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Breaking a glass ceiling: young Somali women reflect on their political activism

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EDITION 1 | FEATURES | VOICES: activism, community, international, palestine-israel, protest, voices, women

An interview by Kevin Boylan, an Irish writer, performance artist and film director based in Bristol since 1998. With Joanne Ball  and Dan Hughes. (Illustration: Sharon Dewhirst, Photo: Dan Hughes)

The Bristol Cable met up with three young women from the Bristol Somali community to discuss their political activism , Palestine and the media.

Correction! The print edition incorrectly states that Fatuma “studies law”  when it should say “hopes to study law”. This has now been changed for the web version.

Fatima (23) is a newly qualified teacher. Fatuma (19) hopes to study law, and Amenah (16) is home-schooled and tutors kids at the Kumon center. All three are members of the Bristol 4 Palestine Coalition and volunteer at The Arc/Palestine Embassy on Broad Street.

They remember the Palestine issue first becoming important for them when they turned 16-17. Fatima explained, ‘I was in sixth form during the 2009 conflict [Israel’s Cast Lead military operation on Gaza]. Six of us organised a demo that marched down Stapleton Road and held a fundraiser with graffiti artists and an MC at The Trinity Centre with sponsorship from Save The Children. Local businesses gave us money to print leaflets’.

Reflecting on Muslim women’s involvement in protests Fatuma added, ‘Girls were involved from the start, and older people appreciated our powerful energy. I was the only Somali Muslim woman [during Israeli military operation Pillar of Defence, 2012], but now more people from my background are active’.

Amenah got involved only this year. ‘I was always up to date with current affairs before but never to the extent that I got involved. There’s been many wars on Gaza, but this one [operation Protective Edge, 2014] caught my attention because of the death toll. It’s definitely an injustice’.

Amenah: “I don’t watch the main channels like the BBC [or] read the Daily Mail, I think they’re absolutely crap!”

Reflecting on the context surrounding her politicisation Fatuma recalled, ‘when the [2007 London bombings] happened, people didn’t feel safe. A couple of years ago people wouldn’t come on marches’.

‘Terror laws crack down on our communities because we’re being painted in a certain light’, said Fatima analysing the effect on her family. ‘My parents do everything by the law, which deters them from exercising their right [to protest]. They are comfortable in their own home condemning the war in Iraq or what’s going on in Palestine.’

Amenah pointed to the UK media as partly responsible for this situation, ‘ Terror groups don’t do us a favour because they kill in the name of Islam, which is totally unacceptable. But there’s a lot in the media that demonises Islam. If they said it about say, Judaism, they’d be condemned as anti-Semitic straight away. As a result, seeing a young Muslim female creates a certain image into the heads of uneducated people. It’s terrible.’

‘Now our communities are gaining confidence and it’s being shown in Easton.’ For Fatuma , this surge in political activity ‘wouldn’t have been happening ten years ago.’

Commenting on the large demonstration starting in Easton in response to the last attacks on Gaza, Fatima said, it was nice to see people cheering you on, dropping what they were doing to join the march. Easton communities are predominantly from our backgrounds. It wasn’t that diverse when we marched down Whiteladies Road, and the numbers were low. It swelled and became really diverse once it was accessible to people. It’s amazing to bring people together. It gives you extra confidence.’

‘This time especially there’s been a strong voice from the Jewish community in support of Palestinians having equal rights. In Bristol we held a vigil with Jews For Justice For Palestinians. Once upon a time Palestinians and Jews lived side by side without conflict’, she reflected.

Displaying her multicultural and historical outlook further, Fatuma asserted, because we’re a black community and Africans, we have a strong connection to the struggle against the apartheid regime in Palestine.’

‘We’re a triple threat because we’re women, black, and Muslim!’

When asked about the challenges faced by young black Muslim women Fatuma claimed, ‘As minorities it is important for us to stand up. There are many stereotypes about Muslim women being oppressed and not having a voice. You sometimes feel you have to constantly prove yourself, and they don’t see you as an individual.’

Addressing the question of more traditional cultural influences, Fatima commented , ‘often it’s the leaders, the well-established figures which most often are men, who take the lead, but we are encouraged in our families to stand up and express our opinions.’

‘It’s so important for women to have a space to voice our opinions and represent ourselves. As feminists, our opinion should have a place to be voiced. I don’t think it’s a case of us not having had an opinion before, it’s just that we’ve never had a platform before.’

Amenah confirmed , ‘it is true that some families don’t like their females to be involved, so there’s some truth to it, but it’s not everyone’s truth. My generation of Somali women is brilliant, as active as you’ve ever seen. People don’t expect to see a young Somali Muslim woman in activism, so we’re breaking a lot of glass ceilings.’

Their political consciousness is not limited to the Palestinian issue or the struggle to affirm an identity. Fatima mentioned going ‘ to each annual event in Queens’ Square during Refugee Rights week. I also support environmental causes, and volunteer for an organisation called Survival, which advocates for the land rights of indigenous tribal people in different parts of the world. As a feminist, I’d like to get involved in women’s issues, particularly in Bristol.’

‘I got involved in the FGM [female genital mutilation] cause’, said Fatuma. ‘I went to talks and offered to help in any way I can. Lately, the Girls’ Summit addressed FGM and how the UK’s position on that stance has changed. It’s 100% positive, in that they used to be afraid to be called racist, so no one did anything about it. A lot of people are now aware that it’s a cultural issue.’

For Amenah, ‘the shooting in America [of Michael Brown in Ferguson USA, 2014] is one I’m very passionate about. Syria too, definitely. Recently, I got thinking about domestic abuse and I’ve been donating to the charity Survive since.

She concluded on these strong terms, ‘through my activism I’ve realised that education is the key. So if I change and educate myself, then I can probably help other people.’

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  • George Gunn says:

    Who made the ‘broken glass’ picture at the top of this article? Would really love to know!

    • The Bristol Cable says:

      Sharon Dwhirst is the illistrator. the picture may still be on displa in cafe kino. The link printed in the first edition sadly is no longer avalible but more of her work can be found. we really love it too!

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