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Friday, 21 February 2014

Saudi Arabia, Somalia and a Bristol Schoolgirl

The most important and very simple thing about Wadjda and Single Saudi Women  is the visibility it presents of a world that most people never see.

I have seen news on the TV about Saudi Arabia. But those stories have always been about men, and most of the time they are obsessive or neurotic men. So it's a not a positive picture.

I have read books about Saudi, but again, they are man books about man things like oil, religion and war. So  it's a man picture again -  and it's not a positive one.

I have come across Saudi influence all over the place. I have visited mosques built with Saudi money and met men who work or worship in those mosques. I don't need to tell you what kind of a picture it is. Money changes everything!

I used to live in a house which had been a kind of holding station for people on their way to Saudi. And I've met and spoken to lots of people who have worked in Saudi. No matter what their religion, gender or nationality, I have felt only hostility bordering on hatred. Never love.

So Wadjda presents a completely different perspective to Saudi Arabia, a woman's perspective , a perspective that changes everything and brings it into 3 dimensions that go beyond oil, religion and war. There are women there and they have feelings. Who'd have guessed.

And as soon as you get that happening, then outlandish things like this story on women only being allowed to visit hospitals with a male guardian present become much more real. The outrage comes to the surface, the voice and the visibility become three dimensional rather than an amorphous shape shrouded in a black abaya.

This creates a model to act against a conformity that is not just in men's way of thinking, but also in women too. Women will also maintain the status quo by saying that this kind of dress is necessary, that the man is always right, that she needs to be protected against the immorality of her male world by her male guardian. It's a denial of freedom in which the woman gains status through conforming to a patriarchal power structure that belittles women.

And that's not just in Saudi. That's everywhere. Here in the UK, women collude in a patriarchal disgust of the female body (it's evident on the magazine racks of every supermarket), in the belittling of physicality, sexuality, desire and individuality. It's a denial of freedom where the woman gains status through conforming to a patriarchal power structure. The body isn't dirty or disgusting!

But of course it's not just individual or communal. It's also institutional. And in the UK, institutions play a part in this denial of freedom. Educational institutions are a fine example. I used to work in a college in Bristol which had a huge number of students from Somali, Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani backgrounds . Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage and Domestic Violence were concrete realities for many of our students.

Yet there was no coherent policy or training on how to deal with these issues when they arose. And because of that, the problems rarely arose - because if you a student, what's the point of putting your head above the parapet when you are going to be met with ineffectual hand-wringing at best.

But you always had girls (and boys) who spoke up against the status quo and they always had an influence on the way others thought, dressed, spoke and behaved. So it was heartening to see girls and boys flourishing and opening up to the possibilities beyond the constraints that some had imposed upon them.

It was a similar case in Bristol schools. Lip service was paid to addressing the needs of students from the communities mentioned above but the schools simply didn't have the energy or resources necessary. If you put a thirteen-year-old boy or girl who has not had a primary education into a secondary school and expect them to flourish, it's not going to happen.

Inclusion doesn't happen overnight because you will it to happen. And it especially doesn't happen if your funding is being cut, if voluntary sector services for parents are being cut, if outreach programmes are being cut, if everything that is designed to enculturate and allow people to grow in a new society has been cut.

That's why it was so heartening to read about Fahma Mohammed and her petition to tell schools to teach the risks of genital mutilation before the summer. She is:

A Bristol teenager has been chosen to lead a national campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Fahma Mohamed, 17, is one of nine daughters in a Muslim Somali family who came to Britain when she was seven.
She has seen at firsthand among her friends and family the devastation that FGM can cause and, along with her classmates, has been campaigning for her school in Bristol to do more.
Along with Fahma, a broad coalition of charities and campaigners have joined the Guardian newspaper to ask the Education Secretary Michael Gove to write to head teachers of all primary and secondary schools, urging them to flag up the dangers of FGM before the summer holidays, when girls are at the greatest risk.


As with Wadjda, Fahma Mohammed is making herself visible, she is being a named and public precedent, she's somebody saying that no, this isn't some cultural nicety that can be swept under the carpet because of cultural sensitivities - sensitivities that are used as an excuse by men and women of all ethnicities, an excuse that often masks laziness, neglect or violence. This is abuse and has to be recognised as such.

The poet, Warsan Shire is also part of this visibility, and is involved in the  campaign to get FGM recognized in schools. This is something so fundamental that it is hard to believe it doesn't exist already.

"I write poems on FGM because I have been raised and loved by a community where many people I know have undergone this procedure. To work towards the eradication of this practice, their voices need to be heard."

One of her earlier poems, The Things We Lost in the Summer was inspired by the experiences of people she knew who were to be cut when they were on the cusp of puberty.

And how is all this connected to photography. Because by being three dimensional, by providing a voice that has dynamism and passion and life, we can make things visible. That's what Haifaa al Mansour did with Wadjda, that's what Wasma Mansour did with Saudi Interiors and that is what Fahma Mohammed and Warshan Shire are doing with their FGM campaign. 

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