Saima Alvi – Fighting For A Tolerant Society

Some people are up in arms after watching the Channel 4, TV documentary; “My week as a Muslim”.  Katie Freeman decided to step into the shoes as a Muslim woman. The disguise she was given has been likened to theatrical “blacking up” when decades ago people from ethnic minority backgrounds suffered ridicule and socio/economic discrimination of every kind.

Those who criticise the documentary fail to understand that this social experiment highlights a growing misunderstanding and mistrust among many white British people and the Muslim communities that they have lived alongside for many decades. It’s an issue that unless we confront, head-on, it is likely to see a rise not only in discrimination, hate crime and far-right extremism; it will lead to an environment where the narratives of Islamist extremist are given legitimacy.

Those that live in safe havens and ivory towers who fail to see the trend of extremism and intolerance enveloping us all in our everyday life, need to listen carefully to the messages we all extract from this social experiment. Documentaries like this have to fill in the gap where our policymakers have failed to stem or listen to the narratives of hate present on social media and mainstream press. If you don’t believe that mainstream press can radicalise,  then just look at the role media has played in fomenting hate and genocide in less stable societies.

The UK should be one of the leading countries in the world championing what it is to be multicultural, multifaith and economically innovative and successful.  That is not the present story of the UK and its multicultural communities.  Saima and Katie’s experience highlight just one of those stories.

I knew Saima when I was a teenager at the age of 14, and while I dyed my hair with blonde highlights and wore a skirt above my knees to try to fit in, Saima was the kind of teenager who would stick to her cultural and religious guns and cover herself despite the alienation she also faced. Both of us from South Asian Muslim backgrounds despite our different approaches to being accepted in our middle-class Cheshire predominantly white school, still faced the same kind of discrimination and isolation.  At one point we were hauled into the headmaster’s office is speaking “Indian” at the bus stop while joking around, even though she was speaking Urdu and I was speaking not very coherent Bengali.

Saima has always been at the forefront of fighting for what she believes in, in the early 90’s she campaigned for her sisters’ right to wear a headscarf in a South Manchester Grammar School. She’s a Manchester girl through and through and has brought her children up in the city of her birth and in the city that she loves very dearly. She is a much of the culture and landscape of Britain’s second city as any Mancunian whether covered from head to toe in her Islamic dress or not.

Saima has become a respected and well-loved leader with the Manchester Muslim community and beyond and embodies values many of our so-called leaders should aspire to.  What I know about Saima is that she is the kind of women that would be willing to put her reputation, family, and beliefs out there to fight against Islamaphobia within communities and serve as a role model to us all.

We shouldn’t live parallel lives with people of different faiths and cultures, however, the way in which society has been divided after the Second World War has led to us living in socio/cultural bubbles. We have created an environment of social and cultural division which we are now finding hard to break down. Only through a documentary such as this and the powerful voice that the media wields can we begin to start breaking down these barriers built on mistrust, ignorance and fear.

Many people from Muslim communities still feel the brunt of Channel 4s “What British Muslims Think”. You only have to read the right winged blogs, websites and Facebook comments to see where some people obtain their anti-Islamic rhetoric and beliefs.   Safety and belonging are often one of the key reasons why we live in the communities that we do.  In a world where people are more engaged with their mobile phones than chatting with the person next to them on the bus or the train, is adding to the culture of isolation and lack of integration between human beings and communities.

The radicalisation of some young people, within our communities, the horrific impact that violence and hate has on our sense of safety and trust, is slowly eroding any possibility of healing wounds when atrocities such as the Manchester bombing takes place. I grew up in the UK in the 1970s, so I know exactly what it was like to feel like an alien in a country that you were born in.

When I was an angry teen, disenfranchised at the crazy world of the 90’s, marching for the CND and missing class to attend political meetings, radicalisers did not target teens like me or exploit my discontent. However, I now live in 2017, and I feel very proud of the society that my nephews and nieces consider home. There exists an acceptance and tolerance among their peers of different religions and ethnicities that we second-generation children just didn’t experience in the 70’s and 80’s.  Unless we take action, extremism and hate are stealing our children, and so as much as we need to protect our environment and climate for our next generations, we also need to build a tolerant society based on trust and understanding for our young people.

We are at the mercy of a government policy that as much as it tries to tackle extremism, radicalisation and terrorism within our society has placed a mute button on many of us both individuals and communities and particularly women. Saima and Katie’s participation in this documentary exemplifies exactly this. They are both brave women and if not for this programme, they would never have crossed paths and we, the audience would have no lesson to learn.

In this society on the brink of something ugly and disturbing, some of us have had to take extraordinary measures to tackle the growing climate of hate because of gaps in our government’s policies. Unfortunately, those who are tasked to implement those policies have been either too late to pick on all the signs or are unfortunately letting us all down.

S A Ahsan (Alhambra Women’s Network Blogger)

Images Copywrite of British Muslim Heritage Centre 


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