Interview with Haleh Afshar
Interview conducted by IPUP Director Helen Weinstein, 12/11/2008
Baroness Afshar OBE, Professor of Politics and Women's Studies at the University of York, talks about identity and faith, and some of the ways in which we can effect change.
Perceptions of difference
I think that for many of us who are different, who look different, our defining characteristics have always been in terms of what we look like, what do you see when you see me? And of course the first thing that I had to realize in my life was that what I see and what you see are very different, because, you know, everyday when I look at myself in the mirror I don't say ‘oh dear, how black I am’, or ‘am I black or am I white?’ I usually think about the creases, or the colour of my hair, or whatever. And I realized that really, the first thing that I am seen as, in different contexts, is my colour.
For example, I always felt that when I left York to commute to Bradford, which was a daily commute for me, the ticket conductor at the gate - in those days there were all gated - would see me as a kind of exotic character, and would always say 'good morning doctor, how are you?' And then I would get off the train, the same train, in Bradford, and the ticket collector would see me as a 'bloody Paki'. And the conversation showed that; his eyes showed that; and of course, whereas I would be a giggly, bye-bye person in York, I would become a very hoity-toity, ‘well look here my man, are you looking at this ticket or what’ at the other end. And you just suddenly realise that you are acting, or reacting to what is being seen, and you're redefining yourself, in my case refusing to accept the ascribed identity, but in many cases accepting the ascribed identity, and in fact what I eventually did was I decided well, ok, you know, I'm black. I'm going to show them I'm black, and black is like me.
Dismantling ascribed identities
Oddly enough this kind of decision, of adopting an ascribed identity, is the same when I go around saying I'm a little old lady, and people keep on saying 'tut tut, you're not', but I am! I am little, I am old, and I am actually now a lady! And trying to explain to people that little old ladies look like me is also a problem. So I think that one of the things that I have taken on as a kind of duty is deconstructing people's assumptions and prejudices and saying look, there is room for people like us, to be the definitions that you think are negative, and that it's actually the definition that is the problem and not us; we can look positive and carry the same label. And so it's this sort of trying to mix it up a bit.
The lesson was with the blacks, who first began by saying black is beautiful, and I think the reason Obama is where he is, is because there has been twenty, thirty years of people saying 'black is beautiful', so that when you see a beautiful black man, you can actually see it. Because unless and until the pictures, the media, the museums, the world, realize that it is possible to be black and beautiful, you can't make the next step. So taking the same kind of analogy, I'm determined to say Islam can be vibrant, can be good to women, can be positive, and come on, let's look at it in a different light. And I think that's the only way that we can do it. I think that in this we can be enormously helped by art, by performance, by the reconstruction of culture in the media.
In fact one of our biggest problems is that as yet we haven't convinced the media, that, for example, Muslim women are fantastically liberated, have a great deal to offer. And it's never easy, it's never quick, and if you give up, it's finished. So it's one of those things, like feminism: you have to take it on, but also to pass it on to your children and your grandchildren. It's not going to happen instantly. And this is something that I keep on saying to young, wonderfully vibrant Muslim women, who say, 'oh, we've been fighting for five years, and nothing has happened', and I keep on saying, look, I've been fighting for a quarter of a century, and a little bit has happened, so you know! So I think that there is room for huge leaps forward, but we also need to carry the rest with us, and that's the draggy bit, that we need to pick up and push with, but it's doable, and the more hands, the better it is.
Changing stereotypes of Islam and the impact of 9/11
Until 9/11, I never actually described myself particularly as a Muslim, because I was very busy being black, or being a little old lady, and it was only when, suddenly, the category Muslim - which up to then had always been identified as diligent, hard-working, successful - suddenly, we became the enemy within: terrorists, murderers, the whole works. So, that was another label that I thought, well, I'd better take it on. And of course it was really funny, because when I went around saying I'm a Muslim, my children used to say 'oh come on Mother, when did you last fast?’ And I suppose as far as I was concerned I was a cradle Muslim. I have never needed to prove that I was a Muslim, but if this is a negative ascribed identity, then I'm jolly well going to get on with deconstructing it, trying to make it different, trying to show that it's different. And it seems to me that it's essential that there should be people who refuse to be subsumed, to be absorbed into this kind of negative image, or negative label, and it's essential that we turn the labels on their heads.
The difficulty about 9/11 was that if you actually looked at the individuals involved, none of them was Afghan, none of them was Iraqi; as a matter of fact they were mostly of Saudi origin, with some Lebanese thrown in. And so the extraordinary thing for me, in the first place, was the way that it was turned from the Saudis into the Muslims, and it was turned away from the Saudis because the Saudis in general, and bin Laden's family in particular, had been instrumental in funding Bush. And this was something that was completely silenced, and nobody heard anything... you know, you may say I have these conspiracy theories in my head, and maybe I have, but essentially, some things read rather uncomfortably. And demonizing bin Laden had to be in a context other than his family, his birthplace, his background, or the fact that bin Laden became bin Laden with American funding. It was the Americans who funded Al Qaeda as a way of countering what they saw as Islamism, so history had to be re-written instantly. And to my utter amazement it was. And where are the historians, where are the museums? Where are the pictures to show that this was absolutely wrong?
So one of the things that got me very involved and passionate was the silences; the fact that there were a whole lot of things which were not being said, and a whole lot of other things which were being said which included demonizing Iranians, which included pretending that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the Taliban, and the way that these stories were constructed, were packaged, and were sold. And I think everybody bought it, partly because of the power of the media. I don't think that I could run a one woman campaign against the entire media, but what I can do is to say look, there is another image; what I can do is just start from the base, deconstruct some of the images. A one woman show is just that, it's all you can do as a person, but it's definitely a commitment on my part to say OK, look at the specific cases, look at the individuals you know, look over to your neighbour and see them as people, rather than seeing them through the prism constructed by the media. That's all I can do, but it's certainly, as far as I'm concerned, a campaign worth running.
Faith and right-wing propaganda
If you see the way the BNP changes its focus from colour to creed, it's extraordinary, and it's almost instant: it's no longer the blacks, it's the Muslims who are invading you. It's a problem. And you could change Muslim for Jews, for whatever religion happens to be flavour of the month, and one of the things that you can really do is that if you look at the BNP material, it's irrelevant what faith you put in, it could be any faith which is not mainstream Christianity, and it's identified as an indication of difference. I don't think the difference is that major in terms of other faiths, other minorities experiencing very similar kind of attacks on the synagogues, on the graveyards, all of that. The kind of attacks are very similar. And the thing that coexists and so many of us argue about is the problem that, as faith groups, we remain divided; we haven't learned to realise that the communality of our experience as a minority is very, very important. We may have a very different point of view on international politics, and we do, but here and now, we have a lot to work together with, and this is a very difficult message.
I think it's the whole idea of otherizing, that somehow the norm is not what we are. And you may be different because of your colour, because of your faith, because of whatever. Ruth Deech and I both heard a play on the radio, and I thought it was just fantastic. It was about Jewish festivities, and I found it really interesting, and really enjoyed it; Miriam Margolyes, who I like a lot, was in it. So I listened to it and I thought, oh good! And Ruth was furious, saying she's never heard anybody speak in that kind of Jewishy language for forty years! How could they possibly reproduce that? And I suddenly thought, of course, I didn't see through the stereotype, I thought it was great, without any prejudice about the Jews, but what I didn't hear was the way that the Jews were stereotypically represented as speaking in a funny way, the way that the blacks are always represented as speaking in a funny way, or the Muslims. So it seems to me that it's almost unconscious on the part of the media to see us as looking funny, speaking funny, being funny, you know, we do become very much the other, and the observer, the guardian of the norm, becomes the white, British, straight-speaking English person.
So it just seems to me, how you shift the 'they' to see us as interesting? Let's look at difference, but as a positive, let's see it as something that has a lot to offer, and I think that if you go down that road - and in practice we do - that's how curry and chips becomes the kind of national dish of Britain. We can do that when it's food, when it's unthreatening. But the minute it's in your face, and after all, human beings are in your face, it's very, very difficult to make the adjustment, because the adjustment is always in terms of toleration. It can be done, but it's so hiccupy and so slow, and it's always done by appropriating the difference, rather than extending it.
Cohesion and multiculturalism
I was at the very, very start, when David Blunkett talked about cohesion, and he had a meeting, and I gave a passionate argument about abandoning cohesion before it started, because it seems to me that cohesion means 'be like me'. And it's my first of many disagreements with Trevor Phillips over this, that you know, it's really difficult even if you say 'I am a black woman, be like me'. I'm old-fashioned, celebrating diversity, which is being rejected at the moment, but it seems to me that if we recognized that we can learn from other cultures, creeds, traditions, and practices, and that what we learn, and what they have results in something quite different which includes what we are and what they are, you find that the cultures do come together, not as cohesive in one way or another, but actually as creating something much more imaginative, much more interesting, and very different.
My worry is that cohesion is: here is the norm. And the reality is, I spent a year going to umpteen Britishness conferences, and I still discovered that I didn't know what it is, because in some terms, I was much more British than the British, I always was a minority of one or two, who actually cooked Sunday lunch, who even did roast potatoes, which I had to learn the hard way, because I didn't know how on Earth you made it happen! But you know, what is this Britishness? And nobody could tell me what it was, except that you know it when you have it. Well, I ain't got it, so what do I do!
The gap between legislation and lived experience
It's wonderful to have all the anti-racist laws, and I'm very grateful for them, but what we need is to actually think in the everyday terms, you know, how do we move on before saying 'it's the law', as to 'it's common practice'. That is the bit that I want to see. In the conversation that we have with Muslim women right across England, they said their teachers thought: they were Muslim women, therefore they would never succeed, so let's just put them in the one category. Their teachers knew nothing about Islam, and the teaching that was done on Islam was absolutely appalling. The careers mistresses or masters didn't think that the women would go anywhere other than an arranged marriage, so why bother? So that from the very start, they felt that they were pigeonholed, and I think this is happening to black boys, categorized as potential gang members, so you know what you do? You become a gangster. The question is how do you move beyond that? How do you insist that whatever your creed, whatever your colour, you decide.
I think that the media helps in the stereotyping, and when you see the gangsters, when you see the rapists, when you see whatever in plays, they're very typical of the stereotype, and you very rarely see the stereotype turned on its head, and when it is it causes a lot of comments. It seems to be that breaking the stereotype doesn't pay. It doesn't pay advertising, it doesn't pay publicity, and it often doesn't sell papers. The success of some newspapers is because they feed the prejudices that exist.
OK, let's start from somewhere else. Let's start, because education doesn't give you leeway, the system doesn't, but the museums do, they do belong to the locality, let people take over. And I think people want to feel empowered, to feel that they have a say in their destiny, in what's happening around them, and if they can't have it in one context, let's give it to them in another. I mean, creativity really isn't colour-coded.
Policy and removing barriers to change
I think that policy always changes by example. If you look at all the laws concerning women, it would never have happened if it wasn’t for the fact that there were exceptional people who did exceptional things and hung on to it. In that way, again, I think, if you have school plays, museums, university actions, you know, if it starts happening - and nowadays, with the web and the communication, it can be much faster, it can happen in more than one place at the same time, it can happen with more that one person - and I think that that's where it comes from. And you know there are a lot of people, certainly in the House of Lords, who are very aware of this kind of thing, and who will be backing you. So I think it can happen, because the connections exist.
I'd like to see much, much wider appreciation of diversities, of non-academic approaches which are not so easily measurable. How do you measure a performance? You can do it, because university staff now can include it in their CV, so it can be done, it can be measured. How can we make the system flexible enough to recognize innovation when it comes, without insisting on it, but actually just having the leeway. That's what doesn't exist, and that's what these tight timetables don't allow. I know it sounds madly liberal, but I think it's a good way forward.
There are a lot of barriers, actually, because first of all there are very powerful religious groups who are very defensive of their own position and their own interests. I mean bunches of Muslim men, Jewish men, Christian men, who actually see themselves as guardians of the faith, and worry about dilution, and worry about, if you talk across the faith, you might lose something, you might lose your position. And they actually are entrenched, and very, very firmly established, and as, on occasions, we have found, full of very fragile egos. And so it's not that easy.
It seems to me that the interfaith part is one of the most important. And so I belong to the interfaith group of Parliament, because I actually think that recognizing our communal humanity, and the commonalities of what all faiths teach, would be a huge help for removing barriers. You have to try and not be in your face, and again, that's where I feel art and performance and, for example, music. The BBC did lots of fantastic work between the British and the Iranian orchestras, and the music that they produced afterwards was lovely, because it was Persian music with an English rhythm, and so on, and I think that kind of thing, which comes from the edges, rather than right in the middle would be easier to do. I think these are things which you have to do from the margins and work yourself into the centre. For me the goal would be making the permeability apparent, and celebrating the difference in the same way as feminists have finally done it. It would at least take twenty-five years, I'm not going to be around for twenty-five years, but if I could start on that it would be a good thing!
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