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In Conversation With: Sarah Joseph, on adopting hens and living within the planet’s means

Sarah Joseph, editor and CEO of Muslim lifestyle brand company emel Media, is one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world according to a list compiled by Georgetown University and the Royal Jordanian Strategic Studies Centre.  

In 2004 she was awarded an OBE for her services to interfaith dialogue and the promotion of women’s rights. Sarah has also lectured globally on Islam for over 25 years and is a regular speaker on BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s ‘Pause for Thought’ segment.

On top of that she’s also mum to three children and a flock of hens from the BHWT, having adopted chickens from us since 2007. We managed to grab a spot in Sarah’s busy schedule to ask her about her work, her beliefs and, of course, her hens… 

How does it feel to be recognised as one of the world’s most influential Muslims? What does it mean to you?

Awards and lists don’t mean a great deal to me on a personal basis. They have never formed part of why I do what I do. However, if they help shine a light on the work that I do, and the causes that I care about, then I don’t mind them.

Awards and accolades are fickle things, but solid work remains regardless. I love the work that I do, and I feel privileged to be able to do it.

You grew up in a model agency before converting to Islam aged 16, what inspired that transition?

I have had a strange trajectory, but I am grateful for all of it.

My mother, Valerie Askew, was a reluctant model agent. She needed a job, and was in a particular place, at a particular time, but she was grounded by the fact that she was a single mother with five children.

As such, although there was a lot of glamour around me growing up, I could see how hard she worked. I was literally brought up in the agency from three weeks old, and it taught me a lot.

When everyone around you is beautiful, their external appearance and the glamour, become irrelevant. You find other ways of working them out.

As a child, I would watch and assess the models. Are they kind? Are they truthful? Do they care for others around them? Do they gossip about other people?

The superficial became irrelevant to me, and I would strive to go deeper.

According to my mother, I had a deep spiritual belief even when I was tiny, and that has formed a huge part of my life. I truly believe that we are more than physical, material beings, and that there is something which connects us.

Social justice and a belief in the Divine have been the two wings of my being my entire life, and Islam manages to bring those two things together in a coherent way for me.

It may not be very fashionable to hold such beliefs, but then I grew up amidst the very fashionable, and was never enamoured by that world!

Almost 20 years ago, you founded emel Media Group, because of a powerful desire to say what Muslims stood for, and what they could contribute as opposed to what they were against. Is your desire to provide that platform as strong now as it was then – is the need still as great, or even greater?

After 9/11, I spent a solid year of my life on the road. I was on almost every media outlet imaginable. My husband and I juggled our three children – one of whom was a breastfed baby. I was giving talks in town halls and civic centres, church halls and synagogues, universities, and schools.

I would explain that Islam was anti-violence, anti-extremism, anti-terrorism. By the end of that year, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. You cannot keep defining yourself according to an “anti.”

My husband and I felt driven to say what Islam was for: for justice, for beauty, for other human beings, for the planet.

emel was about articulating that, and so we covered everything from food to fashion, technology to travel, gardening to politics, faith to interior design. We had four Cs: Confident people are better able to Contribute to the Common good and Connect to each other.

We had to pause production of the physical magazine when our daughter became ill, however I have continued to build media brands for others, and I also work on issues close to my heart such as education, the climate emergency, and the impact of artificial intelligence.

emel was always more than a magazine. It was a vehicle to look at our collective global challenges, with a firm belief that we need to build bridges not walls.

Your passion is to get people to recognise their shared humanity, and our common responsibility to this Earth, do you see adopting commercial hens as part and parcel of this philosophy?

I have been blessed with having had a very diverse life. I have known and loved God through two world faiths, and I have met an incredibly broad range of people throughout my whole life. We say our family is “half a Noah’s ark”: we have at least one of everything!

What my own life has taught me is that every faith/race/nationality has caring kind compassionate people, and every faith/race/nationality has bullies and oppressors.

What we all share is this one planet, and unless we recognise that we have a collective responsibility to this planet we are all going to be in trouble.

I wrote my first essay on the environment back in the early 1980s. The issues I was reflecting on as a young teenager are the issues we are facing today, but worse.

Back then it was looking at the predictions that would happen unless we acted, now we are faced with the consequences of 40 years of global political apathy.

I really worry for the future, especially for the world’s poorest, and I think we have to rethink how we all live our lives. It won’t be a comfortable conversation.

Rehoming commercial hens is a personal activity, but it speaks to my broader beliefs about the world.

I am concerned about commercialisation; industrialisation, particularly the industrialisation of the food chain; and having “growth” as our personal and national markers of success.

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. We have to live within our planetary means.

Adopting commercial hens is one way that I try and live smaller, live slower, live within the planet’s means.

I am far from perfect in my actions, but if we all strive to do our bit to consume less, to reuse more, and to be more conscious about all our choices, I think we would go some way to solving the world’s problems.

What have been some of your best experiences of keeping hens over the past 15 years?

Growing up, I lived in a flat, and we didn’t have a garden, but from the age of seven, my heart knew that I wanted to keep chickens. It may well have been episodes of The Good Life which did it!

I was like an expectant Mum before our first hens arrived. We got them from Omlet, with a blue Eglu, which we use to this day. We named them Omlet and Ginger. They were Red Warrens, and quite young.

The children and I spent hours with these hens, and they would come running to you if they heard the treat box being rattled. They were so funny and always reminded me of little dinosaurs.

They would sunbathe at the back door and come wandering into the house if they felt like it. I loved them so much. We quickly got two additional hens, and then we built them all this massive walk-in run.

Unfortunately, a fox managed to find a gap by the fence and took all four of them. We were all distraught. It was an awful experience but doesn’t take away from the wonderful happy memories I have of our first hens.

I have these delightful videos of my young daughters who were about 8 and 6 at the time, giving instructions on how to care for them.

Keeping hens taught all three of our children a lot. They were aware from a young age about where their food comes from. They got to see first-hand the effort the hens go through to provide us with an egg. They really got to see that hens are living things.

After the fox incident, we got more hens straight away. Some of those hens were very funny. Georgina would come and sit on your shoulder when you entered the run. They were six hybrids – who all laid different coloured eggs. The experience of having blue and green eggs was fun. I’m glad I did it, but the novelty does wear off!

And then we rehomed our first hens from BHWT. It was something I had wanted to do right from the beginning of keeping hens, however, I had wanted to get experience first, to feel like I knew what I was doing. I do think it’s perfectly possible to rehome hens as your first experience though.

My children were small when we rehomed our first BHWT hens. When we got to the farm to pick them up, we were all pretty distressed to see 320 hens, balding, with enlarged colourless combs, grouped together, looking bewildered.

I was shocked to find out that these particular hens were “strong and well feathered” in comparison to other hens who had been rehomed by BHWT.

Our son chose a hen that had only one eye, reasoning that very few people would want her. She was named Captain Cyclops, for obvious reasons, but was known as CC for short.

Our eldest daughter was matter of fact, taking any hen as they all needed a home. Our youngest daughter, then just seven, was really upset though, “I don’t think I can do this,” she sobbed.

The volunteers were wonderful and found her a hen who looked a little bit healthier – and she was named Babs. She was one of the funniest and strongest hens we have ever had.

A month after rehoming her, a fox attacked her through the mesh of the run. We bathed her in salt water every single day, bandaged her up, and fed her garlic – which she loved.

We weren’t sure that she would make it, but she was our longest-living hen! She was resilience henified. (Thankfully, that was our last fox incident, but foxes are a part of urban chicken keeping that does need to be managed.)

Our most recent rehoming of four hens with BHWT has been a wonderful experience. To see them go from balding, fearful, and cautious creatures, to doing their chicken dance, scratching away, and dustbathing in the sun is such a joyful experience.

One of the hens – who didn’t have any tail feathers (we named her Story because she is “tale”-less) – is a total busy body. As soon as I open the run, she comes running over to see what I have for her.

We named another Scoop because she loves to dig (think Bob the Builder!). One of the hens though, named Dinosaur, was a sad little thing. She sat in the corner of the run and would not move. She wasn’t eating or drinking or doing anything hen-like. She looked like a hen that was in her last days.

We decided to bring her into the house. She lived with us, and slept in my eldest daughter’s bedroom for a week! Dinosaur would sit on my daughter’s lap, and we would feed her a high-protein electrolyte rescue drink. Very slowly she started to eat.

She is now in the run but responds to our voices in a way like no other chicken we have had in 15 years. She is so tame around us.

The other chickens don’t like her much – she is totally at the bottom of the pecking order, but when we open the run, she comes racing over to see us. She is our Dino-Baby and we adore her.

Why do you love having hens as pets so much?

They are hilarious, and very friendly. When I finish work, I like to go to the back of the garden and just sit and watch them. I find it incredibly soothing and calming.

I’ll give them a special treat, and I love seeing them do their little chicken dance, and scratch around trying to find what I have given them.

Hens all have different characters. Some are bossy, some are inquisitive, others shy, but if you spend time with them, not only will you get to see their individual personalities they really respond to human contact.

The hens we have rehomed from BHWT have been some of the friendliest hens we have ever had.

On a practical note, we garden organically and are always trying to look at how we can reduce our impact on the earth.

We have a decent-sized garden by London standards, and whilst we are far from self-sufficient in anything, we try and do what we can.

Hens help keep a closed circle system within a garden. They eat the weeds and some of the vegetable peelings. Their poop and their bedding then go into the compost, which in turn nourishes the soil. They also can help keep down certain bugs in the garden.

Eggs are a bonus on top of all of that. The eggs they give decrease any transportation costs, and we know exactly where our eggs are from, and how the chickens have been treated.

One of my favourite things is to gather up some spinach leaves, herbs, onion leaves, and some eggs, and to cook myself an omelette. It’s rather idyllic! Certain a taste of the good life… and all thanks to my adorable, feathered friends.

You’ve been a long-term supporter of the BHWT, what do you like about the charity’s approach?

I really admire the work of BHWT. They have a very balanced approach.

They recognise the pressures that farmers are under: squeezed by supermarkets and consumers on price, whilst striving to improve welfare standards which are also increasingly demanded by supermarkets and consumers.

Farmers are often at the frontline of the problems of an industrialised food chain, and I like the way BHWT realise this, whilst not losing sight of the needs of the hens.

BHWT’s consistent approach to raising awareness of the situation of egg-laying hens has, I am sure, kept the issue in the public eye, and helped improve standards over the years.

As well as the awareness-raising work, the way they facilitate hen rehoming has meant that people like me can enjoy the blessing of giving a happy retirement to hard-working hens.

If you fancy having a slice of ‘The Good Life’ by adopting some hens, visit our adoption page to find out when the next rehoming day is happening near you.

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