By Karima Rhanem | Morocco TIMES 7/4/2005 | 4:36 pm
London -- As a grassroots and community organisation operating in the UK for 20 years, Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women's Centre is the only centre of its kind in London, serving specifically the needs of Moroccan and Arabic-speaking women...
... It addresses the inequalities in access to mainstream services including health, housing, welfare, and education. Zakia Chentouf, the NGO's centre manager discusses in an interview with Morocco Times , the major problems and challenges facing Moroccan women in the UK.
Tell us about your experience in Al-Hasaniya?
Al-Hasaniya is a registered charity in the UK in North Kensington in London. It was set up by Moroccan women for Moroccan women in 1985, to address the inequalities in access to mainstream services, including education, hospitals, housing agencies... Since its inception the centre has grown from a modest office with one paid member of staff to an organisation housing five paid staff members, six volunteers and 14 successfully run projects.
My involvement with Al-Hasaniya began on a voluntary basis in 2001. Being a young second generation Arab, I was aware of some of the difficulties faced by the Moroccan and Arabic-speaking community, in particular women, and was keen to become part of the team which was working hard to put these issues into the limelight and bring about constructive change. In Jan. 2003, I became the Centre manager. Since then, I have been striving to ensure that the foundations put in place by my predecessors are built upon and we continue to serve the needs of Moroccan and Arabic speaking women.
We have attended international conferences on women's issues, conducted studies on educational under-achievement of Moroccan children in the UK, participated in researches on medicinal herbs, written articles, appeared on international TV stations, won awards for the best run voluntary organisation, and compiled videos on mental health for the benefit of health professionals. Our passion however remains with helping and assisting individual clients seeking our help and support, following our initial ethos.
What are the major activities of Al-Hasaniya?
We currently operate 14 different projects/activities. These include a domestic violence project, elderly outreach project, children and families mental health project, health and advocacy project, Moroccan garden project, youth project, English classes for adults, Arabic classes for children, and much more. Within each of these projects we provide information and advice to our users on a variety of topics, such as immigration law, welfare benefits, housing law, helping them to access health services, such as GPs and hospitals and any issues that they may have.
Over the last two years, Al-Hasaniya has taken part in different consultations and events that have allowed us to advocate on behalf of our users and to make sure that their needs are identified and met. Language and cultural barriers can restrict women from fighting for their rights. However recent changes in the Moroccan Family Law have proved that with determination and commitment, change can be made.
What are the strengths and challenges of your organisation?
Al-Hasaniya is the only centre of its kind in London serving specifically the needs of Moroccan women. Working in the community for the last 20 years has given us the opportunity to build a strong foundation of trust that allows women to feel comfortable to come and see us with no fear of repercussions or judgement of any kind. We offer a confidential service and have the cultural and religious sensitivity and understanding to deal with issues that are a taboo in the community, such as domestic violence and mental health issues. The language barriers that many women face when accessing other advice agencies are non-existent, as all staff speak Arabic.
The main challenge we face is the issue of funding. As with all voluntary groups finances are a problem. There is a lot of competition and limited funds for this sector, which means that the day-to-day financial running of the centre remains, and will most probably always remain, a struggle. We rely greatly on the kind and generous contributions of private donors and the commitment of staff and Management Committee members, without which we probably wouldn't be here today.
Another challenge we face is that of ignorance and a lack of understanding about the work that we do. We have been accused in the past of breaking up marriages and of encouraging women to leave their husbands, when in fact all that we do is make Moroccan women aware of their rights and give them the choice as human beings to seek support if they need to. I guess this is a view that will always be around as sadly there are many closed-minded people in our community. All we can do is continue to support Moroccan women and work even harder to provide them with the support services they need to improve their quality of life in any way they choose.
Could you tell us what are the major problems facing Moroccan women, and how do you deal with each case?
Major problems facing Moroccan women in the UK are similar to those facing Moroccan women all over the world. The first generation came to the UK to work for a few years, save enough money to build a house and start up a small business and go home. They didn't count on a few years turning into 30+ years, settling down, having children, and becoming “British”. I think this is something that many people still haven't come to terms with. Mentally, they're stuck in Morocco of the 70s, too scared to let go of their roots, culture and traditions. They need to bring up their children as “Moroccans and Muslims” and not let western values overcome them, but by holding on so dearly to the memories of the Morocco they left behind in their teens, they haven't been able to fully participate in life in the UK and achieve their full potential. This makes them alienated not only from the community they live in but also from Morocco, as Moroccan society has moved on.
.... Exactly, especially as women, with a language handicap, have struggled a lot to raise their children in a different culture, and endured abuses from their husbands?
Yes, and women in particular take the brunt of this. The majority were married off to young men either in “Kharij” or going there soon. They were taken from what they knew to be home to a totally foreign country, where they couldn't speak the language, had the responsibility of a husband and in many cases young children, and, on top of all of this, had to work for a living in manual jobs such as cleaners and chambermaids.
In fact some of them were the main breadwinners. Sadly, many of these marriages ended in divorce, but other women endured abuse and just got on with it for fear of what other people would say. All their years of hard work were lost, as in many cases the husbands took all the property that they had both worked equally for and the law at that time allowed them to do so. We have had cases of men refusing to divorce their wives; others have been divorced without knowledge or consent, both equally distressing and destroying.
Issues regarding children are very much prevalent amongst the women we deal with. Bringing up children in the UK has proved to be problematic and sadly many of our youngsters are involved in anti-social behaviour, drugs and petty crime. A lack of understanding of the educational system, for example, has excluded Moroccan mothers from being able to participate in their children's education and provide the necessary support, thus resulting in young people dropping out of school. I am in no way generalising or laying the blame at the door of mothers, as fathers need to take responsibility too. However it's well known in our culture that mothers form the basis and foundations of a Moroccan family.
I heard that domestic violence is prevalent in the Moroccan community, is that true?
Yes, unfortunately domestic violence is still very much common in our community. Although we deny it and say it doesn't exist, we have lots of cases of women being physically, verbally abused by their partners, not being financially supported... Recently we have noticed an increase in domestic violence cases. Marriage-migration is proving to be a particularly sensitive area, as many of these women marry, come to the UK and find the promise of a better life a total lie; they are abused and kicked out of their homes. Due to the nature of their entry to the UK and the fact that their spouse has sponsored the application, once that support is withdrawn they find themselves with nowhere to go, no money and no chance of regularising their stay in the UK. Al-Hasaniya can offer them the help they need to rebuild their lives with in-house expertise, including a qualified senior caseworker, a health and advocacy worker and a trainee solicitor.
Coupled with many years work in the community, we have built a strong network of legal assistance and are able to advise and support women on the steps they need to take. In addition the centre offers a relaxed and safe place to go where they can meet other women in a similar situation.
The above are just examples of some of the issues we come across. Each case is dealt with differently, depending on what support the woman needs and more importantly what result she wants to achieve. We work in partnership with a variety of agencies that also offer assistance, such as solicitors, local police stations, and other advice agencies. However we remain as the main support system for women until their issue is fully resolved. Language barriers still impede the ability of women to access services and help in this area is very much needed.
Al-Hasaniya has become a centre for all Arab women in London, but especially in Kensington. What kind of problems do they have and why did they choose Al-Hasaniya, don't they have similar centres in their area?
Since its inception, Al-Hasaniya has always welcomed non-Moroccans, but due to the locality we are in, the majority of users remained Moroccan. However the unfortunate events over the years has resulted in an influx of refugees into the UK. As a result, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, where we are based, has seen a steady increase in the Arab population. These families brought with them a variety of problems: some similar to the already settled migrant communities such as the Moroccan and Egyptian; others different such as torture, fleeing persecution. As back as 1985, Al-Hasaniya felt the need to address the issues and offer support to these women. They too needed support with social problems, such as accessing benefits, housing, and schools for their children. There are other centres in the UK for Arabic speakers, but none that address issues specifically for women and none that offer the all round service that we do. You could come to Al-Hasaniya for help with completing a form, attend a health workshop, have lunch, and meet women in similar positions that speak your language all in the same day.
Does this mean that Al-Hasaniya has become the spokesperson for the Arab women in the UK in terms of dealing with their problems?
Yes, it would be fair to say that we are the leading Arab women's organisation of this nature that actually deals with women's problems and offers them solutions. We offer a real service for real problems, we don't judge women, nor do we discriminate on the grounds of faith. As mentioned before we have participated at international levels in conference about women's issues, undertaken research about the community, and more importantly I think, supported women at a grassroots level by giving them the opportunity to better their quality of life by improving their skills, getting access to information that would be otherwise inaccessible because of language barriers and so on.
You know that the new family code was a landmark change in Morocco and a model in the Arab world. Do you have programmes designed for Moroccan women in the UK to raise awareness of the new Moudawana?
We are fully aware of the new Family Code and the significance it has in the Arab world. Al-Hasaniya's modest but significant contribution to the “International Conference for Moroccan Women's Rights”, held in Casablanca in October 2003, gave us the chance to work with other women's groups from all over Europe, campaigning for the success and advancement of women's rights. Our small but dedicated team are in the process of working to translate the new Code for the benefit of women living in the UK that don't read Arabic or French. In the meantime we are on hand to explain any of the changes and we receive many calls from women wanting to know how these changes will affect them.
You have recently created AMWA, could you tell us briefly about it?
The Anglo-Moroccan Women's Alliance (AMWA) is an affiliated organisation of Al-Hasaniya set up to take forward the cause of Moroccan women in the UK. This organisation will focus specifically on policy-making issues relating to all aspects of and work with other women's groups to try to bring about long-term effective change. Al-Hasaniya will continue to offer the grassroots level support whilst AMWA will focus on campaigning and lobbying on behalf of Moroccan women in the UK. Working with other NGOs in Europe and in Morocco, we plan to fully participate in all areas of policy- making that relate to the migrant communities, with a particular focus on women. We feel that the Moroccan government has a huge practical role to play in this and they should be working with us.
I have noticed that Al-Hassaniya's programmes focus more on health issues, why?
Al-Hasaniya's ethos was built on bettering access to mainstream services for Moroccan women. Improving a Moroccan woman's quality of life includes making her aware of health services and helping to access them. Before Al-Hasaniya was set up you would have a Moroccan woman going to her GP and taking her young son with her to interpret for her. This was wrong for two reasons. Firstly that meant the child usually had to miss school, secondly he would be asked to translate inappropriate questions for his mother, such as when was your last period? Or do you use contraception? With this in mind, Al-Hasaniya decided to focus on better access to health services, working with interpreting agencies to provide the necessary language. Indeed Al-Hasaniya was very instrumental in setting up GRIP languages service, a free interpreting service available for women when going to the doctor, or hospital. Equally we feel it is important to keep women informed of health issues for their own well-being. We run regular health sessions on a variety of topics, such as breast and cervical cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, sexual health, contraception, depression and much more. Moroccan and Arab women cannot access this information easily elsewhere, because of language and cultural barriers.
What future projects are you working on?
We are currently working on building a Moroccan garden in the Golborne road area in North Kensington to pay tribute to the growing Moroccan families who have lived in the area for the past four decades.
We are also working on a Youth Project. We are now focusing on youth over the coming years as they are in dire need of support. Under-achievement, unemployment and anti- social behaviour are very much prevalent in the community. However there are successes and we will be setting up a counselling project that will allow disadvantaged young people to be supported by those who have been more successful. In 1999, We conducted a research in conjunction with the University of East London entitled “Raising educational achievement amongst Arabic-speaking children”. We would like to follow on from this research in the near future and this will be a big part of our youth project over the coming years.