Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My shade of feminism

In 2012 I was asked to contribute to the brilliant anthology, Fifty Shades of Feminism, which was published by Virago in 2013 and inspired events and other anthologies across the world. The Daily Mail excerpted and edited my piece but I think enough's time's passed for me to reprint it here in full.

Just like Christian Grey, the toxic abuser – sorry, dashing lead – of Fifty Shades of Self-Hate, I have my own secret red room of pain. In the secret room I file every example of womanhating I have experienced or witnessed, large or small: the harassment, the mistreatment, the violation, discrimination, unwanted touching, injustice, belittling, victim-blaming, casual ‘jokes’ which are really insults, marginalisation, objectification, patronage. Everything from the rapes and beatings, the sudden attacks and long hidden abusive relationships, to the work meetings in which I see women being talked over, interrupted, subtly undermined or openly put down. I keep a log of the abusers I know, every one of whom got away with it and has a public reputation as ‘a really nice guy.’ I even trap the silence of those who, when a woman speaks, simply look over her head and ignore it.

In the room I stock everything from the beauty, diet, fashion and surgery adverts encouraging us to make ourselves ever more artificial, self-obsessed and doll-like to the damning statistics showing how few women are represented as powerful and knowledgeable experts in the media, how few are appointed to the best jobs, how few women artists are credited and rewarded for their genius, how few are paid equally or given meaningful opportunities, acknowledged as pioneers and remembered by history. I archive the manifold stereotypes and base insults, the jibes and jokes. I put in those subtle moments when the mere mention of a woman results in a snort, a snigger and a rolling of the eyes.

I never forget those details. I’ve been a feminist all my life because society’s scathing contempt for women, its exploitation of women for underpaid and under-acknowledged menial, caring, sexual and administrative labour, the ubiquitous and endemic violence against women and the leniency towards abusers of women are completely and utterly obvious. What is more painful than anything is some women’s internalisation of this hatred: their harsh and brittle judgement of themselves and each other. In a patriarchy, both sexes are brought up to behave the same: to worship men and deride women.

Many things have changed for women in the last fifty years – but much has remained the same and so much still needs to be done. Desperate times call for feminist measures and we are currently in the middle of great change, challenge and activism. The age of revolution has returned, grassroots feminism has proliferated and there is an inspiring outrage and energy, spurred by issues both old and new. Our concern about relatively recent social, economic and cultural shifts is combined with frustration that longstanding battlegrounds are still live and galled disbelief that we are having to make the same arguments over and over again – like pointing out that a rape survivor is never responsible in any way for a man deciding to rape her.

We are concerned about the pornification of culture, the mainstreaming of the sexploitation industry, the sexualisation of girl children, the sharp increase in cosmetic surgery including labioplasty, the commonness of abusive relationships among the young and the normalisation (among both sexes) of the abuse, coercion, violation and control of young women by their boyfriends. We are concerned that in the fight over abortion rights the fundamental understanding that a woman has the right and the intelligence to decide what happens with her own body will be lost. We are concerned about trafficking – which involves kidnapping, deception, violent physical and mental brutalisation, traumatisation and constant rape – and about the wider assumption that it is okay for a man to pay a human woman for sex as though he’s ordering a drive through meal or renting a DVD. Women are not objects to be bought, sold, used and abused by men.

We are concerned about female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ killing, forced marriages including child marriage, rape as a weapon of war and a perk of peace and the infinite rape myths, victim-blaming and perpetrator excusal which have resulted in 90% of rapes going unreported and only 6% of the remaining 10% resulting in a rape conviction in the UK, which is not a warzone and has a legal framework for prosecuting rape yet still cannot bring itself to punish rapists.

We are concerned about the media vilification and sabotage of those few women in power, the reality and resilience of the glass ceiling and women’s many unpaid, expected and unacknowledged labours away from the office. Women in families take care of children and elders because the men in families do not.

Thanks wholly to feminism we now have a language, a vision, an understanding and an analysis to apply to our pain. What we need now is for the perpetrators to stop. The oppressors are not winning by cleverness or sophisticated rhetoric but by sheer force, by the violent leverage of brutal power – and shame on them for that. The question of gender is not very complicated: treat women as you would be treated, because we are people, human beings with minds and names, ideas, talents, real lives. If you would not like to be raped, harassed, ignored, patronised, ignored, treated as stupid, judged by your age and appearance or used only for the cheap, nasty and repetitive labour you can give, don’t do that to others.

I remind myself during moments of activist fatigue and flagging faith that the women’s movement is the longest and most successful peaceful human rights fight in world history. The resistance we encounter is a sign that we are on the right path and that our words have hit a raw nerve. Those who react with vociferous derision when they are called on their misogyny are enraged because their cover has been blown, their presumption of superiority has been questioned and women have dared to challenge them and answer back.

Those who say that women are their own worst enemies or that feminists are in disagreement about core issues are lying. There are more than fifty shades of feminism, but they’re fifty shades of the same colour: red. Not grey, that in-between yuppie hue of prevarication, indecision and relativism. Feminism is coloured the red of women’s rage, women’s despair, women’s power, women’s brilliance and women’s ability to survive. It is the lifeblood of emancipation, which pulses with neverending faith that freedom and justice are only ever a heartbeat away.

On sex, race, migration and asylum

This long interview was initially granted to Asian Culture Vulture magazine and pegged to my book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, which was the result of my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees in the capital.

What was the moment that made you realise you wanted to write Asylum and Exile?

I realised within one or two meetings with my students, encountering their stories, their passion and their talent, that their words couldn’t go unrecorded. They were the most outgoing, wise, experienced group of people I’d ever met – yet refugees and asylum seekers are vilified in the press and are heard nowhere in debates surrounding these issues. They are silenced and demonised, or pitied and patronised – but every encounter, for me, was wholly life-affirming. These are individual human beings who must be respected and whose words must be heard; I was determined to use my (very limited) power to make that happen. It’s a typical journalist’s habit to make notes on everything all the time, regardless of whether those notes make it anywhere – but this time I really paid attention, memorising everything, writing up my ‘case notes’ at the end of every outreach session I did, then doing a lot of reading around issues of asylum, forced migration and refuge. I began doing outreach work in the top half of 2012 – promoting my previous book, Beyond the Wall, a reportage from Palestine, at the same time. I wrote Asylum and Exile at the very end of 2012, beginning of 2013, when it was still fresh in my memory. But I’ve continued doing outreach work since.

What were your expectations before you started teaching the asylum seekers from your book?

I knew the sessions would be thought-provoking and eye-opening but I didn’t except the effects to go beyond the classroom, or that together we would create something bigger than ourselves – not just the book but the good energy and fellow-feeling. I kept my expectations of myself low: the worst thing you can do is go in assuming that you are going to transform people’s lives, and indeed I didn’t transform my students’ lives. It was they who opened my eyes and made me realise that it’s often the people who are the most overlooked and ignored who have the most to teach others. I thought the sessions would be constructive in a literary sense, but they took on a significance which was far more humane and humanitarian as the weeks went on.

How did your perceptions change once you started teaching? What surprised you the most?

What surprised me was that people kept coming back to my sessions! It seemed to me that I was the one doing all the learning and developing, through listening to them, but that I myself was not contributing to my students’ knowledge in any way. They would share their stories and their writing with me – but these are people who already speak at least 2 languages fluently, and very few needed actual help with their English. The most interesting moments happened in between the writing exercises we did, not during them. I wasn’t surprised that my students had stories to tell about what they’d witnessed or survived both in England and in their home countries, but I was surprised by how politicised the whole group was: in the midst of their own personal experiences there was a very high awareness of the fact that the actions of powerful groups (whether governments, militia, rebels or whoever) led to millions of women, children and men being displaced, threatened, violated, tortured and generally having their lives torn apart, while the rich stayed rich and violent perpetrators acted with impunity, often with the collusion or non-involvement of the international community. All the students I had who were from African countries had a very high awareness and knowledge of the mess that Western European colonial exploiters callously left behind. All shared a cynicism about power-holders and governments and a scepticism about international bodies who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

What is the main message you aim to share with Asylum and Exile? What was your intention? Do you hope this book will bring about measurable change?

Never judge anyone by appearances – you have no idea what people have lived through, survived, escaped, achieved, learnt or striven for. It’s those who are denied a voice who have the most to say about how the world really is and we should be looking and listening out for what they can teach us, not paying attention to well-fed, cossetted, ambition-hungry politicians. My intention with Asylum and Exile was to uncover unheard voices, add nuance and individualisation to the debate on asylum, remind readers that this is not an issue to be discussion but a question of people’s lives and get them to see asylum seekers and refugees as people. I was certain that I didn’t want to write a polemic that tells people what to think. I thought the best way to change the way we approach the negative stereotypes which bedevil all discussions about asylum and refuge was to bring out people’s stories and personalities, in their own words. I don’t know about ‘measurable change’ but frankly things are so stuck that even a tiny bit of change, or nuance, or complexity, would be valuable. 

Where do you think this negative perception of asylum seekers has come from? 

These negative perceptions are not accidental at all but are the result of right-wing isolationist politicians, timid and placatory left wing politicians and a jingositic, xenophobic tabloid media deliberately playing on people’s ignorance, racism, cultural stereotypes, fear of difference and fear of change. It’s a deliberately strategy and it works: it sells papers, it stokes the kind of fear that leads undecided voters to come out in support of whichever party appears to take a firm line. But it’s al illusory. The fact is that asylum/refuge numbers to the UK are relatively low, that England is not ‘full’, the majority of benefits claimants are not ‘foreign’, the majority of UK criminals are not foreign – and asylum seekers and refugees are telling the truth about what they have survived. No rational person on the planet leaves everything they have, their home, their family and friends, their achievements, their roots, their life, to risk everything to attempt to take advantage of a completely foreign country where they know they will be tested, disbelieved and possibly even detained – if they don’t die en route.

At the book launch, Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, talked of a system to distinguish genuine asylum seekers from those wanting to abuse to the system. How possible is it to create such a system? 

Maurice was talking about the myth that the asylum system likes to create around itself: the myth is that Britain has always been a welcoming and tolerant place, and the asylum system is simply there to weed out genuine claimants from abusers. That is what those within the system, the assessment boards, the Home Office and the border agencies tell themselves. The reality is that asylum seekers (and indeed all survivors of violence and persecution) tell the truth and the system, far from being a discerning one, is a cruel and disbelieving one in which the policy is to be openly sceptical of any claim as asylum seeker makes, to persecute them and treat them as though they are lying. 

As someone who works within the media industry; an industry that often creates the negative stereotypes surrounding asylum and immigration, do you feel a sense of conflict within yourself? If so, how do you try to resolve it? 

My ‘end’ of the industry isn’t the end which vilifies asylum seekers: we have the gutter press or the tabloid press to thank for that. Funnily enough, though, I am just as frustrated by seemingly sympathetic reports in broadsheets, which relay the numbers of asylum seekers who are trying to reach a safe port in a boat which sinks, or a lorry convoy which is raided by police… the victims in these cases are spoken about with great pathos, but are still not portrayed as individuals with names, lives and particular stories of their own. The solution to this is specific, accurate, long-form reporting and an emphasis on humanising and individualising the people involved, so that they seem less mythic and more real. The media doesn’t always do this very well, usually because of time constraints and issues of access; but charities do it incredibly well. For example the charity Women For Refugee Women has produced several testimony projects and performance works based on the reality of being an asylum seeker or refugee. In terms of traditional media I really appreciate everything The Guardian has done to investigate the abusive culture that exists within detention centres – in particular the sexual abuse of women detained at Yarl’s Wood. The newspaper’s investigation is an example of sustained, specific and compassionate reporting which is constructive and committed without being patronising.

What do you hope to see in terms of the issue of asylum in the General Elections this year [the interview was done in 2015]?

I’m extremely disturbed by the debate which has developed around these issues. First there has been a dangerous elision of asylum and refuge with all types of migration and immigration, with Islamophobia and fear of terrorism thrown into the mix, with a hefty does of head-scratching about ‘whether or not multiculturalism really works or is a good thing, at the end of the day.’ It bothers me to see England becoming more insular, more sceptical, more right-leaning and yet more culturally ignorant and happier to peddle ever more outrageous and bigoted clichés. UKIP have been incredibly good at harvesting all of that ignorance, bias and fear and instead of condemning UKIP, the Tories are trying to take advantage of some of that fear and use it to gain votes of their own, implying that immigration is ‘indeed’ something to be concerned about and attempting to quell their voters’ (groundless) fears. Meanwhile not one single mainstream politician on the left has stood up to counter any of the myths and tell the truth. Why? There’s no career traction in the issue, no money and no votes, and it’ll take a long time for the general populace to really take in and beginning believing the truth rather than the lie. 

We now have former migrants criticising and vilifying newer immigrants and asylum seekers – as someone who has come from a migrant family, what are your thoughts on this? 

I do know what you mean: as long as people have been migrating (that is, as long as there have been people on this planet) there has been a quite understandable tendency to want to assimilate in a new place, to ingratiate and to imitate. There is also a kind of pride – or should we say ego – that comes from having successfully survived a migration and settlement in a new place: a cruel tendency to say, ‘Well, it was hard for me when I first came here, I had to fight for everything, I had to fight for acceptance. So why should it be easy for you? You people have to prove yourselves, just as we did.’ There’s the well-known phenomenon of successful migrants tending to vote Tory – the party least amenable to true multiculturalism – for economic reasons and also because the conservative Darwinian dog-eat-dog, rise up on your own, fight for what you have mentality tallies with their own experience trying to make it. You could say it was also a trauma response, in a way: there’s a tendency for those who have suffered to replicate hostile contexts, beliefs, environments, values and also an unconscious desire to ringfence and aggressively ‘defend’ whatever you have achieved in the last one or two generations; there’s a sense of precarity and tenuous position that comes from being a migrant which leads people to (subconsciously) fear newer arrivals, as if what they’ve gained may be taken away at any moment. It also shows a lack of humanity, I’d say. Tribal behaviour of any kind bothers me and I am always disgusted when people are friends only with their own kind, without any interest in or compassion for anyone who seems or looks or is different. It bothers me when white people do it and it bothers me when non-white people do it.

Asylum and Exile tells the stories of the asylum seekers – what are your hopes for them to share to their own stories? How possible is it for them to do this at the moment? 

While my students certainly spoke freely with each other and with the caseworkers and charities that helped them, I feel that the conversation should be happening at a far wider level: it should be happening in public life. That means the media, public events, panels, the written and published work. Asylum seekers’ stories give us a true picture of what Britain is really like – but to get to that true picture, ironically and depressingly, you already need to be on the inside, to have a platform which attracts people who are willing to listen. As soon as I was into my classes and meeting all the wonderful people I realised that what they had to say didn’t stop with me, I could pass on the humour, humanity, wisdom and pain. A young woman at a university seminar I spoke at in London asked me (nicely) what right I had to write this book, and she was absolutely right. I have no moral right, beyond the desire and ability, the worldly power and the permission of my students – but nothing has given me the authority to do so and I don’t particularly want to be a bleeding-heart heroine or spokesperson for people who are well able to speak for themselves. Of course it’s unfair that I get to bring out this book and be certain of it getting at least some degree of coverage; that’s why I’ve tried to stick to talking about the issue rather than giving celebrity style ‘lifestyle’ interviews. In terms of talking themselves, while I had several very forthcoming students, not many would really want to sit in front of an audience of strangers and rehash their experiences for other people to coo and sigh over. Many of my students were consumed simply by the necessity of surviving and getting on with daily life. Attending book events – even writing books at home in comfort – is something that the privileged do. 

What drew you to a career in writing at such a young age?

Passion! I was always interested in everything, inquisitive, friendly, passionate, political, not shy: pretty much the typical personality type to be a journalist. I was enraged by the sexism and racism I saw in front of my face all day, every day, but at the same time excited by the galleries, the gigs, the design, the books, the artistic world around me. I always knew I wanted to be in journalism: I remember telling people when I was 13, and by 14 I was a journalist and having the time of my life. It’s a true cliché that you should do what you love and also do what comes naturally, what feels easy and right and joyful. I’m lucky too in that journalism is also a fun career: it’s sociable, it’s outward-looking. When I write non-fiction I feel confident that I am influencing the debate in some small way, whether I’m writing about gender or Palestine or asylum. With fiction, I’m much more circumspect. 

You had your first book published at 18; what do you think were the advantages of starting at such an early age? 

To this day, I am ambivalent about cutting my first book deal at 16 and having the novel, Seahorses, come out at 18, followed at 21 by the second novel, Too Fast To Live. Probably because I’m ambivalent about doing fiction in general: I’m not someone who loves novels above all else or advocates for novel-writing in the way I advocate for journalism. I sometimes see novels as part of the entertainment industry. But generally speaking I’m proud of what I’ve dones since I was 14, despite its ups and its many downs and long periods of freelance panic and nothingness – those weeks which bring zero opportunities and no emails. Nightmare. One thing that I’ll say in favour of early success is that it gives you a head start and enables you to ride out the dud years that happen in a freelance career without losing too much traction. I’m lucky in that Seahorses was reviewed very well and sold well, but I was so immature at the time and I regret no longer being with the best agent in the business, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, and with a big publisher like HarperCollins. I never quite got back up to that level again, nor did I fulfil my promise, although I have gone on to forge a very fulfilling broadcasting career, which is where my passions and capabilities lie. Still, I do feel some pride in having survived for 22 years in the media and publishing worlds, which have transformed so much and come under such pressure from various changes. I think just surviving is something in itself. However, there’s so much I still want to achieve – not just career wise but life wise – that I don’t think my previous accomplishments count for anything. It’s been a very hard few years, from 2009 onwards, for reasons both professional and personal, so I’m actually in a phase of self-questioning and reinvention and wanting to step back from the fray for a good few years.

There is the constant debate about migrants, no matter what generation, feeling a split sense of identity between the country they live in and the country they are originally from. What are your thoughts on this? How do you deal with this conflict if there is one? 

I actually think it’s a cliché that all second generation people feel some kind of split or conflict or rootlessness or whatever it is. I don’t feel that. First of all, there’s nothing wrong with not feeling 100% at home in a place; few people, of any kind, do. And those that do tend to be insular, parochial, solipsistic, ignorant bores. I can’t think of anything worse than a pathetic Little Englander who thinks England is the best place on earth – with no deep knowledge of any other place – and that famous saying, that anyone who’s tired of London must be tired of life, just struck me as the most insular, ignorant, arrogant claim in the world. I feel completely at home in all places. I feel like an international, which is what I am, not just for reason of racial heritage but also reasons of privilege, class and entitlement, which one should not be disingenuous about. I used to go to India nearly every summer as a kid, stopped when I was 14 because my career had begun and I was crazy in love with it, went back in 2013 and completely, utterly loved it. In terms of the energy, warmth, dynamism, contradiction, rate of change and female solidarity, it was a total buzz – far more so than England, which actually feels incredibly flat these days. I think the real forward drive is to be found in China, India, parts of Latin America, parts of Africa, not Western Europe. After being in India and China I now look at England with a far more critical eye than I did: I see it moving away from the rest of the world, suspicious of foreigners, socially stagnant, heavily mired in misogyny, porn culture and rape culture…. so like all migrants I plan to go onwards, somewhere. 

How was it entering the career at such a young age and also as an Asian girl? Do you think you had a different experience? 

It was, frankly, a thrill beginning a career at 14 and it was a lucky experience for me because I was a novelty and therefore not a threat. I knew then and still know that many of the places I work for are endemically casually sexist and virtually all-white (although the arts and style magazines I worked for were slightly better on this score than the more traditional newspapers and broadcasting outlets) but I was heavily protected, especially during the many years when my career was happening in tandem with school and university: a circle of friends, all style journalists, who were 10 years older than me and who showed me the ropes (and also showed me a really good time), the fact that I did my reviewing at writing work from outside the offices of the places I worked for; the fact that I cut my first book so early into my career, which gave me a lot of power or leverage within my career. I was always gender- and race-political: how could one not be? But these senses have sharpened even more as time went on: every few years there is a new, young, fresh name who is celebrated within journalism, but only a few are let through in every round. The general representation doesn’t change and as we get older, I see women (and in particular women and men of colour) being sidelined or plateauing more and more. Make no mistake, we live in a white male patriarchy. Every so often, a few people who don’t fit the mould are allowed in and tolerated, but never in numbers which would change the scene. We get only so far before hitting the ceiling, being replaced and then having to back off and find another way to survive. 

What are your thoughts on the number of British Asians authors in the industry currently? Do you feel they are represented fairly? And more specifically, British Asian women? 

For me this is not just about British Asians but about taking a really wide-scale view of diversity: all races, all ages, all backgrounds, all shapes and sizes and not just the very readily accepted type of the privileged, straight, entitled white male who doesn’t think about his own (or his friends’ and colleagues’ own) sexual and racial entitlement for one second. We live in a rich and diverse world and it’s shocking to enter into any influence professional institution, whether it be the media or politics or the arts, and see that right the way through, there is a severe lack of any racial diversity whatsoever, added to the fact that there is a gender pay gap, that there is casual sexism, that there are so few women of any colour at the top. This is down to sexism and racism; not the overt kind but a much more deadly, subtle and usually subconscious kind which prefers a white male club to anything else. To this day I am staggered by people’s ignorance and sexual and racial clichés about race and gender: the banal obsession and romanticisation of the Raj era of British colonial exploitation in India; forced and arranged marriages; women’s oppression and victim-hood (which the West harps on without acknowledging that male violence against women is endemic everywhere); the inability to recognise that not all brown people are Muslim. The list goes on and on. We are rarely presented as experts on things which are not related to the clichés I’ve mentioned, and when we are it is in the light of a perceived problem which we have been said to have caused (sexual exploitation, FGM, forced marriage, terrorism). Meanwhile, as I mentioned before there is a real lack of diversity when it comes to power-holding, influence and career achievement behind the scenes: as book editors, theatre directors, film producers, executives, commissioners and so on.

I read an interview with Kamila Shamsie, the novelist, in which she described being part of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Feminism essay collection (which I am also in) – and many of the white Western feminists made pretty racist, smug, arrogant, ignorant allusions to how relatively lucky they felt to be in England/America and not some foreign backward distant culture where (they thought) it was all much worse. The sheer complacency, racial arrogance and cultural ignorance of that stance really gets to me: negatively stereotyping and generalising about areas, cultures, continents spanning thousands of miles. These people usually know nothing of the world beyond their cosy little circle; and people who think of themselves as sexual progressives or liberals are the hardest to get to see the truth. 

For a novelist there is a special category of novel you are supposed to write, and it must conform to Western sexual, racial and class clichés: you must write something about parental oppression, religion and terrorism and radicalisation, about burning widows and child labour, about forbidden love in a mango grove during the monsoon season, about conflicted identity and about women who suffer. Or something about wearing a Muslim veil – how much you love it or hate it – or something with veil in the title! Beyond the Veil? Under the Veil? Sex and the Veil?

What were some of the difficulties you faced as you entered the world of writing as well other broadcast areas such as radio and television?

I was incredibly lucky because my career has developed organically and I never had any struggle getting in, but as with all people facing the double barriers of sexism and racism, I am aware of how tenuous my position is. You are given just one chance to succeed – and if you fluff it, that’s it. I am noticing these barriers more and more as time goes on as I see young men promoted over women with far more expertise, drive and experience and I see that the women and people of colour, including me, have hit some kind of shelf, or wall, or plateau, or glass ceiling. Despite our achievements and our track record, the big commissions and name-making assignments aren’t coming. I also witness casual sexism on a daily basis. In my experience, when I have tried to speak or write about this, giving copious concrete examples, I have simply been blacklisted from the organisations I was alluding to. It bothers me intensely that women and people of colour of both sexes are so heavily under-represented at all levels of the worlds I work in – not just in front of the camera or mic or page but also behind the scenes as editors, producers, directors, executives and decision-makers. We know that black and Asian actors are leaving the UK because roles are not written for them; I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happening with writers, producers, broadcasters, journalists and other talent, especially in those working in the freelance, unstable, creative or media world. Certainly, I’m thinking that way. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Is there another book in the pipeline?

I would be very interested in doing a long stint in a women’s prison. I’ve already done some prison work (since 2012) but would love to commit myself to three years in one place. The same goes for doing more work in detention centres – easily the most frightening places I’ve ever been, and worth exploring (and exposing) for that reason. So I want to expand my humanitarian work, and not just as a reporter.

My other job is in broadcasting so I’d like to do more documentaries with the BBC. They’re always enormous fun and you meet tons of wonderful people in the process. 

Psychogeography of trauma: inside a UK detention centre

A slightly different (worse) version of this essay was published by The Free Word Centre as part of its Briefing Notes essay series. Read the original here.

The detention centre was, hands down, one of the most frightening places I’ve ever been to. This was because of the sheer nastiness, anger and self-satisfaction of the staff – civilians and guards alike. It was horrifying, a sinister place, and it was clear to my colleague and me that nobody who worked there had even one dreg of basic human feeling for the individuals they were detaining or any understanding of, or interest in, what those people had survived.

The staff were suspicious even before we arrived, asking for written assurances that we wouldn’t name them or hint at where the institution was. The staff referred to the people inside as detainees and asked that “the workshop content is suited to a detainee context.” I replied via email, “I can confirm and guarantee this, having spent many weeks working with asylum seekers and refugees, a large proportion (about 50%) of whom had themselves been detained or imprisoned or both…I understand the sensitivity required to work in such environments and the necessity of not pushing individuals for personal stories or details… I have also worked with people of varying levels of psychological wellness, language skills, vulnerability and other needs. More than anything I want to foster an accepting and constructive environment…”


The detention – or ‘immigration removal’ – centre is in a part of England renowned for its landscape rather than its architecture or human-made sites of interest. It’s a minor, plain-enough town, ugly but bustling and not unpleasant on the morning we arrive. Even though the centre itself is a short taxi ride away, its atmosphere has seeped into the town itself, and its people. There’s a jovial, talkative woman driving our cab. “Are you a legal team?” she asks us. Local drivers are accustomed to taking legal aid professionals up to the centre, I gather. At first I think she must have sympathy for the detainees, what with “English not being their first language” and all. Then she surprises me by telling a crude rhyme, which comes out of nowhere:

There was a young lady from Rabat
Who gave birth to triplets Pat, Nat and Cat
Breeding was fine, but feeding wasn’t
When she found she had no tit for tat.

She throws back her head and laughs, with grotesque relish and mockery, and this macabre exultation – shocking two milksop Londoners with her rhyme – sets the tone of the day.

We draw close and I see the place. Darker, blockier, seedier, uglier than a prison. Prisons have a school vibe to them, a sense of pressurised containment. Some of them look like quite jolly red brick Peabody estates. They’re peaceful from the outside, thick with it. But detention centres are built to terrify and repel even from the outside. They’re designed to be visually disruptive, ugly; a psychogeography of trauma inflicted. There are more rolls of barbed wire outside this detention centre than outside the prison I visit: three rolls atop metal mesh fencing. Barbed wire runs up the muddy grass slope. There are yet more rolls of barbed wire, netting and cameras around the building, which is blocked across the old stone archway that was once the gate of the city. The place seems abandoned – as if everyone just ran out twenty minutes before we turned up. We don’t even feel as though we’re being watched. We feel as if there’s no-one around and nobody cares where we are, who we are or what we’re doing.

I go to the visitors’ centre where we’re supposed to leave our things in lockers numbered from 1 to 180. There’s a sign saying “Powdered baby milk/food is not allowed in the centre. Please ensure you have enough baby milk/food made up for the duration of your visit.” There’s a form I can fill in, headed “Violence reduction: reporting any incident of unacceptable behaviour.” It invites me to describe “what incident has cause [me] to feel intimidated, upset, threatened, humiliated, embarrassed or frightened.” At the bottom of the form, in block letters, it says, “Everyone has the right to feel safe here…. Unacceptable behaviour in any form will not be tolerated.” I’m assuming that this is a form for reporting on detainees’ behaviour, not guards’ behaviour. There’s even a drugs amnesty box where you can slot in those last few fronds of weed or whatever it may be. Although there are warning signs everywhere – like “passive sniffer dogs are in use here” and detailed instructions in how to body-search a “male subject” – the truth is that I could stroll in with some drugs, a gun and a camera. Nobody scanned me, checked me or searched my bag. 

We go to the main entrance, Fortress Gate 1, and the guy – the officer? The guard? Who are these people allied to? The police? – greets us with a strange combination of derision and indifference. He doesn’t question our purpose for being there. We hand over our ID and he barely glances at it. “Is there anyone else coming in with you? Just you two?” In prison you get a shrewd and searching look and the hard yet oddly reliable staff rebut any friendliness, leaf through your ID as if it’s fake, then write your name in little letters a little book along with the time you came in. Here, they don’t care, or don’t know, and that’s what makes it so frightening. One man makes an announcement on the communications system: “Call out. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Officer Ryder, can you call in?” Later I find out from a colleague who sits on asylum appeal panels that these detention centres are run by private companies, the same ones (like G4S) that’re making a killing from operating huge American prison complexes. The staff are private company employees, not public servants.

At this immigration removal centre there’s a “rec pitch” – a football pitch – a gym and an education centre, which is where we’re going. “Do you ever get trouble?” I ask the woman in charge of education, a brisk type who, like our taxi driver, seems full of uncanny, righteous anger. “No – no – there’s only one officer and that’s for our protection,” she says with a laugh that hits my nerves. The education centre’s like a modern school block with corridors and classrooms. I go in to meet some of the other staff and see a woman vigorously cleaning her hands with hand sanitiser, as though the detainees are dirty and whatever they touch is dirty. The staff laugh amongst themselves about how the detainees “sleep ‘til two or three in the afternoon.” I point out that sleeping so long is a symptom of depression and they nod blandly without a trace of empathy. “They do like their sleep,” they say, snidely. Other staff members, alerted to the novelty of us being here, sidle in and look us over with narrowed eyes and twisted smiles. After asking a few questions and painfully pulling out answers I learn that most of the long term staff work wholly within the detention system, moving from centre to centre. They make a career of it.

The woman in charge of the education centre takes us to the small classroom where the furniture, walls and supplies are in a better state that those at the charities where I do outreach work helping asylum seekers and refugees. The woman casually gives me three flimsy free-with-a-newspaper editions of an Ian Fleming novel, Casino Royale, and says I can give them to the detainees if I want. She doesn’t seem to give a damn either way. She goes out to find and harangue some of the detainees who’d promised to attend my session.

A few men come in – there are no women here – heads bowed, walking slowly and creakily as if weighed down, looking at me out of the corners of their eyes like mistrustful kicked dogs. They are from all over the world, southern Africa, eastern Europe, east Asia, with varying levels of English. One east Asian guy had a full life in the UK, running a business and making music, with a wife and baby, before he was picked up and slung in here. There are good facilities for making music at this centre, apparently. 

One man comes in on crutches. His leg has been amputated, or hacked off, just below the knee. He is completely silent and seems shattered, mentally.
“Aren’t there more coming?” asks the woman in charge of education.
The guys shake their heads heavily. They mention their friends’ names and say they might go and look for them again, they might be sleeping. The woman laughs at their slowness.
“It’s healthy and safety,” she says to me in front of them. “When I do it, I get them moving about looking for fire exits. Otherwise they sit there saying they dunno where the fire exits are. If they say they’re tired I get ‘em to stand up and jog on the spot. I’m cruel like that.”

I go through some bits of reading and some short writing exercises but don’t make much headway. It’s not that the men are disengaged or contemptuous, it’s that the oppressiveness of the environment itself, its fearfulness and energy sapping intimidation, has seeped into them and mixed with the horror that is quite obviously already there. We’re having some fun with different genres – Horror, Romance, Comedy, Western, Sci-Fi – and I start a sentence and get them to finish it in the spirit of a certain type of writing. 

“Comedy. Something positive,” I say. “‘If the man doesn’t catch his train on time then….’”
“Then he will die!” bursts out one of the men in the class, his eyes huge and full of tears, his dry voice trembling.

That is how it goes on. Many of the men at the back don’t want to speak because their English isn’t good. They are forcing themselves to be in the class and gruffly encouraging their friends. But they are all here for the same reason: whatever they went through to come to the UK, whatever they left behind, they weren’t believed, they tell me. Not the guy who’s crying, not the guy whose leg was chopped off, none of them.

The despair and a strange feeling of intimidation spread across the entire class. All the guards I’ve seen so far are short, heavy-set white men. Every so often one of them slopes into the room as though he owns it, trades sardonic looks with the education woman, looks at the detainees as though they’re scum, looks me up and down with glinting eyes and a smug smile and says, “So. You’re the author.” There is an overwhelming sense of foreboding.

The cynicism lifts slightly when we visit the library, which is empty. The librarian speaks with real care for the detainees, showing us the selection of films and books in different languages, the long stacks of dictionaries: Albanian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, even Tamil for Sri Lankans fleeing the aftermath of the civil war. She tries to make sure that every language spoken in the centre is catered for. 

When the session is up the men go off, slow and pained. The education woman seems fiercely pleased as she walks us out. “I’m reading Jane Austen’s autobiography at the moment,” she boasts loudly. Austen didn’t write an autobiography. “I don’t intend to read any of the novels. I’ve seen the films.” She says it with sharp, slashing relish, eyes glowing as though she’s put Austen firmly back in her place. 

We call for a taxi, twice. It doesn’t come. Perhaps the taxi firm thinks it’s going to be picking up detainees, illegal immigrants who won’t pay the fare. There’s a minivan parked outside the detention centre, full of luggage: cheerful, normal-looking wheelie cases, as if people are going on holiday. Staff members are pulling out the luggage and leaving it on the ground. It’s shift handover time and guards are coming out of the centre, swaggering, marching and righteous, jaws tensed. They’re so angry that they jerk their cars hard out of the parking spots, backing out sharply and speeding through the car park, tyres scraping, engines revving hard. One of them almost runs over my colleague, I think deliberately, backing straight into him as we idle about waiting for the taxi. As he drives past the officer’s face is hard and set and satisfied. 


On the way home I read a piece one of the detainess has written, entitled A Conversation That Changed My Life:
“The conversation that changed my life in the UK is the one I had in the Home Office during my first interview, because that conversation was one kind of a bad dream for me. After that conversation I found myself in the detention centre. Adding to what I faced in my home country, it seems like life is a scary movie which I would like to get out from.”

Choosing political sides in England's porn-fed, combative culture

This is an oddly backdated essay reprinted from the 28 Days project released a month before the 2015 general election, just before the Tories got in for another 5 years with a (slim) majority. You can read the original here.

“If England’s not careful it’s going to wind up on the wrong side of history,” I said.
“Compared to what? Its past? Hasn’t it always been on the wrong side?” was the sardonic reply from a colleague.

We were at a panel discussion about the reality of asylum and immigration in Britain. The audience was full of people who work in the field: service providers, to use that chilling phrase which leaches all the humanity, pain, richness and desperation out of their vital work. I was talking about my latest stint of outreach work, with asylum seekers and refugees, and how the individuals I encountered and the things they had survived were so different from the derogatory and scare-mongering messages put out by politicians and the media. 

My colleagues described how they’d witnessed the development of a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality: an informal bloc of Western European countries whose policies and public messages are openly hostile not just to asylum seekers and refugees but to immigrants of all kinds, to true multicultural understanding, to a nuanced acceptance of religious or cultural difference. There is a mindset of arrogance and racism which sees the rest of the world as backward, dangerous, uncivilised, tribal, contaminated with violence and propensity towards terrorism and religious (but really, they mean Muslim) fundamentalism. It’s as though Orientalism is back, only even nastier than before and without the swollen-up self-assurance of Imperial, exploitative power. There’s an attitude of uncaring exclusion and desperate self-protection against the perceived barbarity of outsiders, often simultaneous to economic recession and the breakdown of reliable education, employment and stability within these European countries themselves. Even politicians on the mainstream left will not stand up for multiracial multiculturalism, open borders or asylum seekers’ and refugees’ rights. They won’t debunk the myths or take the heat out of the bile and misinformation. Why is that? It’ll take too long to change hearts and minds and anyway there’s no money or votes in it. 

There was a sense on the night of the panel discussion that England in particular is at a critical point. There is less social mobility than ever before, greater insularity and pessimism, a developing xenophobia and isolationism, higher youth unemployment, less equality of opportunity, greater instability in the job market, a housing crisis in the capital, a weakened welfare system. Underlying everything are the terrifying levels of male violence against women and girls: the harassment, the rape, the objectification, the ageism and dismissal, the mockery, the victim-blaming and disbelief and perpetrator excusal by everyone from social peers to the police and judges, the molestation, the grooming and exploitation and abuse, the gendered bullying in schools and the full-blown development of porn-fed, coercive rape culture. There is the commodification, pornification, sale and renting and usage of us by men and the mainstreaming of a society in which it’s okay to rent and use a human woman to gratify you sexually. We fear terrorism, gun crime, natural disasters, wars – but the most common form of violence in the world is male violence against and abuse of women and girls within the home. That’s in addition to the fact that women have to do more cooking, cleaning, childcare, family admin and parental care because men do not do enough; that we are paid less for the same work; that our behaviour, achievements and ambitions are subject to an onslaught of double standards, pejorative stereotypes, sneers and degrading insults; that our employers punish us for being pregnant and having children; that we are kept out of the higher tiers of every profession and discipline from scientific research to academia to the arts to the media to politics. And when we speak up about what we have witnessed and survived, we are threatened and punished, sometimes by the male perpetrators, sometimes by their male cronies, often by male strangers who send us anonymous rape threats. 

I do not believe that people are politically apathetic. Quite the opposite: we are riled, mistrustful, angered and exhausted as we live out the consequences of trying to survive in this hard, patriarchal, capitalist society in which London has become a playground for the international super-rich while the government’s euphemistic ‘austerity’ drives make brutal cuts to social care services, legal aid, charity projects and public sector jobs, all of which have directly impacted the lives of the near-destitute, extremely vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees I work with. 

Given the male abuse and inequality we suffer, women are the major users of these services, as well as the majority of employees in the public sector. So we lose our jobs at one end and at the other we lose protection, we lose assistance when we are survivors of male violence, as victims seeking advocacy, as daughters trying to secure support for older relatives, as mothers struggling to survive when our children’s fathers don’t do any fathering and we can’t find work that will accommodate our family lives or pay enough to cover childcare. Rape crisis services close despite endemic levels of male sexual violence; women’s shelters close despite endemic levels of male domestic violence. 

Meanwhile, mainly male, mainly white politicians sit back as three course dinners are served to them, with good wine. They work hard, they are dedicated, but they will never be hungry, or cold, or poor, or isolated, or understand what it’s like to fall down between the cracks in society. There is a shock as one looks at the leaders of the three main parties, plus the UKIP freak, and sees that they are, but for a few minor nuances, much the same type. The fabled apathy of the populace kicks in not when we talk amongst ourselves but when we consider the possibility of the political elite listening to and acting on our demands and grievances. We do not believe that they will do so; they have lost our trust and our faith. We believe, instead, that politicians work on behalf of themselves and their wealthy, powerful, well-connected friends. 

When did the political system begin slipping away from us like this? Not with Cameron and his men’s club of Eton and Oxbridge cronies. I’d say it happened before then, when Labour betrayed itself to become New Labour, the party of the bourgeois yuppie, the groovy Britpop rightwing-leftwing hybrid that quickly became a war-mongering monster led by a deluded religious zealot. Millions of people protested the Iraq war but it made no difference and that told us everything: people in power don’t listen to people without power. Women are always at the bottom of that heap, of every heap, which is why, scrolling forward a decade-odd, Osborne’s cuts disproportionately affect women – and he didn’t even realise. 

The revolution that must come is a specifically feminist, anti-macho, anticapitalist one which dissolves and sweeps away the current combative and exclusive political system altogether. Will I see that happen in all the election years I’ll witness in the future? I doubt it. But I know which side I’m on.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The reality of asylum and refuge in modern Britain

This essay was first published by the Free Word for its Briefing Notes series, pegged to my book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London

Bodies in boats. Grateful, half-drowned people wrapped in blankets. Women dying of suffocation under plastic packages in long distance goods lorries while traffickers pocket their savings. Gangs of organised criminals terrorising Britain. Impoverished, illiterate moochers living off the state, filling up hospitals. Detainees being abused horribly by staff in UK detention centres like Yarl’s Wood.

Those are the images and horror stories that stifle any meaningful investigation into what it’s like as a human being with a name and a face, a life and a past, trying to survive as an asylum seeker in Britain. Some of the stories invite our pity, others are designed to attract our hatred and suspicion. None of them represent asylum seekers as complex, distinct individuals. The nastiest clichés are promulgated by some of the most powerful and pervasive forces in society — the media and politicians of all stripes — against those who have the least power and visibility and are concerned more with basic survival than gaining votes or readers.

Politicians both marginal and mainstream hustle for public support by fear-mongering and fudging, making sweeping statements about foreigners who they say are criminals, advantage-takers, callous and opportunistic illegals, troublemakers who do not know how to behave, who import regressive values, who refuse to learn new languages and muck up residential streets with their garbage. The stereotypes go unchallenged because those with the loudest voices and the greatest number of vested interests are shouting above (and about) those who have no public voice. The clichés pander to pre-existing prejudices about foreigners, incomers, the dangerous and malign ‘other’ who will take and sully. Nobody bothers to try and get to the truth because, at the end of the day, the people being slandered are largely invisible to them, being bounced between detention and prison, living near-destitute or with the meagre support of charities or working off the books in factories, building sites or cleaning firms.

An asylum seeker is an individual who is petitioning to be formally recognised as a refugee. Once recognised, refugees gain certain very basic and minimal rights to protection and support by the state, but that is only the beginning of a long journey towards starting a full and dignified life and establishing a support network, stable housing, employment or education in a completely new country. At the moment the situation, as described to me by the CEO of a major refugees’ charity, is “Fortress Europe”: there is a culture of systematic rejection of asylum seekers, of denial and disbelief of their stories (particularly women asylum seekers who have survived rape and other sexual torture), of brutally enforced deportation or detention in hellish incarceration complexes where detainees have even fewer rights than convicted prisoners. The most sinister place I’ve ever visited was a UK detention centre, which had more rolls of barbed wire around it than any prison and whose staff were universally angry and hostile.

Meanwhile, myths about asylum abound, the most pernicious one being that the number of asylum seekers is intolerably high, that most asylum claims are false and that the country is ‘full’ and can’t take any more. In continental western Europe boats have been refused permission to dock. Australia actually seems proud to advertise its antipathy towards asylum seekers, warning that anyone who tries to enter by sea and runs into difficulties will not be saved. I am shocked, as ever, by the sheer cruelty, the inability to see asylum seekers as human beings, the indifference about whether they live or die and the failure to imagine what these people must have experienced in their home countries, what they lived through which made them think that anything — even the prospect of drowning in a dinghy in a foreign sea — was better than that.

Three years ago, enabled by English PEN, I began doing outreach work in the form of writing workshops with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from all over the world from Syria and Iran to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Uganda. These experiences inspired my latest book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, which features my students’ testimonies. I came to the conclusion that all the tabloid journalists, pundits and political bigmouths who rage against asylum seekers must never have met one. As I listened to my students’ experiences, read their writing and let myself be teased, mocked and berated by them it struck me that here were the warmest, funniest, most interesting people in the world, who had gone through unimaginable things: a man in Timbuktu witnessing a neighbour being disembowelled by an armed rebel as a warning to the other villagers; a woman who had been raped by rebels and then thrown out by her family because of it. “Please believe us,” said one woman to me, “if we go back to our countries they will rape us and kill us. Our leaders don’t care anything about us, only oil and minerals and power and money.” There was Claude, from the Congo, who had a degree in criminology and was forever ingratiating himself with the ladies — “Hello auntie, you know I am always pleased to see you. Can I get you some tea?” There was Manny, formerly a composer and professor of classical Persian music at Tehran University, who does odd days in a sandwich factory, in the freezer room, where people constantly fall ill from the cold but will be replaced if they miss a day of work. And there was Beatrice, who wants to be a writer and who described to me how, in England, it was assumed by many that she didn’t know how to read or write, turn on a light switch or wash her hands after using the bathroom. “I don’t say anything,” she said, “because I don’t want to offend them.”

Meanwhile, the country is being run by a club of white men who went to posh school and posh university and have experienced nothing of the real world: its diversity, its hardships, its chaos and violence. They decide on domestic and foreign policy, wars and aid money, arms deals and the euphemistic ‘austerity’ measures which have cut legal aid, public services, social services and charities’ budgets at the knees and directly imperilled so many people’s wellbeing including that of my students. They sit in their heated rooms in their expensive clothes, eating good food and drinking good coffee (all things which are out of the reach of my students), as they decide these things. They do not live with the physical consequences of their own policies, only the political consequences which affect their careers.

As the months progressed I felt ever more strongly the irony of being in a country where the most interesting people are the least heard, while those who are the most ignorant speak with the greatest volume and entitlement, making decisions in the full confidence that they will never have to experience the results.

Not every asylum seeker arrives dumped on a shoreline, barefoot, penniless and wrapped in a foil blanket. All my students arrived by plane. They fled international and civil war, fragile states in which law and order had broken down, extreme poverty and political persecution. Many of my students had been bounced between detention and prison or left in limbo for years between being refused leave to remain — that wonderfully Alice in Wonderland phrase which would grant them the right to stay in the UK — and receiving the final letter ordering them to get on the next plane.

One woman told me that she spoke such good English because her parents, who had been political figures, were repeatedly exiled abroad due to their work. All my students spoke at least two languages fluently and, like all people of a migrant background including myself, learnt new ones quickly. All were educated to last-year-of-school level and the overwhelming majority were educated to college level and beyond. Every single one wanted to work because while not all work gives dignity or an identity to be proud of, it gives a little money, it takes up time, it uses up energy, it involves other people, it gives a shape to the day. But asylum seekers have no right to any public money or services, no right to be housed or to work. So they labour as cleaners, packers, building site hands, relying on this shady, unreliable and exploited labour in which (one building site worker told me) a boss can promise money and then withhold it for days, or renege on an agreement and under-pay.

There is a crisis in the issue of asylum because there has been a crisis in world governance, war and conflict, poverty and inequality, which is not some accident but is the fault of violent perpetrators (whether renegade militia or rebels or national armies), selfish rulers, uncaring commercial interests, greedy power-holders and opportunistic political players. It is not the fault of the millions of asylum seekers and refugees who are fleeing the consequences of such parties’ actions. It is the nastiest kind of cynicism to scapegoat asylum seekers by saying that their testimonies are lies (or, to quote what the Home Office staff said to several of my students, “This is all just a fairytale you’ve made up,”) and that they have left everything behind, their identity, their life, their family, to take advantage of a foreign country.

Every asylum seeker I worked with was desperate to contribute, to feel like a part of society, to be seen as a person with something to offer, to not be invisible. Politicians at all points on the spectrum exploit the electorate’s fear, racism, insularity or simple lack of knowledge about the reality of asylum and there is no politician of any party who has dared to stand up and set the record straight about the numbers of asylum seekers in the UK, what they left behind and how they are treated here. It is as though asylum seekers’ stories begin the moment they arrive in a country and nobody bothers to ask what they have escaped.

Every human being has a personality, a social context and a past which make them who they are; but asylum seekers are not seen as human beings, so nobody is interested in those things. This is a failure, not of policy, but of common decency: the inability to see others as people just like ourselves. All it would take for prejudices to be broken down would be for politicians, the media and the public to stop shouting in fear and start listening with respect.

Monday, 29 December 2014