Monday, 26 January 2015

Morocco - First female Muslim leaders lead quiet revolution

This is a little gem I’ve found on the Frontline Club website: Casablanca Calling, a documentary about women leading a quiet revolution in Morocco. I love this story because it shows strong women taking control and making changes in their own terms. They are neither following Western dreams nor accepting their country's repressive views of Islam.  It reminds me of the Queen Mothers of Ghana, who are reinventing their traditional roles to improve the lives of girls and women in their communities. I am going to Ghana in June with filmmaker Dominique Chadwick to report on that story.

Casablanca Calling, by documentary filmmaker Rosa Rogers and triple BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman takes us into the heart of this quiet social revolution in Morocco through the lives of the women at its forefront.  It is  the story of a society in transition and a mission to educate a nation.

In a country where 60% of women have never been to school, a new generation of women have started working as official Muslim leaders or Morchidat.  The Morchidat, the world’s first female Muslim leaders, are setting out to change their country: empowering women through the teachings of Islam and challenging the attitudes which breed extremism. 

They work in some of the poorest communities in Morocco to separate the true teachings of Islam from some of the prejudices emanating from a largely conservative culture. They work to support education for girls and campaign against early marriages.  And they encourage young people to build a more progressive Morocco, as opposed to pursuing the agenda that many young people in the country do, which is aspiring to a life in the West.

Through personal stories, family dramas and everyday lives, Casablanca Calling gives a unique perspective on women’s lives in contemporary Morocco. It tells the story of committed people, social change and a sacred mission.

The film will be presented at theFrontline Club on Friday 30 January 2015 at 7:00 PM. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Rosa Rogers and producer Hilary Durman.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lebanon - Media in a polarised country

Talking with students from various universities in Beirut

I wonder how my Lebanese colleagues manage to do any meaningful work.  How do you cover the news in such a polarised country? How do you report on other views, on other religious and political convictions – especially when you work for media which are themselves so polarised? 

I went to Beirut recently with the wonderful Milica Pesic, executive director of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a London-based international organisation promoting and researching media diversity.  During our weeklong visit, we discussed with top Lebanese journalists, as well as journalism faculty and students from five universities, how their media could try to ease tensions rather than fuelling hostility and violence.  Our visit was part of a two-year project called “Toward an Inclusive and Responsible Media in Lebanon” run by MDI and its Lebanese partner the Maharat Foundation, an organisation working on building a more democratic society through freedom of expression.

Byblos/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

The first thing Milica and I did when arriving in Lebanon was to visit the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city is the world. Created 7,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 40 km north of Beirut is a true microcosm of the various civilizations which have populated Lebanon over the centuries.   We thought that regular visits to Byblos should be mandatory for students, political and religious leaders, journalists and anyone in danger of forgetting the rich, diverse past of their country.
Walking through the coastal city, you can see layers upon layers of ruins from previous civilisations. Here are walls built by the Phoenicians, there a tower erected by the crusaders and everywhere are traces of the various cultures, ethnic groups and languages that have made the richness of this small country.

Sadly, because of its geographical location and the brutal civil war, which was fought along religious fault lines, Lebanon’s pluralism has long been replaced by ferocious polarisation.
The influx of more than one million refugees from Syria is further threatening this fragile country, where one out of every four people is now a Syrian refugee. 

And over the past few years, the media have exacerbated the sectarianism and have become more polarised themselves.  Journalists we spoke with explained that newspapers and TV stations – even universities – are increasingly in the hands of political, religious and business leaders who use them as their mouthpieces and instruments of control. 

Not surprisingly, the polarisation between media has in turn reinforced Lebanon’s social and political polarisation.

In that context, the work of Maharat Foundation and partner organizations like MDI is crucial. The Foundation has designed a Reporting Diversity module to help journalists, students and academics improve their skills in reporting on religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism. Maharat is also trying to make the media industry acknowledge their part of responsibility for this polarisation and offering guidelines for a more inclusive, ethical and responsible coverage. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things the world gets wrong – Perils of Perception

We don’t know the basic makeup of the countries we live in.  In fact, we are wrong on most key social issues, according to a fascinating recent Ipsos MORI’s global survey.  

This study shows how wrong the public across 14 very different countries (including UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, US, France and South Korea) are about key population characteristics and social issues.  Generally, we tend to overestimate what we see as problems or differences (unemployment, murder rate, immigration) and underestimate the familiar or what we assume is the norm (voting, Christians).  

And we are not just a bit off – we are massively wrong.

       In the UK for example:

       • We hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims: we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty). 
•      • We think that a quarter of the population are immigrants  (24%), while the real figure is nearly half (13%).

• We believe that the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.

• And we think that one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%. 

• In contrast, we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.

• We think  39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.

The same discrepancies between perceptions and reality are seen across the 14 countries surveyed. See survey’s index of ignorance below.

The big questions for me are: what is the impact of this huge gap between reality and perceptions and how do we get things so wrong? 
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers.  People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is.”

And how should politicians react? Should they act on these perceptions and design policies around them or should they try to challenge them?

As to why we get things so wrong, I blame the media. Although (or beacuse?) I am a journalist, I believe the media is largely responsible for reflecting distorted images of our societies.  For example, a relentless diet of Daily Mail’ stories about  ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants ‘flooding’, ‘invading’ British towns and villages must influence our perception on immigration.

Although the researchers didn’t generally ask respondents how they formed their views, they did ask the people who answered more than double the actual level for the immigration question how they formed their perceptions.

And surprisingly, the media (TV and newspapers) were far from their main reason. Rather, they said they based their immigration views on what they saw in their local areas and when they visited other cities. And because they believed people come into the country illegally, so aren’t counted.  

And now I wonder, how do people know who is an immigrant?  By the colour of their skin, the way they dress, the way they speak, behave? And that’s another big question…

Monday, 8 December 2014

Why prison doesn't work for women

Credit: Prison Reform Trust

Many years ago, fellow journalist Loren Stein and I worked with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco on a year-long investigation into the alarming number of miscarriages among pregnant women in US prisons and jails. Packed into routinely overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped facilities, pregnant inmates were often denied essential pre-natal and emergency care. As a result, more than 30 percent of the imprisoned pregnant mothers lost their babies – in one prison, it was 80%.

We found that because women formed a small proportion of the US prison population, the system was generally ill prepared and ill equipped to look after them - and there was very little thought about the impact their incarceration had on their families.

A couple of decades later and on the other side of the pond, it looks like little progress has been made:

A day-long conference at Northumbria University, Newcastle, this Thursday (11 December), will address why prison doesn’t work for women.

Former prisoners, prison reform campaigners and criminologists will examine the impact that imprisonment has on women and their families.  They will also discuss effective alternatives to imprisonment that could help solve the problem of increasing reoffending rates for women.

Keynote speakers include Vicky Pryce, who served a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and has recently authored Prisonomics, a book calling for reform for women prisons; Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird; and Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Louise Ridley, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria, will argue that the prison system has been designed for men and isn’t suited to the needs of women offenders.

“Women are mainly imprisoned for low level crimes, such as theft or handling stolen goods, which are often linked to their domestic situation. When men are imprisoned there is often a network of women – mothers, girlfriends, wives – who are caring for their children, paying the bills, and keeping their lives going so that they can more easily slip back into their family life when they are released. When women come out of prison they need support to rebuild their lives.”

Ridley argues that there is greater cost to the state when women are imprisoned as there is often the need to support their children in care during the custodial sentence. There also appears to be a larger domino effect when women with families are sent to prison.

 “Studies have found that children with mothers in prison are more likely to go on to offend than those with just the father in prison.”

The event is organised by The Centre for Offenders and Offending at Northumbria University, NEPACS, a regional charity providing support to prisoners and their families, the Prison and Offender Research in Social Care and Health Network (PORSCH), and OpenGate, a charity providing mentoring and support to women offenders returning to their community. 

You can follow the conference on Twitter: @PrisonNU & #wiprison

Monday, 27 October 2014

Reporting Diversity in Algeria - Terrorism stretches inclusive journalism training

Here I am with some of the brilliant journalists participating in the reporting diversity training in Algiers

You might not have heard much about Algeria and that’s not surprising. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria is not a popular tourist destination and the country is rarely in the (Anglo-Saxon) news - unless there is terrorism.  Well…a few weeks ago, not far from where I was staying on the outskirts of Algiers, a French tourist was kidnapped and beheaded by a militant group linked to Islamic State.  Police presence was beefed up in Algiers and foreigners like me were told to keep a low profile.

The murder hit at the core of the work we were doing there.  I had been asked by the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) to run a training for professional Algerian journalists on reporting diversity.  The London-based organization works internationally to prevent the media from intentionally or unintentionally spreading prejudice, intolerance and hatred; encouraging instead, fair, accurate, inclusive and sensitive media coverage in order to promote understanding between different groups and cultures.

During the five-day workshop, an Algerian colleague and I trained print and online journalists in how to write stories about the diverse groups who make up Algerian society, but whose voices are seldom heard in the media.  The journalists rose to the challenge and produced great stories on Syrian refugees, Sub-Saharan immigrants, people with disabilities, children in rural areas, single mothers and other marginalised groups.

And there was one other story – my favourite in fact. It was the story of a boy born in the mountains in Northeast Algeria during the “Black Decade” – the devastating conflict between Muslim extremists and government forces that tore the country apart in the 1990s and killed some 200,000 Algerians.  “Abd was the son of Islamist guerrillas, born in the ‘maquis’.  He is now 18. He doesn’t share his parents’ beliefs - in fact he has condemned them - but he is rejected everywhere he goes, he has no place in society and no future. He is suicidal,” explained the young journalist who had produced the story.  “I want to tell Abd’s story. It is the story of the children of the terrorists, of the “repented” – they are treated as pariahs in spite of the 2005 charter of national reconciliation,” the journalist told the class.

The other journalists greeted his story in stony silence. Then one said:  “I refuse to read anything about terrorists. We shouldn’t give them any voice, any recognition, any space.”  Many nodded in agreement. 

- “But he is a child. He didn’t ask to be born to terrorist parents, he doesn’t share their views,” I tried. 

- “What about the children of their victims? Do they have a voice?” angrily replied the journalist.

Everyone in Algeria is still traumatized by the “Black Decade” (Algiers still shuts down at night - a remnant of 10 years of curfew) and the story of the invisible children of Algerian terrorists hit a raw nerve. But it also generated a passionate and ultimately productive discussion around issues which were at the very heart of our training: how do we talk about other people’s views and experiences, especially when they disturb us?  Isn’t it better to hear what a segment of the population has to say, even if we don’t agree with them?  Some strongly believe that “terrorists” shouldn’t have a voice, but other people in Algeria believe that refugees, homosexuals, Christians and many other groups shouldn’t either.

The story also made me appreciate even more working with my Algerian colleague, as there are things which an outsider can only understand intellectually.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Rural Women's International Day - Our Stories, One Journey

Meal time in a rural village in the Pwani region of Tanzania/Photo credit: Veronique Mistiaen

Here in the West, it might not mean much, but rural women absolutely deserve a day of recognition. This new international day was set up by the UN in 2008 to recognizes “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.”

Rural women do feed the world. They are key for achieving the transformational economic, environmental and social changes required for sustainable development. But limited access to credit, health care and education are among the many challenges they face, which are further aggravated by the global food and economic crises and climate change. Empowering them is key not only to the well-being of individuals, families and rural communities, but also to overall economic productivity, given women’s large presence in the agricultural workforce worldwide.  

The first step in helping rural women to get the rights and tools they need to thrive is to let their communities, countries and the world  – especially policy makers - know what an amazing job they do and what enormous challenges they face.  So, I was pleased to see this “Women’s Travelling Journal on Food”  initiative by the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition (ARWC), PAN AsiaPacific (PAN AP) and Oxfam’s East Asia and South Asia GROW Campaign. 

Now on its third journey, the travelling journal, “Our Stories, One Journey: Empowering Rural Women in Asia on Food Sovereignty” aims to highlight the important roles of rural and indigenous women in agriculture and rural development, improving food security, coping and adapting to climate change, and eradicating rural poverty.

The journal is a compilation by 45 Asian rural women  from Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan who share the daily activities related to food in their homes, farms and communities and amplify their demand for food sovereignty, climate justice and secure rights to land and resources.  The travelling journal will culminate with the publication of the women’s stories on March 8, 2015 on the commemoration of the 102nd International Women’s Day.

“The travelling journal gives women a voice to share their lives and their struggles. Many have written that the journal initiative has been an enriching experience, increased their awareness and strengthened their solidarity with other rural women and communities,” said Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of PAN AP and Steering Committee member of the ARWC.

Watch the Women's Travelling Journal on Food Sovereignty teaser

She added that, “the journal comes at a time when Asian rural women are more marginalised and food insecure than ever, facing the onslaught of land and resource grabbing, corporate agriculture and neo-liberal policies which benefit a few corporations and countries, and elites.”


Norly Grace Mercado, East Asia GROW Campaign Coordinator, pointed out that women’s stories on how they cope with and adapt to climate change is very crucial “since climate change affects production and exacerbates hunger. Women are in charge of ensuring the family’s food security. They are also the ones overburdened when climate disasters strike.”


You can follow the 45 women as their stories unfold over the next six months  on Facebook here and on Twitter here.   Hashtag: #WTJFoodSovLaunch 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Yezidi Refugees Living in Limbo in Turkey

Children at the Yezidi refugee camp in Batman, Turkey/Credit: Kimbal Bumstead
Refugees from Iraq's Yezidi (or Yazidi) religious minority, who have fled to Turkey from the advance of jihadists, are still living in harsh conditions in refugee camps.  And many fear they will never be able to return home. 

The Yezidi refugees have fled to the southeastern Turkish province of Sirnak bordering Iraq to escape the murderous advance of Islamic State (IS) jihadists who specifically target their community.

Turkey, which is already giving sanctuary to some 1.2 million fleeing the Syria conflict, is not coping with this additional refugee influx.

Kimbal Bumstead, a young British-Dutch artist, has spent some time in the Yezidi refugee camp of Batman. Here is his report: 

Five minutes walk from “Batman Park”, a monster of a shopping mall, complete with lights that change colour, glass elevators and chocolate fondue fountains, is a disused football ground building that houses over 500 Yezidi refugees who have fled from Sinjar, Northern Iraq. They have been living there for over a month now, with three families to a room, after ISIS militia came to their village massacring those who refused to convert to Islam.

The Yezidi people are a Kurdish tribe who follow an ancient Mesopotamian pagan religion in which they worship the sun, and have a spiritual connection with the land.

Credit: Kimbal Bumpstead

I was lucky to meet two men there who spoke English, having been interpreters to the US Army during military campaigns in Iraq during 2007/2008. They told me some horrific stories about their families and friends who had been killed, women raped and sold into sexual slavery. On the 3rd August, ISIS militia came to their village and took 80 men out into the street, and told them they must convert to Islam or they will be killed. Those who refused were shot; those who accepted were also shot. 

According to local news sources there are now over 30,000 Yezidi refugees in Turkey, having fled their villages on foot, it is estimated that there are over 1 million refugees in Turkey now since the start of ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq.

A place in-between, a life in limbo

The disused sports hall housing the refugees is a place in-between, a place of not knowing, and hopes that may be shattered. There is not enough room inside the building or enough blankets for everyone to sleep. Many of the men are sleeping outside. The winter is coming and the people I spoke to have received no information about where they can go or when.

They have not been granted asylum in Turkey and neither do they want that. All of them have the same dream: to move to a place that is safe, in either Europe or America. They want permanent solutions and asylum, but for now they are in limbo, not having the tools or the means to be able to apply for it. Without having money to travel to an embassy, nor documents, they are reliant on officials to come to them. They are becoming increasing frustrated, and none of them know how long they will have to wait.

The majority of them are undocumented, having left their homes with just the clothes they were wearing, many of them had never had the need for a passport before. Turkey has granted them temporary shelter in its territory, but not political asylum.  

“We want to go to Europe or America”, says Saado, one of the former US interpreters, “we can’t go back to Iraq, it’s not safe, they will kill us, but we can’t stay in Turkey either. Maybe they will make us stay here for one or two years but then what?”

Another man, a Kurdish Yezidi who lives in Batman and has taken it on himself to organise the camp, tells me:  “The Turkish government say they are helping, but they are not doing anything to help us. The only help we are getting is from the local Kurdish community, they give us food and water and have helped with giving us blankets to sleep on, but we need help from governments. People see us but they are blind to us, we need help… Even the animals have rights, if they can’t give us human rights, at least give us animal rights.”

Credit: Kimbal Bumpstead

 "74th recorded genocide of Yezidian peope"

Turkey is a comfortable buffer zone for ‘Fortress Europe’, literally a space in-between, to help delay responses in helping to take in refugees. For how long these people will have to wait, for politicians to make decisions about their futures, they do not know.

The message from the refugees is clear, that they do not want to stay in Turkey, they are afraid of the possible future reprisals of Islamic fundamentalism and possible attacks here. I asked a boy what he thought about the future.  He said that he couldn’t event think about the future, everything was gone. He just wants to be able to go back to school and feel safe. I asked if he felt safe here. “No”, he said, “I am afraid that those people will come here too”.

Saado expands, saying that if Turkey really wanted to help then they would help by attacking ISIS, not by supplying them with weapons and supporting their actions.

Meanwhile, out on the streets of Batman, police in armoured tanks are firing tear gas at a group of protestors angry about the Turkish Government’s lack of support to Kurdish Guerillas who are fighting ISIS in the Syrian/Turkish border village of Kobane.

This is the 74th recorded genocide of Yezidian people in history, as Saado tells me.  “This happens to our people every 100 years or so. The past 100 years alone has many cases of Yezidians being persecuted both in Iraq and Syria ,but also within Turkey. Turkey used to be home to a large proportion of the Yezidian population, but following the Ottoman led genocide during the years 1915-18, in which around 300,000 Yezidians were killed, plus further attacks after the creation of the Turkish state, most Yezidians fled to neighbouring countries. Stories are passed down through generations and their fears and lack of trust in the Turkish state is heavily apparent. Those I spoke to, made it clear that this is a religious problem, not a political one. ISIS wants to kill them because they believe they are devil worshipers, and the Turkish state does not officially recognise Yezidism as a religion. Interestingly, Turkey is classified by the United Nations as a ‘secular state’, however it only recognises three minority religions; Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews. Those Yezidians, and those of other minority religions such as Syrian Christian, Chaldean and Bulgarian Orthodox who live in Turkey are classified as either atheists or as Muslim.

“It’s chosen by god, (this genocide),” the other interpreter tells me. I ask why he thinks god would want that.  “I don’t know”, he says, “maybe this is not our place, maybe this is our destiny.” There is a sense of bad ‘kader’ (destiny)  amongst Yezidians, which I imagine many Kurdish people also can relate to. Having a shared history of being persecuted by the states that encompass them. These are placeless people, and now they do not even have a home.

Are you hopeful that something will change I ask? “Yes we hope,” he says, and looked down at the ground. “but until now we did not hear anything…. Maybe we are hopeless….” He smiles, and looks out into the yard.

In the yard, under a blanket propped by a stack of chairs, a group of children watch a TV. On the screen are images of American jets. They are excited, people welcome the latest bombings, but it’s not enough, “they are just putting on a show”, another man told me. “They are just securing their oil once again, rather than actually doing something to help the people”.

Credit: Kimbal Bumstead