my head said “sod this for a game of badgers”. Because it dawned on me that our expectations (social, cultural and religious) of women are nothing but a construct, and they suck the frigging joy out of life. I wanted out. And so, another feminist killjoy was born.

Until I hit 30 I could only say the word feminism using my inside voice; a teeny-tiny apologetic whisper. Because society is still pretty hideous to women who talk loudly about sexism and inequality. But now, at 34, feminism is one of my favourite words. My understanding, appreciation and involvement in the world is massively enhanced by feminism and I’m so thankful to the people who made it accessible to me, whether that be teachers, writers, family, or friends. Last month I had the most incredible night celebrating one of those people, a feminist I love to bits, Caitlin Moran. The night was made even more fantastic by discovering chips with curry sauce (holy crap they were good), and drinking stupid amounts of rosé (al fresco…straight from the bottle *ahem*) with two strong, empowering women who I’m lucky to call friends. At 34 I’m over my nights out feeling like a weird anthropological experiment on human mating rituals, so to spend an evening feeling so empowered, safe, and full of joy (and wine) was a revelation. Caitlin read from her newest book, How to Build a Girl, and told stories about her life. There were so many good bits it’d be impossible to tell you about them all, but here are a few things she said that stuck out for me.

1. We have barmy issues with blood. The message is clear: there are two types of blood in the world. The good stuff is manly *grrrrrr* and we’re super happy to watch it spurt out of decapitated characters on Game of Thrones, or any TV character post-watershed. The bad blood is the *whispers* icky woman ‘stuff’ that we’d rather not mention by name. But, small detail: menstrual blood is our lifeblood and the reason each of us exists. So why is it that watching a gore packed action movie with the family is a social norm, whereas an artist showing the teeniest patch of menstrual blood on Instagram is met with the equivalent of a worldwide dry retch? Why are women shamed into self-loathing over their periods? Why are we taught from puberty to see them as a dirty secret? We pretend that they aren’t a massive pain, that they aren’t messy, or debilitating. And don’t even get me started on the truly disgusting price of feminine hygiene products that makes dealing with periods so difficult for the growing number of women living in poverty in this country* If I had the time I’d blog about how the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have a lot to answer for when it comes to menstrual shame. Alas, I’ll have to save that gem for another day.

2. It wasn’t until I hit 30 that I properly found what Caitlin Moran, and many others, refer to as the ‘feminist goggles’. I’m 34 now and I feel like they’re surgically attached to my face. Realising that whole chunks of your life; experiences, opportunities, and relationships, have been destroyed or made shit just because you have a vagina, is like a floodgate, there’s no going back. I don’t process many things without thinking about gender inequality. And, like Moran, my feminist goggles often make me feel like  shrieking “my eyes, MY EYES, they burn!”.

3. Which leads me onto: it’s good to get angry. Unfortunately women are taught not to get angry at every stage of their lives, because its unfeminine and it threatens the patriarchy. I still get anxious about being angry in my blogs, that’s despite the fact that I’m 34 and they’re my spaces. It’s not really the ‘done’ thing to blog with rage, especially as a mumblogger – the saccharine is lauded, while angry truths are sidestepped. I’d like to see more loud, empowered women in the mumblogging community, the kind of women who don’t shy away from getting angry about injustice. In its best form anger is motivational, empowering, and a force for change.

4. Feminism is simple. At it’s most fundamental level feminism is such a no brainer I think it’s a crime not to honour it. It goes like this:


^^This perfect tea towel is available to buy from here, with all profit going to women’s charity Refuge ^^

5. Standing on a chair and yelling “I AM A FEMINIST” with over a thousand other people (men included) feels incredible. You should try it.

I can’t end without mentioning the feminist smile. I won’t say anything apart from the fact that it’s the most glorious middle finger to fat shaming and the objectification of the female body. It made me laugh and cry. Just watch this.

I LOVE YOU Caitlin!

Apologies for the ‘braindump’ nature of this post. I’m so snowed under with work at the moment that I had to write it in 10 minute slots. It’s taken me a frigging month. There’s a high chance it’s disjointed and nonsensical in parts. I nearly lost the will to live writing it. And, at one point, I looked up mid-sentence, to discover my children running around the garden buck naked. So, yeah, you’re welcome.

International Women’s Day 2015 and why you should never apologise for being a feminist


^^International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality. The theme this year is Make It Happen. You can get involved by sharing your support on social media and wearing purple (the colour used by suffragette’s to symbolise justice and dignity)^^

I’d hoped to write a post about International Women’s Day before, erm, International Women’s Day. But life got in the way. An insomniac* baby, a poorly 4-year-old, and an insurmountable pile of work to do by tomorrow has left me a bit weary, and I considered not writing this. But then I remembered how much today matters, and how the voices of women are too often stifled by brute force, guilt, shame, and exhaustion.

* I jest. Kind of.

Women are still effectively being punished for being female, and in so many ways. One of the most significant and far-reaching issues is the objectification of our bodies. It’s a feature of most, if not all, cultures. In the best case scenario objectification riddles us with shame, in the worst instances it brutalises us. Every woman has, at some point, felt obliged to contort her mind or body into society’s vision of Girl and Woman. And all the while we have to carry on with the work that’s been designated to us by a world that defines femininity in the most rigid of ways.

Too often we are exhausted to our bones from spinning more plates than men, from working for less money than men, for employers who take little responsibility for challenging gender disparity. We tend to the financial, domestic and emotional needs of everyone around us, with little help, as if we were born to do nothing else, and it leaves us with no energy for the resistance needed to make our lives more manageable. Such is the nature of patriarchy – we become so tightly woven into its structure it becomes difficult to see an alternative.

So, when it comes to talking about girls and women and that epic list of inequalities we still suffer, those of us who can must make time to share our thoughts and experiences this International Women’s Day. Each time we tap away on WordPress, Twitter or Facebook, we should remember our words encapsulate the autonomy that many woman are still denied. I know I’m privileged to have a voice that I no longer have to hide. I know each blog I write is an opportunity to call out inequality. But I’ve not always been so vocal about my passion for feminism. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I realised my voice needn’t be an apologetic whisper and that I could contribute to the debate.


^^Jasvinder Sanghera (actual hero) ^^ (source)

In 2010 I was asked to attend a conference on forced marriage, honour based violence and FGM, on behalf of my employer. I jumped at the chance. Having been forced to convert to a strict form of Islam as a child I was all too familiar with the topics of forced marriage and izzat (the South Asian concept of honour that subjugates women and seeks to control their bodies), and I was desperate for a different perspective on what I’d heard and witnessed growing up. We listened to several brilliant speakers, but the person who shifted my world on its axis that day was Jasvinder Sanghera. As a British child Jasvinder faced the prospect of a forced marriage. She experienced abuse, ostracism and rejection because of a misogynistic culture that still prevails in many communities. Thankfully she fought her way out and as well as demanding autonomy for herself she established Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports women, men and couples trapped by abusive cultures that limit human rights.

The day was inspiring, motivating and hugely educational, but I hadn’t expected to feel so drained by the facts. Learning how many girls are subjected to honour based violence, FGM and forced marriage in the UK, about the lack of support they receive and the cack handed response by agencies that should be helping, was hard. I felt devastated for the women whose stories I heard. But it was also a deeply uncomfortable moment of realisation for me, I had to acknowledge that what I’d seen in my own community – the physical and emotional manipulation of women – was abhorrent. It was a sucker punch of a moment, and it changed me.

After that the word feminism, which I’d nervously toyed with for years, made complete sense. I was a feminist. I am a feminist. I don’t care about the men who are offended by the word,  and I’ve no time for the apologetic term ‘egalitarianism’, because there is no compromise when demanding that women be free. So those of us who can must fight sexism and misogyny until we lose our voices and make our fingers numb from typing. And for those of you who feel like we’ve already made it because your lives are good: you’re wrong. This isn’t about you, or me, it’s about us. Women, not woman. So many of us still suffer because we were lucky enough to be born with a vagina. Take a look at this, read it, weep. Then, fight.

1. Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales, each year. Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. 1 in 5 women has experienced some sort of sexual violence since the age of 16

2. Nearly 30% of women in the UK have experienced domestic abuse

3. Women are massively under-represented in government, making up just 22% of our MP’s

4. and in journalism. In a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men. Relatively few women are rising to senior jobs and the pay gap between male and female journalists remains a stubbornly wide one. And this is despite the fact that women substantially outnumber men in journalism training and enter the profession in (slightly) greater numbers. (source: Women and Journalism by Suzanne Franks)

Just take a moment to remember that these are professions that are key to shifting policy, influencing culture, and changing society. And that glass ceiling is still there. 

5. The gender pay-gap is still very much present. In fact the UK is among Europe’s worst offenders, with a pay gap of 19.1 per cent13. This is despite the fact that females in the UK outperform males at all levels of the education system, and are more likely to be educated to degree level.

6. The top earners in all societies are men. Just 11% of all billionaires are women

7. The cost of childcare continues to keep women out of the workplace and limit their choices. In 2012 an Australian study found that a mother from a low-income family faces losing 69% of her income if she returns to work after having a child, partly as a result of the extortionate cost of childcare, the average cost of which has risen by 150% over the past decade

8. In 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit had to give advice or support related to possible forced marriages in 1,485 cases. But this figure is deceptive because it only factors in those who have been made known. Jasvinder Sanghera estimates that the actual figure of forced marriages in the UK is well above 100,000. This abuse remains underreported as victims are extremely isolated with multiple perpetrators.

9. There are approximately 12 reported ‘honour’ killings per year in the UK. This doesn’t take into account the many people who are taken abroad and don’t return. ‘Honour’ killings are murders in which predominantly women are killed for perceived immoral behaviour, which is deemed to have breached the honour code of a family or community causing shame

10. Over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 IN THIS COUNTRY have had their genitals mutilated* This figure rises exponentially when you add to it to the number of girls outside the UK who have also had to endure the practice

11. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, and it overwhelmingly affects women more than men. The Independent reported only a few months ago that Yazidi girls were killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants, and the problem isn’t isolated to Iraq. According to the Global Justice Center rape is being used more than any other prohibited weapon of war including starvation; attacks on cultural objects; and the use of herbicides, biological or chemical weapons, dum-dum bullets, white phosphorus or blinding lasers.

12. Worldwide, girls constitute over half of the children out of school. Only 30 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school. In many countries, less than one third of university students are women

13. Girls and women suffer disproportionately in countries that lack hygienic sanitation. The impacts are far-reaching, whether it be poor maternal and newborn health, inadequate facilities in schools for girls on their period (and the related stigma associated with menstruation), or being vulnerable to harassment or violence when travelling the long distances to use shared toilets, or practice open defecation. Just imagine if every time you went to the toilet it involved harassment, violence, and indignity

* the source I took this statistic from refers to FGM as ‘circumcision’. It’s not, it’s mutilation.


Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and privilege

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

Freedom of speech is a funny beast. I don’t mean ha-ha funny, I mean uncomfortable, loaded with difficult questions and often not funny at all. A bit like cartoons that prod at minorities. On the one hand freedom of speech is this brilliant part of being autonomous that enables intellectual growth and emancipation. On the other hand it means that (unless we live in isolation or spend our lives flanked by yes men) we will be offended by opinions on a regular basis. But here’s the thing: being offensive is not a crime, and being offended is not a reason to restrict human rights.

In the days since the Charlie Hebdo attack there has been a lot of discussion about freedom of speech and whether boundaries need to be asserted, and I, like a million and one others, have an opinion that I thought I’d throw out there, because…well, freedom of speech.

The moral ambiguity of freedom 

Will Self appeared on the Channel 4 news last week to discuss the freedom of speech debate and said, The whole notion is that freedom of speech is to be some absolute right, and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly, it places the ethics, human ethics, outside of human society, it makes them something that are here in the cosmos in some way”. 

I find the connection he makes between freedom of speech and religion problematic. Freedom of speech invites debate and the calling out of injustice and it’s a driving force behind intellectual growth and enlightenment. Religious absolutism does the opposite. It promotes a culture of fear that demands blind observance and fuels prejudice and discrimination. Here, Self (like many others) argues that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are irresponsible in their provocation of powerless minorities:

You always have to ask with something that purports to be satire, who is it attacking? Are they people in a position of power? And if it’s attacking people in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless and who are assaulted in some sense by those powerful people? This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists, they are not in power in our society, and it is not comforting the people who look at these cartoons whether in Charlie Hebdo or in newspapers here, they don’t feel better about themselves or about life to see Islamist terrorists mocked…why does it make anybody feel better?

It’s interesting that he feels he can talk on behalf of us all. Perhaps it’s because those of us who are or have been made powerless by religious absolutists are rarely invited to this kind of debate. In one sense he’s right, Islamic terrorists aren’t in power in his society, and thankfully the religious right don’t feature in my life any more either. But there are experiences other than his and mine at play here. As Nick Cohen says, “power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared”. If the dynamics of our society leave us feeling safe and empowered then lucky us, but we must not assume everyone feels the same. 

I spent a good chunk of my life controlled by a radical religious ideology, and another chunk too scared to talk honestly about it. My experience, and the experiences of many who are marginalised, controlled, and silenced by radical Islam, is that the figures of authority responsible for spreading the rhetoric of terrorism do indeed have power and privilege. They aggressively tout misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic dogma, and they control individuals, families, communities, and sometimes whole states through fear. So, I find living in a society where I’m free to ridicule terrorists who want to dictate the terms of free speech and have me stripped of my autonomy and my right to laugh and poke fun, a very comforting thing indeed.

The legitimacy of grief 


“I am Charlie”, “Yeah, yeah. Me too” (source)

While Obama, Cameron and various other heads of state pledge their support for freedom of speech – a concept that in so many other contexts they really seem to struggle with – other harrowing stories have been unfolding, away from the spotlight of the world’s media. Just consider the following:

In 2015 atheists still face the death penalty in 13 (Islamic) states, Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam was flogged 50 times in front of hundreds of spectators. He is to be flogged another 950 times over the next few weeks. In Nigeria Boko Haram have carried out their deadliest massacre with 2000 feared dead, and another 19 died when a bomb that had been attached to a girl of 10 years old, exploded. In Sanaa, Yemen, at least 37 people have been killed by a car bomb. In India 2 brothers have been arrested for the confinement and repeated rape of a Japanese student

Above are just a handful of stories that have featured in the media this past week but without an accompanying international rally cry. When I saw the 40 world leaders walking arm in arm at the unity march in Paris I felt conflicted. On the one hand, after a brutal 3 days which saw the murder of 17 innocent people, and an attack on free speech, the sight of Cameron and Merkel et al was pretty incredible. But it’s unsettling to think that the media and political frenzy of the last few days could, at least in part, be down to our outrage that a privileged group of people fell victim to brutality. That our world leaders are prepared to gather in a public show of support for these men (and one woman), and not countless other victims of brutality, suggests that they believe some lives are more valuable than others. Victoria Brownworth illustrates this perfectly:

We may say “pas peur” in solidarity, but it is a solidarity that is illusory and doesn’t actually include us. For women, for Muslims, for Jews, for anyone who comes from a marginalized group or class, “pas peur” can never be true. Those of us who are the real targets of violence–which is not the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, who are actually anomalous victims–are in fact, afraid. We are afraid precisely because we know our lives have little worth in the global hierarchy. We know there will never be massive vigils held for us or hash tags created to memorialize us. The Paris shooting unsettled the world precisely because its victims were not the victims we usually see–and dismiss..

But not all men are granted privilege by everyone. Indeed, there’s an odd dichotomy at play here, because fundamentalist Islamic culture thinks little of non-Muslims and is nonchalant about their death and suffering. I reflect on this as someone who grew up exposed to insidious judgements about non-Muslims. I remember listening to men (always men) talk about non-Muslims as irrelevancies (unless they converted) in a world that needed to be focused only on Islam, and I’ve seen a lot of that attitude online (hello Twitter) over the last few days.

The reality is that while our beliefs deepen our empathy towards some, they can make it easier for us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide. A divide no more apparent than at times like this. Just consider the reactions to the terrible events of last week. On the one hand there was a flurry of predictable judgements tarring all Muslims with the brush of radicalism, out and out Islamophobia, racism, the absurd Murdoch-esque attitude that all Muslims be held accountable for what has happened. And on the flip side of exactly the same coin some Muslims (I repeat: SOME Muslims) reacted angrily to the public display of empathy towards the victims at Charlie Hebdo, some actively separated themselves from the large scale support of free speech, some demanded we tighten the parameters of freedom, and some responded with whataboutery: “yeah it’s sad, but what about Palestine, Syria, Iraq, *insert name of predominantly Muslim country here*” All these reactions demonstrate the belief that some lives have less intrinsic value than others. The simple fact is, if we only care about people who are like us, we’ve lost our humanity somewhere along the line.


I didn’t know much about Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday. I’d seen a couple of cartoons online, that was it. So, over the past few days, like others, I’ve attempted to find out more (this is a short, but interesting reflection on the publication). I flinched at a couple of images and probably made a face like my grandma does when she sees me swear on Facebook, but then I had a closer look, and a read (context is our friend and all that) and as it turns out I find most of the images inoffensive. Most, not all. Some of them I struggle with. But – and this is key – freedom of speech is infinitely more important than my discomfort at being offended.

And anyway, free speech is most dangerous not when it occurs in a magazine, a newspaper, or on tv (because all of that invites a response), but behind closed doors, away from the public gaze, where discussion and resistance are prohibited. I’ve been privy to free speech that incited racism, the murder of apostates and homosexuals, and violent misogyny, and on each occasion there was no debate, no media furore, and life went on as normal. I think back to those appalling ‘discussions’ and they make me shudder. But that doesn’t mean I think we should start policing private spaces, or limit freedom of speech, quite the contrary. The only way xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and any other kind of blind hate can prosper is if we feel too threatened or apathetic to resist – it’s the default reaction of people without freedom of expression, who live in cultures ruled by fear. People with privilege, like Will Self for example, don’t feel the bind of those restrictions, at least not until they want to write something controversial about Islam. But those of us who have lived through religious absolutism know its impact, and for us the freedom of speech debate is about something far bigger than whether cartoonists should be allowed to satirise prophets.

We have to acknowledge that there is a minority but very “real fascistic force”  within some Muslim communities that demands complete control of human expression.  But we can’t let them skew the narrative, because for every xenophobe misusing free speech to tout hate, there are countless others using their voices to dismantle prejudice and oppression. If in some fear induced compromise we relent and start to police anything other than speech that incites violence, it’s not like radical Muslims would suddenly become reasonable. Their focus would shift to other ‘immoral freedoms’ that need to be stamped out. We can’t start down a slippery slope that has the potential to suffocate all but the most powerful or aggressive voices. We must resist, and that means clinging on to our freedom for dear life.

I’ll leave you with what are (I think) two of the most important articles about the events of the past week – Unmournable Bodies, by Teju Cole, and On Charlie Hebdo: A letter To My British Friends, by Oliver Tonneau. Go on, read them.

A Christmas message about multiculturalism

It’s nearly Christmas! This means:

1. I’m feeling both guilt ridden & anarchic about the number of gifts & Christmas cards I’ve bought (zero)

2. and the complete lack of homemade decorations, and Christmas pudding.

3. And while I’m overcome by Christmas romanticism

4. I’m also battling with an inner grinch…

I had Christmas banned as a child and (small detail) I’m not Christian, so each year I feel like a Christmas fraud and I worry my children will see through my attempts to create meaningful tradition out of the cultural no-mans land that I inhabit.

I think it might be an unwritten law of blogging, parent-blogging at least, that December is dedicated to wish lists and that elf on the shelf thing, but I won’t be going there. To me Christmas is about lots of the usual fun (foooooooood, Bridget Jones on tv, all the wine, a 48 hour period of intense Christmas shopping involving tears and expletives, the tinsel debate – yay or nay?) but with an added layer of niggling worry that I’m doing it all wrong.

That time Christmas was banned

As the half-Iraqi, half-white, step-daughter of a Pakistani revert to Islam (all the hyphens), I grew up in an intersection between different faiths and cultures. We stopped celebrating Christmas after my parents began practising Islam when I was about 10, and we were herded with hot-pokers into an intolerant, uncompromising Islamic ideology. We had one year’s grace when we were allowed a Christmas tree on New Year’s day as an odd compromise, but that was just weird for everyone. The following year there was nothing. After that, whenever I heard Bob and the gang sing “do they know it’s Christmas?” with their earnest, self-important faces, I’d feel terribly sad. For myself. Clearly Ethiopia had more pressing concerns than missing out on a-white-saviour-complex-themed Christmas, but me? I was heartbroken. What can I say? 10 is a selfish age.

As the years went on, new challenges made the lack of Christmas a non-issue. My teenage years were spent searching for clarity amidst conflicting cultures and a religious ideology that I had little respect for. I’m mixed race but my white skin and blonde hair granted me white privilege. I felt it from a young age, especially when I saw my ‘half’ (I hate that phrase) siblings battle racism and stereotypes that bypassed me. But my whiteness also meant I grew up on the periphery of each of my cultures. I was a perpetual oddity; the novelty gori (white person…with loose morals) in the Pakistani-Muslim community, and to white British people I was the strange convert girl. As with many mixed race people my siblings and I were seen as half this and half that, lacking in culture and identity, rather than having it in abundance. Those feelings of cultural inadequacy have stuck.

My experiences leave me with conflicting ideas about multiculturalism. I see how positive and enriching it can be, but I hate that it’s become synonymous with lazy notions of tolerance. Multiculturalism doesn’t always play out as the utopian ideal of cultures existing in harmony. In reality tribalism, prejudice and abuse can seethe just below surface level. Especially when religious traditions are allowed to trump secular value systems.

My life turned upside down after I was forced to convert, but not one teacher or authority figure questioned my upset, my transformation, or the way I retreated into my shell. Religious misogyny was played out overtly, day after day, in my life and the lives of so many girls I knew, but my school and the wider community accepted the status quo dictated by religious leaders. I realised pretty quickly that people are more worried about political correctness and appeasing cultural sensitivities than demanding autonomy for minorities. So I kept my head down and focused on university knowing it would be my escape from religious fundamentalism. A few months after starting my degree I met my now husband, was disowned, and the rest is history. And heartbreak. And freedom.

During the cultural hiatus between disownment and having children I had to feel my way with all things festive and previously forbidden. Like all parents I want my children to enjoy things that I couldn’t and to have traditions in which they find comfort and happiness. But the guilt I was taught to associate with Christmas, birthdays, Halloween…and anything else enjoyed by the kafir (non-believers) was deeply ingrained. As time’s gone on I’ve become more rational, but Christmas will always be symbolic of a monumental and disorientating shift in my life. The ‘convert’ years have left me with a sense of cultural dislocation, so I continue to make up ‘tradition’ and cultural identity as I go along.

Remembering gender segregation

Earlier this week someone I follow on Twitter shared a story about an ultra Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit next to a woman on a plane. It sounded absurd, even to me, and I spent years sitting behind curtained partitions, scurrying to the kitchen whenever the doorbell rang in case the visitor was male. But it’s easy to forget, once you’ve left behind the norms of radical religion, how cruel men can be.

I struggle to be politically correct about gender segregation. I also struggle with the men (and sometimes women) who find it impossible to ‘up’ their humanity even temporarily to bypass archaic doctrine. In my experience people who demand gender segregation in public spaces are either irritatingly precious about their right to enforce their decisions (never mind the rest of society), or terrorised by the concept of a god who defines and values us all on the basis of our sexuality and gender.

My family converted to Islam when I was a teenager, and my siblings and I were expected to follow suit. I don’t remember any official conversion moment, it was more a wearing down over time sort of thing. After a while I realised I had no choice and that until I left home I’d have to live as a Muslim, whether I believed or not. It was my first and so far only foray into acting.

I’ve spoken before about how life changed once we started practising my stepfather’s interpretation of Islam. One of the hardest parts was how my sex, gender, and sexuality were used as a weapon of control. How I dressed, how I behaved, who I spoke to and befriended, which school I could attend, and how I was treated by men in both personal and public spheres was, all of a sudden, entirely dictated by what was between my legs. I found the obsession with sexuality crude and backwards, and I hated the way it was used to manipulate female life. But as a woman my opinions were irrelevant.

I remember the justifications for the treatment of women. The insistence that God’s law was final, no matter the pain or inequalities it caused, or the logic it defied. I remember the offensive, saccharine nonsense about how female subjugation was an ultimate kindness. Apparently I should have been grateful that I was all but banished from the public sphere and wrapped up, away from the gaze of unsophisticated men who’d never been taught to control their most primitive urges. Apparently it was special treatment that meant I wouldn’t be tainted, it meant I was ‘free’ to live without being a sex object, and, most importantly, it meant I could be loved by God.

One of the worst experiences was seeing women internalise the misogyny they were exposed to. It’s one thing listening to men bark about how women need to be controlled, it’s quite another witnessing women espouse the virtues of subservience and victimhood. Each time a woman told me how important it was for me to be covered, pure, humble, and grateful to the men who effectively owned me, I felt betrayed and utterly crushed. Which is why writing, like Elana Sztokmans piece, is so wonderful to read. Here’s an excerpt, it’s pretty perfect. More power to you Elana, we really do deserve better.

If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world, it is this: I would like women to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.

It’s hard to put into words just how suffocating I found religious oppression, but this poem I wrote comes pretty close:

The Bind

Only a little light made its way
through opaque windows.
The air was still. Artificial.
I could hear
the deep
hum of

I thrashed like hopeless bait
before resigning to fate
I didn’t believe. But in
darkness with no air,
you forget who 

I stooped
to fit. I scrubbed
til dirt gleamed. I learnt all about
covering and draping and buttoning high, about
lowering eyes, about shuffling; not sauntering my thighs.
I learnt about the flash of my ankles, the lure of my smile. I silenced
my voice, reined in my mind. Suffocated soft, round flesh in a constricting bind.

If you are humble
and pure, quiet and
kind, He will wait for you,
in no man’s land, behind brick,
cloth, ticking clocks, lusty, flinching
eyes, sharp exhalations and disapproving sighs.

But I needed air and light, day and night. I needed love and touch and joy undefined by wizened men so terrified, they dare not meet my eye. Unshackled from the dead-weight shroud, from the doctrine of men who know no bounds, I am free.

Writing a book on religious patriarchy

I have another blog and recently I was asked to talk there about the book I’m writing. The book will be an extension of this space so it seems right that I share my piece here too…

What am I working on? A non fiction book about my past. As a teenager I was forced to convert to Islam and after the ‘conversion’ I experienced (and witnessed many other women experiencing) years of religiously sanctioned misogyny. After falling in love with a non-Muslim I was disowned and forced to leave my home and family. In the years since I’ve pieced together a new, autonomous, identity. My book will tell my story and it will discuss how the female experience can be limited by religious patriarchy.

How does my work differ from others in the genre? the research process has helped me discover some great writing about women who escaped religious control and misogyny, but these pieces tend to be written by, or about, people who were born into the religion. I’m not aware of any books about women forced into converting to Islam, as I was.

There’s a dearth of first-hand representation regarding religious misogyny. This results in a disconnect between the reality of being controlled and abused by religious patriarchy, and the stories being told. My book will offer an alternative to the faceless, academic analysis of religious misogyny. It will discuss, honestly, the emotional (and sometimes physical) manipulation that occurs in the context of forced conversion, as well as the reality of living under extreme patriarchy, and with conflicting cultural identities.

My story might sound unusual, but it’s certainly not unique. Islam attracts large numbers of converts each year and, if what I witnessed is anything to go by, there are other women (and men) who are emotionally corralled or trapped into Islam, by parents or partners.

Why do I write what I do? Initially I started to write as therapy. I spent years consumed with guilt over my decision to leave my family, but writing has allowed me sift through the emotional debris of my past. Writing has taught me that I had every right to want more from my life than being an automaton, that I’m entitled to feel angry about the way I was treated and about the years of lost opportunities, and most importantly that I can and should talk about my past.

Writer’s Boot Camp Week: 21 Things No One Will Tell You As a Writer (But Someone Probably Should)

I also write in the hope that I might be able to help others. And that’s not an entirely selfless act. If, all those years ago, I had come across a book like the one I’m writing, it would have started the healing process so much earlier. I would have found my voice before having my own family and it would have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache. I want to help those isolated by ‘sacred’ or cultural misogyny to feel less alone, so that they have the confidence to demand their freedom.

Lastly, I write because I know that human rights are being abused by those at the helm of organised religion (men). I passionately believe that any religious practice involving emotional or physical coercion, patriarchy, prejudice, or discrimination must be ripped apart for analysis – there can be no sacred cows. And women need to talk honestly about their experiences, because if we don’t rock the boat with truth, misogynistic attitudes and behaviours can’t be dismantled.

What is my writing process? I’m an impulsive writer and not particularly organised, but once I decided to write my book I knew I needed a more methodical approach, so I allocated time during the summer to plan my chapters, put them in order using Scrivener and fill them with notes.

In terms of writing software, I flit between the Evernote app on my phone and Scrivener. Evernote is so user-friendly, it syncs with all my other devices and I can use it whenever I have my phone to hand. Scrivener is a pretty slick programme that gives you complete control over formatting, but there’s no app so I don’t find it as practical as Evernote, especially as I tend to write in snatches – 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there – on my phone. My writing process is far from ideal and I often get frustrated at not having longer stretches of time to sit down and organise my ideas, but with two small children and a job, I’ve got to work with what I have.

I own this

Today I spoke to a troll; one of the Twitter folk who crop up from nowhere, wielding their 140 characters like an overtired toddler with a pointy stick. I know I should take a deep breath and step away from the internet, I know his words (I’m assuming it’s a he) should have no bearing on my thoughts, but they do.

I’d been keen to find out what literature already exists on misogyny in Islamic communities, so earlier this week I tweeted this:


No one came back to me with any book suggestions, but instead I had several tweets from Mr Troll telling me, among other things, that my story is a ‘yawn inducing cliché’, that I’m building ‘sensationalised mythologies’, that I have ‘little independence of thought’, and that I’m playing ‘into a toxic public narrative about Islam’ with a ‘tired story that is heavily politicised and deeply divisive’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. So, the tweets weren’t overly supportive *cough*, but I was amazed that my little blog with just 6 posts had evoked such passion in someone I’ve never met. My smugness didn’t last long, because his words dug away at the part of me that until now has been too scared to talk about my past.

Mr Troll implied that I’m using my ‘small, personal story’ to attack Islam. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that in opening up about the forced conversion, the misogyny, and the disownment, I’m pitting myself against a whole faith. Several people have suggested that despite, or perhaps because of what I’ve been through, I’ve a responsibility to defend Islam and Muslims. I’ve been told that instead of reflecting angrily I should help to improve the lot of Muslim women from within the faith. All those arguments have niggled away at me for years and so I’ve stayed quiet, worrying that I might contribute to the anti-Islamic rhetoric that has hurt so many of the people I love.

I would probably still be weighed down by those fears if it weren’t for the internet. Thankfully my computer sings to me with beautiful feminist writing and women who refuse to be victims. And I’ve come to realise that misogyny is like any other abuse in that it wont sort itself out. In order for men to be held accountable and women to be given any chance of freedom, we need to speak up about our experiences. We need to stop tolerating misogyny. We need to stop feeling guilty for wanting equality. We need to raise our voices. And Muslim and ex Muslim women need to rise above accusations that their stories are inflammatory, irrelevant and anti-Islamic – those arguments are just manifestations of a culture wanting to control female minds and bodies.

Over 20 years ago a man commanded that I be Muslim. I had no choice in the matter. It was an abuse of power. It’s ridiculous to assume that I’ve a responsibility to promote or protect a religion just because I was forced to practice it. I’ve no desire to upset Muslims, indeed some of the people I love most are Muslim, but I’m entitled to reflect on the abuses of power I, and many other women, have suffered in the name of Islam.

The suggestion that my story is just a personal account with no bearing on wider society is absurd and it’s an attempt to belittle and silence me. Growing up I could only watch as women around me were reduced to vessels of male honour, their lives stunted to fit archaic models of purity.

The lack of autonomy that women in so many Muslim communities experience is relevant and must be discussed. As I’ve said before, presenting my story and my belief that women should have complete autonomy is not an attack on Islam, it’s a legitimate demand for equality and a necessary calling out of injustice.

I didn’t ask for the misogyny, but it happened to me, so now I own it, and I will talk about it. Whether you like it or not.