by Yasmin Ali
Yasmin Ahmed recently graduated with first class honours in Law from the University of Hull and is now working as a journalist at BBC World Service. She also has a scholarship to read Public Policy at the University of Oxford, starting in September where David Cameron will be one of her lecturers. I spoke to her about her groundbreaking work, and her journey of where she is today…
You’re only 22 yet you have a lot of experience writing about politics and working with different political organisations. How old were you when you became politically aware and what enlightened you?
From the moment I started university I joined many societies, two of them being Amnesty International and Friends of Palestine. I was exposed to how politics affects ordinary people’s lives. Before university I was living with my family, and I essentially lived in a safe bubble but as soon as you leave home, you go through different experiences, you meet people from different backgrounds and you begin to realise how important politics is.
Was that new insight what inspired you to you start writing?
I started writing in my first year of university. I was living in student halls with my twin and we experienced verbal and physical racism. After an incident we both encountered, I started a personal blog. I was mainly writing about politics. I then started pitching to different news outlets and started writing for the Huffington Post, The Independent and The Guardian.
As well as UK politics, Yasmin is interested in Somali politics and culture. Her most recent radio piece, ‘Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa’, focuses on the revival of Somali music and has already had over 300,000 hits. Building a better future for Somalia is something that she is incredibly passionate about.
Somalia is going through a momentous period. But it is a challenging one. From the government to the media, corruption is widespread. Corruption has almost become a culture. Last summer I was working at the Federal Government of Somalia. It was a great experience being exposed to policy-making and governance. But I’ve seen how the institutions are lacking- they’re not functioning effectively or efficiently. This is why upon my return, I decided that I desperately want to do something to play a part. I believe that the diaspora can help form a better Somalia. We can help as a collective and I think that it’s our duty to be part of that transformative journey. It is my ultimate dream to help Somalia.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility?
Yes, as a Somali, it is my duty. If you want to help Somalia, you must have the right skills. Right now, I think the focus should be on healthcare and education. Somalia needs skilled workers and also policy-makers in these sectors.
How have your multifaceted experiences in your personal life and in terms of work shaped your identity?
I think you become more self-aware, especially when you’re wearing a headscarf and you’re black. Identity plays a huge role in a Black Muslim woman’s life. Our identities are politicised in the media and so our experiences at work would reflect that. Sometimes, a colleague may say something inappropriate or insensitive and it reinforces this idea that you’re different. In recent years the Muslim identity has been politicised. Being black is a struggle in itself, but the first thing a person sees is my hijab so I feel that any type of discrimination most likely relates to it. I think most ‘hijabi’s’ would agree.
The Muslim identity has been politicised with Muslims often being stigmatised or referred to as ‘the other’. Has this made you struggle with your identity in any way?
I’ve never struggled with it but I have seen how difficult it is to live in a society where your community is constantly demonized and stereotyped. It was quite difficult growing up with friends who’d make inappropriate remarks. Sometimes they didn’t realise they were making hurtful comments because of the normalisation of certain rhetoric in our society. Having to constantly educate people can be annoying sometimes because you then start to question if they are being naive, ignorant or simply racist.
How do you break those barriers and educate those types of people then? As you said it can be annoying so some people tend to just leave them to their ignorance.
I think that’s the worst thing to do. I think you should engage with them. I’m not saying that you should be complicit with racism and racists but try to educate them and engage in dialogue. If they continue making ignorant comments, just remove them from your life. Control, Alt and delete (laughs). But it also comes down to representation. You have to take action because representation doesn’t occur if you don’t do anything or if you’re not politically active. It’s important that people of colour and women take up powerful roles. We are the next generation and we need to empower one another.