Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (on left) and Helen Brewer. Photograph: Michelle Marshall for the Guardian
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan 23, a poet who writes and speaks about race, gender, Islamophobia and decolonisation. Its so great to be able to speak with people who are doing what were all doing. I dont know what your experiences are like, but I think so often when you are interviewed by someone who doesnt do the work, you get presented as this exceptional human being.
Helen Brewer 28, an organiser with End Deportations, a campaign to end mass deportation charter flights. Yes! It creates this idea that there are very few people like us.
SMK I feel that exceptionalism plays into respectability narratives: the idea that I am worth listening to because I speak good English. Im also met with a load of questions that Im trying to work out: Are you oppressed though? Whos oppressing you? But really? This is blended in with the idea that I should be really thankful that I get to critique Islamophobia in England, because of freedom of speech. Im not saying people are asking that explicitly, but implicitly its always there. Its hard to describe, but I think you all know the feeling.
Liv Cornibert 19, a student and co-founder of Legally Black, a campaign to challenge the representation of black people in media. Because of my age, Im made hyper-visible as an activist. But actually, a lot of young people understand oppression and injustice. Even if theyre not speaking about it with the same language, people understand that stuff is messed up. At Legally Black were just lucky enough that our campaign got some static. Im more excited when we do things behind the scenes that people dont know about when we go to meetings, or write articles, or when we teach classes on representation at the BFI. Im tired of speaking about the campaign without also focusing on the work that needs to come after it.
Bethel Tadesse 22, founder of Hidden Scars, which seeks to end period poverty and FGM. Laughs. I know what you mean about being sick of having the same conversations all the time! Im willing to explain what female genital mutilation (FGM) is over and over again, but conversations always quickly come back to its a terrible thing. I want to talk to people who are either changing the conversation or expanding it.
SMK Rather than engaging with Islamophobia, people will often say: Well, youre just critiquing all these things so whats your solution? and then you end up with Abolish everything! Why should the burden be on me to provide solutions?
The whole discourse around terrorism is fundamentally flawed. Some people can comprehend that knife crime, say, is not caused by evil individuals, and that it emerges from violent contexts and certain circumstances. But there is an unwillingness to apply the same logic to what is called terrorism. Because of this lack of joined-up thinking, it doesnt work to try to provide a state policy solution.
HB Exactly. Thats why within End Deportations we try to emphasise alternatives. Instead of prison and deportation there could be a well-funded social care and mental healthcare system, and quality affordable housing. Then youre not criminalising people who are already deeply affected by poverty and racism. As a campaigner, and as a grassroots group, its always good to reflect on exactly what kind of world we are fighting for. The Windrush scandal has given organisers and campaigners a brief platform to talk about how violent the immigration system is, but we cant fall into that trap of separating out the good people who deserve to be in Britain and the bad people who dont. Our stance is that no one is illegal, and no one should be caged.
LC The thing I find frustrating is that journalists often have a very specific idea of what a young activist needs to be. Sometimes, youre invited to things and the minute you open your mouth and start talking about serious issues such as structural racism, theyre a bit, Oh, thats not what we asked for.
HB One strategy that End Deportations uses is platforming voices that would otherwise not be heard. The campaign is being led by those with the lived experiences of detention and deportation. Although I am a women of colour, Ive got a British passport and a lot of privilege. We want to create a counter-narrative and say, actually, this is what you should be pointing your cameras at this is what you should be writing about.
SMK Recently, I was asked to make a short film for a big news outlet. They said I could talk about whatever I wanted to talk about, and I was like, are you sure?
I wrote a script about how the counter-terrorism narrative is racist and dehumanising. They sent it back to me and theyd deleted every paragraph that had anything to do with terrorism. We had a lot of back and forth and in the end they were OK with it. But it was really interesting clearly they were happy for me to be honest, but only up to a point.
LC I feel activism has been very commercialised, and then what is said on national platforms has to be diluted in order to be palatable. Theres a sense that you cant go too deep into it or offend anyone.
HB That reminds me of the Black Lives Matter direct action at City Airport [where nine people chained themselves to a tripod on a runway in protest against the impact of air pollution]. They were ripped apart by the media because journalists just could not understand why climate change is racist. They couldnt grasp how the vast majority of countries at risk of the effects of climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile Britain is the largest contributor, per capita, to emissions which drive temperature change.
BT Journalists need to be ready to have difficult conversations, and to do the work to understand complex subjects. Labiaplasty is legally Type 4 FGM, but nobody would ever say that. Its really interesting how theres a line: you can talk about certain peoples genitals, but you cant talk about others. The media has a huge influence: my mum didnt get FGM performed on me because she saw an advert on TV saying that it is wrong. For a lot of people, if they see it on TV, its factual; its like God saying it.
LC Maybe the solution is to have more journalists who have personal experience of issues like racism and gender-based violence, and who arent so detached and lacking in empathy that they ask you stupid questions
SMK I have to say, though, Ive had Muslims interviewing me about Islamophobia and I could not disagree more strongly with the reductive way they analyse it. I think we are all faced with a similar challenge the good immigrant, bad immigrant rhetoric. Most of the discourses that are seemingly counter-Islamophobia just say that Islamophobia is bad because not all Muslims are bad.
For me, the big issue of our time is dehumanisation. It links all of these things. Borders exist because theres an idea that some people deserve to be on one side and others dont. Who do you exclude? You exclude people who are framed as subhuman, and there are always going to be populations who are deemed subhuman because of the history of colonisation.
Everything from Brexit, to Trump, to the Windrush scandal emerges from desperate, violent nationalism. This isnt just about the fact that someone on the street rips off a womans hijab. If youre going to ask me why thats sad and why that makes me scared to go outside, I want to be able to say: because we live in a dehumanising, genocidal world! But if I say that, people respond with Youre crazy!
BT Youre right, there is just a total refusal to see the bigger picture: when it comes to FGM, if you zoom out its a much broader issue of patriarchy. The actual act of FGM – removing parts of genitalia or sewing up genitalia is just one manifestation of men feeling they have the right to physically stop women from living peaceful lives: going to school, going to work, having sex and having pleasure from sex.
SMK Thats exactly it. Whenever you lose that zoomed-out perspective, and make something a cultural practice, you depoliticise it. I find the whole discourse around so-called honour crimes and honour-based violence unhelpful. Once you add the word honour you make it a cultural thing. Why dont we call it domestic violence?
BT To a lot of people, domestic abuse is something that happens to white women, and honour crimes happen to other types of women. The words have segregated the issue.
SMK which makes one set of men way worse than another set of men, which then makes it easier to detain and deport them.
LC People still have an image of racism as a physical attack, but they arent having conversations about the way that institutions perpetrate racism and constantly remind people that they dont belong here. There is a lack of analysis about the way these issues cross paths in peoples lives.
Bethel Tadesse, founder of Hidden Scars. Photograph: Michelle Marshall for the Guardian
BT I have a question for you all: how do you deal with working alongside activists who are just out there to raise their own profile and become a celebrity?
SMK Well, Islamophobia is a lucrative field to go into, you can get Prevent funding!
They all laugh.
HB In End Deportations, the concept of care is really important to us. Sometimes we do come across people with questionable agendas who are keen to talk to an asylum seeker. But that person might be a really vulnerable person, and there might be a multitude of risks to their asylum case if their story receives media attention so we are committed to approaching these issues with sensitivity. So often theres this urgency in activism: Holy shit Ive gotta get this done now! Otherwise well lose public interest!
LC Thats exactly it. When we launched the Legally Black campaign, my phone was buzzing, constantly, for 48 hours. It was a lot to deal with. I remember the BBC called us, and we immediately jumped on a three-hour train to Manchester for an interview. All of the interviews happened within one week, and then it was just gone.
SMK Sometimes ego becomes a big part of activism, and I dont exclude myself from that. My other thought about working with activists who might have hidden agendas, is that in my context I feel its especially difficult because people are hyper-vigilant about being surveilled. There are informants in Muslim activist and academic circles. Thats very real and very palpable.
HB What do you mean by informants?
SMK Usually people working under Prevent funding, or for the Home Office. I was at an event and there was a panel of Muslim academics who were just so unapologetic. The first speaker stood up and said: I would like to firstly say hello to the two guys from the Home Office, and pointed out these two people in the crowd, and went on to explain about the secret unit they had been a part of for five years. And the two Home Office people said: It was secret not because we were doing surveillance work, but because it was very, um, you know, important Even if the informants arent in a space, the paranoia is still there. Im in WhatsApp groups where people write haha, wont tell you on here, Ill tell you in person, and thats really affecting the kind of work we can do.
HB The fact is governments who surveil our communities want to create those kinds of divisions. We have to think about how to sustain our groups and build trust. I think it takes time, a lot of energy and commitment.
BT Sometimes its hard to maintain that commitment – you really have to find things that motivate you.
What drives you all? For me, its my mum. She inspires me to do this work. In fact my whole family does, they keep me stable. I first found out about FGM because of my mum. Im also a Christian, and that keeps me sane.
SMK All the work I do is also grounded in my faith. For me, Islam is about fighting oppression. To oppress is a violation of Allahs law thats a violation of my soul and a violation of the rights and responsibilities I have as a being on this Earth. I am ultimately accountable to Allah so I have to make sure everything I do is really honest and sincere and actually rigorous, not just Im not bad… youre bad!
LC Reading alternative magazines such as gal-dem and Consented, and meeting other activists and women of colour and non-binary people of colour inspires me. Seeing other people do this work makes you feel as if you can do it, too. This conversation alone today has inspired me.
HB When I learn about what people are going through when they encounter the UK border regime, being forcibly removed and restrained, I feel sure that this is the stuff we are here to resist. We need to act in solidarity with those who are experiencing the most brutal type of oppression.
Im also really energised by seeing others who take direct action: what happened recently on the flight from Sweden to Turkey [
where an activist stopped the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker] was incredibly powerful, as were the 120 women in Yarls Wood immigration removal centre who went on hunger strike. These are the people who help me feel that Im not alone, and that there is some hope.
BT I truly believe that everything we are fighting for is possible. I can imagine a world without detention centres, and I can imagine a world where FGM doesnt happen any more.
SMK And its crucial to know that it hasnt always been this way. There was a world before colonisation, and there was a world before prisons were built.
LC Things have just been constructed in ways that make them seem inevitable…
BT Absolutely. That keeps me going: being certain that change is possible.
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