UK Feminsta: voices that can't be ignored

Moving into the mainstream.

If you haven’t been paying attention to feminism recently, you’re missing out on one of the most committed, outspoken and energising social justice movements of modern times. On Wednesday, hundreds of campaigners headed to Westminster from across the country for UK Feminista’s mass lobby of Parliament. They came to rally, march and meet their MPS face-to-face with one demand: that women’s rights be placed firmly and finally on the mainstream political agenda, and not swept to the sidelines any longer.

And you couldn’t beat the timing. Only today, a Supreme Court ruling on unequal pay claims prompted doom-laden warnings of thousands more cases to follow. Among the reactions to the decision itself, it’s worth someone pointing out that if many employers are now vulnerable, it’s only because they weren’t paying women the same as men doing work of equal value in the first place.

Austerity has of course been shown repeatedly to have a disproportionate impact on women through cuts to public sector jobs, benefits and tax credits and vital services. But as the speakers at the rally repeatedly made clear, women’s inequality didn’t start with the financial crash. Progress on a welter of other issues has been circular, strangulated or almost non-existent for years, and the lack of public awareness of many of them is startling. Despite the recent return of abortion to the headlines, for example, it seems many people remain unaware that, far from being available on demand, abortion was never actually decriminalised in this country. If two doctors give their permission before 24 weeks that’s merely a defence – in Northern Ireland it’s up to nine weeks and even then only in the most extreme circumstances, forcing thousands of women to travel abroad for the procedure.

Despite huge advances in recognition and support for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, successful prosecution remains hampered by myths and stereotypes. There hasn’t even been a prosecution, let alone a conviction, for Forced Genital Mutilation in the 27 years it’s been a crime – nobody beyond the women’s support service sector seemed even to have heard of it before this year’s Newsnight exposé.

Even where the stories are spotted, the connections often aren’t. The new online campaign to end Page 3 hit the news just weeks before the Savile allegations, and still few commentators have made the link. A culture in which it’s normal to offer up very young women, including 16 and 17-year-olds until just 2003, as daily sexual fodder for strangers, is not likely to be a safe or respectful one for other young women, especially the vulnerable. And feminists have been saying as much for a generation.

But yesterday’s event was not simply about picking up where previous campaigns have left off. It’s not just renewed vigour that’s needed, but a significant shift in our ambition. Where political progress has been made on gender equality in the past, it has largely been through sympathetic and determined female MPs. In contrast, the point of a mass lobby is precisely that it isn’t targeted: participants come for answers from their own MP, whether that’s someone with a vast record of feminist engagement, or someone who thinks VAWG is a mispronounced item of cutlery.

We must now expect all our representatives to see understanding and promoting women’s equality as a fundamental part of their job – unless, of course, they can prove they don’t have any women in their constituencies. Short-term change that barely outlasts an individual pioneer’s Parliamentary career is not enough: it’s time for a democracy that works for women.

And between two and four o ‘clock yesterday afternoon, this actually began to look possible. MPs from all parties were dotted along the corridor with their constituents; the stewards were shouting themselves hoarse announcing a new MP arrival every few minutes. Labour MPs were of course out in force, but there was also a credible showing by their Conservative counterparts: Amber Rudd was squeezed into a corner with her constituents as Anne Milton popped in between votes for hers. The Bristol activist contingent, who had set up camp in the corner, swapped Dawn Primarolo for Charlotte Leslie with impressive efficiency. Robin Walker, who ducked out of his other meetings repeatedly to ensure he eventually found his constituents, stuck in the queue outside, must get a special mention, as must Sarah Teather’s extremely patient researcher, Frances.

Of course, some were no-shows. And one or two who did come might not have been missed in their absence– like the one who told a constituent, a student, that she wasn’t entitled to a view on refugee women or abortion because she didn’t pay taxes and hadn’t had a baby. But what was essential, in the end, is not that the MPs came, though so many did, nor that they pledged to take action, though so many did. It’s that their constituents came, and pledged – and made it clear they expect change.

Elsewhere in the media, you can see pictures of Dr Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-grand-daughter, and the Olympic Suffragettes, who brought both colour and context to an event that took place more than 80 years after women won the vote. But what was most noticeable on the day was actually the diversity of the lobby as a whole: women and men of all ages and races, from skinny jeans to sharp suits to sensible anoraks. This was an assembly that refused to be stereotyped, refused to be ignored and refused to be sidelined any longer. If I were an MP who’d shown little interest in women’s rights before, I’d be starting to pay attention right about now.

UK Feminista rally. Photograph: Getty Images
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".