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Hijab and Civil War in the House of Lords

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One of the more cheering sights of the past week has been young women in hijab getting excited about politics. Sure, what's been happening in Iran is great, but I'm talking about the House of Lords. On Thursday at lunchtime, in a room overlooking the Thames, there was a gaggle of them, scattered among young men in skull-caps, young men with spiky hair and young women with long, glossy hair bouncing free.

The Iranian morality police would have applauded the "good hijab" of Deqa, Sara, and Alia, young women who, unlike some of the young hussies on the streets of Tehran this week, had not a hair exposed between them. Deqa came to Britain from Somalia in 1998. Her mother has "lots of illnesses" and doesn't work and neither does her father. Deqa, who spent the first half of her life in a war zone, and the second half in what can only be described as poverty, is studying politics and international relations at the University of London's Royal Holloway College. She wants, she told me, to work in international development.

Sara came to Britain from Lebanon in 1990. Her parents, like Deqa's, sought asylum from civil war. Like Deqa's, too, they are unemployed. Sara is studying politics and economics at Goldsmith's College, and the School of Oriental and African Studies. She wants to work in politics in the Middle East. Her sister, Alia, another large-eyed beauty whose perfect features are framed by a severe headscarf, is training to be a lawyer. "Our parents didn't get the chance to complete their education," she explained, "so it was important that we did."

Deqa and Sara were both taking part in "ParliaMentors," a parliamentary mentoring project run by an organization called the Three Faiths Forum. The aim of the Forum is to "build lasting relationships with people of different faiths (and none)," and the aim of the scheme is to help young people of different faiths (and none) understand the political process and take their first baby steps in what Obama might call community organizing. Deqa had helped to organize an interfaith week at University College, London and Royal Holloway, which included a performance by a Muslim-Jewish hip-hop group and a discussion chaired by Labour whip, and their MP mentor, Dawn Butler. Sara had been involved in a project looking at religious education, and its effect on tolerance, in schools.

Another group ran training workshops for young people in "Human Rights Activism," another ran a project aiming to raise awareness about child labour, and another went into a school in Southwark and talked to them, as an MP would say, about their "concerns." Their concerns, it turned out, focused heavily on buses: on the irregularity of the service and the rudeness of the drivers. But then the moaners got a shock. Elected representatives of the class were marched along to see their MP, Simon Hughes. He answered their questions and told them that they could join youth councils and elect a youth mayor. "They were really surprised," said Daniella Shaw Gubbay, the mentoring programme manager, "that there were things they could actually do."

It may not set the world on fire, these nice chats about faith and tolerance, these little workshops, these parliamentary moans. But there's nothing like inviting a panel to speak at an event to make you feel you'd sure as hell better get some people in the hall, and there's nothing like being told to list your complaints to make you work out what they actually are. And there's nothing like a discussion about the intricacies of bus timetables, council tax and the congestion charge to remind you that politics is, boringly, necessarily, constrictingly, but also sometimes gloriously, the art of the possible.

On Tuesday, I interviewed Benjamin Zephaniah, a poet who has written a novel called Refugee Boy, about a child fleeing civil war, not in Somalia or Lebanon, but in Ethiopia, a child, like Deqa and Sara, who buries the horrors of his past by working hard at school. Every few minutes while we talked, we were stopped: by men and women, largely black, largely working class, who had been touched by Zephaniah's poems, touched by his message, touched that he spoke for people who were poor and people who weren't white.

If the British National Party had their way -- two of whose members we have just elected to represent us in Europe -- Deqa and Sara wouldn't be here, and neither would Zephaniah (who, by the way, Mandela asked to meet, and who, at his behest, has worked in some of the grimmest South African townships) and neither would those young men in skull-caps and neither would Dawn Butler. Deqa's parents, and Sara's, had more to worry about than MPs' expenses, and so do all those young women who've been flaunting their "bad hijab" in Iran this week, and so, now, do we. Democracy, as Churchill said, "is the worst form of government, except all the other forms that have been tried" and it's in a bad state, but it's all we've got. Let's make sure our children have it, and use it, too.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/christina-patterson/