Although soft-spoken and composed, there is a raw power in the responses of Sameem Ali, Manchester (Moss Side) Labour Councillor: “I was taken out of school and forced to marry, to have my first child at 14” she shared with us, “but an underlying drive for justice has always spurred me on.” The survivor of an honour-based killing attempt – the police made a timely arrest of the men who were hired to kill her, shortly after her escape from home – the young fighter has since been campaigning, having worked with vulnerable girls in hostels and safe houses in Pakistan, as well as raising awareness in her local constituency. Her extensive and uncompromising biography ‘Belonging’ was critically acclaimed, praised for its poignant yet unaffected account, while the screenplay of her life-story, ‘Honour Me’, which she co-wrote with director Alex Tweddle, won the Special Jury Award at the Speak Out Against Domestic Violence Short Film Competition. Just as well Ali should possess a strong gift for communication; when it comes to combatting such brutality, as the writer herself emphasised, the most effective weapon is unapologetically enlightening dialogue: “in fact the rights for ‘Belonging’ were bought last year in India” she started off, “it has been translated into Hindi and it’ll target the issue more deeply at the cultural grass-roots. Women will be encouraged to speak out.” With the shockingly ambivalent reception of ‘India’s Daughter’, the documentary which publicly interrogated the 2012 gang rape of a physiology student in Delhi, and brought to light the veiled nature of sexual predation at large, Ali’s literary revelation is welcome news indeed.
Tell me about your current work as a councillor in the district?
I work with schools to instil confidence in children so they are encouraged towards projects of their own. I’m a governor of one of the institutions in the area and recently became a UNICEF member. Confidence building gives youngsters the tools to tackle life.
Do you have projects on the side?
Tackling the issues of forced marriage and honour-based violence through training of the police; traditionally there is the mind-set of putting cultural sensitivity first, and this can obstruct the path to justice. You wouldn’t be tentative if someone was robbing a bank. I’m training them to push past that. Multiculturalism is about involving everybody in a universal understanding.
Is community work and politics a future hope for you?
Yes! I love having the opportunity to shape the minds of those who have a hand in the future: teachers, politicians. I also lecture at universities myself on the issue of domestic violence- how to spot the signs, how to deal with it.
Please tell us a bit more about your Journey?
I actually met the person who looked after me when I was in the children’s home at age 7, and they mentioned that they were not surprised at my position; I’ve always been outspoken about justice. I think one person can make a difference. You can inspire others to run to freedom, and that’s what I teach. Though my experiences were horrific, and there are moments when I still need to gasp for air, my head remains above the surface and I use that hope to inspire.
Were there other qualities - possessing an awareness of justice already being mentioned- that kept you fighting as a young girl?
I was always headstrong- I knew what I was experiencing wasn’t right. The amount of physical and emotional abuse I endured was immense and thinking of all the women who had suffered – died- in the name of honour meant I was never going to sit back.
Can more be done legislatively to combat honour killings as a specific crime?
I can drive policy and legislation, but unfortunately the whole element of segregation within communities has to improve before we can tackle it whole-heartedly. And that’s about dialogue—discussing it and not ignoring it- especially through the platform of schools. They are well-positioned: they can identify the children who are victims and report. However often they are afraid, lest there be scandal. But that’s just it, it can’t be taboo. We need to remove that shame element in rape and abuse; otherwise the perpetrators get away with it. Mums too know what is happening and won’t bat an eyelid.
Yes, you have mentioned in a previous interview that you felt your mother had lived a controlled life, and couldn’t see the harm being done. How do you think we can approach communities so indoctrinated?
The community does clam up when it comes to issues of abuse. That’s why instilling confidence in children is important. They can then go back and talk to their parents, encouraging change from within. And we need to give them support from the public sphere to do that.
What is your advice to girls who suspect they might be in an abusive environment?
Contact somebody immediately because you are not alone. There are child protection officers in schools and the wider community. I want to dispel the miserable myth painted that if you do report violence, people will find you, and you’ll be taken into care and neglected. Far from it: you can live a free and successful life because you are away from the pain.
Finally, was writing the way that you continued to express yourself?
Absolutely- it was therapeutic. It was proof that those dark clouds can be removed but I had to be ready to meet myself half way. At first there were more tears than words. It was the first time I’d really thought about what had happened to me. I had to write in third person for the first few years, before I could use the pronoun ‘I’. That’s the main hurdle: acceptance.