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7th March 2016

In conversation with Qaisra Shahraz

Books Editor Yasmin Mannan talks to the author and University of Manchester alumnus Qaisra Shahraz about writing, injustice, feminism, radicalisation, Muslim-Jewish relations, freedom of speech, Prevent, and the struggle of identity

I am first struck by Qaisra Shahraz’s undeniable warmth. She smiles at me as if we have known each other our whole lives. Shahraz is wildly successful as an author, an education specialist, and stands firmly as an activist for community cohesion and women’s rights. This Friday, she is speaking at the People’s History Museum on a panel which is part of the ‘Wonder Women’ answering the question: ‘What are you chaining yourself to the railings for? A discussion on Modern Feminism’, and she will be talking about violence against women. She seems to carry an air of social responsibility in everything she does.

Shahraz currently is published in almost every literary field: she has published several novels, ‘The Holy Woman’, ‘Typhoon’, ‘Revolt’; an abundance of short stories, ‘A Pair of Jeans & other stories’; essays, articles, and scripts. One of her published books ‘A Pair of Jeans’ is currently being taught in German schools. Over the last twenty years, they have accumulated a variety of awards and critical acclaim. She has worked in the field of education as a quality manager, teacher trainer and inspector for Ofsted. She is currently a trustee of the Manchester Multi-Faith Centre, the Vice-Chair of Faith Network for Manchester, and an Executive Member of the Muslim-Jewish Forum. She migrated to England from Pakistan at the age of 9 and is an alumunus of The University of Manchester.

YM: Have you always felt the urge to write?

QS: Absolutely, from the age of 14—I don’t know where the urge to write came from. I was a migrant child trying to master the English language. By the age of 19 I was published in ‘She’ magazine and took up creative writing. Writing has always been in the background for me though, due to my career in education. Half the time I used to forget that I write. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve seen myself as a ‘proper’ writer. Now I’m more focused and tuned into the writing world. There wasn’t much money in writing so I earnt my money from my education work.

YM: Do you ever write in Urdu?

QS: No. I consider English as my first language and can express myself better in it and thus have always written in English. However, the books have been translated into several languages—including Urdu—and it’s a pleasure to read that language. I wish I could read Mandarin, as ‘The Holy Woman’ has just come out in that language.
YM: What made you put an Urdu glossary in Revolt?
QS: I deliberately used words and terms from the Muslim world and the Urdu language to give people who know the language a special familiarity and equally to remind people who don’t recognise the words that they are in a new and different culture but can still empathise with the characters.

YM: Something I think you do expertly is to rapidly humanise your characters, which is particularly poignant in the current social climate towards Muslims and even particularly towards Pakistan. What has been the reaction?

QS: Many people commented on my first novel ‘The Holy Woman’, set in five countries, that I had opened up a new world to them. In my novels including ‘Typhoon’ I wanted readers to go on an imaginative journey to Pakistan, to access the world I knew as a child. Funnily, I even had one person marvel and say to me, ‘Do you really have so much marble in Pakistan? I didn’t realise that some people are so rich in Pakistan.’ It’s an eye-opener, to show Pakistan as a country of contrast—through my wealthy and humbler characters. For me, all my characters are of equal importance, no matter what class they belong to and I have deep affection for them, especially some of the servants like Begum and Massi Fiza in ‘Revolt’. As a British writer living in the UK I’m very much into equality! I don’t think any writers living in Pakistan would write like this because my viewpoint regarding servants is so different.

I discuss a lot of controversial topics and issues, including rape in ‘Typhoon’ and domestic violence in my TV drama serial. In ‘The Holy Woman’ I want to reach out to a non-Muslim audience to raise awareness about the Muslim world, including about the veil, ‘hijab’. I wanted to debunk the myth that Muslim women are oppressed and forced to wear the ‘hijab’. In fact as my heroine says she’s been freed from female vanity by covering up. For me it’s an equality issue too. Women have a right to wear what they want. One can’t impose one’s ideas on others.

YM: Do you value literature as a vessel for social change?

QS: Absolutely. I use literature, from short stories, novels and drama serials to raise awareness about different social and cultural issues especially relating to gender issues, for example. I am actively and strongly against the epidemic of violence against women, which I am speaking about at the People’s History Museum this Friday.

Currently I’m using my story ‘A Pair of Jeans’ taught in German schools for A Level literature text as a platform to reach out to thousands of students and teachers and build cultural bridges. I openly discuss issues like migration, Islamophobia, integration and my multiple identities, as a British, Muslim woman of Pakistani origin. I say to them that all of my identities are equally important to me. With so much negativity and hatred channelled towards Muslims it’s my opportunity to raise awareness of Islamophobia and show that Islam stands for peace, and Muslims are law-abiding citizens.

However, the monstrous group Daesh, Isis, are criminals, with an evil ideology, that millions of Muslims do not relate or adhere to. I do recognise that there is a problem with radicalisation and we need to all collectively deal with it, without demonising the whole Muslim community at large. It is everyone’s responsibility in a socially developed country like Britain to challenge radicalisation. Similarly not to ignore the fact that there has been a rise in hate-crime, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism.
In my writing I also draw on injustice which I have seen and things I feel strongly about—I have been to Auschwitz and written about the horror of the Holocaust in a story called ‘ Train to Krakow’. I have also been to Palestine and seen firsthand the plight of the Palestinians. I have just come back from Bosnia, as part of a women delegation ‘Remembering Srebrenica’. I am still traumatised by the experience. I have learnt about the horrors of the genocide of over 8000 men and young boys killed and women raped. I hope to write a story about this.

I don’t take my position as a British woman for granted—it’s a privilege indeed. In Britain we have freedom, so many opportunities and above all access to good education. I am aware, however, that there are women around the world who cannot even write their name. As someone who works in education, literacy and education is very important for me. For it’s a passport to a better life. I say to people, that one woman’s ability to write her name for the first time is equivalent to another woman’s PhD. That sense of achievement.

YM: Does this link to your inter-faith work?

QS: As a trustee of the Manchester Multi-Faith Centre, the Vice-Chair of Faith Network 4 Manchester (FN4M), also an executive member of the Muslim-Jewish Forum, inter-faith work is very important to me to promote peace, particularly in these troubled times. I’m committed to promoting community cohesion and getting rid of divisions, celebrating our commonality and universal values. We do this also through a police community initiative, ‘We Stand Together’, that I am involved in. We want people to learn about each other’s cultures and religious beliefs. As advocates of peace and harmony we want to challenge any religion or politic-based conflict.

I am committed to promoting better relationships between the Jewish and Muslim community in Manchester, for example through our work in schools. I visited several schools for the ‘Twinning’ sessions where Muslim and Jewish pupils celebrated peace by holding banners saying ‘We Refuse to Be Enemies’ & ‘Spread Hummus Not Hate’ . The Faith Network 4 Manchester brings together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Bahais, Humanists. We want to be as inclusive as possible and would welcome whoever else wants to join us! That would include of course university students.

In November we had an event at The University of Manchester and at MMU held at the chaplaincy, Peter House, where eight students representing different faiths promoted messages of peace and tolerance. My personal view is this: Yes, we are comfortable in our world, our own faith and have individual beliefs but we need to step out of our own boxes and learn to respect other faiths and the views of those who have none. We are planning to hold a similar event this year, to be held hopefully in the Students’ Union. We would love to welcome as many students of all backgrounds to our function.

YM: What do you think about Prevent?

QS: I have mixed views on this. I know, as a parent and educationist, our primary concern is the safeguarding of the children and youth, however it has to be done responsibly. It also worries me, as the Muslim community feels it’s under the radar. That case of that young boy who was suspected after his teacher mistook his description, ‘terraced house’ for ‘terrorist house’ is absolutely ridiculous. We don’t want to create a culture of witch-hunting and paranoia, where people are afraid to speak up and feel marginalised.

YM: Yes, that’s what the extremists want—they want British society to fail don’t they?

QS: Exactly! That’s why community cohesion is so important. We have to show those bent on dividing us that they’re wrong. One thing I am so afraid of is intolerance and people with tunnel vision. These extremist groups are intolerant. We need to be not just tolerant of others, but to celebrate our diversity in society. I always say, ‘We have a right to be different but absolutely must integrate’. We have to retain our diversity and values but that doesn’t mean that we all can’t live together peacefully and follow the rules and customs of the host country.

YM: What are your views on freedom of speech?

QS: It’s extremely important to me as a human being, living in a free society. As a writer, lover of books and a citizen of a developed nation like Britain I am always in favour of freedom of speech but not the abuse of free speech. There is a fine line however. Over the years I have been dismayed by a lot of double standards it seems in the use of freedom of speech. Where some one has an intent to deliberately mock, ridicule and to satirise others in the name of freedom of speech, I think that is abominable and needs to be challenged.

YM: Zadie Smith said that finding an identity is the easy way out. A lot of young people in Britain who are prone to radicalisation are said to suffer ‘crises’. What do you think about identity?

QS: There are two questions to be addressed here. Regarding radicalisation, it has been shown at all the training I’ve been to recently with different examples of people who get radicalised and manifest extremist ideologies, a member of the IRA in Ireland, a white supremacist in America, and a member of Al-Muhajiroun, all of them have suffered crises of some sort in their lives. Moreover, young girls who have joined ISIS are mere school girls and the most vulnerable because of their age! They are lured by being presented with glorified life. The process of brainwashing and grooming to join the extremist groups has been made easier partly, I believe, by modern technology. The unsupervised use of social media through laptops and smartphones have enabled easy access to vulnerable people being easily targeted. When I was a young girl, we had none of this technology. For instance when I used the phone at home everyone around me could hear what I was saying. Parents in current times find it difficult to keep track of what their children are doing online and who is talking to them. It’s really worrying.

Personally, I grew with multiple identities and I was fascinated by it. I could step from one world into another. Outside I would wear jeans, inside I was wearing Salwar Kamees. Outside I’d eat fish and chips and sandwiches and at home I’d eat salan and roti. Outside I’d speak English and at home I’d speak Urdu or Punjabi. It was wonderful! It was seamless for me. I didn’t even think about it. For some other young people, I saw they struggled at times, trying to straddle two worlds and identities. I knew the boundaries of each of my identities but I was also free in every way I wanted to be. I value my Pakistani heritage; it has enriched me in every way as a person and also provided me with marvellous material to write about. My three novels are set in Pakistan. My other siblings were born here so they don’t have the same connection with Pakistan as I have. I know my Muslim identity will always be strong but above all I am British and a Mancunian—for I have lived here for almost all my life. I am sitting here in my former university!

YM: Lastly, do you have any advice for young writers?

QS: Firstly, write all the time! Keep writing. Join a writing group because it really helps and don’t be too sensitive to criticism. You are still perfecting your craft. I’d also say consider having another career apart from writing which you can draw influence from and also make money. I love working in education. You can make a lot of money as a journalist but often you don’t have time to be anything else but a journalist. You must also write about themes you know and care about—you will always do these better. Research your material well, as I am having to do for a novel set in Morocco.

Qaisra Shahraz will be doing a reading and question panel at the University of Manchester Creative Writing Society this Friday at 6pm in Room 11 of the Students’ Union.

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