Imagine a world where all Arab women, regardless of differences in religion or socio-economic position, are united as one and become a powerful force for the good of all womankind; and, a time when all Arab women living in the Middle East are connected to those Arab women who are set up abroad, so that they can stand as one and support each other.
Just think of what they could achieve, what they could learn from one another, what would be their specific concerns and how they might choose to tackle them: for that is the BASIRA dream that belongs to the lovely and feisty Ahlam Akram, a lady of Palestinian origin that I had the pleasure to meet mid-December 2012.
BASIRA, which stand for ‘British Arabs Supporting Integration, Recognition and Awareness’ is Akram’s recent initiative to help make the above vision a reality; starting small with informal discussions to be encouraged by relevant film screenings that would bring together as many Arab and British Arab women as possible in one place.
Akram is well suited for this role. Her background is in the media and for many years writing in Arabic about human rights, female issues and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She has many times challenged Arab stigmas and prejudices with both positive and negative reactions to her personal views and beliefs.
I managed to interview her at a café just off Earl’s Court where she has been living for the past three decades, so she could tell me a bit more about this deep desire to create a change, a movement or even just a small shift to benefit the Arab woman wherever she may be placed.
The Arab Woman
Akram: “I want to challenge the many cultural and religious shackles that continue to restrict Arab women today and offer them personal empowerment. I have worked for decades as a human rights activist, but BASIRA is my biggest hope and the legacy I prefer to leave, if nothing else.
“Most important, as we come together, we need to find strong and credible Arab female voices and leaders in different fields. We must look to the challenges facing us back home and create a change in the image of the Arab woman to the outside world. And we must challenge and break cultural taboos.
“I admit that I have come to conclusions as a woman who has lived in the UK for over 30 years and where I exercise my freedom within a respectful legal framework. That is why I was not happy when the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested that we bring certain Sharia personal laws to the UK. This must be opposed by all women, for why should they go back to a time where they are viewed less valuable than the male?
“I have chosen films as the medium because they can reflect societal norms in a poetic and more provocative fashion than can be done otherwise. They relay many truths.
“Of course, the starting point is that all religions have violated women’s rights over the centuries. But what was acceptable 1400 years ago or more is not acceptable today. It is necessary for our wellbeing to progress and advance in this world we find ourselves in.
“My concern is that in the last twenty years, the Arab world has been turning out fatwas that do not refer to our common humanity or collective moral conscience. I believe these fatwas have only undermined religion as really there should be no mediation between us individually and God.
“Some appointed scholars have actually tarnished Islam by doing this and giving it a bad name; in particular regarding women and minorities in the Arab world. For only this week, a religious scholar in Morocco openly preached against the Jews in Morocco. He was doing this in a mosque and effectively, he is preaching hatred in a sacred space.
“I believe that Muslim clerics today have an obligation to take an immediate U-turn to stop creating divisions. As Arabs and Muslims, a radical philosophy will not serve any of us in the 21st Century. Instead, we must aim to build a peaceful environment based on our equality as human beings, to guarantee the right foundation for democracy and citizenship to secure our future generations from all backgrounds and all religions.
The Arab Identity
“The wonderful writer Amin Maalouf argues that human dignity is far more relevant than strict identity. For the Arab, it is urgent that we get rid of our prejudices against others and especially towards women and minorities. We should aim for no borders between us and the rest of the world.
“I had no choice in my religion nor my place of birth but I will never deny or change my roots. Instead, I would rather capitalize on the constructive and positive aspect of my culture. In my house, I celebrate my roots. I practise this when I cook Arabic food and listen to Arabic music.
“But as a citizen of the world, I also enjoy other types of food and I enjoy congratulating others of different faiths and backgrounds. That is what I feel in my heart that my culture has taught me.
“I feel that living in the West where my rights and dignity as a woman are guaranteed and protected, has made me a better person. If I divorce, I will share my husband’s wealth and have custody of my children, or the court will take the decision where it is best for them. My husband also can never manipulate me or decide at what age to marry off my daughter.
“The measure of BASIRA’s success will be the day when all Arab British women go out and demonstrate, to publicly condemn violations against women in the Middle East and to emphasise the universality of our rights as equal. I wish to succeed in changing the unjust and inhumane laws that violate women’s rights.
“There is also a definite intertwining between religion and culture and the Arab woman is in many cases herself unaware of the reality of her predicament. She has to abide by her father or husband’s rule and sadly, she can be invisibly crippled without her being truly aware.
“We must show the gap between universal human laws, versus religious laws and I want us all to soon go out to the streets and stand together to demand our equal rights as women, for fair access to education and protection through a secular system backed by democratic laws.
“For how can we love the man more than we love the woman? I love my husband, son, brother and father and am entitled to the same dignity. Equality between the sexes is truly the only way and democracy itself starts at home.
First Film - Hala2 La Wein
“The first film screening for BASIRA was ‘Hala2 La Wein’ that we managed to show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London December 2012. It is an incredible and thought-provoking film directed and produced by the talented Lebanese Nadine Labaki.
“Set in a simple village, where Arab Muslims and Christians were living in peace but are then swept into a wider-regional war, it is about sectarianism and the power of women to intervene to create strong behavioural shifts towards peace and away from conflict, war and aggression.
“Ultimately, as Arab women, we must dare to tell our stories, to share and talk about the issues dear to our hearts. For we deserve all the respect and so that there is no more of the ‘burning’ deep inside as we go through certain bad experiences.”
For more information on BASIRA and how to get involved: www.basira.co.uk.