The Homegirl Project chatted with Alaa Fawaz on the importance of youth civic engagement and empowering teen voters in the U.K.
interview by Kiana Rezakhanlou
KR: What initially inspired you to join Youth Parliament, and how do you feel your participation in it has impacted your life?
AF: I was 14 when I decided to run for elections, but I never knew it would be the best decision of my life. I was an opinionated young girl who was interested and passionate about many issues within my community especially ones to do with us young people, so I instantly took the opportunity. It was only once I actually joined the Youth Parliament I truly realized that this is what I loved doing! The Youth Parliament has given not just myself, but many other young people a platform to be heard and to make a real difference no matter how small.
I can’t even begin to explain how my participation has impacted my life! I feel that it has opened my eyes to the great extent of issues that young people face on a daily basis, for example, the mental health problems within our generation and subsequent need for the improvement of Mental Health Services. Youth Parliament has inspired me to encourage other young people to get involved in shaping their future by bringing about change to things they care about.
KR: How do you feel we can tackle issues of lack of diversity within the UK’s political sphere, still disproportionally home to white and male Britons from elite institutions?
AF: By getting involved in things like the UK Youth parliament: as young people, we hold the power! I have so much faith in this generation to supply a large group of diverse, driven and intellectual people who will soon be a part of these institutions, as leaders and the future decision-makers within the political sphere.
The number of inspirational young people I have met so far is insane; all coming from different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic statuses who embrace their roots and use it to give local decision-makers a different perspective. Is there more to be done to tackle lack of diversity? Of course. We need to engage in conversations with ethnic minorities to understand why they may feel disillusioned with the political system and create opportunities to give them a platform to use their voices, where they feel valued and most importantly heard.
I’d say that lack of role models in the political sphere may be the reason contributing to the disengagement of some young people. Therefore, by having prominent figures with whom they can identify, by seeing their peers politically-driven, that’s the initial push that causes these young people to prove to themselves that they, just like any other person, can aspire to be in high political positions.
KR: Do you see yourself as a role model to the young people within your constituency? How do you fulfill that role?
AF: I would like to think that I’m not just a ‘role model’ but someone who is just like them, a young person, with an aim to empower the youth by influencing decisions that will affect them and their future.
I would like people to be inspired by the work I do so they too can take action on what they’re passionate about, whether that be combatting racism and discrimination or advocating on behalf of LGBTQ rights. I hope to see young people materialise their ideas and goals, to kick-start that business they’ve been thinking of, or to get the grades they want in school. No matter what the impact may be I would just want it to be positive one.
I want them to know that when you present that confidence, persistence and hard work, you have what is needed to bring about change and success.
KR: What about your upbringing and identities caused you to develop an interest in politics and activism in the first place?
AF: As a young female coming from a Middle-Eastern and working-class family, I wanted to use my experiences to defy against the odds. The fact that there is still a lack of diversity in the UK’s political sphere motivates me. Knowing females constitute only 32% of females in parliament, it has empowered me to work towards changing gender disparities especially in the place of work, by supporting movements like ‘50:50 Parliament’ and hopefully being an example of someone who made it into these ‘elitist institutions’. It just makes me think “why can’t I do that?” and then I just plough on to prove that I can.
KR: Tell us a bit about your youth activism and what it is centred on.
AF: Each year the UK youth parliament debates in the House of Commons to decide its national campaign for the following year. In 2018, the campaign decided was Votes at 16, the issue I spoke about during the debate. The devolved campaign of the same year, only for England, was on Curriculum For Life.
The former campaign involves talking to decision makers and MPs to persuade them why some young people want the voting age to be lowered, and to work with them in accomplishing just that. Not only does it involve liaising with those in power but other young people as well to widen conversation and perspectives. We want 16 and 17 year-olds understand why they deserve the vote, so that we can work unanimously in proving what it means to us.
As for the latter campaign, Curriculum For Life, it is a campaign which works towards creating a PSHE syllabus that addresses what we need to actively participate in life. It’s vital that we are being taught about finances, sex and relationships, about politics and cultural awareness, such essential things young people need to be educated on. We want to have trained teachers to confidently deliver quality lessons to all pupils in all schools, to prepare students for a life beyond school. In my constituency we have set up a PSHE network, of which the heads of the PSHE department of every secondary school acts as a member. The network aids working together to provide a consistent approach across the board where key topics like sexual health and relationships should be delivered in detail and quality.
Alongside the national campaigns, as a local youth parliament we have our own manifesto that focuses on things to do specifically in our constituency, we work on various things like showcasing talents of young people, improving teenager and police relations and improving perceptions of crime and safety. From time to time I host workshops for primary school children and young girls to get involved in politics where I run debates for them to take part in, in hope of making them understand the importance of awareness in politics and inspire them to get involved.
KR: In 2017, you spoke in the House of Commons in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. What about this issue makes you so passionate to achieve this?
AF: As young people we are unable to have a say in decisions that affect us even when we are contributing to country, we are only recognised as adults financially when we have to pay adult fares on transport or pay national insurance but politically we are still in the shadows.
16 and 17 year olds should be empowered through their democratic right to influence decisions and feel like valued citizens; the fact that we hold so many responsibilities already and are still denied the vote is really frustrating. Although I am certain that there are many young people who are knowledgeable and passionate about the world they live in, I believe that there initially needs to be a focus on our political system in the school curriculum, as a foundation for a wholly well-informed demographic before the change is introduced.
If we were to have the vote, we would be able to raise concerns and actualize our support on policies in our local areas and nationally. There are several countries across the world that have given 16 and 17-year olds the right to vote like Austria, Brazil, Slovenia, Isle of Man, Argentina and even close to home in Scotland where 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum and in local and Scottish parliamentary elections. Why does it feel like this country is lagging behind a fast-moving society? The law should be adapted to keep up with the realities and lifestyles of its citizens.
KR: Why do you think it is crucial that young voices are heard?
AF: Young people have so much to offer, I have met so many motivational and ambitious young people with not just ideas but with the drive that are turning their goals into reality. We offer a different perspective to everything, and people in places of power--whether locally or nationally--would themselves benefit from listening to what we have got to say. Sometimes we feel that some of the elder generation think we are still inexperienced, ‘still young’ and incapable of making informed decisions, but by making our voices heard we can prove to them that that is not the case.
KR: What words of advice would you give to younger women, particularly those of colour, who want to participate in politics but feel their voices are ones often overlooked?
AF: Just do it. No matter how you participate or engage in politics whether it be simply expressing your views on social media or being a campaigner and going on protests. Just do it. Participate in your own way. There may be people along the way who will say that it isn’t your ‘scene.’ It may even be the ones close to you, but you will also find a handful of people just like you, young women of colour who are enthusiastic, independent strong females who want to break through the ceilings to be heard and successful. Networking would be a good way to find those people and stick by them as together you are more powerful than acting alone.
KR: Where do you see your advocacy and political involvement taking you in the future?
AF: I want to continue empowering young people in particular females from ethnic minorities to be involved in politics. I wish to work more closely with young people across the country and campaigning. The future is really exciting, I have so much planned, you’d just have to wait and see my ideas come to fruition!
KR: What is one issue, be it domestically or globally, you would want to see changed, or perhaps change yourself?
AF: The issue I am currently really interested in investigating is Female Genital Mutilation, something that takes place not just across the world in the Asian, African and Middle Eastern continents but in England too. Not enough light has been shed on this cause, not enough has been done to understand why the law is failing to protect young girls from FGM and not enough has been done to tackle the failure of the law to act as a deterrent by not prosecuting those responsible! Education and raising awareness of the issue is something I have been working on for a few months in school and in my local area, I hope to continue to educate people on something that already affects 137,000 girls and puts 144,000 girls at risk in England and Wales.
KR: The theme of the Homegirl Project is "female empowerment." What do those words symbolise to you?
AF: Female empowerment is in everything I do, every achievement or journey I begin is an act of female empowerment. This is in the sense that just being an example of a young woman in politics may have unknown impacts to other young girls.