Today in our occasional series on lesser-known organizations working to combat gender-based violence and rape culture we speak to Saima Afzal (MBE). Saima leads on training and research through her initiative called ‘Saima Afzal Solutions’ and has founded a Community Interest Company (CIC) related to this called SAS RIGHTS.
Before we turn to Saima’s many achievements in the arena of activism, let us congratulate her on her recent political victory in the Blackburn with Darwen (Lancashire) council district in the May local UK elections! Although Blackburn has one of the largest Asian populations of any council district, it has taken Saima multiple tries on the ballot and numerous battles both within and outside of the Blackburn Asian community to win. But Saima does not shy away from a fight
Saima was born in Pakistan and moved to the UK with her parents when she was 4 years old. She is the eldest of 11 children, 9 girls and 2 boys. Saima was victim to a forced ‘marriage’ (banned under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014). She refuses to recognize the union, because she never said ‘yes’. She declares she has never had a husband, only an abuser and that she will only ever marry for love, as is her right under all of Sharia, UK law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Saima has come up against many challenges, prejudices and barriers and this has fuelled her commitment to campaign for the rights of those who are oppressed and stigmatized by persistent social injustices in today’s UK.
Saima has worked extensively in community development for the past 15 years – particularly in relation to religion, gender and South Asian cultures of the UK. She has led projects to confront and challenge both domestic abuse and forced marriage, and has conducted research in the areas of drug and substance misuse, child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities, sexuality in Islam, childcare support and provision for South Asian women, and (mis)use of stop and search powers by police officers against members of minority communities – to name but a few.
Saima served for over 10 years as an Independent member of the Lancashire Police Authority. Her key contribution in this role focused on effective engagement with minority communities and the issues that affect them, such as: hate crime, use of stop and search powers, forced marriage, ‘honour’-based violence (more about the inverted commas in a moment!), and female genital mutilation, among others. In the course of this Saima developed a concept she calls ‘Parallel Engagement’ (to resist what she considers a dominant model of ‘Hierarchical Engagement’) and taught this to police officers. Saima also served as an Executive Board Member for the Association of Police Authorities in the capacity of national lead for Equality, Diversity & Human Rights (2007–12).
Between 2012–14 Saima served as an Assistant Commissioner for Policing in Lancashire, leading on the key portfolio area of supporting victims of crime. In 2015 Saima was appointed by the West Yorkshire Police Commission to lead on the Victims & BAME (= British English Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Project. Additionally, Saima is recognized as a national safeguarding/public protection expert adviser on the National Crime Agency database, with specialization in dealing with cases involving forced marriages, ‘honour’-based abuse, trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other safeguarding crimes affecting BAME communities. She has served as an expert witness in court and spoken on such topics in numerous public media outlets.
Saima is an active human rights campaigner, seeking protection, as well as platforms of opportunity for members of marginalized communities. Saima was recognized for her prolific and dedicated work when she received the MBE for her Services to Policing and Community Relations in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (June 2010).
‘Honour’-Based Abuse (HBA) and Community Coercion Control (CCC)
Honour-Based Abuse (HBA) or Honour Based Violence (HBV) is defined as a crime or an incident, which has, or which may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of a family or community.
Honour is an abstract concept and refers to an individual’s or group’s perceived quality of worthiness and respectability affecting both social standing and self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or even nation. Certain groups – in both antiquity and modernity – are sometimes designated as honour cultures (or, sometimes, honour-shame cultures), because group or kin identity is particularly strongly developed and manifests in distinctive ways.
Saima is uncomfortable with the associations of the designations ‘honour’ or ‘honour killing’, which sometimes have a restrictive conception in view. Some media examples, for instance, tend to imply that HBA is pretty much entirely an ‘Asian problem’. Saima believes the situation is more nuanced and that all kinds of communities – including but not only Asian ones – exert damaging coercion and control. The model she has developed is called a model of Community Coercion Control (CCC) [see below, too]. In this model ‘community’ can refer to different and diverse set-ups in a case-by-case way. It emphasizes that coercive control (including as exerted by religious communities) encompasses a wide range of acts and behaviours designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent, such as by isolating them from sources of support, or exploiting their resources and capacities, or by regulating their everyday behaviours, and thereby depriving them of the capacity for independence, or resistance, or escape. In its most severe forms coercive behaviour involves acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation used to harm, punish or frighten. Occasionally, CCC transpires in murder. Identifying and understanding the various patterns and mechanisms of CCC is the first step, according to Saima, for facilitating help and support for vulnerable persons. Intervention and facilitating help and support are other important dimensions of Saima’s work.
As ever, please help us to promote SAS and SAS RIGHTS. Saima has self-funded very many of her initiatives. She endeavours to attract funding to develop SAS and SAS RIGHTS and to pay for the expenses of volunteers who offer their energy and support. Towards obtaining such funding, Saima offers training, workshops, bespoke research and report writing, participation in relevant research grants, as well as consultancy, in a range of areas relevant to the Shiloh Project. You can find out more, or contact Saima, on:
Interview with Saima Afzal.
Tell us about your NGO and your own role!
I founded and now lead ‘Saima Afzal Solutions’ (SAS, active since 2011) and Community Interest Company (CIC) ‘SAS RIGHTS’ (since 2016). A CIC offers me more flexibility for the many different things I want to do to improve life for vulnerable and marginalized people in UK communities. Very often these vulnerable and marginalized people I support are women, often women from UK South Asian communities. This is because as a British woman of Pakistani heritage myself and as someone who lived and escaped from a forced ‘marriage’ and who continues to live in and now represents in local government a Lancashire community with a large South Asian contingent, such work just keeps finding me. Also, this work is not ‘just a job’ but my vocation and my life. When I see inequality in any form – be it Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia… – I want to find ways to confront, resist and detoxify it.
My work for SAS is aimed at offering training (e.g to address religio-cultural and belief-based conflicts and public protection situations), subject matter expert advice, peer review, academic research and leading seminars, or lectures. Through the CIC I can diversify the work I undertake with SAS to include also such activities as peer mentoring, community engagement aimed at confidence and resilience building, collaboration with likeminded organizations and the development of materials to inform and raise awareness about matters central to SAS.
The Shiloh Project explores the intersections between, on the one hand, rape culture, and, on the other, religion. On some of our subsidiary projects we work together with third-sector organizations (including NGO’s and FBO’s). We also want to raise awareness and address and resist rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence directly. We’re interested to hear your answers to the following:
How do you see religion having impact on the setting where you are working – and how do you perceive that impact? Tell us about some of your encounters.
Religion and its manifold ways of exerting impact are everywhere in the settings I tend to work in!
Many of the vulnerable and marginalized persons I deal with are from Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh communities, as well as from Catholics of the Roma and Traveler communities. Religion infuses virtually all the manifold situations I encounter in the course of my work – including those involving violence, abuse and microaggressions. Sometimes it is hard to identify or explain precisely how – but religion is wrapped up with it. I don’t reject ‘religion’. My own parents are devout and I consider myself spiritual. I have seen religion create or contribute to problems and I’ve seen it be part of the solution.
I have a personal passion that drives my work in its various capacities, not least due to my own experience of forced ‘marriage’, rape and being denied equality of human rights.
From what I have seen, religious mantras, or distorted and ill-interpreted variants of them, are widely utilized as a vehicle to control people – women in particular Still today, despite the changes in the law of 1991, when rape within marriage was criminalized on the statute books, many women from religious backgrounds, including some Christian and Muslim ones, believe it is their husbands’ right to demand sex as part of their conjugal ‘rights’ enshrined in the contract of marriage. The notion of consent in each sexual encounter is often not considered, due to an assumption that consent is conferred once and for all in the marriage ceremony.
Religious mantras also often serve the agendas of those who disseminate them. Some that have damaging outworkings for women are used by men to retain and legitimate male control and female inequality. When these are in the name of Islam they do Islam an injustice and also provide fodder for far-right groups to fuel Islamophobic and therewith yet more toxic agendas. Too often I am trapped between toxic representatives of both the Muslim and of the right-wing extremist communities. I am blamed for being ‘deficiently Muslim’ and exposing Muslim communities to charges of misogyny and inequality (which do sometimes hold legitimacy) and on the other, I am charged with feeding Islamophobic discourse (which is never my purpose). Shining a critical light on how Islam is interpreted and subverted does not mean a rejection of Islam. It means using Islam for justice and good not for oppression and injustice.
I often work within predominantly British Asian Muslim communities with strong orthodox values relating to the roles of men and women. These roles are, in my experience, too often restrictively binary, as well as prescriptive, with particularly damaging consequences for women’s freedoms but also for the freedoms of men who do not conform to orthodox norms. Non-adherence to the allocated roles often attracts reprisals, and harsh punishments are enacted on both men and women for any perceived deviation from religious and other cultural norms.
The work I do often involves a clash between religious values and human rights. Matters of equality or of safeguarding legislative standards that are expected to be adhered to in the UK sometimes come into tension with certain values held by religio-cultural communities. This can be sensitive and tricky territory.
Crimes relating to forced marriage (FM), rape, female genital mutilation (FGM) or ‘honour’ based abuse (HBA) are actually not rare in the UK and I have often been involved in them as an adviser in policing and safeguarding contexts. Increasingly, too, issues such as South Asian gang activity and grooming and child sexual exploitation are emerging in the wider public domain. Religion, being so intricately entwined in British Asian communities and cultures, is always a presence. Sometimes it is drawn on to provide perpetrators with justification for their actions. Sometimes it removes and sometimes it instills inhibitors for the facilitation of crimes against vulnerable persons. It’s complicated. Religion fills many roles in these various situations.
I seek to educate women, men and young people across communities, to highlight the particular issues that affect or maybe disadvantage them and to ensure that appropriate support is made available.
Often I am viewed as a trouble-maker, or as unnecessarily antagonistic by faith leaders and influencers. But in my defense, I am not opposed to ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. I only challenge individuals when their words or actions threaten or violate others’ safety or rights to equality and human dignity.
The sensitive and often controversial nature of my work, whereby I, for example, seek to support women in sexually abusive and exploitative marriages in challenging claims to conjugal ‘rights’ that violate their bodies and humanity, often gets me into conflicts with members of their family or more extended community. My work in the area of prevention, education and empowerment has been viewed as ‘corruptive’, even heretical, or as ‘inciting divorce’ and family disharmony, including by some faith or community leaders. This comes with the territory.
I often have to conduct my work discreetly or when a crisis situation has arisen. Statutory institutions are often afraid to tread heavily on what are considered ‘religious sensitivities’ and there is resistance to and fear of offending faith and community leaders. As a woman of colour, raised in a British Asian, Muslim majority community, I am both inside and on the edge of the communities I represent and that can be an advantage, or disadvantage – and religiously loaded, too.
The private or hidden nature of some of the crimes I work with sometimes results in a denial of their existence and as such funds and resources can be hard to come by. These would, however, allow me to undertake invaluable, even life-saving, research, as well as to provide consistent and sustained engagement with women, men and children to explain the rights that religion can offer regarding gender-based violence and abuse.
The current HBA definition [see above!], in my view, is restrictive and also creates unconscious bias that the issues mentioned, such as FM or rape in marriage, are exclusively a South Asian and/or minority community phenomenon. I have developed an alternative model entitled ‘Community Coercion and Control’. This model seeks to be more nuanced and to facilitate more practitioner flexibility. It can be applied to any set of values and beliefs, across faith, nationality and ethnicity spectrums and as such helps remove the association bias that may have become unwittingly embedded within the current statutory definitions.
I use my CCC model in the reports that I am required to produce when assisting police forces in prosecuting cases that involve religious and/or cultural dynamics.
How do you understand ‘rape culture’ and do you think it can be resisted or detoxified? How does the term apply to the setting where you are working?
Rape culture operates wherever sex is used as a means to oppress and coerce. It is also about contexts where rape is not called by its name, or where sexual violence and exploitation are otherwise trivialized or not resisted. Rape culture is not only about rape itself (though I know that rape is not rare and happens also in my own community) but also about the many things that create an environment where sexually oppressive attitudes thrive and go unchallenged.
Religious communities, too, need to be detoxified. In these communities, sexual rights and varieties of expression, what is legal and what is not, need to be explained and discussed. But this can only occur when all individuals are empowered and given a voice and after community-based punishments and reprisals (which may be coercive and hard to pinpoint) are removed.
Misogyny, for instance, needs to be tackled at the lower levels of microaggression and not just in situations of crisis when the damage has been done. Crisis doesn’t just happen. It is often preceded by many far less visible or invasive factors, including the systemic factors that breed in settings where inequality and alienation are rife. Effective and open communication, hearing from and listening to all members of the community, nurturing empathy and long-term education are important for tackling misogyny – which feeds rape culture.
How does your project encounter or address gender-based violence and inequality?
In a number of ways, some of which I have already touched on. Often this begins with opening networks of communication, or doing research in affected communities. This might be with children in social care, for example, or in families or communities where crime cases have taken place and which the National Crime Agency sometimes refers to me.
My work through SAS and SAS RIGHTS seeks to address gender-based violence, abuse and inequality, including the complex things that give rise to them, by taking part in research, through engagement, education and awareness-raising projects. Detoxifying religion is part of this, too, as are empowerment of individuals and the creation of opportunities.
In relation to individual cases, my work seeks to, in partnership with the relevant statutory organization, facilitate civil protection or, in crisis and criminal cases, the prosecution of offenders.
How could those interested find out more about your CIC? How can people contribute and where will their money go?
I welcome hearing from individuals and representatives of likeminded organizations. SAS and its community-based arm SAS RIGHTS are there both for training or taking initiative in activism and for collaboration with those who share our ideals.
SAS and SAS RIGHTS is how I channel my experience and expertise. As with other CIC’s all profits go towards social betterment and benefiting vulnerable persons and communities. This includes a range of things, such as the production of films and other resources that raise awareness, running workshops for vulnerable persons to develop empowerment or recognize and realize opportunities, or peer mentoring.
What kinds of posts would you like to see on The Shiloh Project blog and what kinds of resources that come into our orbit would be of value to you?
I’d like to see more about research days or conferences, so persons with different expertise who care about the intersections of religion and rape culture can form networks or collaborate and share strategies and opportunities for research and project funding opportunities.
I’d also like to see the findings of such events publicized on the Shiloh Project blog.
A regular newsletter would be great, as well as posting about international opportunities for collaboration and exchanges.
Thank you, Saima!