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Dreams of romance and redemption lure young women to jihad

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Originally published for The Sunday Times on 22/11/15
As you can imagine, there was a lot I had to say on this subject. There are certain parts of this article that I felt needed elaboration, so I have inserted an asterisk at the end of the relevant sentence and expanded below the main article.


IT seems baffling: why would any young woman from a free and liberal society choose the barbaric death cult that is Isis? Yet some women in Britain are actively recruiting for a group that orders women to cover themselves from head to toe and takes non-Muslim women as sexual slaves. To call these women “brainwashed” absolves them of any responsibility for their actions.

Some have suggested these women have vulnerabilities that are being exploited. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Or do they?

There is no single pathway to becoming an extremist or terrorist, and women are just as susceptible to this toxic Islamist ideology as their male counterparts.

Some Muslim women are marginalised and disenfranchised. But my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were racially abused quite publicly and had fewer opportunities than we do today. Why did they not blow themselves up on buses or trains?

If anything, women face more pressure and oppression within their own families and communities than from the state.

For some there is the chance to be fighters and slay infidels themselves. A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found evidence that these women “revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation”.

For other young women – and some are very young – there is a jihadist Mills & Boon element to it, as a friend of mine put it.

Kalsoom Bashir, co-director of the anti-extremist group Inspire and a former Prevent officer in Bristol, told me that after Yusra Hussein fled Bristol to join Isis in Syria last year, a teacher claimed some schoolgirls were more excited by Yusra’s marriage to a jihadist fighter than anything else.

“They seemed to think it was exciting and romantic,” Bashir explained. “One teacher told me that she was concerned some girls might think going to Syria was a form of redemption. A few had come out of relationships with boys who had used them badly. They felt dirty and that they had been bad Muslims, as sex outside marriage is considered a sin.”

This is not a surprise. From a young age Muslims are taught that too much interaction with the opposite sex is haram (impermissible). In many of the Islamic societies in British universities, the “brothers” and “sisters” are kept apart. No wonder these young women are tantalised by the prospect of marrying a young, attractive fighter.

Much has been said about Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the “party girl” suicide bomber who blew herself up in Paris last week*. She had a sad childhood, we are told. She never really practised her religion and had boyfriends, her friends and neighbours said.

Yet this is typical behaviour from terrorists. Women such as Aitboulahcen believe they will get their rewards in the hereafter.**

Condemnation alone is not enough when this poisonous ideology is not being tackled and it is ideology that is the root cause.

People from my generation have been taught to divorce Islam from culture; told that our south Asian heritage was oppressing us whereas Islam would liberate us and deliver all our God-given rights.***

This alone does not create terrorists but it certainly contributes to a victim narrative that prevents Muslims from tackling this ideology and instead blames western foreign policy for the creation of Isis.

There is widespread distrust of the government’s Prevent strategy, with university student unions actively pledging to work against it.

Speakers with extremist views are regularly invited to universities to whip up hysteria and spread false information. This must stop or we will continue to see more women, and men, going to Syria.


* Of course it has now emerged that she was not a suicide bomber at all.

**By this I mean that many Muslims – and those of other religions – are nominal Muslims. It is rare that you will find a Muslim who will practise everything that is expected of him and him and her, for example praying five times a day, because we’re all hypocrites. Therefore it is no surprise that jihadis have dabbled in drugs and alcohol or committed various “sins” before “repenting” in the hope that they will be forgiven in the afterlife. If anything this demonstrates the powerful role that ideology plays in recruiting would-be jihadis or so-called jihadi brides.

***This may require a separate article/blog but I shall explain as briefly as I can here. What I mean by this is what we are constantly told to avoid mixing culture and religion. Culture, we are told, is what has oppressed us. People ‘confuse’ culture for Islam, therefore we need to follow ‘true’ Islam.  This led to some good things – inter-race marriages being one – but this meant that it is difficult for young people to identify with their parents’ culture, or Britain, and Islam is put before everything – that being a very austere, black and white form of Islam that leaves no space for colour. When you consistently hear that Islam will liberate us, that the Caliphate is what we need, it is no wonder we have ISIS.



Written by Iram Ramzan

November 24, 2015 at 9:21 pm

“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad” – Dangerous reporting in Iraq

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Originally published for The Backbencher on June 16 2013

As a student in 2003, Mohamad Ali Harissi used to take part in protests against the Iraq war. “I was in love with the story of Iraq, this amazingly beautiful country,” he said. After working as a local reporter in Beirut, he joined Agence France-Presse in 2010. A year later, he was presented with the opportunity to work in Baghdad. “It was like a dream come true.”

But reporting in conflict zones is never easy. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 140 journalists, of whom 117 were Iraqi, were killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, making it one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.


Being caught in crossfire was not the greatest risk – CPJ research shows that more journalists were murdered in targeted killings in Iraq than in combat. It is a country where many families will say goodbye to each other before leaving the house, not knowing if they will all come back alive.

“You have to be lucky to stay alive in Baghdad,” Mohamad said. “The worst thing is the sound of explosions, I can’t get used to it.

“In my first week, I heard an explosion. The hotel started shaking and I got scared. After the fifth time it was OK but I still can’t get used to the surprise.

“Each time I felt my heart was moving and it reminds you of the place you’re working in.”

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people felt that life would change drastically and liberty would play its role in the new Iraq. And, according to AFP journalist Ammar Karim, although it was ‘great’ in the first few months of the US led forces, the quality of reporting soon declined, due to the restrictions imposed by the US forces on the one hand and the risks that beset journalists on the other.

U.S. Marines pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Sean Smith/Getty Images)

Mohamad said that it is more difficult moving around the country, as journalists need to obtain more papers, from the municipalities, for example, for permission.

“If we want to go to do a story, let’s say, a feature about fishermen in Kerbala, I have to take permission from the Karbala Province, the approval of Baghdad, take papers to show at the checkpoints and send the car number plates beforehand,” he said.

“Our job is to write something fast, which is not easy to do here.”

A few weeks ago, Mohamad’s colleague was arrested for merely interviewing people and taking photos after an attack near his compound. While Iraq’s 2005 constitution guarantees freedom of the press in theory, courts have continued to rely on the highly restrictive 1969 penal code to prosecute reporters and media outlets on charges including libel and defamation.

Further to this, the Commission of Media and Communications monitors everything. It has forced media organisations to agree to regulations giving it the authority to halt broadcasts, confiscate equipment, and withdraw licenses, among other powers. Although it is slowly getting better, the beginning of the sectarian conflicts in 2006 meant that foreign journalists could not say who they worked for.

Mohamad has seen many good journalists quitting their jobs, the pressure too much for them to handle. A month ago, an independent newspaper said that it had closed down as there were no more funds. Most money comes from adverts and the government can put pressure on papers by denying them adverts.

It is quite a contrast to working in Beirut. Mohamad explained that it was easier to move around and talk to officials without being labelled a Ba’athist, as opposed to Iraq where officials will simply refuse to give a statement. What is disturbingly similar is the rise of sectarianism, growing rapidly given the conflict across the border in Syria. Many Shi’a fighters are making their way to Syria to fight in order to defend their religion’.

“Iraq is like a bigger Lebanon,” Mohamad laments. Many Iraqi journalists are not objective, reporting according to their religious sect or party. Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian militias continue to exist, and in some cases, are on a path to being recognised as part of Iraq’s security apparatus.

Ammar believes that falling into the hands of the government is much more easier than if they were to fall into the hands of any political or militia group. Most threats come from Islamist parties and the price of criticising them is their life.

“I think all the journalists who were killed was a result of expressing their opinions and this opinion, somehow, hurt a political party or militia group,” he said.

Ironically, people there are more suspicious of their own journalists, wondering if they are Sunni or Shi’a, or which party they belong to. But they are more than happy to talk to with foreign journalists, forgetting all things sectarian. It is funny but sad at the same time. Mohamad has learned a lot since reporting in Iraq. The news, he rightly insists, is never about the story itself, but how it will affect the people and the country. All journalists in Iraq are learning the same lesson.

A sectarian attack in Baghdad


With Iraq under sanctions for a decade, followed by the war and subsequent sectarian violence, journalism schools have not really improved, as other priorities include security. In spite of all this, Mohamad is happy to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

“I love this country,” he said. “You feel the history here. Each time I leave the compound, I worry thinking, maybe I won’t be lucky today, but once I start talking to people the tension goes.” To heal wounds is very hard and will take time.

“If society won’t change, the journalist won’t change,” Mohamad explains. “It is all related, the sectarianism. This is the case in the whole region. Everyday I see this war going on and the media is one of the main tools of this work.”

But with the current conflicts and tensions rising in Syria and Lebanon, Iraqis could be waiting a very long time for a freer press.

Written by Iram Ramzan

June 16, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Forced marriage app – treating the cause or the symptoms?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 23/12/12


This week, the Freedom Charity, together with the Metropolitan Police, launched a new smartphone app to help young people who may be at risk of being forced into marriage. The Freedom app, we are told, provides young victims with essential access to help and all the information they may need on the issue at the touch of a button.  Detective Chief Superintendent Reg Hooke, of the Met’s child abuse investigation command, said: “We wanted to produce something that would empower young people by giving them advice and information”.

Certainly, the problem of forced marriages is not going away. In 2011, there were 1,468 instances where the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage. But statistics are not always reliable. I know of at least a dozen people who were forced into marriage – yet they will not be counted in those statistics. Why? Because they did not tell anyone.

The problem with this app though is that, not only is it limited to those with smartphones, but also, if the victims of forced marriage are taken abroad, as many are, and their telephones (assuming they have a smartphone) are confiscated from them, how are they going to access the app?

Further to this, I’ve come across several people who, before going to Bangladesh or Pakistan, gave their friends in the UK copies of their passports and contact numbers to give to the police in case such a thing were to happen to them. So it is not that victims are necessarily unaware of who to talk to or who to contact, but rather their own reluctance to come forward to report that they are being forced into marriage. Those that do report it already know who they can contact. In this respect, the app does not seem to do anything new.

ForcedMarriage1  Should schools do more? Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse, seem to think so. They received a letter from a teacher who teaches in a school in England. This teacher met Jasvinder Sanghera at the NUT conference stall and was encouraged to display our Helpline poster. This lasted 24 hours as within this time the Head teacher tore them all down and the teacher was called to her office and told they must not be displayed as she did not wish to ‘upset Muslim parents.’

I’m sorry but what does cultural sensitivities have to do with breaking the law and violating human rights? ‘Cultural sensitivities’ means, for example, being aware of not serving pork to a Muslim person or beef to a Hindu, not reminding parents that forcing a child into a marriage is against the law and a violation of human rights! This strange notion of not wanting to offend ‘cultural sensitivities’ is downright offensive in itself.

‘Honour’ and ‘Shame’

Asian and middle eastern women in the UK have to cope with conflicting roles and living two lives to maintain their cultural identity but survive in the dominant society. I’ll be perfectly honest here – there are certain things that even I cannot do, (or will not do) because I have been brought up with this notion that anything that goes against certain traditions and customs will bring shame and dishonour upon my family.

Admittedly, it is changing in my generation, and it is slowly dying out, and I could not care less what the ‘community’ say. This ‘community’ who, by the way, consist of a group of busybodies who take it upon themselves to know what everyone is up to in order to snitch on them to their families, while conveniently forgetting the fact that their own child is hardly perfect.

But every family worries what the ‘community’ will say, so because of this, even I have to take into consideration of how my family would feel of being gossiped about. It is still there in the back of my mind that I must do whatever is necessary not to bring shame on them. This can range from the more serious (marrying outside one’s ethnicity) to something so trivial (socialising in the evenings), and I’m certain that this is not just something I go through.

Victim of forced marriage  It is such a heavy burden to place on one individual, being reminded on a regular basis that they must not bring ‘shame’ on the family, that they are being watched all the time by members of the community to ensure they do not transgress.  It is something you cannot truly understand until you have been through it yourself.

One person, who is dear to me, was forced into a marriage, and almost escaped on his wedding day until he was caught by a relative and told to come back. “This isn’t right,” he was told. “Just come back, it will be fine, you’ll see.”  He had so much potential, so much he would have achieved in his life, but was never given the chance. He is a shell of his former self. But if that has taught him one thing, it is that he would never put his own children, nieces or nephews through the same thing.

A friend of mine was forced into marrying her cousin from Pakistan. She was not threatened with violence, or taken to Pakistan against her will. Rather, her own mother told her that if she did not marry this boy, she would kill herself. And so she obliged. Emotional blackmail is a powerful weapon.

She could have reported the incident to the police, you may be thinking, but what child wants to see his or her parents behind bars? All those gossiping busybodies pointing fingers and speaking in hushed tones as they walk by, “there goes that shameful girl/boy who reported her/his parents to the police”. No matter what the parent does to the child, only a handful of victims would want their parents to suffer. And so they suffer in silence instead.

This is what many organisations, including the police, miss out. It is not a case of threatening a girl or boy with violence. Most of the time it is done with emotional blackmail, as mentioned in the above case. Victims often endure years or months of psychological pressure, and often feel they have no one to turn to.

Many times I have spoken to non Asian friends and colleagues, who all just say the same thing, that they should live their own lives without caring what their parents think or say.  But that is easier said than done. Try telling someone who has had to endure this psychological pressure for decades to “just leave” and see what their reaction is. They are hardly going to thank you, because in many instances, there is nothing that they can do.

It does come down to a difference between the cultures. In south Asian and middle eastern families, you are not an individual. Instead, you are part of a collective identity, i.e. your whole family, tribe or caste, and anything you do impacts them. This is especially true of women, who are often seen as possessions of the male members of the tribe or family. Therefore, simply telling a victim of forced marriage or other disputes to leave their family is pointless. Without your family, without your tribe, who exactly are you? What is your identity without them? That is why many victims will not come forward, for fear of ostracising their entire family and being disowned. For it is far better to remain in an abusive family, and be part of that collective identity, than be outside the clan, having to forge a new identity for yourself.

Victims need more support rather than just more laws, as very few will want to report their parents. They need to know that there is a support system out there, people who will understand what they are going through, who will be there for them should they have to leave their family to start afresh, which is why more people need to be aware of the cultural reasons behind forced marriages.  So while the app is certainly an innovative idea, it ‘treats’ (if even that) the symptoms rather than the causes.

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

What’s in a name – for ethnic minority women, a job

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 09/12/2012


BEING unemployed does not do much for anyone’s self esteem. When you have sent countless job applications (I have sent at least 50 in the last two months alone), you begin to doubt yourself: “Is it my lack of qualifications”, you wonder, or “perhaps it’s the effect of the recession we are in”.

Or maybe it is because I’m too ‘ethnic’ for some employers?  The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) said in its report that ethnic minority women face discrimination “at every stage of the recruitment process”, which has led to BME women having to ‘whiten’ their CVs by dropping ‘ethnic’ names.

One woman, who is half-Bangladeshi and half-Arab, explained that changing her name to seem less typically Muslim had resulted in “a clear increase in interview offers”, and eventually led to a permanent name change by deed poll.  As if that was not bad enough, she then faced even more discrimination in her workplace for not being white enough.

I was tempted to pretend to be shocked and incredulous (we’re living in a multi-cultural country after all!) but why bother? I am not surprised at all.  We may all be British, but we are most definitely not equal.  Your race, religion or ethnicity are still defining factors that affect your employability and there has not been a significant improvement in the last few decades.

A friend of mine faced discrimination while on work experience during university. “When they saw my name on an application, they joked about having too many Arabs in the department already,” she said. “And I’m not even Arab!” As though that should even matter.

In 2011, the overall unemployment rate for ethnic minority women was 14.3%, compared with 6.8% for white women. Among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women it rose to 20.5%, and 17.7% of black women also being unemployed.

Muslim women who wear the hijab reported discrimination and women of all three ethnic groups reported questions asked about intentions regarding marriage and children, which was often tied to assumptions based on ethnicity – for example it was assumed that Muslim women would want to stop work after having children.

Sara Khan, Director and Co-founder of Inspire, believes this report  highlights how BME women face discrimination at every stage of the recruitment process.

“I’ve delivered empowerment training and worked with many Muslim women including Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who are identified as being particularly affected by high rates of unemployment,” she said. “These women fully recognise the even lower glass ceiling that faces them and this is highly dis-empowering. Much more needs to be done by the Government to assist these women, who remain colour-blind and whose policies, the cuts in particular, are hitting women the hardest in particular those from BME backgrounds.”

I could not agree more. As a female media insider, rather lamentably, told me, “the glass ceiling is still there. In fact, it has been cemented over.”  It is frustrating being told to “keep at it” and “just hang in there”, especially from my white, male associates who are in no position to talk, as most of them have no inhibitions and do not understand how it is to struggle financially.

I thought the reason for my lack of success may have been down to lack of experience in certain areas, geographical location, or even certain cultural factors, such as not being able to move out (though that is an article for another time), but now this report has made me doubt my abilities and qualifications.

Maybe my ‘ethnic’ hard-to-pronounce name (I am often, quite frustratingly, called ‘Imran’ instead of Iram) is holding me back?

Perhaps, dear readers, I should do a James Caan, and ‘whiten’ my name. Any suggestions?

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:24 pm

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