Well, I remember having a conversation with a famous war correspondent called Marie Colvin. She was a friend of mine. We were talking; this must have been more than 20 years ago now. And we were talking about her work and she said, “You know, Yvonne, I’m not going to go out of business anytime soon as the war correspondent.” Of course, now we are in the new millennium, 20 years on and the picture is just as bleak.
Now, even I’m not going to go out of business anytime soon, writing about wars or visiting conflict zones, because unfortunately, there are men in our world today who are ruling or in control, who are addicted to war. Look at the situation of Iraq. It has descended into even more turmoil. It is by no means better off now than it was before the invasion in 2003.
You look across North Africa, where the flame of independence and rebellion was burning brightly. You look at Egypt, it’s back in the control of what I would say is a brutal dictatorship. Libya is a basket case. Tunisia is struggling because there are countries afraid of democracy that are working around the clock to undermine the fledgling democracy that the Tunisian people have. You go over to Afghanistan. 20 years of rule by corrupt governments have left their mark on the people. And so when the Taliban rose up, they were welcomed back. And now we’re told that millions are on the brink of starvation in Afghanistan. Yemen is another area where children are dying daily through malnutrition.
When you think this is the 21st century and our children are still dying through starvation and malnutrition, you know, that is unacceptable, especially when you look at the obscene amounts of wealth and power that have been held by some and yet, you know, children are still starving today. So, that sounds really depressing. Doesn’t it? And then you’ve got the Palestinians who are continuing their fight for justice and independence as well.
Oh, the story goes much deeper than that. Yes, you’re right. Quite why women’s rights have been eroded in the Muslim world? It’s down to the current leaderships and in many ways it’s down to us as women as well because, um, the Holy Qur’an makes it crystal clear that we women are equal in spirituality, worth and education, and it doesn’t matter how much misogyny is out there or what the patriarchy is up to.
There isn’t a man alive who would challenge the word of God and say He’s wrong. So if the Qur’an, which we believe was written by God, if the Qur’an is telling us that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education, why on Earth are we being treated the way we are around the world? And part of it is because of a lack of knowledge on our part.
We have to go out there and retake our rights, the very rights that Khadija RA, Aisha RA, all the great women in the early days of Islam enjoyed. And, you know, while Western armies are still grappling with the concept of women on the front lines, Muslim women were on the battlefields and in fact, our beloved Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, singled out one particular female, a warrior who was everywhere he turned, she was there protecting him. And, you know there were some really heroic women out on the battlefield in those early days of Islam. So why on Earth aren’t we allowed to go out to the shops in some countries. Why are we not allowed to travel a short distance in some countries; it’s absolutely ludicrous.
And, you know, as I say, part of it is our fault because we are not asserting and demanding our rights as Muslim women. And part of it is the fault of men who are equally ignorant, who don’t realize that those rights are ours. It is quite astonishing and quite depressing in some ways.
Well, we just have to look at France, where various French presidents have over the years just ripped the hijab off the heads of French school girls, and the niqabs from women who prefer to completely cover. France is a country which runs around boasting, telling the whole world – we believe in Liberty, Fraternity, Equality – well, clearly not when it comes to Muslim women, they don’t, and this is something else. You can tell from the tone of my voice that this makes my blood boil. As woman, if we just put religion aside just for a second, as a woman, I should have the right to wear what I want, to dress in the style that I want, and nobody should be telling me how I should dress. No man has the right to go into any woman’s wardrobe. Now as a Muslim woman, all the Qur’an tells me is to cover and be modest. That’s all. The rules and regulations regarding how men should dress are many and varied, right down to colors and types of metals and blends of trousers, all these things. But for women, all we have to do is to be covered and be modest. Yet, there is so much focus and attention and in the West, there is an obsession with what Muslim women wear – how they wear it, how they behave, how they act. And it is really frustrating. And, you know, again, a lot of this is driven by men who have this, I call it this white savior complex, you know – we must go out and rescue those women. These are the words that George Bush and Tony Blair used when they started the war in Afghanistan. We’re going in there to liberate the Afghan women. Well, that’s what the Russians did. That’s how three previous British military campaigns, three of them, I believe all ended in failure in Afghanistan. You know, if this is true, Afghan women should be among the most liberated women in the world if these men really meant what they said, but they don’t. And while Muslim men get accused of oppressing and exploiting women, men in the West have done exactly the same – exploiting women in the name of war, you know, have you heard of a woman being liberated by being bombed? You know it’s crazy.
Which is why I urge women across the world to get involved in politics, where you have women on the political landscape, where you have women in leadership roles, where you have women in prominent positions, there’s less chance of going to war, less chance of death and destruction, and there’s more chance of really productive things happening.
The state of Muslims today is really sad. But if you go back into history, Muslims were the great innovators, great architects, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, doctors. We lead the world in so many ways, so what’s happened? Well, what has happened is the role of women has been diminished. In those great golden eras of Muslim innovation, Muslim women were shoulder to shoulder with the men, but that is not happening today.
Again, part of it is our fault. We need to regain our position and take back what was taken from us from those early days in Islam. I think one of the first universities in the world was created by a woman. One of the first hospitals in the world was opened by a woman. Islam was funded in the early days by a woman who made her money being an international trader, Khadija RA. Why have we lost our power?
Well, I think that we just have to come from a very simple position, human rights, all for everyone, regardless of their skin color, regardless of their faith, regardless of their gender, regardless of anything. If you are human, you deserve exactly the same rights as anyone else. And unfortunately, this is not the case. You mentioned the plight of the Uyghurs, for instance, who all have been persecuted by the Chinese, but unfortunately there are some nations, some people around the world who will not speak for the Uyghurs because they do not want to have that confrontation with China.
So they look the other way, or they are pragmatic. And you look at the plight of the Rohingyas. I remember having a discussion, about 15 years ago with a Muslim brother, about the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and he had heavily invested in Myanmar, in properties, and he was sticking up for the position of the Myanmar military because of his personal interests. I haven’t had a conversation with him since about how the plight of the Rohingya escalated to a point where 750,000 people just dropped everything and ran for the border and are now living in the most appalling conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh. And those people are being told you can go back and they’re saying, no. You know, who would rather live in a plastic hut supported by bamboo, rather than go back to their home. What on Earth happened to those people to make them think ‘we can never go back’. I blame a lot of it on the United Nations. You know, the United Nations came together after the Second World War and they established a very high bar of human rights, of equality. All these grand affirmations and declarations, which worked well at first. But then, you look at the state of the United Nations now. Some of the main protagonists of atrocities are sitting in the Security Council and they look the other way or they deny that anything is happening. Their friends in the West who are dependent on them, maybe for power, for energy, for minerals, they’re also looking the other way. Well, this has got to stop. You look at the war in Yemen and these tiny babies that are being born, who are not going to survive their first year, because they will die of malnutrition because of a war – a war that doesn’t make any sense. In fact, I don’t know many wars that do make sense.
Yes, you have hit the nail on the head. Now the United Nations has become like a silent spectator, or rather we would say that the member nations saw to it that it should be like that and there won’t be any interference from the United Nations on what they have been doing to their minorities within their countries.
So now, the solutions and strategies. Of course, there are legal, political, and social ways to fight injustice and human rights violations within countries, and if we want, by using the same Human Rights Declaration, we can, if we want. So for young and justice seeking, men and women who are facing quite a lot of repression while going about their work, when they raise their voice, what suggestions or advice do you have? How should they proceed to make this planet a better place, a peaceful place for everyone to live?
Well, we’ve recently had the big climate conference in Glasgow. Without exception, all of the world leaders have been shamed by this new generation, which isn’t prepared to sit back and allow us to destroy the planet anymore.
So, that’s where my optimism comes from. You know, I look back over my shoulder and I am just depressed by what I see – a lot of self-serving, rulers, the patriarchy, who have created nothing but chaos, death and destruction. But I look forward and I see this young generation more determined and that is why I’m optimistic because I look at them and I think they are not going to put up with the sort of nonsense that has become almost normal in our lives – men addicted to war, arms dealers, weapons manufacturers, all of these negative industries that are growing around us. Hopefully, there will come a time where the need for weapons and their manufacturers is replaced by something more positive and more productive.
Just looking at the next generation, they are the ones that will teach us lessons. When I go to speak at universities, I see lots of bright, engaged, young people, men and women who are determined to put this planet back on track for a more peaceful future.
To that extent, the future looks good, but at the moment, history has been bleak and the present is looking bleak. I would like to see Muslim women become more assertive, more demanding, taking back their rights and becoming involved politically within the political landscape.
You look at female leaders around the world. People like Aung San Soo Kyi aren’t that inspirational. She is as much a victim of the patriarchy, as anybody else. If she had been born a man, she would still be in the situation that she’s in today. She is perpetuating her father’s leadership and style of rules, although it’s backfired at the moment for her, but, she is emblematic of the patriarchy. So are some other rulers like Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. She’s part of a dynasty, a continuation of the patriarchy and she’s not there because she’s a woman, she is there because of who her father was.
So she’s an extension of that patriarchy, but you look at other places around the world, the New Zealand leader, she’s quite inspirational, the South Korean, the Singaporean leaders, these women have really risen up. Same with Angela Merkel who opened the doors in Germany to more than a million refugees. There are inspirational women who can see the bigger picture – and it is the picture of promoting peace, of turning away from violence. I really think that there are some countries that stand out because they have gender balanced governments. I mean, have you ever heard of Iceland go into war or Finland go into war, Scandinavian countries invading other countries? It doesn’t happen. That’s because, I believe, that women are getting into places in governance and coming up with far more productive ideas because going to war should be a last resort in anyone’s book.
Unfortunately, with some of the male dominated governments, like we’ve seen in Britain and America, their first point of action has been, – right, let’s go to war. So hopefully, as women get more and more involved in politics, this inclination to embark on a destructive course will become less.
I’m living in Scotland these days and Scotland has its own government. The government here has rolled out something called ‘period poverty’, so that women who need sanitary wear and tampons and things like that, it’s freely available for them. You could put 20 male politicians in a room for 10 years to come up with innovative ideas and not one of them would come up with let’s issue free sanitary items to women.
So I think that, because women come from a different perspective, they can add so much more to governments. But don’t leave it to anybody else to do to all the work, women out there who are listening to this, get involved yourself. You know, there are some great female initiatives going around. For example, when it comes to India, I was blown away by this group of women called the Pink Saris. You know, they were involved in direct action; they had enough of male violence and domestic violence and they did some tremendous work. I think that that’s what all of us have to do – think out of the box and promote our femininity to greater aid and to get involved in the political landscape and reshape it into a more female-friendly type of foreign policy.