"We stuck out like a sore thumb," Sarah Way says with a laugh, remembering her experience taking participants of the Lead to Inspire project to the 2013 Feminista conference. "I think actually a lot of the women that have done the course would probably say that they identify themselves as feminists," but, she adds, "they have to work a little bit harder to be seen [that way]."
The Feminista conference isn't the only context in which the Arbour’s Lead to Inspire project is unique. In a borough where many of the programmes aimed at migrant women focus on stereotypically gendered skills, the Lead to Inspire is focusing on empowering women to become leaders in Tower Hamlets and beyond. Talking to the participants in Lead to Inspire, it’s obvious that the course is about embracing different perspectives, and developing the confidence to express them, far more than it’s about learning English.
Rizwane, a young South East Asian journalist and new participant in the course, who speaks with quiet optimism about one day working for the BBC, sees Lead to Inspire as an opportunity to the courage to communicate. "That’s why we need this course. The more we spend time together, the more we know each other, and the more we can learn." As soft-spoken Khadiza, also an aspiring journalist and participant in the programme, points out, women are often uniquely positioned to act as a point of contact for that communication. "Because we are women, so we feel comfortable when a woman comes to us and says you should not stay at home, you can do different things. One kind of woman can feel shy with a man and can’t express herself with a man but can express herself with women. So with women leaders we can express ourselves most fully."
Through a series of English and leadership classes, culminating in participant-led projects that aim to address community issues, the Lead to Inspire project has stepped in to challenge an understanding of migrant women as dependants and victims. "It was a way to get women to take their place at the table and say hello, we’re here, stop making decisions on our behalf, we want to be part of the conversations" says Vix Garner, head of women’s services at the Arbour. Despite a renewed presence in public debate, ‘feminism’ remains a loaded term, not least among those who are working to reduce inequalities in socio-economic status, gender, and ethnicity. The experience of the organizers and participants in Lead to Inspire at the 2013 Feminista conference is an example of the complicated dynamics that characterize feminist politics. Despite having been challenged at the conference for their religious and cultural principles, Vix Garner says that when it comes to the feminist credentials of the participants of Lead to Inspire, actions – which include past projects such as publishing a pamphlet helping women coming to the UK on spousal visas to understand their rights, a project Sarah Way calls a kind of ‘radical feminist manifesto’ - speak louder than words. In this, Lead to Inspire is not unique.
Nydia Swaby, is a PhD student at SOAS whose research focuses on how concepts of belonging and identity in the context of black women’s movements are and have been shaped. She focuses on organisations where women have been actively involved in shaping the debate around gender identity and women’s rights. Attending the recent Black Women’s Conference, Swaby describes her gratification at seeing this principle put into practice. ‘One of the things I liked about this conference was that there were tensions, it wasn't like we all get along,’ she says, ‘and yet we’re all working towards this utopian ideal. Even if we have different perspectives, the idea is that nonetheless, I don’t feel that your different perspective should be silenced.’ For women who've migrated to the UK, living away from their country of origin need not mean they stop campaigning for the women in their native country.
Despite having lived in Europe for nearly two decades, Efat Mahbaz's solidarity with Iranian women has remained strong. A former political prisoner herself, Efat continues to campaign for those who oppose the Iranian regime and suffer from it’s repressive policies. As a founding member of the UK branch of the Mourning Mothers, an organization originally started in Iran by women whose children were imprisoned or killed in the 2009, Where is my Vote Movement, Efat helps to provide solidarity and advocacy for migrant women affected by events in Iran. Although Efat's focus is on promoting democracy and equality in Iran, she emphasizes that change is still needed in the UK. This change, Efat emphasizes, is not achieved through silencing dissent but through embracing it. Crediting human rights activists with a role in her own release from prison, Efat knows no contribution to a debate is without value: "I'm alive partly because of the activity of human rights activists, and I try to help as well. I think if I continue to be healthy and positive I can do that."
While Nydia Swaby is cautious in her use of the term ‘feminism’ in her academic research, conscious of those who do work on women’s rights but may not identify as feminists, as an activist, she’s inspired by the possibilities of reclaiming the term and using it to mobilise women to resist patriarchy across the broadest possible set of circumstances. "I would love the idea of trying to create a framework where we can think about how we can come together across all our disparate spaces and experiences to fight for a common cause, which to my mind is resisting patriarchy," she says. "I'm really excited about living in a world where feminism is about talking about the linkages that are much broader than just saying it’s about gender."
The Arbour's Lead to Inspire project has now ended. The Arbour continues to do Youth Work in Stepney building on the work carried out since 1946.
Photo: Elaine Cheung and Iulia Osmanov from the Arbour