"Why not just wear a burqa": Experiences of ethnic minority women writing online

Five ethnic minority writers share their experiences with Asiya Islam.

 

The figure that only five per cent of national newspaper editors are women, from the recently released report ‘Sex and Power’, has been doing the rounds. What we haven’t heard so much is that of those five per cent, all are white women and indeed, of the 95 per cent men, all are white men. There are no ethnic minority national newspaper editors, at all - it’s a shocking, but probably not a surprising, figure that reflects the picture in the rest of the media. It’s a figure that also indicates how small the chances are of an ethnic minority woman expressing her opinion in mainstream media. The term “minority within a minority” comes to mind. But what happens when she does?

When I started writing online, any exhilaration I felt at seeing my name on the screen died with the many put downs I received in comments. Though I was aware of the extent of online misogyny, I still wasn’t prepared to be personally (and often quite randomly) attacked. Most women writing online will easily be able to recount rape and murder threats, sexist comments on their appearance and, to use that horrible term, “sexual capital”, and disdain for their “womanly” (probably hysterical, illogical etc) opinion. I was told to “calm down”, asked what I was wearing, and informed that men would enjoy it if I dressed like a slut, but there was also a racist undertone (sometimes not so much of an undertone as blatant racism) to most comments I received.

First, there was the general sense that I shouldn’t be talking about the UK since I don’t really belong here and that my opinion stems from my “back home” experience, mentality and relatives and that’s where I should keep it. And then there was the very loaded suggestion, with so many possible meanings that I wouldn’t be able to go into here, that I should wear a burqa – a suggestion, I understand, entirely based on the assumption derived from my name that I’m Muslim, since I’ve never specifically mentioned my religion (or the lack of it) or written on religious issues. It’s also worth stating that these examples have been picked up from comments on a moderated forum.

This got me thinking about the specific ways ethnic minority women are shut up in mainstream media. So, I put out a call for ethnic minority women writing online to learn of their experiences and the responses told the story I suspected all along. Interestingly, many of them felt, and I agree, that being ignored was the commonest and probably the strongest form of online racism. This contrasts with the often very graphic misogynistic threats women receive, but indicates the way experiences of ethnic minority women writing online are specific and “exclusive”.

From being likened to a boy in Patak’s curry advert, told that they’ll “hang high”, and questioned over their faith/religion to being completely ignored, ethnic minority women are silenced in mainstream media in many ways. Five ethnic minority women writers/bloggers share their experiences.

Bidisha

Bidisha is a writer, author and broadcaster

While the vast and overwhelming amount of hate mail I receive is openly and viciously misogynistic (rape threats, gendered and objectified personal abuse, abuse of feminism generally and what I call medieval misogyny: accusations of madness, badness, hysteria, shrillness, lying, troublemaking and so on whenever I whistleblow) there is always an undertow, although in the minority, of racism. Oddly enough I am often called a race traitor (no idea why) and the open-access sites, like the now-defunct Don't Start Me Off, were openly racist: idiotic comments about whether I looked like the boy from the Patak's curry advert and so forth.

The strongest racism, which I experience both in mainstream culture and in the trolling non-culture of the internet, is simply to ignore non-white people and their voices, ideas, opinions, work and experiences, except when these voices corroborate existing stereotypes. This is perpetrated not only by anonymous insulters but the broader culture - which is why, even in this diverse and globalised world, you will watch your way through this year's Oscar nominated films and struggle to see a non-white character who is not a maid, a slave, a comic stereotype or a criminal stereotype.

But if you've made woman-haters angry then you're doing something right. They are angry because they have been challenged, their privilege questioned and their cover blown. It makes me laugh because I write about how much women are hated in society and all the trolls very accommodatingly, and with absolute transparency and no self-awareness, prove it. Trolls certainly have not, cannot and will not silence me.

Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist media critic and activist

I write frequently about this topic (most recently The Digital Safety Divide). However, your recent post [the call I out for ethnic minority women to share their experiences] intrigued me  because commenters will often make assumptions about me based, as is always the case, on how I look and what my name is. So, in addition to the egregious threats and truly hateful messages, I occasionally get the "go back to Africa" or "go back to Arabia or wherever you are from." The first threat I ever got was one that said I would "hang high" which I wasn't sure whether to take as an actual suggestion of lynching.

I think that being told to "go back" to wherever I came from, "Africa or Arabia" might fit the description of sexist racism. The implication, of course, being that a) women of colour do not belong here (the US) or b) feminists (regardless of hue) cannot be "real Americans".

However, it hasn’t impeded me. It just makes me angry because it’s bullying, pure and simple.

Huma Qureshi

Huma Qureshi is a freelance journalist. She writes frequently for the Guardian

The only time I get the abuse, so to speak, is when I write Islam-related pieces, because then it puts me in the spotlight as Muslim, whereas I don't think people pick up on that on any of the other more newsy features I might do. The worst of what I've received has been when I've been emailed abuse, so it arrives in my inbox, rather than them saying it below the line in front of people to see. I've mentioned that in this discussion on online Islamophobia.

I've become a lot more careful about what I choose to write about. It's not because I'm afraid, it's just because sometimes you have to weigh up whether it's worth it. I have to consider how much I reveal about myself, I guess. But, it's not all bad. The last piece I wrote that drew attention to my Asian background (as well as Muslim background) was about my experience of Christmas and how much I love it.

I was expecting to get slaughtered in the comments, but they were mostly really nice, although there were as usual those who think I'm way too liberal...

Huma Yusuf

Huma Yusuf is a commentator on Pakistani politics and society for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and the International Herald Tribune

Like other women writers I’ve had people respond to my articles with misogynistic comments – rape threats, flirtatious comments, comments about my photographs online (either good or bad), marriage proposals, or questions about my marital status and sex life as a way to intimidate me. This happens about 5-10% of the time (the comments on my articles for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the Latitude blog on the New York Times are moderated, so I don’t know what’s being censored out there, this percentage reflects the emails I receive directly). But this is more generic to being a woman online, rather than an Asian woman.

Because I write about Pakistan and its politics and society, I face online feedback about my Islamic credentials. On Twitter, in blog comments, and in email, I’m frequently asked whether I’m  Muslim, what sect of Islam I’m from, whether I’m God-fearing, whether I’m a true believer who has lost her way, whether I realise that my godlessness reflects poorly on my parents etc. I’m also told that the woman’s place is in the home and that I shouldn’t be writing. This is usually in response to articles about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or articles about the mistreatment of religious minorities within Pakistan.

Sam Ambreen

Sam Ambreen is a former advocate working with survivors of domestic abuse, now an activist seeking to empower and protect the rights of women

My experience of writing/tweeting online is possibly more positive than most BME (black and minority ethnic) women in that I have a network who support me if I do ever run into trolls and the like. I have had people accuse me of using the race card before I've even opened my mouth which immediately reveals them for the bigots they are. Men seem to think it ok, or they used to before I told them to back off, to praise me or remark on my intelligence or politics as if they've never experienced anything like it before; it's patronising and again, an early warning bell for a pre-emptive block.

I wrote a piece called ‘White Feminists: Now will you listen?’ and it received a lot of attention. I was stunned to be confronted by a white woman who was offended by the title and said she often fought for the rights of 'other' women but felt she ought not bother if that is what we thought of them. She actually wanted gratitude. And some of the feminists I knew actually defended her. Apparently she was a nice person and it was all a big misunderstanding. Also many people make the assumption I'm younger than I am or at least, it feels like they're talking down to me. She repeatedly used the word girl to refer to me; I'm a 30 year old woman for the record. They think of us as those poor women suffering those savages from that strange place over there. They fail to understand that oppression is the same everywhere, only the methods differ.

In a Twitter conversation about rape, a man randomly jumped into it and, defending another man, said “Before you accuse him of racism, he’s right.” The implication here obviously was that, being an ethnic minority person, I was bound to bring up the ‘race card’ to defend myself. I was not expecting it all and was completely unprovoked.

I am lucky to be part of an intersectional crowd on Twitter. If anything offends, I deal with it by linking to it and discussing among people I trust. They also provide back up if I do get into an argument. My advice to BME women or in fact anyone other than white middle class is to seek out intersectional feminists and build networks.

 

Women in Pakistan taking computer classes. Photograph: Getty Images

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

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".