In the latest in her series of exclusive interviews for Children of Peace, Professor Sarah Brown talks to Elizabeth Arif-Fear – the writer and human rights campaigner based in London.
Elizabeth founded the online platform Voice of Salam in 2015 in order to inform others about a range of human rights, interfaith, social and cultural issues and provide campaigning advice. Her first collection of poems, What If It Were You, was published in 2019.
Sarah Brown: Could you tell us something about how your interest in interfaith work developed? What prompted you to get involved, and to set up Voice of Salam?
Elizabeth Arif-Fear: My interest in interfaith work first developed really after I converted to Islam as it was only then that I became comfortable with my faith and was sure of my beliefs. Before then I didn’t really have much of an outward religious identity. I identified as Christian but I was in between trying to find out what that meant to me, what I believed, what having a faith was about and was trying to finding a space where I felt comfortable and that I belonged in. At that time, I didn’t know my faith well and wasn’t particularly engaged with faith-based spaces.
I’ve been interested in human rights since I was a teenager and began campaigning with Amnesty International during sixth form. At university – studying languages, translation and human rights – I wrote a lot on intercultural communication, multiculturalism and issues surrounding integration, antisemitism, Islamophobia, migration and identity. These strands of social justice, diversity, human rights and faith really merged really when I adopted my new faith and I began to respond to issues surrounding Islamophobia in light of the then upcoming presidential elections with Donald Trump.
I was also aware that as a convert to Islam, many people (coming from such a “mixed background”) saw themselves as “bridge builders” and that was something that inspired and made me think: “That’s where I belong” and that’s what I’d like to do!
I set up Voice of Salam back in 2015 when I was living in Spain. I wanted to continue to engage in human rights issues and given my experiences of living as a British Muslim in Spain and the socio-political issues at the time surrounding ISIS and the upcoming US elections with Donald Trump, faith and interfaith relations naturally became a part of my writing. When I later moved back to the UK, I was able to really engage with interfaith work given the range of opportunities available. I joined the planning committee for an upcoming peace event in my hometown and it went from there really!
SB: The Voice of Salam blog touches on some controversial issues. Which posts have received the most attention?
EAF: Funnily enough, to date, the most visited post has been the feature: 12 quotes depicting women’s quality in Islam. Going by the search terms listed, my guesses are that people from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds are looking for information on the issue. The idea that Islam is/isn’t a misogynistic religion and the abuse of human rights across the globe, including in nations based on Islamist theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, obviously is widespread. So, I suppose it’s sadly not that surprising.
I am surprised however how it keeps getting more hits though! It’s intriguing how Muslims are searching for more information on this topic. This blog is only a short piece but I hope people found it informative. There are lots more features on women’s rights and feminism in religious and non-religious contexts on Voice of Salam as women’s rights are something that I’m incredibly passionate about and which are sadly under attack throughout the globe in various contexts.
Likewise, a feature that I wrote for the blog She Speaks We Hear on examples of everyday sexism in the English language, which I’ve shared on Voice of Salam has also been popular. I think that it’s something that women can relate to and helps to put things into a daily context. It’s certainly helped me to think about the language that I use! By simply looking at the language we use and our own behaviour we can work to greater address the underlying sexism and misogyny so present in our society today.
Lastly, I think general education on what human rights are and why they are important is really crucial and that’s been reflected in the piece 10 reasons why we need human rights, which is the second most viewed blog post to date on Voice of Salam. It again offers a short overview of a vast often misunderstood but crucial area. Knowledge is the first step to appreciation and empowerment after all!
SB: Your collection of poems, ‘What if it were you’, engages with similarly challenging topics. What made you turn to poetry to express your thoughts and feelings about the causes you feel deeply about?
EAF: As blogger, I’m always keen to raise awareness of critical issues. It was actually however last year when Eastern Ghouta (Syria) was under siege that I really began to reflect more deeply on the issues at hand in Syria.
I’d published features on the conflict/human rights abuses in Syria before and with the conflict by now years old at the point, the British public were well aware of the suffering. However, with the siege, it became so much rawer. Humanitarian aid and political pressure were continuing to address some of the issues, but underneath it all I was left thinking: “What else could we do?”. There were men, women and children at that moment in time (and still are) in such dire circumstances, people literally under siege thousands of miles away and sadly ultimately nothing could change unless there was the political will within Syria itself.
I couldn’t imagine how frightening and unbearable that must be. It’s that feeling of sadness, helplessness and common humanity and empathy for our brothers and sisters – our fellow human beings – that really got me thinking and reflecting and which ultimately led me to writing poetry.
Poetry is such a raw, emotional form of expression. I’d love writing poetry as a child but had lost touch with it. As I was then walking and thinking about the issue of Eastern Ghouta one day and I felt the urge to write a poem. I often come up with ideas whilst I’m walking or out and about as it’s a time when I’m able to think and reflect alone. At that point, I’d conducted interviews on the issues before but now it was so much deeper than that. The idea of imaging if it were us in that situation came to me and I wrote the poem “What If It Were You” that night. I then shared it with friends and family and a friend suggested writing an anthology and it went from there!
SB: Could you tell us something about the relationship between your faith and your concern for women’s rights? (Both anti-Muslim bigots and very conservative Muslims often insist that Islam and feminism don’t mix!)
EAF: Well, I’ve always been a proud feminist and I’ve been a Muslim for around seven years now. I’ve studied feminism both as a non-Muslim and a Muslim from both a secular and more theologically-based perspectives (e.g. Islamic Feminism) and issues around religious freedoms in Europe affecting Muslim women (such as bans on hijab in France). As a non-Muslim, I knew a fair bit about Islam and I knew the difference between politics, culture and religion vis-à-vis the Muslim world and Muslim women.
It’s safe to say that if I felt that Islam denied the rights of women, I never would have converted to Islam! The (renewed) respect for women at the time of revelation and in that historical context the subsequent rights outlined to women were obviously something that I recognised and valued before converting to Islam. So, for example; the right to divorce, work and keep all your own earnings, the impermissibility of forced marriage and the outlawing of female infanticide (amongst many other issues), helped me to appreciate the faith. I never doubted that as a woman I’d be anything other than an equal on theological, sexual, emotional, political and financial grounds. Whilst over the years my faith has matured and I’ve learnt a lot and changed my views on certain things, I adopted Islam with full appreciation and still feel that deep love and appreciation for my faith. I feel I’ve come “full circle” as I’ve learnt, lived, explored and grown in confidence and the feelings remain the same but my outlook and approach regarding revelation, renewal and faith in today’s modern world are however now more much pronounced, nuanced and pragmatic.
As an activist, I campaign a lot for human rights (including women’s rights) and this includes the Middle East (predominantly Iran). I work in secular circles as well as looking at things from an Islamic and Muslim perspective – addressing theological interpretations and socio-cultural realities. As a Muslim woman and a human rights activist, I feel strongly about protecting the rights of women (both Muslim and non-Muslim) worldwide, including in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia where literalist/extremist interpretations of my faith are used and politicised to deny women of their rights. This is something that as I have grown in confidence and nuance in my faith, I will undoubtedly continue to work on. I think as a Muslim woman, to see the abuse of my faith makes campaigning on these issues much more powerful.
Likewise, as someone who wore a headscarf for around seven years and wrote her MSc thesis on the ban on facial coverings in France, I feel strongly about recognising intersectionality and building inclusive spaces. Feminism is about inclusivity and allowing women the choice to dress, work, live, worship as they feel/wish to – whatever their faith or non-faith background.
SB: The conflict in Israel/Palestine often becomes a focus for antagonism between Jews and Muslims in the UK. Could you tell us how you came to write your poem ‘Family Reunion’, and what you’d like readers to take from it?
EAF: It certainly has. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a big issue and I wanted to add something in the book that touched upon this issue but in a more nuanced, non-antagonistic manner. We really do need to strip away the “black and white” notions of the conflict and build greater unity and understanding between Jews and Muslims – something which is however sadly so often lacking.
Through the poem “Family Reunion”, I’d like readers to reflect and remember just how close Muslims and Jews are theologically. I hope they can empathise with the often deemed “other”, that they can understand and feel the need to unite not divide. The poem ultimately calls for reflection, a pause to the constant conflict and to recognise just how close we are – to “go back” to the beginning so to speak.
It’s only by building these bridges, empathising with one another, understanding the “others” history, feelings and realities – recognising that both people have suffered and deserve safety, peace, security and freedom – that we can call both political sides to account and start working towards reconciliation and a long-term sustainable solution to the ongoing conflict (hopefully a stable (two State) solution). I hope that the poem can shed light on some of these issues and needs in what has become an incredibly polarised, often toxic area of politics.
SB: Is there a poem you’d like to pick out to discuss, either because it’s something you feel passionately about – or found difficult to write – or it’s elicited strong responses?
EAF: One particular poem which I went through a bit of a “back and forth” process with was the poem “#MeToo”. I originally started by writing the poem from the point of view of the abuser to show the excuses he’d give and highlight the effects of the current blame culture. However, after adding the women’s side (response), I then came to realise that this is an area with so many misconceptions and with such a toxic blame culture surrounding ideas around what women were wearing, doing, saying etc. at the time/prior to the abuse occurring, I decided that I couldn’t give space to the (male) perpetrator.
This was a bit of a learning curve, but understanding how people come with their own biases, pre-conceptions and ways of interpreting a text, I wanted to be explicitly clear with my message. I therefore decided to place the survivor at the centre of the piece and highlight her (and only her) voice by removing the first section.
It was surprising how long the poem eventually became but there was so much to delve into – her feelings, the unfolding of events, the blame she faced, the “shame” placed onto her and the subsequent struggle to get justice (which is never given). This story is typical of many survivors and one which we must keep raising awareness of.
We must break down this toxic blame culture, we must stop excusing violence and we must stop blaming innocent survivors by discussing “what they were wearing”, “what they were doing”, what their prior relationship was (if any) with the perpetrator etc. We must challenge these narratives and ultimately, the process of writing this poem just goes to highlight the issues at hand. We need to do more and we need to raise the volume on these issues. Above all, we must place the survivors at the centre, listen to their needs, wants, experiences and pain and not excuse the perpetrators of such terrific abuse.
The Children of Peace Interview covers a range of viewpoints regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and may not necessarily reflect that of Children of Peace.
This interview was first published by Children of Peace (May 2019).