We interview Zareen Taj about her Palestine activism in Cambridge, including her participation in Women in Black.
Do you want to introduce yourself and what sort of campaigning you’re involved in in the Cambridge area?
As an anti-racist and anti-war activist I have been organising stalls and protests in Cambridge since I relocated here with my family in 2014. As a resident I have worked closely with locals and the student communities to raise the profiles of campaigns over the years including Youth Strikes for Climate and COP26 protests. In particular I have been invited as the main Stop the War organiser in town to student meetings and protests.
In a practical way, ‘townies’ (which is what people who live in the town who aren’t related to the universities are called here) can help source PA systems and get supporters to a protest. But more than that, through our town-based groups we provide continuity for the student groups, who obviously change membership as people graduate and leave the city. In particular, PalSoc, Defend Education and Demilitarise Cambridge have been student groups we have been able to work closely with over the years.
You’ve recently held some protests with a group called Women In Black – what do you do and what are your aims?
In 2018 I was organising a vigil in solidarity with our Jewish community after the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue. I organised a speaker from our local synagogue and card signing. The local Women in Black (WiB) group got in touch and mentioned that they would have their vigil around the same time. I said I would join their vigil and then chair our speakers for the Pittsburgh vigil. This proved successful and made an impact on passers by.
The WiB vigils are silent. All participants dress in black and hold placards with anti-war messages. Just three or more women are effective in turning shoppers’ heads and making parents pause with their children to explain the slogans on the placards.
One of the women who set up the Cambridge chapter of WiB came up to me at the Pittsburgh vigil and explained that she was an Israeli Jew who stood with WiB in solidarity with Palestinian women and she was touched that I, a Muslim woman, was now organising a vigil in solidarity with Jews in Pittsburgh. This was an important moment for us as we realised that despite all the divisive hate-spewing disinformation, we were able to come together with messages for peace through action.
Have you had any recent protests with Women In Black that you want to share?
I stood with Cambridge WiB from then on. We assemble in Market Square from 12 to 1pm regardless of weather. By 2022 I had become the coordinator of our group. We were standing in the cold on Saturday 1 January connected by the COP26 Umbilical Cord, a project created by local artists and members of the public. The cord was crafted by local artists Jill Eastland and Cathy Dunbar with groups of mostly women and non-binary people from all walks of life, including women who have been homeless and women who have experienced abuse.
In March we were joined by a Romanian trans woman whose family had been traumatised by the Russian invasion. By welcoming her and her friends to our vigil we could have the conversation to examine the motives of Western governments and NATO, and particularly to challenge our own government’s role in warmongering, greed, land-grabbing and neo-colonialism.
We have been joined by men too who also feel the power of a silent vigil, grabbing the attention of those normally distracted by the power of consumerism.
WiB do have anti-war messages, but its origins are in standing against the oppression of the Palestinian peoples. We always try to have placards reflecting this and these can cause adverse reactions.
For example, a placard reading ‘End Occupation of Palestine by Israel | End Occupation of Ukraine by Russia’ caused much consternation with a group of young adults. They were incensed that Israel was being criticised. We were approached but we cannot speak, so they turned on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) stall next to us. One of the group knocked the PSC stall stickers and leaflets onto the ground. I went and stood between him and the stall with my WiB placard that had angered them.
Since I did not speak he was nonplussed and didn’t know what to do. The rest of the group were apologetic and helped tidy the mess he made. They left accusing WiB and the PSC stall of being “terrorist sympathisers”.
I do feel that as a visibly Muslim woman I do draw the fire of such people. They will sometimes just stand in front of us ranting. We do not answer, so they feel impotent and have to move on.
Both the raising awareness of some and the wrong-footing of others is a good result. Agitating in public is a good way of getting our message across.
Standing in a line, women from all different backgrounds, in a climate of imminent chaos ensuing through mismanagement of global affairs is empowering. We are ‘voicing’ the point of view that we can actively pursue peace instead of war.
The Palestine movement seems to be quite artistically vibrant at the moment – do you have any art, poetry, film, comedy or music you’d like to recommend?
We maintain close links with the student PalSoc and supported their protest in February against the visit of Israeli ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, a proud supporter of Israeli settler colonialism, and an open advocate of a ‘Greater Israel’.
A short documentary made by a student, Razan Elshazali, shows how the sleepy university town is actually thriving with activists who strive to make a difference and push against the mainstream attitudes
I would definitely recommend organising a screening and Q&A of Fadia’s Tree, filmed by artist Sarah Beddington over 17 years. Since Sarah was not actually an activist or cognisant of the political history she was touching on, her documentary has a gentleness and sensitivity that gives it a wide appeal.
There has been an overlap recently between Palestine organising and islamophobic Prevent surveillance – are you seeing that and how is it affecting the movement? How do we oppose it?
Muslims have been targeted and scapegoated for so many decades that we are now seeing a change in approach by Muslim communities.
At first there was a reluctance to engage in politics in fear of being referred to Prevent as we saw young Muslim men detained without charge or trial. In fact the Muslim community did not understand the extent of the problem. Only as the dots were joined and we saw how arbitrary the victimisation was did many speak out.
A difficulty has arisen where funding from organisations linked to Prevent has proliferated within our communities. Once you take the pay, you must play the tune. Muslim communities desperately need spaces, and such funding seems at first to be providing that. However, the surveillance of the community through such funding seems clear. The topics of events organised are determined by the funders, and information relating to age, gender and postcodes of attendees is gathered. This seems highly problematic and an infringement on our freedoms. The obvious solution to stop taking the funding then also deprives the community of opportunities to tackle social issues. There would be no opportunity to secure funding for Palestinian events, for example. Venues often pull out of hosting political Palestinian events at the last minute. This is very challenging.
Recently we have seen the abuse of so-called surveillance to target Scottish Palestinian doctor, Issam Hijjawi. The case is ongoing even though he has been able to return to his family.
Unfortunately communities and individuals self-police and prefer not to be seen supporting political events for fear of this sort of persecution.
We can only push back against this oppression by uniting. Convivencia is a good example of such an initiative giving agency to people of faith to lead the struggle. We need recognition that people of faith still exist in this day and age. We have always been at the forefront of fighting oppression, during the civil rights movement in US and anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Socialist ideals and faith in a religion are not incompatible.
Do you value direct action as a main tactic for the Palestine movement or do you have other preferences of tactics for making change?
Wherever possible, direct action is the most effective tool for activists to use. We have had a Palestine Action group locally for years and it is good to see it launched as a more prominent group nationally now.
The original Elbit factory protestors are seasoned Cambridge activists who walked away without charges from their first roof occupation of the factory.
Of course this is not something all of us can partake in due to health and social concerns. So some Palestine organisers choose to use inventive, eye-catching interventions to champion causes. Sometimes it is best to concentrate on the message instead of getting numbers to a protest.
For example, Palestinian activists used paper peace cranes with posters around a central location in Cambridge to inform people of the recent attacks on Gaza. It is too easy for such news to go buried under the sensationalism of the popular press, and it is appalling that the parallel with the situation in Ukraine is not made.
Recently quite a few Palestine activists have faced court proceedings for offences like criminal damage following campaigns against weapons producers like Elbit Systems. How is it best to show solidarity?
We need to support protesters with fundraising for legal costs and loss of income. The success of such direct action depends on proper support and organising.
You can donate to Palestine Action’s fundraiser for political prisoners who are being tried for their participation in political actions here. For more information about Women in Black, their website is here.