Photo: Maha Ali Kazmi, a young Pakistani of Kashmiri
descent recently released ‘Nazar’, a love song that is being played all over
the internet and on various television channels in Pakistan.
Birmingham College Caves In Over Ban on Students
Include Physical Education, Girls’ Saudi Minister of
Indonesian Miss World Pageant Threatened By Hard-Line
Senior Police Woman Gunned Down In Afghanistan
Muslim Women’s Rights Have Changed Over the Years
Maha Ali Kazmi a Kashmiri Girl Rocks In Pakistan
Many Lingerie Shops in Medina Refusing To Hire Women
PM For Women’s Equal Role in Political Decision
A Charity Is Giving Afghan Women the Chance to Make
and Sell Traditional Jewellery
Saudi Women in Real Estate Sector ‘Marginalised’
by New Age Islam News Bureau
Saudi Islamic Ministry Seeks Female Dawah Workers
15 Sep 2013
RIYADH – The Ministry of Islamic Affairs said it
employs women who want to be Islamic preachers and practice Dawah (call)
outside the Kingdom, according to the ministry’s undersecretary for Dawah
“We have a handful of women engaging in Dawah
activities in the Philippines,” Abdulaziz Al-Ammar told Al-Hayat newspaper.
The ministry welcomes female applicants who are
interested in preaching Islam to non-Muslims abroad, he added.
The ministry sent abroad over 1,300 Dawah activists to
spread the message of Islam according to the directives of Custodian of the Two
Holy Mosques King Abdullah, who directed the ministry to embark on this mission
on a strictly religious basis, he said.
He said the ministry has instructed its activists
abroad not to engage in any political conversations, interfere in a country’s
domestic affairs and stir sectarian tension and to always comply with the rules
and regulations in the countries they visit.
Al-Ammar believes that activists’ stipends should be
increased, at least for those who live in certain countries.
The minimum stipend the ministry pays is SR3,000, he
Al-Ammar recently signed an agreement with the Sheikh
Al-Rajhi Foundation to carry out dawa programs abroad.
Around 500,000 copies of the Holy Qur’an will be
printed for distribution all over the world while various religious books in
different languages will be handed out to dawa workers in different countries,
all as part of the agreement that seeks to enhance dawa outside the Kingdom.
By SARAH HARRIS and NATALIE CLARKE
13 September 2013
Militants have forced a college to drop its ban on
students wearing full facial veils.
The U-turn came in the face of a planned mass
demonstration against ‘Islamophobia’ and an online petition signed by 9,000.
The Niqab ban had been in place at Birmingham
Metropolitan College for eight years without protest. But an anonymous
prospective student complained to her local paper, saying she was being
When the story broke it sparked claims of racism and
even rumours that the college was planning to ban prayer on its premises.
Late on Thursday, the college climbed down and
‘modified’ the ruling against veils, hoodies and hats, which had been brought
in to ensure students were always ‘easily identifiable’.
Aaron Kiely, the left-wing student activist who
organised the 9,000-name petition, is best known for opposing the extradition
of hate preacher Abu Hamza.
And Downing Street stepped in to the row to reveal
that David Cameron would back a ban on Muslim veils at his children’s school.
The Prime Minister is being pressured to give headteachers more protection
against similar backlashes.
The college, which is the third largest in the UK,
with 44,000 students, insisted the policy was designed to protect students.
It stopped female Muslim pupils from wearing the
niqab, the full facial veil in which only the eyes are visible, or the burqa
where the eye area is covered in mesh.
The policy was attacked by local councillors, MPs and
the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, headed by Mr Kiely.
Mr Cameron had backed the college’s original decision
to enforce the uniform code.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted on
Thursday he was ‘uneasy’ about the ban and believed the bar had to be set ‘very
high’ to justify any prohibition on wearing a veil.
More than 800 people were expected to attend a protest
yesterday, however late on Thursday night the college posted a statement on its
It said teachers were concerned that media attention
was ‘detracting from our core mission of providing high quality learning’. It
added: ‘As a consequence, we will modify our policies to allow individuals to
wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values.
‘The college will still need to be able to confirm an
individual’s identity in order to maintain safeguarding and security.’ The
college said it was confident this would ‘meet the needs of all of our learners
Mr Kiely, 24, yesterday thanked supporters, adding:
‘We can’t be complacent though as Prime Minister David Cameron signalled that
he supported the college’s decision to ban students from wearing veils.
‘That is why we must always be ready to unite together
to defend our fundamental human rights to freedom of thought, conscience,
religion and cultural expression.’
However, Mr Cameron’s spokesman said the Government
would defend the right of head teachers to decide on school uniform.
Two Muslim students at the Birmingham Metropolitan
College campus in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands. The college have banned
Muslim girls from wearing a veil
Two Muslim students at the Birmingham Metropolitan
College campus in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, pictured before the ban
which ruled students to keep their eyes, nose and mouth visible at all times
He added: ‘There’s an important point here around
headteachers and their leadership teams being able to take the decisions that
are right for their schools and we will continue to support that. It’s a very
When asked if Mr Cameron would be happy to see a ban
on the veil in his children’s schools, he replied: ‘That would apply to every
school, every single one, including the ones that his children may attend.
What’s important is to back the right of schools to set their own uniform
policy and that’s what the Government will keep doing.’
Mr Cameron’s nine-year-old daughter Nancy, and
seven-year-old son Arthur, attend a Church of England junior school in West
In a key 2007 case, a High Court judge rejected a bid
by a pupil to be allowed to wear the Niqab in class.
Afterwards, the Department for Education issued
guidance that enabled headteachers to ban full-face veils on grounds of
security, safety or learning.
Mr Hollobone, who refuses to meet constituents who
wear the veil, said stronger guidelines need to be introduced to help schools.
Prime Minister David Cameron backed the right of
schools and colleges to ban religious veils Nick Clegg said he felt 'uneasy'
about telling people what they should wear
Split: David Cameron backed schools and colleges to
enforce uniform rules but Nick Clegg said he felt 'uneasy' about telling people
what they should wear
‘The Government should republish them,’ he added. ‘The
shame is that this school have done a U-turn when their original decision would
have been roundly supported by most people who read the Mail.
‘I recently read about a teacher who sent home those
pupils who were not dressed properly. That’s the kind of robust leadership we
need in our schools.’
Birmingham Metropolitan College is believed to be the
only college in the UK to have banned the niqab. Some 43 per cent of its
students come from ethnic groups that are non-white. Of these, 14 per cent are
from Muslim Pakistan.
This week, the college refused to be drawn into discussion
on why the ban was introduced, but one student’s story is that it was brought
in after a group wearing niqabs entered the college and attacked a pupil.
The 17-year-old who started the protest told the
Birmingham Mail the veil ban was ‘disgusting’.
She added: ‘It’s a personal choice and I find it
absolutely shocking that this has been brought in at a college in Birmingham
city centre when the city is so multicultural and so many of the students are
‘It upsets me that we are being discriminated against.
I don’t think my niqab prevents me from studying or communicating with anyone.’
Tension quickly spread across the college’s eight
campuses. A group of white male students at one of the sites said they were
worried. ‘This is causing tension, not just with the Muslim girls, but with the
boys too,’ said one.
‘The lads are proud to be Muslim and feel this is
discrimination against the girls. The situation is getting out of hand.’
But one of his friends said: ‘I support the ban. I
have no problem with people of other cultures coming to this country – I just
think they should play by our rules.’
Another young man said: ‘How would people like it if I
came into college wearing a balaclava?’
Mr Kiely lives in Thurrock, Essex, where he is a local
councillor as well as being the full-time black students’ officer for the
National Union of Students on £20,000 a year.
Although the 12-year-old’s three older sisters had
worn the headwear at the same school in Buckinghamshire, teachers said it
impeded their ability to communicate with her.
They said they needed to be able to tell if a pupil
was paying attention, engaged with her work or distressed.
After the case, the Government issued guidance that
enabled headteachers to ban full-face veils on grounds of security, safety or
It said teachers were justified in enforcing uniform
rules which mean they can see and make eye contact with pupils.
Schools need to be able to identify pupils to maintain
order in classrooms and to spot any intruders, it added.
But rather than a French-style blanket ban on face
coverings in all public spaces, the Department of Education said institutions
could outlaw the coverings as long as they carried out a proper consultation.
Updated Government guidance released last year clearly
continues to back heads who choose to ban face-coverings.
It says it is ‘still lawful’ to restrict the freedom
of pupils to express their religion on the grounds of ‘health, safety and the
protection of the rights and freedoms of others’.
And religious freedoms do not mean pupils can practise
their beliefs ‘at any time, in any place, or in any particular manner,’
the guidance adds.
Riyadh – Minister of Education Prince Faisal Bin
Abdullah has instructed all Directorates of Education in the Kingdom to include
physical education (PE) classes in the weekly school schedule for female
students, an Arabic language daily newspaper reported on Saturday.
Ministry spokesman Mohammad Al-Dekhaini said that
these instructions are in concurrence with Islamic teachings that allow women
to practice sports with certain conditions.
He said that the minister, who issued these
instructions out of his concern for the health of girl’s students, asked
private schools to prepare suitable and properly equipped areas for this
purpose. These sports activities should take into consideration the students’
age. Students are also to wear suitable sportswear that covers their bodies.
The circular also assured that priority should be
given to the recruitment of qualified Saudi women teachers to supervise these
A number of private girls’ schools have begun
scheduling PE classes in their school curricula. The schools have asked
students to wear suitable sportswear during the PE class.
A number of private schools have already begun
recruiting Saudi teachers to train and qualify them to teach PE classes.
Some schools have scheduled one PE class a week for
intermediate and secondary students and two PE classes a week for elementary
In March this year, the Ministry of Education assured
the Shoura Council that it will introduce PE classes in girls’ schools. The
ministry in a report submitted to the Shoura at that time said that the classes
will take into consideration social traditions and conventions of Saudi society
and will be in line with the fatwa issued in this regard by the Senior Board of
Ulema. It requested the Shoura Council to approve their recommendations to
develop sports in schools.
Most private schools for girls provide a wide range of
physical activities for their students that are not just fun but also good for
JAKARTA police are being deployed to protect the Miss
World Pageant as Indonesian hard-line Islamists ramp up their opposition to the
The Jakarta Post is reporting hundreds from the group
Hizbut Tahrir, took to the streets for 30 minutes before marching on the office
of local members to voice their anger.
A co-ordinator for the group told the Post the pageant
"is no more than a parade of women's bodies and, as such, is strictly
prohibited by Islamic teachings".
The protest also included mothers who brought their
children to the rally.
The pageant includes entrants from 131 countries
including Queensland's Erin Holland, 24, who will represent Australia.
The Miss World 2013 final will be held in Jakarta on
Senior police woman gunned down in Afghanistan
KABUL, Sept 15 (Reuters) - A senior female police
officer in Afghanistan was shot in an assassination attempt on Sunday, two
months after her female predecessor was killed, underscoring worries about both
security and the role of women as foreign troops prepare to leave.
Lieutenant Negara, who like many Afghans only uses one
name, was shot as she was being driven to work on a motorbike by a male relative
in Lashkar Gah, capital of battleground southern province of Helmand.
She was taken to hospital and was expected to survive,
said the provincial governor's spokesman, Omar Zwak.
Negara's high-profile predecessor, Lieutenant Islam
Bibi, was shot dead in almost identical circumstances in early July.
Bibi was also being driven to work on a motorbike by a
male relative when unidentified gunmen shot her dead. [ID: L3N0FA2GY]
The Taliban have often targeted senior female
officials working for the U.S.-backed government, although some attacks have
been linked to conservative male relatives, outraged that the women are going
out to work.
Violence against women has increased sharply over the
last two years, according to Afghanistan's independent human rights commission.
Activists also say there is waning interest in women's
rights on the part of President Hamid Karzai's government, which they say would
be content to let hard-fought-for women's rights disappear in return for a
peace deal with the Taliban as foreign troops prepare to leave by the end of
next year. (Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by
Islamic women’s rights over the decades have changed,
allowing Muslim women to have the freedom to live as a dignified human being,
according to the Quran.
In the early days before Islam, families did not
celebrate the birth of a girl as it was considered more of a tragedy than a
celebration. Female infantile killings were uncontrolled during those times,
and the family made the decision without permission to either have the child
killed or protect the child who of course would remain a problem for them. A
verse from the Quran condemned this action against female infants.
A woman was considered a slave or bought as property
in the days before Islam. Women were unimportant; they had no rights, no
independence, could not own property and were not worthy to inherit. Women were
used as a pawn for one reason only, and discarded like an old football, when
they were no longer able to perform the requirements of their husband or
family. All marriages were prearranged, and women did not have any support in
this matter. The family made the decision and a woman did not have any rights
to either accept or reject the instructions of her father.
During those early days, it was no better in European
countries, India, or Egypt for the Muslim women. They were all treated no
better than slaves. Shamefully, women were regarded as subspecies between
humans and animals.
It was more than 1400 years ago that the compassionate
and all merciful Allah (SWT) gave the Arab women rights. Finally, rights were
established for women and taught from the perfect example of the Prophet
Muhammad (SAW). In the Quran, it is stated, “Who created us and Who alone knows
what rights are best for our female natures.” At length, the Muslim women were
respected as human beings rather than subspecies.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said to recognize that a
woman was created with the soul of the same nature as man, which gave women the
right to be considered equal as a human being and as a partner in this life.
The Islamic law was changed and stated that a woman is
an independent unique individual in her own right. She must show the same
responsibility toward herself, toward all other human beings, and toward Allah
(SWT), and it is stated that either a reward or punishment will be given in the
hereafter without discrimination of the female gender.
Some other rules attached to Muslim women are their
right to go outside of their home, and the law that must not change her family
name when an agreement of marriage is accepted. More importantly, Muslim women
now have the right to accept or reject a proposed marriage and can now request
a divorce, if necessary.
Education is no longer banned, and Muslim women have
the right to seek knowledge. In fact, women are encouraged to gain knowledge
and to continue to learn throughout their lives.
Women are still required to keep their home intact,
but they do have the right to go to work or visit relatives and friends,
providing their spouse or guardian is aware of the arrangement. They are still
required to cover their heads and speak according to Islamic guidelines.
The laws of yesteryear no longer apply; and today,
Muslim women are respected as individuals, and can live a life without
Aarti Tikoo Singh, TNN | Sep 15, 2013
NEW DELHI: Kashmir may have gagged its first all-girls
rock band 'Pragaash' but right across the border in Karachi, a Kashmiri girl has
made it with her pop-rock single despite an equally hostile environment to the
western influenced music.
Ali Kazmi, a young Pakistani of Kashmiri descent recently released 'Nazar', a
love song that is being played all over the internet and on various television
channels in Pakistan. Her relatives and acquaintances in Kashmir too have been
listening to her number via internet and sharing it over various social
Written by Pakistani lyricist Haroon Shahid and
directed by Farhad Humayun, 'Nazar' is about unrequited love of a woman,
conceptualized and visualized in a very post-modern manner. Maha's passionate
rendition in a mellifluous and seductive voice combined with her hypnotic
looks, emphasized occasionally by dramatic batting of her eyelids, makes
'Nazar' a very powerful video number. The usage of rich colourful metaphors for
heartache and pain in a flawless achromatic background is quite avant-garde in
Though 25-year-old Maha's entrance to the long list of
Pakistani female pop and rock singers is nothing new from an urban Pakistani
perspective, but her debut is noteworthy given the ever-increasing opposition
of religious extremists to the western influenced music in Pakistan and in her
ancestral home in Indian Kashmir.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella
organization of various Islamist terrorist groups that emerged in 2007, dubbed
music as 'unIslamic' and targeted music shops and several singers in Khyber
Pakhtunkhwa province. A young Pashtun singer and dancer Shabana of Swat, for
example, was shot dead and her body was left hanging against an electric pole.
Ghani Dad, Ayman Udas, and several other singers who paid no heed to the death
threats issued by the TTP met similar fate. Many singers eventually caved in
and gave up their singing careers and many chose to switch from pop and rock
genres to devotional singing. Some singers fled the country seeking political
asylum abroad. On top of this, the Punjab lawmakers passed a bill in 2012
banning music concerts in educational institutes.
Pakistani pop and rock genres, which incorporate
elements of British-American rock and Hindustani classical music and sung
mostly in Urdu, were born as an underground movement in the 1980s. It was a
time when the Pakistani society underwent 'Islamization' campaign under the
Zia-ul-Haq military dictatorship, notes Pakistani cultural critic Nadeem F.
Paracha in one of his blogs. As a result the urban Pakistan youth produced rock
and pop underground through small gigs at schools, colleges and university
campuses. The new wave that began with the queen of disco pop Nazia Hassan led
to the birth of bands like Junoon, Vital Signs, Jal, Strings etc. Their
popularity continued to grow in the Benazir Bhutto era and their numbers
mushroomed during the modernization and liberalization program under General
Musharraf's dictatorship. Coke Studio, a Pakistani television series featuring
live-studio music performances, that became a huge hit across the subcontinent
started during Musharraf's regime. But since the escalation of violence and
terror and a volatile economy, the music industry has been floundering again.
Though Karachi is relatively safer, Maha says it is
not easy for aspiring singers anywhere in Pakistan. "The overall political
and economic instability and the rise of religious fundamentalist organizations
in the country have affected the music industry. There are hardly any record
companies around and hardly any music concerts going on in the country. One has
to really struggle to find funds to finance one's singing career here. My debut
was supported entirely by my family and not any investors. "
Maha's father, an ethnic Kashmiri from Srinagar,
migrated to Pakistan in 1964. Music, she says is a heritage passed down to her
from the Hindustani classical artist Wajid Ali Shah, the ancestor from her
mother's side. But it is her father, a music lover, who exposed Maha to his
wide music collection ranging from Dire Straits to Nusrat Fateh Ali and Lata
Mangeshkar. Enamored by the American legendary actress Audrey Hepburn and the
songs featuring her such as Moon River, La vie en rose, Maha trained herself to
sing and perform at school events and underground rock gigs before she was
selected in an audition. Like all budding singers in Pakistan, Maha, a graduate
in finance and microeconomics from MONASH University, Melbourne, will have to
work on several self-funded singles before she can finance an entire album
But not every Pakistani or Kashmiri girl is as lucky
as Maha, she admits recalling the regret most liberal families including hers
in Srinagar had this summer during her second visit, about the quitting of the
Pragaash rock band. "It was understandable why the girls quit in the face
of death threats issued by the orthodox and conservative elements," she
"But if ever I am in such a situation, I will not
back down because if Malala Yousufzai could stand up for her rights, so can
I," says Maha whose sensuality in the Nazar video stands in complete
defiance of the prudishness of conservative sections of Pakistani and Kashmiri
MADINAH/DAMMAM — Many lingerie shops in Madinah
continue to openly flout the Ministry of Labour’s orders to only employ women
in all stores selling women’s undergarments, an Arabic daily reported.
The ministry has appointed female inspectors to see
that all lingerie shops are in compliance with the orders and they have
reported that many shops post “families only” signs on their storefronts while
having men working inside.
Citizens have called upon Madinah Labor Office to
Mohammad Ali, a citizen, said many shops owners take
advantage of the ministry’s lax attitude in enforcing its orders. “In open
defiance of the ministry’s order, some shops have employed women only to assist
women shoppers. They still have to deal with male cashiers who, upon checkout,
see all of the items that women buy thus violating their privacy.”
Abu Khalid, a lingerie store owner in Madinah, said
the ministry is enforcing the order in select shops in the city.
“There are many stores who have not implemented the
order in the absence of effective monitoring. The question everyone should be
asking is: Why are only some stores expected to comply with the ministry’s
orders while others aren’t?”
Meanwhile, a number of lingerie store owners in the
Eastern Province have come up with new methods to circumvent the ministry’s
They simply instruct their workers not to open their
stores in the mornings when inspectors tour markets looking for violators. By
doing so, they avoid being fined for non-compliance of the ministry’s rules.
Some owners said they have been forced to resort to
such methods because they have to sack their female workers due to tardiness
and frequent absences.
The owners claim that until they were able to find
replacements and they will continue to conduct business during the evenings and
allow male workers to run their businesses.
Muhammad Al-Mana, director of the ministry’s branch in
the Eastern Province, said inspectors work two shifts and they will continue
doing so, warning that violators will be fined. He noted that inspection visits
will cover the entire province.
Bangladesh PM For Women’s Equal Role in Political
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday stressed equal
participation of women alongside men in political decision-making as only this
could help achieve the real development and progress of a nation.
“In Bangladesh, we celebrate empowerment of
women…Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman envisioned a Bangladesh where women
would have equal rights as men. This legacy has inspired me to carry on the
work in ensuring that all genders enjoy equal rights,” she said.
Hasina, a special adviser to the International
Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), stated this in a video message
on “Women Leadership in Politics”. The message was delivered in the opening
session of an ICAPP special conference in Seoul, South Korea yesterday.
She said Bangladesh was possibly the world’s only nation
at present to simultaneously have a female prime minister, Speaker, opposition
leader and deputy leader in parliament.
She said her government’s policies, especially
National Women Development Policy 2011, put women at the centre of its
development agenda with focus on education, health and employment.
“As a woman politician and as a special adviser to
ICAPP, I assure you that I shall work with you (and with women political
leaders) in building women’s leadership and empowerment in our own countries
and in Asia,” said Hasina.
She said she was confident that the conference
participants would bring to the fore challenges faced by women today,
particularly in political decision-making.
“I’m also confident that we shall learn from the
successes of countries and societies to find policies and programmes to bring
qualitative changes in the political arena,” she said.
She also mentioned the political and socio-economic
empowerment of women in rural parts of Bangladesh which ensured their access to
food, services and resources and reduced poverty.
“To empower them, we provide microcredit loans for
small businesses; employ them in local development works; cover them with
social safety nets; and give girls free education at primary, secondary and
post-secondary levels,” she added.
Thus participation of women in the labour force rose
from 24 percent in 2010 to 36 percent at present, Hasina said.
Her government’s success in providing health services
reduced the maternal mortality rate and earned the country the UN Millennium
Development Goal award, she said.
Regarding political empowerment, Haina said her
government’s action led to the election of 14,000 women to local government
bodies; 69 to parliament; five as cabinet ministers and one as a Whip.
She said 30 percent reserved posts for women helped
many reach high positions in the judiciary, administration, diplomatic
missions, armed forces and law enforcement services and encouraged them to also
serve in UN peacekeeping missions.
She expressed gratitude for making her a special
adviser and congratulated the successful assembling of so many Asian women
political leaders to discuss women leadership in politics.
Hasina regretted not making it to the conference in
person for being occupied at home and said she was looking forward to attend
future ICAPP conferences.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and South Korean
President Park Geun-hye also sent prerecorded video messages.
Abandoning her fast-paced City life to do something of
value led Sophia Swire to set up Future Brilliance - a charity that's bringing
the women of Afghanistan and their 'sparkling assets' to London
It took Khala Zada two months to persuade her sons to
let her come to Jaipur in India. A 50-year-old widow from rural Afghanistan,
Zada runs a small business making jewellery by hand out of tiny lapis lazuli
beads. This six-month course would teach her about design and techniques and
how to sell to customers around the world, but being in a country of gender
inequality and repressive edicts, she was not, as a woman, allowed to make the
decision herself. She had to get permission from the men in her life – her
adult sons. Finally, in January this year, Zada left her home accompanied by
one of her sons and his wife to enrol alongside 35 other Afghan men and women
(the ratio was two men to one woman) at the Indian Institute of Gems &
Jewellery in Sitapura, Jaipur’s new jewellery quarter.
Zada is a pioneer in a new scheme, devised by the
charity Future Brilliance, to create a network of skilled Afghan artisans who
will set up businesses and spread their knowledge when Afghan security is
handed back to its own administration next year.
'The aid tap is about to be turned off and we have to
prepare the Afghans to be self-sufficient'
This week, a Future Brilliance jewellery range has
been launched during London Fashion Week under the brand Aayenda (which means
‘future’ in Dari, the lingua franca in Afghanistan). Enthusiasts have described
the project as one of national transformation; sceptics see it as
overambitious. But Sophia Swire, the 49-year-old British businesswoman who founded
the charity, has no doubts. ‘The aid tap is about to be turned off and we have
to prepare the Afghans to be self-sufficient,’ she says.
Self-sufficiency is one of Sophia’s strengths. The
woman who introduced pashminas to the western world back in the 1990s (she
spotted the shawls being worn by beautiful female film stars at a Lahore party
hosted by Imran Khan and tracked down their source in Nepal) has spent more
than two decades working in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.
She is used to travelling to war zones and perilously
remote destinations, and isn’t scared of confronting warlords and drug barons.
Yet her background is one of English comforts and financial privilege. She grew
up in Dorset, in a Jacobean mill house near Blandford Forum, with three
brothers. Her mother is Dowager Marchioness Townshend (‘I was never as elegant
or as beautiful as she is – she used to call me the 15-year-old peasant!’). Her
late father, whom she clearly adored, was a former director of Sotheby’s, and
one of her brothers, Hugo, is now a Tory minister.
'It’s much better to set something up, put excellent
management in place and then step back and let it go'
Educated at a
local boarding school, then at Queen’s Gate School in London after her parents
divorced, she went on to read art history and Italian at the University of
Manchester – and then surprised everyone by getting a job as a stockbroker with
Kleinwort Benson. She says she only did it to prove her brothers wrong. ‘They
said, “You can’t do it. You’re a girl.”’ But Sophia seems to thrive in
male-dominated environments. She built up an impressive client list (including
the Vatican) over two years, but after Black Monday in October 1987, when the
stock markets went into free fall and the atmosphere became even more
cut-throat, she decided to take her fight elsewhere.
‘I was having a stand-up argument with my then boss,
who was taking my top clients from me, and I was saying, “You can’t do that, I
will get fired.” He said, “If I don’t, I will get fired.” And while I was
fighting, I had a little bird on my shoulder saying, “You should take this
fight and use it for something that actually matters.” I realised it was time
for me to leave the City and do something that I felt had value and could
actually change people’s lives.’
Journalist friends were already reporting on the
Soviet-Afghan war, and in 1988 Sophia went for a three-week break to Peshawar
in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, drawn by a romantic notion of the
front line. ‘At that point, I either wanted to be a foreign correspondent or an
aid worker, so I went to find out more.’ During that trip she visited Chitral
in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. ‘It was magical, mysterious and
outstandingly beautiful.’ Chitral also provided her with her first start-up.
She was watching a polo match when the deputy commissioner came up and
explained that she was the kind of woman he was looking for to help him set up
a school. ‘I said, “Why me?” And he said, “Well, did you go to university?” I
told him I had. “In that case, you have 15 years more education than most of
the women here.” He persuaded me to bring back 200 kilos of school books and a
number of my friends to teach there.’ Later in the year, Sayurj Public School
opened with 40 children aged four to ten.
It was the start of a new life doing good things in a
world that was a galaxy away from the one into which she had been born. She
stayed at the school for a year, and then moved to Islamabad for six months to
help set up Battle Against Narcotics, to address the problem of heroin
addiction in Pakistan. ‘That was a subject I knew about. Having grown up in the
1980s, I had lots of friends who had been involved in heroin abuse.’ (It was
during this time that she discovered pashminas, turning them into a £1 million
business selling to 250 global outlets.)
In 1993 she co-founded the Learning for Life charity
with Charlotte Bannister-Parker, daughter of the athlete Sir Roger Bannister.
This has since established more than 250 schools for girls in Afghanistan,
Pakistan and India. The charity’s HQ was a turret in a church in Notting Hill,
London, and Sophia travelled between England, Pakistan, India and Nepal raising
money and awareness (and running her pashmina business).
In 2008, after a friend introduced her to Rory Stewart,
a former diplomat and current Tory MP for Penrith and the Border, she started
working for his Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which was initiated
by Prince Charles to support traditional arts in Afghanistan.
Jewellery-making has an ancient history in
Afghanistan, a country rich in emeralds, rubies, tourmalines and lapis lazuli,
and Sophia wants to close the gap between those who have benefited from its
wealth (mainly foreign dealers) and those who haven’t (the Afghan people). She
established a school for jewellers and gem cutters through Turquoise Mountain,
and in 2010 became a senior adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, inspecting
gem mines in outlying provinces to check their safety for workers and looking
for ways to channel profits from the gemstone business to Afghan artisans.
Sophia is good at getting things going – and then she
likes to hand them over. ‘If you build yourself into the business model, at the
end of the day there is only so much you can achieve in life. It’s much better
to set something up, put excellent management in place, and then step back and
let it go.’ Her business background means she’s unflustered by spreadsheets.
‘I’m a Virgo and get great pleasure from matching the receipts and balancing
the books.’ She is brisk, hard-working, pragmatic, good with money – and wants
Future Brilliance to be the same.
Her views on aid aren’t always in line with
humanitarian thinking. She believes the aid boom has created a welfare culture
– something she is passionately against. ‘When I had my pashmina business, if
people didn’t deliver, I didn’t pay them. That is the philosophy behind Future
Brilliance as well. There will be no safety net for poor performance, for poor
or shoddy goods, just as there is no safety net in the real world.’ But the
advantage is that women jewellery-makers will be able to work from home – a key
benefit should the Taliban return to power once UN peacekeeping forces pull
Her plan is to kick-start the jewellery industry in
Afghanistan. Future Brilliance doesn’t only teach students how to cut and
polish gems, they learn about design and Western taste from visiting teachers,
such as the British designer
Paul Spurgeon (who has designed the Aayenda jewellery
range on sale during London Fashion Week), how to sell online to customers
around the world and about global standards of quality control, pricing and
manufacturing. The jewellery course is
in Jaipur and not Kabul, she explains, because Jaipur has been the centre of
the gem and jewellery industry for hundreds of years – it has gem dealers,
stone cutters, polishers, jewellery makers. When someone such as designer Jade
Jagger wants jewellery made, she comes to Jaipur.
Sophia is, you realise, a mass of contradictions. She is decisive and draws people in, but
admits she can be intensely shy and hates giving speeches. ‘It’s probably about
wanting to be perfect,’ she says. She is scared of earthquakes and lions, yet
resolutely faced down the police commander who waved his Kalashnikov at her
when she was inspecting lapis lazuli mines in a remote area of Afghanistan in
late 2009. ‘I have never been with a person who was more angry in my life – and
he had a gun. But I managed to calm him down. I think in many situations being
a woman is an advantage.’
But she is not naive about the country’s dangers,
particularly after the murder of her friend Dr Karen Woo, the British doctor
who was killed by gunmen while on a medical mission to a remote corner of
Afghanistan in 2010. ‘I was profoundly shocked and saddened and since then I’ve
been less prone to taking risks.’ She is evangelical on the transformative
effect of education. ‘When the women first arrived in Jaipur I couldn’t see
their faces. They wouldn’t even unpin their scarves. I didn’t know what they
But I knew it would just be a matter of time before
the chadors [scarves] slipped and I could see who they were and their
confidence and true brilliance start to shine through. I am so inspired by the
women in the project because they’ve taken a much bigger risk than I will ever
take in coming to Jaipur. For them it is a huge step and I am so proud of
She insists she’s ‘cool’ with not having a home of her
own (her UK base in Dorset belongs to her family). And she says one of her most
magical times was working for Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul in 2008,
with no electricity and scorpions dropping on to her bed. ‘Part of the art of
life is learning how not to be too attached to people, things and places. I
went to Ascot recently and felt a bit like an alien dropping into a world I no
longer belong to.’
She admits, though, that her ‘crazy, accelerated life’
has also cost her a family of her own. ‘I’ve come to learn that men like to be
the centre of attention, and when you’re driven to achieve things, it’s hard to
put your focus on another person.’ She has fallen deeply in love, but it didn’t
work out. ‘I’ve heard the words “too independent’’,’ she says.
The great tragedy of her life is not having children.
‘There was a period, in my mid-40s, when I had to come to terms with the fact
that it probably wasn’t going to happen, after assuming all my adult life that
it would. That was hugely difficult, a grieving process, and I see a lot of
that in my friends.
‘But Future Brilliance has refocused me, because I am
able to pour all of that maternal love and care into the Afghan girls and
women. We wanted the course to be half women but so many families refused to
let their womenfolk leave the country. When we take our programme back to
Afghanistan, it will be much easier because we’ll be opening our training
courses closer to their families.’
Sophia is extremely proud of Khala Zada, who is now a
graduate of Jaipur’s Indian Institute of Gems & Jewellery with a City and
Guilds certificate to prove it – and her bracelets, made of lapis beads, are
stunning. Zada, who is unable to read or write because of Afghanistan’s limited
schooling opportunities, can now expand her business and employ more women,
says Sophia. ‘So in terms of maximum return on capital employed, taking just
this one woman and investing in her is potentially huge as far as the economy
of her local village is concerned.’
The Aayenda Jewelry range, and Khala Zada’s pieces,
are available from futurebrilliance.net, with prices starting at £20
JEDDAH — According to leading realtor Fatin Abrash,
women play an important role in completing most successful real estate deals in
Abrash began working in the real estate sector nearly
10 years ago in Makkah on a limited basis as no real estate licenses were
issued to women at the time.
She began working in a real estate company, marketing
land schemes and property to women teachers. As her company became more
established, they gradually expanded.
A few years later, after Abrash felt she had gained
enough experience, she applied for a realtor license and opened her own office.
“At the time, I was one of the few women property
appraisals in the real estate sector. I faced many difficulties in the
beginning and the work was tiring but I worked hard, educated myself and was
eventually able to overcome these obstacles and difficulties,” she told
Although women have made great strides and established
a name for themselves in the sector, Abrash believes that women’s role in the
sector is marginalized. She hopes for a union of realtors and appraisers where
women can actively participate as full members.
“Women play a very important role in the real estate
sector and they play an even larger role in marketing and concluding deals.
These roles need to be recognized in courts, especially when women play a
direct role in concluding deals,” she said while adding that society’s
attitudes toward women realtors needs to change.
“Some members of society look down at women who work
in the sector, despite the fact that women realtors are in some way responsible
for 90 percent of successful real estate deals,” she added.
Abrash believes one of the main reasons women have
been so successful in the real estate sector is their ability to arbitrate
disputes between sellers and buyers. She wants to train more Saudi women and
encourage them to join the sector.
“Women possess all the qualities to become successful
but they often lack the necessary courage to begin. Training institutes and
support groups would go a long way in helping women take the first big step,”