Journalist, Producer & Researcher

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The British workplace must become more accommodating to Muslim women

Muslim women are the British economy's major untapped resources, as the latest census reveals a rise in this country's Muslim population, it's time to take notice

 

A recent report published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community revealed that Muslim women are encountering discrimination at work from the application stage, through interviews, at recruitment agencies, and in the workplace itself. Some individuals were even compromising their religious beliefs by removing their hijabs and changing their names to English sounding names in order to obtain employment.

One only has to look at the number of ambitious, educated and career-driven Muslim women across Britain, unable to secure employment, to realise that Muslim women are one of the most under-used resources in the UK labour market.

We need to question why this is happening. Should one really have to choose between religion and a career? Should employers be more accommodating to individuals wishing to practice their religion in the workplace?

As a Muslim woman, I didn’t think I encountered any discrimination in landing a job; I faced the usual hurdles any other graduate would have faced. It was only once employed that I realised how difficult the workplace can be for an individual wanting to practice their religion. 

Muslims are required to pray five times a day and finding the time and space to do this was my first challenge. In my first full-time job after graduating, I used my thirty-minute lunch break to head to a nearby mosque, while in another, I used a quiet spot in the local library. There were numerous occasions when prayer times were too close together for me to slip away, I couldn’t get time off to pray or I was in a meeting. The thought of telling clients ‘I need to go to pray’ was very daunting.

However the biggest obstacles were not practical, but social. There are certain topics of office conversation around sex, alcohol and relationships that Muslim women find themselves unable to participate in and as Islam requires modest dressing, in offices were females are expected to dress in a particular way, Muslim women are sometimes frowned upon for their choice of clothing, in particular, the hijab.

An innocent invite for an after-work drink can cause a major quandary for a practising Muslim. These social gatherings in pubs provide opportunities for networking and are often where managers seek out potential candidates for promotions. In one role, I made my religious beliefs very clear on my CV and during my interview, however, my welcome to the team was an outing ‘for a drink.’ I can’t even recall the amount of times I turned down an invite to join colleagues at the pub for a drink. 

Even after clearly highlighting my religious stance on alcohol, my colleagues saw no issue with the occasional afternoon beers in the office and no one took notice of how uncomfortable this made me feel. This lack of respect for religious beliefs was what ultimately prompted me to leave the private sector and find work in an Islamic faith-based institution.

I’m not alone in this. Plenty of Muslims, both males and females, seek alternative employment because of similar problems. A colleague of mine left his career at a leading news agency because of the lack of engagement with Islam and Muslims, while one of my friends insisted on working from home to avoid these stresses. Another friend of mine refused to declare she was Muslim for fear of being stereotyped.

While faith-based organisations and public sector institutions are more likely to be accommodating towards religious practices, many employers still see religion as a nuisance and are unwilling to seek compromise. It doesn’t help that some private sector institutions are now hiring based on ‘cultural fit’ rather than qualifications. When religion is such a taboo subject in some workplaces, it’s understandable why some Muslim women would choose to remain unemployed rather than speak up and ask for facilities, such as prayer rooms.

I’m not suggesting that employers must revamp their institutions for their Muslim employees. But asthe latest census tells us that Muslims now make up 4.8 per cent of the population and with this figure expected to rise every year, we need to start opening up discussion. Employers need to learn more about the religious beliefs of their employees, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, and be more flexible towards faith-based holidays and think more creatively about inclusive social outings. Simple initiatives like these can go a long way in creating a more productive and happier workforce.

If my previous employers had been more accommodating towards my religious beliefs, I would have stuck around to see where my career in those organisations might lead. I have plenty of Muslim friends who are educated and talented but are holding back on seeking out opportunities in certain sectors for fear of compromising their religious beliefs. It shouldn’t have to be this way. If employers could be more engaging, I’m sure more people would be able to see the potential of the hundreds of educated, career-driven Muslim women out there.


Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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Thursday, 25 October 2012

To Babar Ahmad & Talha Ahsan - We Have Failed You

On Friday, the European Court of Human Rights made its final decision that British citizens Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan were to be extradited to the United States.

 Babar Ahmad responded by indicating that his case had "exposed the fallacy of the UK's extradition arrangement with the US, and I can now leave with my head held high having won the moral victory."

Not only did he expose a system that is arbitrary and unfair but he also exposed a society that, on the whole, does not care about protecting and fighting for the basic rights of British citizens. For that, we should all be completely ashamed of ourselves.

From those who represent us in government to mainstream media outlets right down to the Muslim community, we have all played a part in allowing this grave injustice to occur under our names.

It is no secret how deeply flawed and problematic the extradition arrangements between the US and UK are. Under such a system, every one of us is vulnerable to being picked up and flown out without having been found guilty of a crime. Such a process, however, has been allowed to continue with impunity for one simple reason - we, the British public, allow it to go unchecked.

The number of Muslim organisations, mosques and activist groups have been minimal at voicing their concern against the human rights abuses carried out under the Extradition Act. Only a handful of mosques and Muslim groups across the country felt it necessary to address and campaign for Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. Those organisations who did not campaign claimed that the issue was controversial and irrelevant to the welfare of Muslim communities. However, the reality is that it wasn't controversial at all and it was very relevant for the Muslim community to be aware of such men and in particular, the Extradition Act 2003.

The men facing extradition were not asking to be freed from custody. All they were asking for was a trial in Britain - a right that is, in theory, given to every British citizen. For due-process and basic rights to be ignored and violated in such a manner is extremely worrying and should be a concern for every individual living in Britain.

Grouping Abu Hamza with Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan was a method used to cover up the blatant injustice being exercised against these two men. What is even more disturbing, however, is that the majority of mainstream media outlets followed suit by headlining the events leading up to Friday as Abu Hamza and four other terror suspects. Only a limited number of media outlets even bothered to report on Babar Ahmad, whilst Talha Ahsan's voice has been virtually silent apart from a few opinion pieces and blog posts.

Let us also not forget those politicians who have failed to raise their voices against such gross violation of basic rights. In August 2011, an e-petition calling on parliament to debate the Babar Ahmad case attracted close to 150,000 signatures, making it eligible for a full debate. Those 150,000 signatures were, however, completely ignored by our elected leaders when parliament refused to debate the case.

 Following on from the e-petition, an Early Day Motion (EDM-128) was signed and supported by 62 MPs. Only 62 MPs believe it is their responsibility to challenge a system where British citizens can be taken away and shipped to the US without ever having been found guilty of a crime under British law.

Immediately after the ruling, the home secretary ordered the movement of both men to the US without their families having a chance to say their final goodbyes. The emotional ordeal these families have gone through after years of campaigning tirelessly for their sons to be released has been distressing, to say the least, which the docu-drama entitled Extradition clearly portrays.

Like many of us, I could have done more to help Babar and Talha. I could have been out on the streets campaigning, protesting and educating people, not to mention, chasing my MP to raise this issue in parliament. If public pressure had been stronger, the outcome and debate, I believe, would have unfolded differently. When the time comes to place an 'X' on our ballot paper, Babar Ahmad's face and the failure of the coalition government to stand up for British citizens should consecutively run through our minds.

All I can do now is tell Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan how sorry I am. Sorry Britain and the community you was once part of, paid taxes and integrated into failed you. Failed to stand up for the principles of democracy and human rights on which we stand for and preach to the rest of world.

I now urge anyone who believes in human rights, democracy and the rule law to take a stand on this issue. Let's write to our MPs, newspapers and local politicians to demand a review of the unjust and controversial law. Don't wait until it is you who is fighting extradition.

                       Watch the Extradition Video here:

Featured in the HuffingtonPost UK and MPACUK

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Eleven Years On: The Silent victims of 9/11


Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Eleven years ago, on this very day, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into buildings on American soil. Over 2,000 people in New York, Washington D.C and Pennsylvania died and many were injured. The attacks marked a moment in modern history that would have major consequences for the entire world.  

Most of us remember where we were when the news broke. I am no exception. I clearly remember how I was sat in school, totally oblivious of what was happening. Little did know that these events would not only change the lives of those killed in the attacks but also have a devastating and profound effect on millions of people across the globe, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. 
 
While the world and many of us remember the people who lost their lives, we must not forget the voices of the voiceless who have indirectly also suffered as a result of 9/11. 

In the after-math of 9/11, the Bush and Blair administration responded to the attacks in the exact way al-Qaeda wanted. The War on Terror mantra was what al-Qaeda desperately required in order to make itself into a global brand. The decision to remove the Taliban by invading occupying Afghanistan and then Iraq only strengthened the al-Qaeda narrative and was used to expand global recruitment, as noted by Chris Hedges, the former al-Qaeda correspondent for the New York Times.

Since the United States commenced military action in Iraq, over one million Iraqis and over 4, 000 (officially acknowledged) U.S military personnel have been killed. The total number of UK troops killed in operations in Iraq has reached 178.  

While it is difficult to determine the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, it is estimated that this figure could be well into the millions and thousands for military personnel. The innocents, however, have not only been restricted to foreign lands. London, Madrid, New York, and other major cities throughout the world have been targeted by smaller attacks, which intelligence services warned would be made more likely if the US and UK invaded Iraq.

Along with military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, the War on Terror also led to the introduction of counter-terrorism policies that were specifically targeted at Muslims in the name of countering al-Qaeda terrorism. While targeting Muslims may not have been intentional, these policies bought on a wave on anti-Muslim sentiments ranging from racial attacks to carte blanche surveillance programmes which are still being felt throughout the world today.

We must also remember people like Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who was shot dead on the London underground by UK police after being mistaken for a ‘suicide bomber.’  Men like Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan are also notable examples of those who have suffered as a result of imbalanced counter-terrorism policies implemented in response to 9/11.

 Let’s also not forget the hundreds of innocent inmates who were and are still held and in Guantanamo Bay. A document published by Wikileaks showed that hundreds of Guantanamo detainees are merely innocent Afghans or Pakistanis, including drivers, farmers and chefs who were illegally charged for offences relating to terrorism and placed in Guantanamo Bay.

Whilst the mainstream understanding has been based on projecting Western nations as the only victims of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, this is far from the reality on the ground. Indeed more Muslims have perished in al-Qaeda attacks then non-Muslims living in the West. According to an article published in the Washington Times, in 2004 to 2008, only 15% of the 3,010 victims killed in al Qaeda-related attacks were Western. And in 2006 to 2008, only 2% (12 of 661 victims) were from the West, and the remaining 98% of those killed were inhabitants of countries with Muslim majorities.

While many of us around the world attend and watch memorial services or express our condolences to those who were killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, let’s also remember those one million plus who have been the silent victims of 9/11. They also deserve our two minutes of silence.

Featured in the HuffingtonPostUK

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Extradition Laws Fail to Protect British Citizens



Talha Ahsan

 Meet 32 year old British citizen, Talha Ahsan. Talha is a first class honours graduate, poet and writer and suffers from Asperger Syndrome. He is one of Britain's longest serving alleged terror detainees who have served the equivalent of a 12 year sentence at high security prisons, without a trial and without charge, in the UK.

On April 10th 2012, the European Court of Human Rights
ruled that the extradition of Talha along with four other alleged terror suspects to the United States would not breach their rights, despite the prospect of life imprisonment in solitary confinement. While Talha’s final appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is still under consideration, it looks like in less than a month's time; he could be taken away from his loved ones to serve a prison sentence in the US despite never being charged with an offence. He has never visited America and has always denied all terrorism charges.

Imprisoning British citizens without charge or trial goes against everything that Britain or what being British stands for. The UK is the
only country in the world that allows its own citizens to be extradited to another country to face trial, without evidence, and for crimes which committed at all, have been committed in the UK.

Meet Talha Ahsan
On 19 July 2006, Talha Ahsan was arrested at his home under the controversial Extradition Act 2003. He is accused in the US of terrorism-related offences which arise out of an alleged involvement over the period of 1997-2004 with the Azzam series of websites, one of which happened to be located on a server in the US. American prosecutors claim that the now defunct website - Azzam Publications - was used to upload 'extremist' videos and raise funds for the Taliban and insurgents in Chechnya.

Talha Ahsan has never been questioned by British police, despite a number of men also being arrested and questioned from his local area in December 2003 under similar alleged charges. All were released without charge. One of them, Babar Ahmad
, was later compensated £60,000 by the Metropolitan Police for the violent physical abuse he endured whilst being arrested. It was evidence from this encounter which formed the basis of Talha's arrest two and a half years later.

According to the Free Babar Ahmad Campaign
, Azzam.com was an information portal providing updates of conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan in the 1990s, similar to websites reporting on updates of the conflicts in Syria today, where there is no independent media coverage. International Relations journalist, Phil Rees, told me that similar websites like Azaam.com are functioning without scrutiny on American servers.

Whichever claim is true may never be known as neither Talha nor Babar Ahmad
have been given a right to have their say in a British court; a right that should be afforded to every British citizen facing any criminal charge.

If extradited, Talha Ahsan faces a prison sentence of up to 70 years in a supermax solitary confinement prison. His Asperger Syndrome, which impacts his ability to process information, has been completely ignored despite experts defining
him as "an extremely vulnerable individual who should be placed in specialist care rather than a supermax prison.”

Innocent until proven guilty

I've never met Talha Ahsan and it is not my call to say whether he is guilty or not. It shouldn't be my decision or the Muslim community's decision. Nor should it be the police or Theresa May's
decision.  Whether he is guilty or not should be determined in a British court by a British judge and jury.

In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011
, Prime Minister, David Cameron stressed the importance of universal human rights to be an integral component of British values. He added that when dealing with extremism, his government should only engage with those organisations and individuals who "believed in universal human rights-including women and people of other faiths, equality before the law, democracy and the right of the people.” The treatment of people subjected to the Extradition Act, such as Ahsan, however, show just how 'universal' human rights are considered by those occupying the corridors of power in Whitehall.

In August 2011, Babar Ahmad's family launched an e-petition
calling for him to be given a trial in the UK. The petition attracted close to 150, 000 signatures making it eligible for an official full parliamentary debate. However, despite David Cameron's words on democracy and the right of the people, the voices of these 150, 000 individuals were ignored by the government when it refused to debate the case.

The Extradition Act 2003
has stirred enormous controversy because it devalues the sovereignty of British citizenship. It was fast-tracked into UK legislation without proper scrutiny. Currently, the act allows the US government to extradite UK citizens and others for offences committed against US law, even though the alleged offence has been committed in the UK by a person living and working in the UK. Although this should work vice versa, many have argued that Britain has been failing to protect its citizens by allowing the US to have an  upper-hand when it comes to extraditing British citizens.  A  Freedom of Information Request to the Home Office revealed that not one single US citizen has been extradited from the US to the UK under the Extradition Act 2003 for conduct committed on US soil. The extradition treaty removes the most elementary civil rights such as habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, access to family and protection from torture and inhumane treatment.  

And it is just not Muslims that are feeling the brunt of this law. Along with Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, in a similar position are Gary McKinnon, from Glasgow and Richard O’Dwyer, from Sheffield. 

O’Dwyer, a 24 year old student, is the subject of up to 10 years imprisonment for alleged copyright offences relating to TVShack.net, a website that provided links to places where users could watch TV shows and films online. The fact that there are hundreds of other websites operating like this across the world was not considered by the Home Office when it decided to sign off O’Dwyer’s extradition.  Mckinnon, who also suffers from Asperger Syndrome, was indicted by a US court in November 2002 after reportedly hacking into over 90 US Military computer systems from his UK home. He is still fighting extradition. 

As  Hamja Ahsan, Talha Ahsan’s brother argues, “there are close family relationships between all the families affected by this legislation. In sum, a bad piece of legislation bites back at all British citizens. …. Even Lithuania has better protections for its own citizens in relation to extradition than Britain.  In context, France doesn't extradite its citizens at all.  And within Holland, a foreign sentence is served on home ground.

The longer such injustices continue, the more Britain will continue to undermine its credibility and trust in the eyes of its people. It is time for this law to be
reformed. An Early Day Motion 128, supported by 57 MPs has been put forward in the House of Commons urging an immediate reform before any British citizen is further extradited. 

For a country that is supposed to be at the forefront of advocating human rights, democracy and the rule of law, Britain is failing the most important duty of all; protecting its own citizens. 

Featured in the HuffingtonPostUK, Birmingham Press, Counterfire and MPACUK

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Follow Reyhana Patel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReyhanaPatel      (@ReyhanaPatel)