Tag Archive: litfest18


“Men have monopolised the interpretation of the Quran for many, many years – and unfortunately some of the readings of the Quran have discriminated against women in different spheres.”

Sherin Khankan is Denmark’s first female imam and the founder of the first mosque for women in Europe. Having recently published her new book, Women are the Future of Islam, she joined us at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival to discuss her dream of educating a new generation of female imams. She was in conversation with BBC journalist Nidale Abou Mrad, who has reported extensively on migration, the environment and women’s rights across Europe and the Middle East.

Introducing Khankan, Mrad said the word that best describes the female imam is “activist”: “You are an activist who works to give women in your Muslim community more rights and leadership roles by offering a gender-sensitive interpretation of the religion.”

In an exclusive Asia House event, Khankan recounted her journey of faith, her belief in “Islamic feminism”, and the opposition she has faced in her role as a female imam.

Women’s role in Islam

Khankan began her talk by noting that she is not revolutionary in what she is doing as a female imam. She explained that there are three narratives – or Hadiths – in Islam that discuss women leading the prayer for other women.

“Women had a very distinguished role when it came to disseminating the Islamic message. What happened? How come that we, Muslims, in 2018, still do not give women the basic right to serve as female imams in our societies? How come we have normalised these patriarchal structures within our religious institutions, within our societies, in the reading of the Quran, in our families?”

She said that the Prophet Muhammad “blessed the concept of female imams” and that it was only after he died – under the second caliphate in 634 – that women were forbidden to lead the prayer for other women.

“Under that period, the house mosque was slowly becoming institutionalised. In the process of institutionalising the existing house mosques, women were told that it’s not obligatory to come to the mosque. So my point is that the patriarchal practice started back then in 634 when Umar forbade women to lead the prayer for other women – and it has continued until today.”

Khankan also stressed that the concept of a female imam is not new to the world. She said that she knew of female imams in China, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Somalia, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

When Mrad questioned whether Khankan was suggesting people “re-read the word of God”, the female imam responded: “It’s very natural to re-read the Quran. We’re doing what scholars have always done – it’s not something new to read and interpret the Quran.” 

She added: “We are going back to the roots. We are re-reading the Quran according to our times and our society. The things that we are doing; it’s not a reformation because we are actually going back to the roots.”

The journey to the Mariam Mosque

Born to a Syrian-Muslim father and a Finnish-Christian mother, Khankan says that her parents gave her an upbringing that celebrated both religions and gave her the flexibility to navigate between different cultures.

“My father made a compromise with my mother that we should have the possibility of choosing our own religion when we became old enough to reflect. So he didn’t give me and my sister a strict, religious, Muslim upbringing… At the age of 19, I knew that I wanted to study Islam and specialise in Islam.”

Khankan said that her first meeting with Islam was through sufism – “the spiritual path within Islam” – and that she did her thesis on sufism and Islamic activism. She then had her first vision of a mosque led by a female imam when she was in Syria.

“I thought, ‘What would happen if the mufti was a woman or if the imam was a woman?’ We were always standing on the balcony, looking at the mufti, and there was this distance – not only a physical distance, but also a mental distance – because we couldn’t be close to the grand imam. And I wanted to change that.”

Having returned to Denmark from Syria, Khankan said she missed belonging to a “community of believers”. In August 2001, she started the Critical Muslims, where she wrote the first manifesto – the Muslim Manifesto – where she talked about her vision for a mosque with female imams and advocated for the separation between religion and politics. Khankan believes that they were the first Muslim organisation in Denmark to have a female leadership.

Breaking taboos

The Mariam Mosque is a 800 sq.ft. apartment in Copenhagen – similar to the house mosques that existed in Medina – with Mrad noting that it is “more of a social, religious home, rather than a mosque in the classical way”. With a female imam, the Mariam Mosque is the first of its kind in Scandinavia. However, it is also “breaking a lot of taboos” and doing things that are “widely contested within the Muslim community”.

The Mariam Mosque has conducted a number of inter-faith marriages, as well as divorces. Khankan points out that while the Mariam Mosque is not the only mosque in the world to conduct inter-faith marriages, they are proud of having made it possible for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim people – and that more than half of the marriages they have conducted have been inter-faith marriages.

“We believe that women’s right to choose their love partner is a basic Islamic right,” Khankan said.

However, she went on to add that one of the most “acute dilemmas of our time” is the fact that Muslim women do not have the right to divorce within Islamic marriage. In order to tackle this, the Mariam Mosque has constructed a new Islamic marital contract, which states that Muslim women have the right to divorce, polygamy is forbidden, and that if mental or physical violence occurs, the marriage is annulled.

Khankan said: “Even in cases with severe violence, Muslim women cannot divorce unless the husband gives her the divorce – and we are trying to change that… Some of you [might wonder] why this is important because we live in Europe and European law counts legally. Yes, of course you can get your divorce easily through [legal means]. But within the Muslim communities, the Islamic marriage counts spiritually, religiously, psychologically – and the same goes for divorce.”

When questioned over what makes the Mariam Mosque legitimate in what they are doing, Khankan noted that she sees legitimacy as being based on three things: knowledge, Islamic theology, and need.

“If people come to us, this means that we have legitimacy. If people seek us, it means that we have legitimacy. Legitimacy is based on need and it’s based on people accepting you as an authority.”

Fighting for human rights within a religious sphere

Defending her decision to tackle these human rights issues within the religious framework, Khankan said: “We have some specific problems within our practices of Islam… In order to create change within the religious sphere, you have to act within the religious sphere. You cannot only use human rights arguments – even though I believe that the majority of human rights arguments are also present within the Islamic tradition.”

However, while fighting for what she believes in within the religious framework, Khankan has had to accept that things can’t always proceed as rapidly as she would like. When voting for whether the Mariam Mosque should host mixed-gender Friday prayers, Mariam’s vote in favour was voted down. While the Mariam Mosque remains inclusive and open to all six days a week, it is a women’s only mosque on Fridays.

However, Khankan now realises that it was a good thing.

“I realise that if you want to create change, you have to be aware and you have to do it very slowly and you cannot burn all the bridges behind you. I’m very happy about the decision because we are on safe theological ground – and so we do not receive any criticism and we can make the important resolutions.”

The female imam believes that it is her duty as a Muslim leader and imam to “find Islamic solutions” to dilemmas among her community. She hopes that her message reaches a new generation of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.

“It is possible to change the status quo, it is possible to change the narrative, it is possible to challenge the growing Islamophobia,” Khankan told the Asia House audience. “We just have to go out there and create that change. We don’t need to be a mass movement, we don’t need a big, grand mosque to create change. You just need a small place, and gather a group of people, and then you can create that change on the ground.”

It was a lively debate with differing and challenging views exchanged in front of a packed Asia House audience. Watch the full event here

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme

Europe and the Middle East – we’re like the Rachel and Ross of geopolitical history… I found myself in a unique position of bringing two cultures together – making the West understand the Middle East and vice versa.

This was how Karl Sharro became Karl reMarks, the online satirist and author of the new book, And Then God Created the Middle East and Said “Let There Be Breaking News”. Packed with hilarious sketches and wry observations of the way that journalists report on the Middle East, the book tackles delicate and complex topics in tweets, memes and cartoons – and we were lucky enough to have him join us at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2018 to share some of these and more.

Originally from Lebanon, Karl explained that his first pieces of work were mainly focused on his own country. However, when the Arab Uprising took shape in 2011, he became “really intrigued by the emerging punditry about the region and the people who take it upon themselves to explain what the Middle East is about.

“We were being treated to these opinion pieces and articles regularly after the Arab Uprising started: ‘Is the Arab world ready for democracy?’, ‘Why Western democracy can never work in the Middle East’, ‘Why Arab democracy will fail’.

“I realised then that in my unique role as someone from the Middle East, who was in London at that historic moment, instead of allowing those designated pundits and journalists to explain what the Middle East is about, I could do my own explainers.”

This then led to the beginning of his observations on Twitter.

Pointing to the sensationalisation of news reports on the Middle East, Karl joked that he often wondered if he was reading Moliere rather than a news article. On the other side of Western reporting, he pointed to journalists like Thomas L. Friedman, whose articles, ‘Syria is Iraq’ and ‘Freud and the Middle East’, made Karl question why he bothered writing the rest of it.

However, what Karl most enjoyed when it came to Western reporting on the Middle East was the analysis. Whether it was the “cyclical waves of articles that suggest the solution to everything is always to either partition a country or join two countries together (generally do some form of redecoration in the Middle East)” or the explanations of ISIS, Karl had something to say (or tweet).

“Western pundits, when they try to explain ISIS, it always had to be one thing. It had to be very simple. You couldn’t have two reasons. Whatever your pet cause is, that’s what caused ISIS: “Climate change caused ISIS, inequality caused ISIS, Iraqi government caused ISIS.”

The evening was packed with previews from his book, as well as material that didn’t make it into the book; including the introduction of his WENA (Western Europe and North America) Studies programme, observations about Brexit and Trump, and a carefully plotted diagram that illustrated how the better the food in a country, the worse the government.

Watch the full event here

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme

In October 2017, China’s 19th Party Congress adopted the ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ – giving the Chinese leader a status unmatched except by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

George Magnus, author of the new book, Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy, joined the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival to discuss the implications of this “new era” for China. He was in conversation with Martin Jacques, author of the global bestseller When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, and Dr Yu Jie, Head of China Foresight at LSE.

With very differing views on the topic at hand, the panel was moderated by Dr Linda Yueh, economist and author of China’s Growth: The Making of an Economic Superpower. To kick off the discussion, she asked Magnus to talk about the title of his new book.

China in the Xi Jinping era

Referring to the “Red Flags” as “warning signs”, the former Chief Economist of UBS said that his book looks at the problems contemporary China faces, noting that “something quite dramatic has changed,” in China since 2012.

He notes that there have been three transformations in China since Xi Jinping came into power. First, China’s shift from being a customer to the world to becoming a “fiesty competitor”. Second, the problems which have emerged with China’s economy since its unprecedented rise, including the debt that the government has to deal with, and, third, the fact that demographics now point to China as being the fastest ageing country on earth.    

He added: “China has become much more vocal, much more assertive, a little bit more truculent. All of these changes give us a perspective on China, which is not the China that we grew up with. It has changed in some very material aspects.”

While Magnus acknowledged that the Chinese system has delivered “unprecedentedly fast economic growth” – unmatched by no other emerging country for that length of time – he emphasised the need to understand why this growth occurred and what the critical success factors were.

“We are all having this navel-gazing at the moment about what is the right mix in our society between state-led or state-nurtured development and prosperity and the markets. We’re looking at it from one point of view, post the financial crisis, but in China they’re looking at it from the other point of view – and it’s still not clear that the markets guys are going to win.

“It could be somebody else’s China that will make amends in a very material way. I’m just not confident that Xi Jinping’s China is going to be able to do that.”

On the other hand, Dr Jie was more positive about the Xi Jinping leadership, noting that while Theresa May has been talking about a “strong and stable” government, it is actually Xi Jinping who has enjoyed this so far. However, she pointed out that when it comes to assessing the status of China under the leader, it is “the accountability to its own people that matters” irrespective of the kind of political system in place.

“Any political system should have to answer over three elements – authority, liberty and wealth. In China’s case nowadays, we have authority and we have that certain level of wealth creation. But when it comes to liberty, that will be a really big question for Xi Jinping.”

While Jacques agreed that there is a need for China to shift its economic model, he does not share Magnus’s view that China is in jeopardy under Xi Jinping.

“Clearly it’s true that the Xi Jinping era, starting in 2012, marks some kind of shift,” said Jacques. “I don’t think you can classify him as a dictator, I don’t think he runs China single-handedly. I think the shift is a big historical shift, which is now that China feels strong enough to express itself in terms of its foreign policy and its international position.”

Dr Jie agreed with Jacques’ view on China’s expression in the international arena under Xi Jinping, noting that back in the late 1970s, everything China did went unnoticed by the rest of the world. However, today China finds itself in the spotlight over whatever it does.



The Western perspective on China

Jacques told the Asia House audience that Western politicians and intellectuals have found it “extremely difficult” to come to terms with China’s economic transformation and that they remain sceptical about the possibility of this economic growth being sustained.  

“The great majority of people have believed that because the political system was not like ours, a Western-style democracy, then it would eventually hit the wall. Generally, the Western opinion has got China wrong with extraordinary consistency.”

He emphasised that there is a need to stop viewing China through a western paradigm and understand that the country is “profoundly different” from Western society. He believes that to be able to make sense of China’s economic transformation, one first has to acknowledge that China is not a conventional nation state, but that it was a civilisation state that became a nation state – and that the two coexist and shape Chinese foreign policy.

“We face an enormous intellectual challenge in the West to understand China because we constantly try to measure China against ourselves. We expect China to do what we’ve done and China hasn’t done that, except in certain respects, and I don’t believe it will do.”

China and trade: Belt and Road initiative and the US

“Is [the Belt and Road] a Eurasian development project that’s setting up a new development model for the world, or is it something that is very China-centric in terms of who benefits?”, questioned Magnus.  

The panel put forward very different arguments on what the Belt and Road initiative means for the region. While Magnus believes that the project could leave other countries in debt, Jacques sees it as progress.

Magnus said that the initiative will benefit Western provinces, the sale of manufacturing to emerging and developing countries, as well as act as a source of releasing excess capacity. However, he added that these come with “financial problems”.

“The Belt and Road initiative is not without its flaws. It’s not just mistakes; it’s fundamental flaws and about saddling countries with large amounts of debt that they probably cannot pay back.”

However, Jacques argued that since China sees itself as a developing country, it understands the problems of development in a way that Western countries don’t. Looking at Africa, he noted that China had supported the continent in a way that Western countries never did.

“If China can make a single contribution to the transformation of particularly the developing countries in the Eurasian landmass, it will transform the world in an extremely positive way.”

Touching briefly on the US-China trade war, Magnus said that this isn’t just an ordinary trade war.

“This is an existential argument about technology and leadership, about military superiority, and about the rules and regulations of industrial policy. This trade spat is going to go on for the foreseeable future.” 

Weighing in on the topic, Martin added: “America made assumptions about it’s relationship with China; that it would always be the dominant player in the relationship, that China would – over time – become like the West, and that China would accept Western leadership indefinitely.

“Of course, on all of those fronts they got it wrong. America cannot imagine a world, cannot bring itself to think of a world in which its not number one.”

As a concluding remark, Dr Jie emphasised that China’s picture isn’t black and white: “I think we really require a nuanced reading for the return of the Middle Kingdom.”

Watch the full event here

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme

“Every writer is made of experiences. In fact, every human being is just the sum of their best experiences and their worst experiences.”

These were the words of Insta-poet Nikita Gill as she addressed an enthusiastic Asia House audience during this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. The young writer has moved thousands of people with her poetry – using Instagram as the primary medium for her work – and began her talk with a recital of a riveting poem about the reality of growing up in New Delhi, India.

Joining us as part of the Festival, Gill talked about being a poet in the digital age, how she deals with rejection as an artist, and her desire to rewrite traditional fairytales.

The evolution of Insta-poetry

Gill says she has built her career through the internet, using social media as a tool to put her work out there for the masses. She told the audience that she first started doing this when she was teaching at a school for disabled children in India, where one of her students introduced her to Tumblr.

“It’s interesting to watch the internet evolve as a landscape. When I first started putting my name to my work, it was primarily because I realised a lot of my work was just floating around in various realms of the internet – and it didn’t even have my name on it.”

But adding her name to her work didn’t always pan out the way she hoped – particularly when Khloé Kardashian cropped her name out of one of her poems and reposted it.

“This happens to artists all the time. You create this beautiful piece of work, you put a piece of your soul in it, someone goes, ‘I really like that. You know the one thing that would make it perfect? Let’s crop the name out.’ Why?!”

This isn’t the only problem Gill has encountered being a poet in the digital age. She spoke out about those who complain about “Insta-poetry”, questioning why people have a problem with poetry reaching the masses.

“When did poetry become this really precious little thing, in this very insecure little club of people going, ‘No you can’t touch my poetry unless you’ve done an MFA’. There is representation in this genre, which is unfiltered and it’s bypassed the gatekeepers – and that’s pissed the gatekeepers off.”

Watch our interview with Nikita below

She went on to explain how putting her poetry on Instagram has allowed her to interact with those who read her work – and hear from those who have been impacted by her words. A young person once got in touch with her to say that they were able to face their abuser in court because of one of Gill’s poems.

“Would you replace those experiences to be accepted by this very small club of elite people? I don’t think so.”  

Being an artist in the digital age

When a member of the audience asked Gill about dealing with rejection, the poet offered some insights into the publishing industry based on her experiences.

Although Gill was rejected 137 times before securing her book deal, she brushed it off as “the nature of the beast” and pointed out that Jack London was rejected 600 times before White Fang was published. She also reminded people that publishing often “works on trends” – and that even if you are the next Charles Dickens, your book just might not fit the trend at that particular time.

She urged young writers not to take rejection personally and to keep putting their work out there: “No matter how successful or great you become as a writer, there’s always going to be someone out there who does what you do better. And being humble to that, and realising that this is a craft you will never be perfect at, is probably the greatest thing you can do for yourself as a writer – because you will constantly evolve then.”  

Taking back our fairytales

Listening to Gill, you would never think she has been rejected more than a hundred times. Her new book – Fierce Fairytales – was published in September and Asia House was honoured to host her first reading of it. The book reimagines traditional fairytales such as Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty through stories, poems and illustrations, giving them a “modern makeover”.

Gill said she had been eager to take these fairytale characters – who are quite “passive” – and turn them into more “powerful” women.

“Do I want to read my daughter Sleeping Beauty? This guy kisses her – not only without her permission, she’s unconscious. In a post-MeToo society, is that a story we want to be reading to our kids? Which is why I rewrote all of those stories because I felt like it’s really important for us to take back our fairytales and rewrite them for a new generation of young women who are so empowered.”

Watch the full event here

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme

Mishal Husain

Millions of people in the UK are familiar with Mishal Husain, from hearing her present BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the morning, to watching her share the latest headlines on BBC News at night.

What they may not know, however, is that the successful broadcaster and journalist has added another string to her impressive bow; Husain is the author of the new book, The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job – What Every Woman Needs to Know.

Husain appeared at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival to talk about the book and the wider issues it explores, as well as her own journey to journalism success.

And that journey has not always been an easy.

“Many of us in this room come from an Asian background,” Husain said. “For me, I think there was an element of my background, where I was brought up to be understated and modest about what I have done, that actually did prevent me from putting myself forward to the extent that I needed to.

“I had to learn a lot of this over time, and I wish I had learned it earlier on.”

Husain was in conversation with Bee Rowlatt, a writer, journalist and broadcaster.

Watch our interview with Mishal Husain below

The Skills is, in part, a response to this. Husain felt compelled to write the book to pass on some of the things she learned the hard way, so others won’t have to.

One example the author touched on was nerves; it is normal to be nervous sometimes in our jobs, especially when taking on new challenges beyond our comfort zones.

“One of the reasons I wrote the book is that often people would say ‘you must never get nervous doing what you do.’

“This question really started to bother me.”

For Husain, if people think that only those who never get nervous can do jobs such as journalism, “that is a problem for society, because too many people are then excluding themselves” from such vocations.

Husain gave a thought-provoking example of when she used to present a programme, and someone would congratulate her on the delivery, saying it was good. She would reply with a question: “do you think so?”

A better response? “Just say thank you!”

The fascinating and uplifting discussion was part of the festival’s Day of Celebrating Women, held in partnership with PAWA.

Watch the discussion in full

There’s much more to come in this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. See the full line-up here