The point of protest

The point of protest

I was involved in two protests over the last two weeks, one out of pure volition, the other out of pure necessity. The protests had similar themes: the victims were oppressed and being imprisoned by authorative States. The European Union and the international community were turning a blind eye to the indignity and lack of humanity. The protesters chanted, “Freedom! Dignity! Equality!” and “Wake up Europe!”

I was particularly committed to one of the protests, on slavery in Libya. We, the world, had known about the thriving slave trade in Libya since April when the International Organisation for Migration published accounts of migrants being bought and sold, for menial work, hard labour and for sex. Sub-saharan Africans were imprisoned in private and government-run detention facilities, and as well as being auctioned, many were tortured by smugglers, militia, or whoever was in authority if they failed to pay up extra money for their journey to Europe.

It had to take another seven months, this time thanks to a CNN documentary for we, the world, to react. This time, thankfully, we woke up. We took it seriously and we say that we are doing something about it.

I had never protested in my life. Yet, I had never felt so appalled and disgusted over something as much as I did over this issue. Not even Brexit, as gut-wrenchingly revolting as it is, did not stir up as much frustration, anger and passion as watching people being sold off did. On Saturday, 25 November, I joined 2 500 people in Brussels to protest against slavery in Libya.  That’s me in the picture saying no to slavery (courtesy of Camille Van Durme).

The second protest I was involved in concerned 45 000 Catalan nationalists protesting against the forced exile of the President of the Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont; the imprisoned members of his government; and against the EU’s stance on the supposed independence referendum. I unfortunately ended up in the melee as it was literally outside my flat and I had to walk through the masses streaming Catalan flags to get to work.

Like with the slavery protest, I was inflamed by the same passion. Yet this time, the anger and frustration was pointed at these nationalists. How can two protests, with the same chants, calling for almost the same thing be worlds apart from eachother? How can the voice of one set of oppressed people be equal to the other?

They can’t. I don’t pretend to understand the Catalan independence movement and the suffering of its people but I do understand this: there really are people on this earth who do not have the freedom to express themselves, who do not have a constitution that protects them, who ARE NOT FREE. The Catalan people, in the most basic sense of the word, ARE FREE. They can vote in elections, they can express their opinions, they can freely travel, they are NOT BOUGHT AND SOLD.

The freedom to protest is a precious and hard-fought freedom. I am thankful we can do so without risking our lives. But the chants and demands of one protest this week cannot equate with the other the week before. Protest without perspective is pointless.

 

 

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Simmering in the subconscious

“Everyone instinctively knows when the moment is right to jump in. And when you do, seize the moment, grab it.”

Peter de Meersman, Tulibris

I am very interested in people who have decided to leave their day jobs and try something completely different or venture out on their own. I’ve come across quite a few of these characters here in Brussels: the belgian civil servant turned book shop owner, the jewellery consultant turned entrepreneur, the european civil servant turned soup-seller on a food bike. And of course it’s not just in Brussels; in Frankfurt there’s a former Deutsche Bank employee turned food vlogger.

I interviewed the book shop owner and the entrepreneur for Together magazine, and I’m currently finishing up another piece on office workers turned chocolate makers, Mike & Becky. I really, really admire these people and I think I can sort of piece together some of their common traits.

First, these entrepreneurs, or ‘Bohemian Businessmen‘ as Tom Hodgkinson from ‘The Idler‘ would say, found a gap in the market and went for it: I think Peter de Meersman’s secondhand english bookshop may be the only one in Brussels. As for the jewellery consultant turned entrepreneur, Anne-Sofie Rehfeld found that coworking spaces at the time were not particularly homely or inviting so she decided to set up a space that was just that. Mike & Becky found that nowhere in Brussels sold a good hot chocolate.

It also seemed like they had some sort of security or support. Peter is on sabbatical from the civil service, Anne-Sofie has a very supportive husband, and Mike & Becky have eachother.

What I took away most from these conversations was that the decision to leave the day job was not exactly an ‘Eureka!’ moment. Rather, it was a process, or to coin Peter’s apt phrase, it was simmering in the subconcious. For Peter, his business idea was simmering in his subconscious for 25 years.

I had been keen to quit the day job. Perhaps, it’s age or perhaps it’s because I see life is a struggle that I realise for now, quitting the day job would envisage a lot of struggle. Struggle that I am too tired for. Instead, may be the best way is to keep it simple, keep going, keep allowing my ideas to simmer naturally, and enjoy the pleasure of the slow build. My right moment may not be here yet.

I hope you take inspiration from these entrepreneurs: quitting the day job with Peter de Meersman and breaking the norm of office space design with Anne-Sofie Rehfeld.

 

Money versus happiness

…that of all things worth having in life, such as kindness, wisdom, and the human affections, none are on offer in the world’s shopping-malls.

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

I followed a course on how to be idle, run by the Idler Academy. I came across this academy a couple of years back when I was doing a bit of research on being idle for the blog. Becoming idle (rather than ‘being idle’, as I feel that I am yet to achieve such a state) is very much a goal of mine. How do I free up my time and rely on less materially, to cultivate my mind and one day, make a living from something I really enjoy doing? That is a lot to ask, but one has to at least make a start.

One of the sessions of the course is about being thrifty, this is very much a key to becoming idle. Being thrifty is necessary since idleness inevitably involves earning less. The Idler Academy advises us to learn to love accounting. A simple way to start is to note down how much one spends every day. I have been doing this for over a year and it’s amazing to realise how much I can spend on not that much really. I remember I spent over €20 on a very disappointing fish and chips. When I noted it down in my little accounting book, I swore that I would never spend as much money again on shite. If I’m going to fork out €20 for lunch, it better be good.

I have also miraculously managed to work part-time. I say miraculously because my day job is in a very big organisation with a lot of rules, procedures and hierarchy. I honestly didn’t think it would be possible, but with preparation, opportunity and negotiation, I managed to get some time off per week. I plan to use this time to write more and explore other opportunities, and sometimes, just be idle.

With the reduced working week comes the reduced salary. The difference is quite remarkable and I have to tighten my belt. But again, my little accounting book comes in handy: I’ve learnt to budget and stay on top of my spending. Plus, it’s fun to be a bit more resourceful and less wasteful.

When I returned to work on Monday (after the first week of part-time), my boss asked me how were my few days of freedom. “Really nice,” I said. They were. For a couple of days a week, I am free. I remember on my first day off I was dancing around listening to Justin Timberlake. I was elated.

Sometimes I miss the extra cash, but then again, what’s the point of having it if I don’t actually have the time to spend it? I could save it, of course but I’m saving it for future expense. If my goal is to try to make a living out of my passion, then my free time is worth more now than the additional money in the future.

For Together magazine, I wrote about the money versus happiness dilemma. The inspiration for the article came from staying with a widower in Indonesia. She didn’t have a lot materially, but she was happy. And I think what made her happy was the daily connections and interactions with her neighbours and her family. Enjoy the read.

Saying f**k it to goals

My goal, ahem, for what’s left of 2016 is to try and put up all my publications online.

This article for Together magazine focused on goals. Is it good to set goals? Yes, they give you direction, a target, and a sense of achievement once you’ve reached them. On the other hand, no it’s not good, as you can become goal crazy, putting your health, self or others at risk just to achieve them.

Sometimes, it’s really nice not to have a goal. It’s great to just drift along and see where life takes you. You may be pleasantly surprised. I’m quite partial to the “go with the flow” attitude, but once and a while, I check in with myself and stay conscious of where I’m going. When it no longer feels like the right direction, I pull over and get my map out (or ask someone)!

So I hope you enjoy the article.

Finally, you may have noticed that the citizens of the US did something quite spectacular on Tuesday. There’s been a lot of fear mongering since and it’s true, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. But just with Brexit, maybe the best thing is to focus on today, rather than on what might be, and on what is beyond our control. Let’s do what we can: protest peacefully, hold our politicians to account and be part of the citizenry.

P.S I’m with Dilbert.

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Sisters in Islam

You must be responsible for what you do, as well as for what you don’t do.

– Seyran Ates, muslim feminist

During a visit to Malaysia last year, I was very fortunate to spend some time volunteering at Sisters In Islam, an NGO that advocates the rights of muslim women predominantly in Malaysia, with many networks across the muslim world.

I came across them through an article on Facebook that a friend had posted. I can’t quite remember its content but I remember feeling particularly heartened by what they were saying. They were muslim women who believed in reform in Islam, as well as the application of critical thinking and common sense when it comes to the practice of Islam. They appeared open, liberal, spiritual and erudite. I knew that I had to contact them.

It was through my voluntary work that I met and got to know Ratna Osman, the then Executive Director of SIS. My first proper occasion with her was going to Australia Day celebrations just beside the Petronas twin towers, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It was during the car journey that she told me a little bit about her life story, that she had gone from a path of extremism to one of reform. Those few minutes of listening to her encouraged me to later interview her for Together magazine.

If you have followed my blog over the years, you probably know that I am very much an admirer of Irshad Manji, whose work in trying to prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists has put her life at risk. Thus through SIS, I learnt about other incredible muslim feminists, like the American Amina Wadud, who led Friday prayers of a mixed gender congregation, and the Iranian Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who writes and teaches extensively on gender equality in Islam. These women, Ratna Osman, and Sisters In Islam give me hope. Their voice, intellect and courage are much needed in this time when we are asking, what does it mean to be muslim?

Perhaps my tardiness at uploading my articles comes at an opportune time. This week I met Seyran Ates, a German lawyer of Turkish decent, at a debate on the integration of migrants. She has written books on Islamic reform, one notably called ‘Islam needs a sexual revolution‘. At 21 years of age, she was shot in the neck because of her work at a womens’ shelter. Today, she lives under police protection. Her devotion to show the moderate, tolerant, peaceful side of Islam is worth more than her own life. She believes that she has to take on the responsibility of being a role model, not only to young muslims (and in particularly female ones) but also to the rest of society. Next year, she will open a mosque in Berlin.

This week’s blog post is dedicated to the sisters in Islam: the women like Ratna, like Seyran, who despite the rise in extremism, don’t give up on their faith, and work even harder to understand it and tell us about it.

The interview with Ratna Osman is my first ever interview for the magazine. Of all my articles, it is the one I am most proud of. Read the article in full online, or it is also on p. 44 of the magazine. Below is a short extract to get you started.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sisters in Islam: In search of peace – Gemma Rose learns about Ratna Osman’s journey from extremism to reformism

The first thing I notice about Ratna Osman – the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – is her hijab, or tudung in Malay. It’s not quite a hijab in the traditional sense where only her face is left uncovered. Rather, her hair is covered in a wrap leaving her whole neck visible. Ratna has worn the headscarf since the age of 15. “I used to say that once I reach 50, I’ll take it off because then I would be considered an old woman,” she recalls to me, “but now that I’m approaching 50, I still think I’m quite young!” she giggles. Her beaming smile is the second thing I notice. It’s broad, complemented by dimples, on a face that exhibits much warmth and hospitality. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it off,” she reflects. “It’s become part of my identity.”

The headscarf remains a controversial issue in Muslim majority Malaysia, where it is not compulsory. In her youth, Ratna felt ostracized from her peers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for covering her hair. “I was part of a small minority wearing it at that time,” she explained. “I was laughed at, jeered at, made uncomfortable. A teacher told me to take it off because it was an obstruction. Most of my close friends stayed away from me. It was quite a lonely world,” she says. “Now, it’s the other way around.” She refers to cases where Muslim girls at school have been harassed for exposing their hair. “And I feel for those who are not covered. They have the right to dress as they are because I believe in the freedom of choice, and that nobody needs to dictate to another human being. Only God can do that.”

Read more…

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Ratna Osman’s beaming smile. Photo from Malaysia Tatler magazine.

 

Living room Legend: Marcia Clark

“I could feel justice being subverted long before we started picking a jury. I could feel the trial turning into a circus.”

– Marcia Clark

One of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a while on the blog is write a short hommage to the people who have really impressed me: dead or alive, real or fictional. There has been something so extraordinary about who they are, what they have done, or even the circumstances that have happened to them, that they are worthy of being a “legend” in my eyes.  One definition of ‘legend’ in the urban dictionary is this: “A legend is someone or something whose coolness extends beyond all space and time”. I’ll go with that.

This month’s living room legend is Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor of what was considered the trial of the 20th century, the People of the State of California v O.J. Simpson. Twenty years later, the trial has been serialised into ten episodes, The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Marcia Clark is portrayed excellently by Sarah Paulson. As an aside, there were many notable actors in this series including Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown and John Travolta (!).

Marcia Clark was relentlessly criticised during the trial. If it wasn’t her perm, then it was her dress sense (she wore sombre, straigh-cut suits), or the fact that she seemed to come across as a bitch in the court room. Her private life was laid open to bare: old pictures of her being topless on the beach re-surfaced, her custody battle with her ex-husband. She faced sexism in the court: Johnny Cochrane quipped about the fact that she could not stay late in court because of child care. I recommend you read this good New York magazine article which encapsulates the mockery, sexism, misogyny, retorts she endured not just in the press, but in court too.

Yet, she carried on. She worked hard on the case to persuade the jury that it was the overwhelming evidence that mattered, not the racism of the LAPD. In the series, after the verdict was given, Gil Carcetti, the District Attorney, tells Marcia how much he admired her. She fought with integrity, even when the defence  were pulling every trick in the book to undermine her professionally and personally.

Gil Carcetti stated that the no guilty verdict was based on emotion, not reason. Unfortunately, in the heated aftermath of the Rodney King riots, African Americans in Los Angeles were still reeling from police racism and brutality. Only from the distance of twenty years does one realise that this case wasn’t really about the murders of two people, it was about the fallout of America’s ugly and complicated history with race.

For Marcia, not only did she have this to struggle with, but also the sexism thrown at her. Seeing the blatant misogyny twenty years later is shamefully laughable. The New York magazine article highlights the time of the 80s and 90s where feminism was on pause, that calling oneself a feminist was viewed negatively. With no internet, no social media, the tabloids ruled and columnists, newscasters, and chatshow hosts could ridicule and criticise and the public would just swallow it. Unlike today, there was very little room for dissent, or for female solidarity.

Things appeared to have moved on a bit since then. Being chastised for child care, or labelled as “hysterical” or a bitch for doing your job would be unacceptable in the workplace today. Yet, it still saddens me when a female news anchor’s flowing locks garner more attention than the actual news, as happened to Anne Claire Coudray on French telly, or when female newsreaders or presenters are dropped from their shows for being too old.

Looks like gender equality has a long way to go and Marcia Clark bore the brunt of sexism. But she was committed to her job and fought the good fight. For this, Marcia Clark, you are a living room legend.

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Photo from The Guardian.

Late bloomers

“The fashion in recent times has been for the young to hold centre stage as if they were the only important form of human being.”
– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

For the February 2015 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about “Late Bloomers”.

I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer. My love of writing, reading and philosophy only came to me later in life. I certainly recall hating reading as a child and the only writing I enjoyed was doodling a few poems here and there on the back cover of my exercise books. As for philosophy, well that involved reading so enough said. I did, however, have an inquisitive mind.

I was (and am) particularly struck by very talented people who also happen to be very young. Unfortunately, it is more out of envy rather than awe or admiration. To appease my jealousy and reassure me that it’s ok to be one, I embarked upon a quest to discover late bloomers. I learnt about many a late bloomer, some to my surprise and perhaps to yours.

Although it’s wonderful to marvel at the great, late bloomers, we should just as well welcome the lesser known ones: those who flourished in adversity; or those that found joy in finally finding something they enjoy doing and became good at, e.g. cooking, aromatherapy, mentoring, DIY.

Here’s a short excerpt to entice you with the link to the magazine. It’s on page 29 of the magazine (p. 15 of the Pdf). Alternatively you can read a shortened online version. But to get a good sense of what I’m talking about, read the full magazine version.

Enjoy and do leave me a comment. Are you a late bloomer? I would love to hear from you.

Late bloomers : Gemma Rose writes in praise of those whose talent bloomed later in life

At last year’s TEDxBrussels, I was particularly struck by one of the speakers, Lina Colucci, who spoke about health hackathons. Health hackathons bring together specialists from different disciplines as well as consumer groups to respond innovatively to medical problems. At the age of 16, Lina began redesigning the ballet shoe so as to limit the pain and deformity done to the ballerina’s foot. This award-winning idea led her towards collaborating with Nike in updating the pointe shoe. Currently, she is a PhD student on a joint MIT and Harvard programme, dances ballet with the Harvard Ballet company and is an accomplished clarinetist. Judging by her CV and her appearance, she could not have been any older than 25.

Society tends to place a lot of value on youth. We often hear of the meteoric rise of actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs and inspirational leaders in their twenties, sometimes even in their teens. Forbes magazine does an annual “30 under 30” with movers and shakers in several domains including law and policy, education, entertainment and social entrepreneurship. This phenomenon is nothing new. Some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and scientists were so notable in part due to their youth – Picasso became well-known at 26, Mozart at 21, Orson Welles at 25 and Einstein at 26.

Read more… (pp. 15 – 16 on the Pdf)

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Gardanne (1885 – 86) by Paul Cézanne, a late bloomer.

References

Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker

Interview with Uncle Yee, Lite FM

The Meaning of Things, A.C. Grayling

Why we should all hack medicine, Lina Colucci, Tedx Brussels 2014

It’s not too late to make a difference, Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, Tedx Brussels 2014