Last week, we were in the state of Maryland in the U.S. in An Exclusive with Aisha Hagan. This week, we reached across the Atlantic to chat with Arifa Nasim, a teenage activist and humanitarian in the U.K. Arifa spends much of her time advocating against forced marriage (FM) and female genital mutilation (FGM).
GWPF: Arifa, you are an extraordinary young lady. What inspired you to become involved in such work?
Arifa Nasim: I’m not sure about that Angela; I’m an ordinary girl who read an extraordinary book. That was my linchpin, my spark into activism.
GWPF: How old were you when you began this work?
Arifa Nasim: My friend Salihah gifted me Jasvinder Sanghera’s Daughter’s of Shame for my 14th birthday. That’s really where my story starts. I read this book and by the first sentence I was already gripped. The way Jas described her escape from a Forced Marriage, and freed others from the shackles of honor kept me turning pages. After finishing this book, there were many sleepless nights trying to reconcile my view of the world and how these terrible acts of violence can be committed by the ones that are supposed to love us the most. I knew this was my cause.
GWPF: You were still a secondary school student when you were spearheading dinners for more than a hundred people, which is not a simple task. How did you do it?
Arifa Nasim: Not without immense support, and I will always be indebted to those people. The dinner was like a jigsaw and each person was a vital piece. When I first started off, it was just a seemingly impossible idea and after three head teachers, two years and one resilient proposal, I finally exited the head’s office, hopeful. The next day we got the green light. The deputy head moved a desk into his office, sharing his computer and phone – he essentially let me move in! About 60 girls and at least 15 staff made the night the success that it was. One wrote a play on Forced Marriage and got younger students to enact it, another choreographed a contemporary dance. Jasvinder addressed our audience, as did Chaz Akoshile, Head of the FMU, Baroness of Scotland and a survivor. With an auction, raffle and three-course meal, we raised £5,000 that evening. But it was a lot of hard work. We spent months cold calling businesses, trailing local shops for donations of drinks or centerpieces, or prizes.
GWPF: So your grandfather was the great Mohammed Miskeen Nasim, who was also Mayor of Walthamstow. Share with us how he helped influence your life and your decisions.
Arifa Nasim: He came to the UK in the 1960s and became a bus driver. But by night he studied architecture. My grandfather spent years as an architect and then later had his own business. But quickly his passion for helping others manifested.
My grandfather kept all of his documents in filing cabinets in the shed at the end of the garden. It is a cold and dull place. A few years ago my grandmother burnt all of these old papers in a massive bonfire. Before he did, I managed to salvage a few old letters for posterity. In the aged envelope was a letter from the early nineties from a young woman written in Urdu, detailing how her young two-year-old son was trapped beneath a shopping trolley and taunted, called a monkey by some racist children on the council estate she was living. Occasionally they would post envelopes filled with insects through her letterbox. The second letter, a year later was from the same woman. This time written in English, she was writing a thank you letter to Cllr Nasim. He had organized for her to attend English classes to aid her integration, and arranged for her to be moved elsewhere. The letter exuded gratitude but more importantly positivity. She now had hope.
I was 7 when he passed away but left a significant legacy for me in the people that he helped. The day of his funeral, hundreds of people came to pay their respects. A queue of people formed, preparing to say goodbye to a man who had dedicated his life to making the lives of those around him better. He never explicitly told me to do anything. That is the most important thing. We never had a conversation (that I can remember) where he told me to change the world. He led by example; he let his actions do the talking. Every so often I get introduced as the Granddaughter of Cllr Nasim, and my heart fills with pride. I hope he would be proud too. I may use my voice to speak out for those who are silenced, but he taught me how.
GWPF: You are the Founder and Executive Director of Educate2Eradicate. Tell us about your organization and what you have accomplished since its founding.
Arifa Nasim: Educate2Eradicate provides staff safeguarding training and workshops for students on the subject of FGM, Forced Marriage and Honor Based Violence. I’ve represented E2E at the United Nations when I was the Official UK Youth Delegate to the UN. But more importantly I have been able to get into schools and train teachers on how to spot the signs of these harmful practices.
GWPF: As you are aware, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation is an anti-female genital mutilation organization (FGM). How is your work related to the campaign against FGM?
Arifa Nasim: We have made massive leaps in gaining justice for victims of forced marriage (FM) and FGM. But a jail sentence is a small comfort. Education is the heart of prevention and that is why we focus on training and breaking silences. These practices are taboo and they must be spoken about. With an increase in training, professionals such as nurses and teachers are able to spot the signs that indicate FGM may take place, and take out an FGM protection order.
GWPF: What is it like to focus on your studies and then also run an organization?
Arifa Nasim: It is not easy. When I informally founded Educate2Eradicate (E2E), I was just finishing my A Levels. Sometimes you need to prioritize and put exam prep first, but I have never been able to fully do that. If I’m honest it is a huge balancing act; I throw all the balls in the air and hope I catch them all. There is always another email, another request, another item to cross off a to-do list. But my team at E2E support me every step of the way.
GWPF: Tell us about the effectiveness of your training workshops.
Arifa Nasim: Using a game-like app, we ask the participants a series of questions at the beginning of the workshop. After the training, the same questions are asked again. As the answers are recorded and logged, we are able to track the increase in knowledge. Each time we deliver training, the percentage of correct answers soar post training. Moreover, teachers are increasingly admitting that had they received this training earlier in their careers they may have made different decisions with respect to safeguarding pupils in the past.
GWPF: Kindly clarify the difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages.
Arifa Nasim: An arranged marriage is essentially when ‘both the bride and groom choose whether or not they want to marry the person suggested to them by their families’. Crucially, it must be a free and voluntary decision undertaken by two mentally stable adults.
There is a ‘grey area’ whereby a marriage may begin as an ‘arranged’ and slip into a forced marriage if, for example, one party no longer wishes to proceed with the match, however they are coerced into continuing the process.
GWPF: Why is forced marriage an honor crime?
Arifa Nasim: Honor Abuse is any action taken to preserve the honor of an individual or a family. In some cases, forced marriages occur as a way to restore honor. When the honor code has been breached, a forced marriage is imposed to control unwanted behavior and sexuality, and prevent ‘unsuitable’ relationships.
GWPF: We read where you have received accolades from teachers, a parliamentarian, not to mention the Media. Did you ever dream that your life would turn in this direction?
Arifa Nasim: Not at all. I never even guessed that I would take a gap year, or be going to the UN. Each new opportunity is a blessing. And these kinds of things aren’t the things a young person can dream up; some are so unexpected and humbling. I can’t accept them all, but I do my best. For me, the most important aspect of this is the education, the chance to work on the grassroots level with students and teachers.
On a national level, I am part of the UK Youth for Change Secretariat. With teams in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Ethiopia, we are a global network of youth activists working in partnership with organizations and governments to create positive change for girls, boys, young women and young men. Our current campaigns focus on FGM and (child early and forced marriage (CEFM) in our respective countries. A whole year prior to joining Youth for Change (YFC), I met one of their members, as they were initially forming, eager to get involved. A few months later I was invited to apply. Opportunities always present themselves at the right time. You just have to pick the ones that will create the most value.
GWPF: Most young people your age are still trying to figure out what they want to become in life. Besides running Educate2Eradicate, what are your aspirations in furthering your education?
Arifa Nasim: I’ll be going to University in September to study Arabic and History. I hope to become a teacher one day. Throughout my academic journey and my venture into activism an extraordinary teacher has heavily supported me. With their guidance and support I was able to break down some of the layers of bureaucracy in my school and achieve my goal. For thirty years they have been patiently and steadily building up hundreds of girls who now reside in every corner of the world creating change. I want to be him, and provide those opportunities for other young people as a teacher. I want to lead a pioneering community school that has the pupils at the heart of the decision making process, championing concepts such as Grit and Growth Mindset.
GWPF: Do you encourage other young people to get involved in your work or other causes?
Arifa Nasim: Absolutely. One of the workshops E2E offers is called ‘Find your linchpin.’ It is based on the premise that anyone can be a campaigner. You merely have to find something you care about enough to act on. Each individual has a talent, be it singing, football or cooking. There is always a way to match your talent with your passion and make a difference in this world. My linchpin was Jasvinder’s book, and my talent: public speaking. Once they aligned, everything almost fell neatly into place, and suddenly I was at the UN speaking about Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality.
GWPF: How helpful do you think it would be, if more boys and young men became involved in this type of work?
Arifa Nasim: I genuinely believe we will not move forward until more men and boys hop on board. It is refreshing to see figures such as Justin Trudeau publicly declare themselves as feminists, but we need to see more action on established commitments. The Istanbul conventions, the Beijing declaration, have all laid a solid foundation for structural change across the world. We must now put our money where our mouth is and follow through, together.
FGM specifically is seen as a women’s issue. However it is done in most cases to curtail a woman’s sexuality and preserve her virginity for a man. Therefore we must include them in this dialogue.
GWPF: What are your best strategic ideas to help educate and eradicate these dreadful practices?
Arifa Nasim: We must begin to teach ‘consent’ in schools. The sooner young people learn that no one has a right to their body, the quicker we can break this cycle of abuse. Practices like FGM and FM have existed for centuries. Changing the mind of one woman, or saving one girl, then breaks this generational abuse and ensures a new generation is born free of FGM.
Logically, the best strategy is to continue educating those who have the most contact with young girls, but to do this in parallel with community engagement. We must begin to engage with practicing communities in order to communicate just how harmful and unnecessary FGM is.
GWPF: Do you have a special message for other young people around the world?
Arifa Nasim: Only to be resilient. If you have an idea, or a passion or something you want to see changed, the chances are someone will stand in your way. Or things will not go as planned. But that is okay. It is absolutely fine. A few days ago I was totally devastated at losing a funding bid for E2E. But the trick is to dust yourself off, draw a line under it and move on. If you knock on 10 doors, and stop before you reach the 11th, you will never know if behind door 11 lay the opportunity to unlock your potential. Remember it took three head teachers, two years of shouting, and one very heavily edited proposal to even launch my initial campaign. You will get there, I promise. #KeepKnocking
Join us next week when we bring you another fascinating woman in An Exclusive.