Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Saima Afzal and I am founder and leader of a community organization called SAS RIGHTS CIC, founded in November 2016. I have worked in the field of the intersections of gender and religion both as an activist and as practitioner since the age of 18. Most of this has been undertaken in a volunteer capacity. I still to this day undertake volunteer work but in 2016 I founded SAS RIGHTS CIC, together with my partner Sven Richter. This community interest company invests its time and energies in raising awareness of the issues that have an adverse impact upon a number of marginalized communities – including women and men vulnerable to sexual violence.
The SAS RIGHTS CIC team is not averse to starting difficult conversations and tries to deal with what comes out of these in a sensitive manner in order to bring about positive change. I myself was in a so-called Forced ‘Marriage’ – though I categorially state that I have never been married and I will stop and correct those that refer to my abuser as my ‘husband’. I continue to speak about discrimination and inequality and unlawful practices without fear. I am a registered ‘Cultural’ Subject Matter Expert and I am registered on the National Crime Agency Database.
I am often called to assist Police Forces or, increasingly, Children Social Care Services to help advise and also to produce reports for both the Criminal and Family Courts.
I have worked very closely with the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWAG) agenda – not least because of my own forced ‘marriage’. I always state clearly that I have never been married and that I was forced into a situation beyond my control. This does offend some ‘communities’, especially those where faith plays a key role. It offends, for example, that I have a child from my forced ‘marriage’, because being Muslim and having a child out of ‘wedlock’ is widely considered a ‘sin’. I am often encouraged to say I was married, for the sake of my child, or my reputation, but that is offensive to me. It suggests that I did something wrong, or that I should bear the burden of shame. My passion is to help any person, male or female, who has been abused, controlled or coerced, so they, too, can find support and speak out with confidence.
I understand the realities of speaking out. Adverse and/or unlawful consequences are often faced by those that challenge cultural norms, including gender norms. I try and help not only in situations of crisis but before crisis occurs. So much work has been undertaken to identify and address crises but not enough to prevent, intervene and to engage with families, individuals and communities trapped in cycles of damaging behaviours that lead up to and precipitate crises. SAS RIGHTS CIC tries to do just that.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?
I would love to hear more about how the notions of marriage and consent within faith-based communities are understood, and about how these inhibit the reporting of sexual abuse. I wish to explore and understand, in collaboration with the Shiloh Project if viable, the impact that the notion of ‘being married’ has on first-response practitioners.
It would be wonderful to undertake research with the Shiloh Project and to bring together the expertise of researchers and of practitioners who help victims of gender-based violence in marginalized and vulnerable communities
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
I and my organization with willing volunteers hope to continue to work directly with those affected, to capture their experiences, to support them to overcome and challenge unacceptable norms, whilst also raising awareness amongst practitioners, communities and society as a whole of the challenges faced by those that are in abusive and violent situations.
In the coming years we hope to undertake some of the following:
We would like to work in collaboration with like-minded individuals and organizations and welcome co-production to help maximize the impact of activities.
We will submit bids to undertake engagement and knowledge activities, as well as community empowerment work. We wish to access funding for film making with a view to bringing to life the day-to-day struggles of those who are trapped in either abusive relationship or ‘cultures’.
We will continue to work with men in addressing and exploring the reasons why some abuse and control women in their communities. We particularly wish to focus on Visible Minority Ethnic and faith-driven communities. I have already undertaken significant work over the years in this area and have developed some impactful resources to explore some of the reasons some men are more likely to participate in abusive and controlling culturally-based norms.
We wish also to explore further Minority Ethnic Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual communities and to address the the culturally-based discrimination, abuse and control inflicted on members of these communities.
I have an established history of over 25 years of tackling controversial, taboo and sensitive issues. I will not stop any time soon.