Inès Seddiki on Social Justice in the French Suburbs

For the first episode of We Belong Podcast, we travelled to France to meet Inès Seddiki, founder of GHETT’UP.

Inès is a young French-Moroccan activist and Corporate Social Responsibility professional living in the suburbs of Paris. In the 1980s, her parents immigrated to France in pursuit of ideals of liberty and equality. However, Inés faced injustice from a very young age, and it motivated her to take action. Since 2016, Ghett’up has impacted more than 2,000 young people in the suburbs of Paris.

In our conversation with Inès, we discussed the importance of owning our story and identities, what it means to grow up in a suburb and how to turn stigma into strength.

Episode available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Anchor, Youtube and at the bottom of this post.

We Belong is the podcast that gives a voice to the New Daughters of Europe. Yasmine Ouirhrane, appointed expert by the European Union and the African Union, hosts this series of conversations with young women who represent the diversity of Europe. She talks to women who are breaking stereotypes, navigating multiple identities, and challenging the conventional wisdom of what it means to belong.

As an advocate for social and gender justice in Europe, Yasmine Ouirhrane was awarded Young European of the Year 2019 by the Schwarzkopf Foundation. She was also named EDD Young Leader by the European Commission and is an expert on Peace & Security at the AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub. She is an award-winning fellow at Women Deliver and a member of the Gender Innovation Agora at UN Women.

The Podcast is produced by Les Cavalcades.

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Seeds of Hate Grow into Tragedy in Poland

Every now and then, a barbaric, senseless tragedy strikes the world. It casts a shadow on our hopes that we, as a species, are progressing. Although such tragedies often seem unexpected, after closer inspection we come to a stark realisation. Evil doesn’t come from nowhere.

In January, such tragedy struck my homeland, Poland.

A liberal politician and Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was killed. He was killed on stage, in front of thousands of spectators. He was participating in a charity event raising funds for children’s medical equipment.

The perpetrator was shouting words of hate towards Mr. Adamowicz’s political party. Despite this, the mainstream Polish media proclaimed that this was not a politically motivated or hate-driven murder. Instead, they focused on the fact that the perpetrator was mentally ill and had criminal history.

I disagree. This murder was driven by hateful political speech and committed because of hate.

This was a crime of hate against Mr. Adamowicz’s party, against his liberal ideology, against his support for LGBT movement, women’s rights and refugees, and against his calls for freedom and compassion. Not calling it by its name trivializes the crime itself, and also the deeply rooted causes. These causes are shaking not only Poland, but many other parts of the world, too.

We must face the fact that none of the the tragedies we’ve seen in the world would have taken place if it weren’t for small – and at first sight insignificant – seeds of hate. Seeds that are planted in our everyday lives. Seeds that we ignore and forget, because of comfort, or because we want to get through a day without confrontation.

Yes, this individual might have had predispositions to commit a crime, perhaps even such a violent one. But it’s the seeds of increasingly institutionalized hate and discrimination – as well as the silent approval of aggression and violent speech from the government, media and society – which are the real, terrifying causes.

Seeds have fallen on fertile ground, and bloomed into hate so tangible it can take lives, whether in Gdansk, London or Christchurch.

As a white European woman, I am privileged. I am rarely a victim of hate, racial discrimination or morphed prejudice that turns violent. But it is my duty to stand up to racism, hate and bigotry precisely because of this privilege. It’s a duty that, too often, I forgo. Whether out of tiredness, fear or pure ignorance, the reason is irrelevant. I am guilty nevertheless. But enough is enough.

Seeds of hate are sprouting in our own garden. We must stop them now before they grow into something unstoppable.

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Young People Living with HIV/AIDS: the Y+ Summit

“People who work hard to fight HIV stigma inspire me, so I also want to join the fight. Stigma and discrimination are real but I’m able to cope because of peer support, counselors and doctors. I take my medication without thinking about it and I have undergone many trainings. I feel empowered.” – Robinah Babirye (22, 3rd year student at Kyambogo University)

HIV is a boogie man we have been taught to hate and fear. This is the reason that young people who are infected with this virus can feel like they have been handed a death sentence. It raises many difficult questions for them, like who will love them and how they will find happiness post HIV infection?

There is a cyclical relationship between stigma and HIV: people who experience stigma and discrimination are marginalised and made more vulnerable to HIV, while those living with HIV are more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination.

One of the ways we engage young people is through summits at which we can hold deep discussions about what these young people are facing. The HIV epidemic is one of the biggest challenges young people face today – over 500 girls are infected every week in Uganda.

The Y+ Summit, organised by the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA), took place from 18-20 March 2018. The Y+ Summit is an innovative, youth-centered approach that aims to put young people at the forefront of fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It provides young people living with HIV/AIDS with information on how to empower themselves economically, as well on how to live life post HIV/AIDS infection to the fullest.

Young people are a key population, which means that the social, political and economic trends of communities are directly attached to them. If young people are healthy, informed and empowered, their communities stand to benefit and develop. Poor health makes young people, and therefore wider society, less productive. Uganda is also a particularly young nation, with young people making up more than 70% of the total population.

Last month’s Y+ Summit was all-inclusive, keeping over 200 participants engaged over three days. From bold and fearless panel talks to extensive focus group discussions, positive living was made understandable to all. Many topics were discussed, including taking medication consistently, new trends in treatment, curbing new infections and discordance. There were even explanations of HIV and the law in Uganda, which the reigning Miss Y+ Gloria Nawanyaga explained in terms of the 90-90-90 strategy:

“Any intentional infection of another with HIV is criminal and punishable by law. This is in no way meant to marginalise anyone living with HIV, but it is a way for us to live positively and a guide for deterring any new infections,” she said.

Participants at the Y+ Summit. Photo credit: Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV

The Summit attracted speakers from religious, cultural, legal and entertainment sectors, who each talked about positive living in their spheres. For us, the most memorable was Canon Gideon Mugisha, a clergy who has lived positively for 17 years. He was keen to remind the attendees of the coexistence between religion and medication: “We all know that God helps those that help themselves. If you find that you are positive, you need to pray for God’s protection but you also need to take your medication. Personally, I pray to God like there is no medicine, and I take my medication like there is no God.” 

Another panelist was Wilson Bugembe, a musician and pastor who shared his story of living with HIV positive siblings even when he himself was negative. Other speakers included Dr Karusa Kiragu, the UNAIDS Uganda Country Director and Hon Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, the Ugandan Minister for Youth and Children’s Affairs.

Rio Babirye, a Communications Officer with UNYPA, told us that she was happy that the summit had promised more creativity to redefine the lives of those living positively in Uganda:

“This year’s turn up was greater than last year’s and it was a more productive summit. It is our dream to end stigma and discrimination against HIV, and we shall keep refreshing our young minds to come up with ideas to do so,” she said.

Here’s the Good News About that Google Memo

Google’s now-infamous memo has both women and men up in arms about tech’s attitude towards women overall. The memo (not authorized by the company itself, but written by an employee and then circulated) suggests that women may be inherently less suited to the company’s workplace by virtue of their gender alone, and advocates stemming certain processes aimed towards diversity in recruiting.

(Note: the memo itself is not implicitly anti-diversity in its philosophy, as explained by The Atlantic. Nonetheless, it questions current initiatives to recruit across the board, and challenges attitudes towards promoting diversity in the workplace. Read the full memo here.)

The problematic ideas in this memo aren’t symptomatic of a new problem. There are countless examples of sexism and a penchant for the status quo that have emerged throughout the years, then disappeared in the fast-paced and unforgiving nature of the tech industry. In 2014, reporter 

Nonetheless, it is very easy to get upset about Google’s Diversity Memo. Google is a cultural cornerstone as well as a tech behemoth. For a company that is known as the good guy of the internet, to e-mail sexism directly to its employees’ inboxes seems a new level of egregious.

All over, news outlets are decrying the fact that winds of change have not yet hit Silicon Valley; but they’re missing an important development.

It used to be okay to say women weren’t as good at tech. It used to be okay to say they might be happier raising children, not rewriting code. The explosion on twitter, media outlets jumping over the story and the launch of 100 thinkpieces all sent the very clear message that society no longer turns a blind eye to discrimination.

Swift retribution from the company was the most powerful signal: Google fired the employee who wrote the memo. In the last few years, other companies have responded in kind to their own controversies. Uber fell over itself trying to reform its ‘toxic culture’ after a former employee wrote a blog post about the treatment she endured while working there. The co-founder of 500 Startups was asked to resign after investigations into sexual harassment (which he himself later admitted). Employees resigned and investors threatened to pull funding from Binary capital after six women accused the co-founder of harassment.

Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, conceded that employees should have the right to express their feelings but nonetheless found the memo too insulting to the company’s female employees. In a heartening message, he defended the subtle discrimination that underlined some of the memo’s assumptions.

“Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being ‘agreeable’ rather than ‘assertive,’ showing a ‘lower stress tolerance,’ or being ‘neurotic’.”

From Google’s chief executive, these are powerful words, and indications of huge steps forward.

As women in the workplace, we’re still climbing a mountain, and a steep one. At moments like these, we have a tendency to look at how far we have left to go. However, it can be heartening to look back and consider, as well, how far we’ve come.

Discrimination Hides in Words

In my 7th grade Spanish class, we were learning about using gendered forms of “they” to describe groups. The lesson, in a nutshell, was that if a group consisted of females, the feminine “ellas” would be used. If the group contained a male, the masculine “ellos” would be used. By this rule, if a room filled with thousands of women contained just one man, the masculine form would have to be utilized. I just couldn’t comprehend why 1,000,000 women would be labeled differently because of one man.  So, I asked my teacher – who usually answered questions with a comprehensive explanation – only to receive the answer: “that’s just how it is”.

Although this was not my first time recognizing sexism embedded in language, it was the first time I was able to label it as such. At age 6, I found it peculiar that “mankind” referred to all genders, and by middle school I was simply annoyed when told to “man the fundraising booth” or worse, to “man up”. By the time I took linguistic psychology and studied more foreign languages, I was able to comfortably brand these common and seemingly hidden biases within a multitude of tongues as sexist language.

Sexist language is defined as language that excludes a sex or suggests the superiority of one sex over the other. In English, instances include using “he” as a generic pronoun, using man as a verb, gendering professions and titles, marking, stereotyping, and attaching unrequired suffixes. Similar examples can be found in languages from Swahili to Korean, and even in languages without masculine or feminine pronouns. Such discrepancies can negatively impact all sexes and both reflect and project oversimplified images for us to follow.

What we say and hear has a deep impact on us, which is why using gender-inclusive and neutral language is so important. When we speak with generic masculine pronouns or use adjectives considered more masculine or feminine, we are promoting stereotypes and drawing lines between what a man is expected to be and what a woman is expected to be. This creates a whole host of issues, from unfairly defining what a person is allowed to do, to ignoring the existence of non-binary gender altogether.

Luckily, this issue has a solution that is already beginning to be adopted. Policemen and women are police officers, female doctors are simply doctors, and he/she is commonly used on agreements and forms. Despite these growing efforts to curb language that may be discriminatory towards a certain gender, however, the concept is still prevalent in the majority of languages.

On an individual level we can work to decrease the amount of this we see by using alternative phrases, and being cognizant of our own stereotypes that can lead to the prevalence of this language in the first place.

One of the most important things one can do to take action is to take the issue seriously and try to change preexisting habits little by little while encouraging others to do the same. I’ve witnessed speakers discuss the magnitude of subtly sexist language and receive sniggers from their crowd, read heated dismissal of related posts online, and seen ignorance of the problem in daily conversation. Facing these obstacles and being careful with labels and differentiating words is the first and biggest step, and can result in meaningful improvement.

If I could go back to that one lesson in 7th grade Spanish, I wouldn’t stay silent after my teacher’s hesitant response. Instead of accepting “that’s just how it is”, I can now confidently answer, “but it doesn’t have to be”.

The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg


I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons