Freedom to walk the streets and parks of Britain. Freedom to raise my children in safety and security. Freedom to practise my religion and wear the hijab without fear or hindrance. Freedom to speak out against injustice and promote ethical and universal values. This is what a civil society means to me.
I had a lovely childhood growing up in Crouch End, London in the 1970s, but it was a different era. We were able to play outside safely and neighbours watched out for each other. The sense of family – extended family and good neighbourliness – was strong and we need to revive that today. Family values are what makes the difference in a society – what we teach our children, and the behaviours that we permit them to emulate through our example; these things are significant. Political correctness outside the home means nothing if we are still holding onto prejudices at home.
Whenever I was returning from my travels and the plane was touching down at Heathrow, I thanked God that I was home – Britain is my home and the home to my children and grandchildren. As a Bangladeshi British Muslim woman who grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s I can say that yes, I did encounter racism and discrimination, but it was not on the scale we are seeing today. It makes me sad when people think I am not British – just because I am the ‘wrong’ skin colour or dress differently. For me the most striking behavioural change of 21st century society is the rise of Islamophobia.
Great Britain still has the semblance of a civil society but it is eroding slowly, and we need to reflect on what makes a society civilized and whose definition we are using. A civil society is one in which everyone feels valued for who they are, with the removal of barriers to access good education, health facilities and job opportunities.
For me, a civilized society means to be living a life of balance – where all people are treated with dignity and honour and we are not just thinking of ‘number one’. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we are one humanity, sharing one planet and we need to care for the whole if we are to survive.
Our greed for development, industrialisation and power has brought us to the brink of extinction, and do you honestly think that ‘business as usual’ will work? The climate catastrophe, along with the pandemic, is showing us that we need to reflect on how we as humans live. When will we wake up and taste our collective failure?
Finally, as a woman of faith I believe that society needs to recognise the importance of religion and faith in creating universal shared values that can provide the framework for civil society in the 21st century.