The first thing you notice about Ahlam Akram is her energy and determination. As a young girl, those qualities helped her fight for her own dreams. Today her focus is on breaking down barriers that prevent women from achieving their goals or force them to live in the shadows.
Born in Nablus, Palestine, she set her sights on going to university: “During high school I used to lock myself in my room to detach myself from my brothers and sisters and sit and study,” she recalled. Her businessman father didn’t understand her ambitions as it was not the norm at that time for a young woman of her background. Money wasn’t the issue — just custom and social pressure. Her mother felt powerless to intervene. But Akram persevered — even going on a hunger strike to drive home her message.
Her tactic worked and full of high hopes she set off to study Economics and Political Science at Alexandria University in Egypt. “I thought I would be the first female ambassador for my country — somehow I couldn’t see the restrictions in those days,” she said.
Upon graduating she realised that it wasn’t going to be all plain sailing to her goals. Her father didn’t want her to work but she left for Kuwait and had to start with a secretarial job. She was by her own admission a useless secretary — hated every minute of it and bossed everyone about. She also had to repel the advances of a boss. She didn’t hesitate to tell him precisely what she thought of him and that was the end of her first foray into the world of work.
She then moved into the accounts department of a major Kuwaiti oil company, a career that didn’t fire her imagination but gave her what she longed for and what she feels strongly about — financial independence and with that a sense of freedom and control over her life. “Even now at this age I have a fear of not having financial independence. It is haunting. In a culture where you are born to believe that you are supported by everybody, nobody comes to your rescue financially if you fall into a deep pit,” she said.
Though the job gave her the independence she craved, she was only too well aware of the pecking order that existed within the company with regard to pay. “That was the first time I found discrimination with regard to salaries. The highest paid were the Americans, British and other Europeans, then Kuwaitis, then other Arabs, and finally, Indians and Pakistanis — all doing the same jobs but on different pay scales. It was discrimination. Even if there was some justification at that time to make some adjustment for the superior Western education, the gap was still too big,” Akram said.
Despite such frustrations, she valued the opportunity to work. “I think moving away from the family and achieving financial independence formed a lot of my personality,” she said.
However, her family still exerted its influence. Upon meeting her future husband she had to resort to another hunger strike to convince her traumatised parents that her marriage to the British-Pakistani businessman was the right step. Once again she succeeded, but she credits her husband with showing great maturity and patience at this trying time by insisting that their wedding take place in her hometown with the consent of her parents. “I was eager to escape the family chains but he insisted on doing everything in the proper and traditional way,” she recalled. The young couple made London their home base and for Akram raising a family and supporting her husband in his business took priority for a while. However, her social conscience and longstanding passion for human rights motivated her to take action.
As a Palestinian it was natural that she took a keen interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But her involvement does not revolve around criticising the Jewish side but rather in making an effort to create mutual understanding. She has been labelled a Jewish sympathiser and traitor to the Palestinian cause but she is adamant that the only way forward is engagement, mutual respect and compassion.
She works with Jewish organisations and has spoken for Palestine at many conferences and workshops. She has equal compassion for both peoples, believing it is necessary to acknowledge what the Jewish people have suffered in the past even while holding the Israeli government to account for the nakba — the displacement, dispossession and dispersal — it is inflicting on the Palestinian people. “I want to see a reconciliation based on the recognition of our mutual pain,” Akram said.
As well as joining in the calls for a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, she is involved with her organisation, Basira (British Arabs Supporting Integration, Recognition and Awareness), whose aim is to highlight through film the injustices suffered by women, particularly in the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) region. She is clearly troubled by signs of a repressive environment for women in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. She feels the violent assaults on women in Cairo and the emergence of a highly conservative agenda are indicators of what could evolve into an Arab Winter for women. She cautions that religious extremists on both sides are a threat to any hopes of reconciliation or establishment of an equitable society. “Laws which violate the rights of women are not going to lead to a healthy society but a society full of bitterness,” she warned.
She has been representing Basira at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN headquarters in New York this month.
Women, she believes, must be strong and stand up for their rights. She has little patience for those who waste their energies on countering an imaginary enemy — “the West” — rather than working to heal their own societies. “The West is not anti anyone. It is pursuing its own interests and we have to accept this fact — we can’t live in isolation, we must communicate. We need to understand that for a truly secure world we have to keep the interests of all in our hearts,” she said.
Living in London and travelling frequently helps Akram preserve her objectivity. With regard to Britain, she feels the country is taking a risk in allowing its unique heritage to be eroded from within. While she appreciates the freedom of self-expression and respect for civil liberties, she thinks the government is making a big mistake in allowing a two-tier society to take root. “Allowing immigrants to enter the country without giving them any understanding of British culture and legal system is a mistake. You have these communities living in isolated pockets within Britain, which is unhealthy for everyone,” she said.
“By allowing Islamic courts, the British government is trying to appease the Muslims in much the same way as they have tried to appease the Jews by allowing Jewish courts. But I want to live under one rule. I want just one legal system, but this government is creating a parallel system which in many ways contradicts what this country stands for,” she added, while emphasising that she is proud of her Muslim background and faith “which I will never sacrifice”.
Above all she sees education and job creation as the surest means of building just societies with opportunities for all, regardless of faith, gender or race.
Denise Marray is an independent writer based in London.