“I want to open up discussion in the community to these issues honestly, and without repercussion, to allow women to express their voices.”
As part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I am a daughter of twice migrants from India. My parents migrated from Gujarat, India to Tanzania, after partition, my father leaving in the late ‘40s and my mother and older sister joined him in the ‘50s. I was born in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania before it decided that it too wanted independence for the British Empire. My father decided to move us, by then we were a family of five, to India for a short period of time while he established himself in England. My mother, two sisters and my brother arrived in 1967, and we settled in Coventry. My father had arrived earlier and had secured a job in a car factory, using his skill as a car upholstery on the production line.
My parents were typical Indian parents of their generation, telling us education is a key to success and encouraged us regardless of our gender to study.
My life has been good, fortuitous opportunities have come my way, I was given a commission straight after university to illustrate a book, a job offer at the BBC in the Creative Arts Department followed where I worked on and off until 2006. I began working as a freelancer for BBC, Sky and other production companies as a motion graphic designer and interactive TV designer. My personal life is great I have a wonderful husband and two gorgeous sons. But, not everything has been smooth sailing and I am glad that I have experienced some lows as well as some highs.
Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?
I was introduced to Oxfam and The Circle by Santosh Bhanot, the Chair of The Asian Circle. Santosh and I have known each other since our sons were in the same reception class. We have spent many a time over tea and PTA meetings discussing how we could give back to the community. We both had a similar upbringings that included lots of volunteering at the temple helping others. I believe that The Circle’s mission fits well with my goals in life.
In the summer of 2013, a group of high energy women sat around a table at the Oxfam office to discuss ideas on how to bring our vision “to work with vulnerable women in South Asia who haven’t had the opportunities and means to support themselves” to fruition. Since then I’ve been a core committee member, organised fundraising events, and spoken to other Asian Women’s groups about our work. I dipped out from full involvement whilst I went back to university to get my Qualified Teacher Status in 2014.
You’ve been involved with The Asian Circle for a while, can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve achieved with them?
Since its inception, The Asian Circle has grown from strength to strength. We have highly motivated, passionate British Asian women who give their time generously to organise our events, for example, launch at Houses of Parliament, screening and Q&A of True Cost at SOAS, screening and Q&A of Bhaji On the Beach, Chai Day at the LaLit to name a few. We arrange to speak to organisations, universities, women’s societies and we recently hosted a conference with Peepal Enterprise in Leicester on issues of domestic violence and the lack of funding and support here and in India.
Over the last five years, The Asian Circle have worked hard to raise awareness and funds to support a pilot project, created with Oxfam India and local NGOs, amongst the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh, India – to end domestic violence and empower women and girls. We have helped provide support centres for counselling and legal aid, created ‘vigilance networks’ of women to support each other and training programmes for the police. We also have engaged with different organisations, the state government, police and community groups to highlight issues with violence against women. We were thrilled that the local NGO LASS received a prestigious State Award- ‘Nari Shakti Samman’ for outstanding improvement of conditions of women at the margins of society’. This project is now being supported by International funders for state wide deployment of the project.
We are currently sending the sum of £11,500 to Oxfam India on Violence Against Women & Gender Justice Programme in Chhattisgarh – a further build on the VAW project with a focus on Gender Equality.
The new programme will focus on education and change in the community on gender inequity.
● Meeting with a community-based group, using two curriculums “Gendernama” (About Gender) “for men and boys and “Jago and Jagao Badlao ki Aur” (Wake and Awaken for change) for women and girls is being successfully executed in the groups.
● Awareness camps are also being set up in the community, to discuss gender stereotypes in the community and legal services for women.
● Engagement with youth in colleges to discuss various gender related topics like, gender stereotypes, gender and sexuality, patriarchy and gender, power and privilege etc. The BNS (Bano Nayi Soch), champions selected from these youth groups are used to spread the message further afield.
● Running 2 women support centres in Chhattisgarh. These 2 centres are run in space given by the NGO’s partners to provide socio-legal support to survivors of domestic violence.
The Circle is an organisation of women empowering women. How does your upcoming book seek to empower other women?
As I mentioned before, I have had some lows in my life too, and 28 years ago we had the fortune to have a special child join our family. He lived for 8 weeks and we are grateful that he came into our lives.
The first couple of years after his death, I buried my feelings. I have always felt sad in January to March and I have put it down to the worst time of the year for everyone who lives in the Northern hemisphere, short dark days, grey cloud-filled skies. Two years after his birth, we had a healthy baby boy, and three years later another. January become a time of celebration, all our children are born in January. Work, motherhood, life, in general, took me to new levels. I held down a successful, but a stressful job working for BBC News and Current Affairs, my sons were bright and healthy.
As the year’s passed, I heard about other women who also dealt with issues of postnatal depression, anxiety and guilt. Any woman who has had a sick child knows of the guilt, the what if I did this, what if I did that, is it my fault? My mind went into overdrive, and every year the thoughts kept flooding back, that it was all my fault.
In 2006 after leaving the BBC and starting work as a freelancer, we were given the news that my father was diagnosed with bone cancer. I grieved for my father, but I grieved for our son. I joined a creative writing group and the novel just spilt out of me, I remembered every comment, every incident in vivid colour, the feeling of inadequacy, the search for a miracle to prolong his life. Again, life got in the way, my father who had been given 3 months lived for 3 years, so we savoured every minute with him.
In late 2016, I suffered from my first panic attack, and it left me shattered. I am known for my can-do attitude, had retrained to be a teacher and was enjoying seeing my students make good progress and grow into confident young adults. I couldn’t do it anymore, I couldn’t go into the classroom. I started counselling again, and things had moved on from my first session in the ‘90s.
It is important when you have counselling, that the counsellor understands, this time when I mentioned my extended family, she knew. In the ’90s, when I talked of the nuances of Indian families and how I felt my counsellor told me to stop all ties with the people who made me feel this way. Her words still ring in my ears. You don’t have to see your family if you don’t want to, you can always decline the invitation. She had no idea of the cultural pressure and significance of that remark.
My new sessions dealt deeply with my emotions through the lens of my upbringing. She told me to reread my novel and use it as a way to understand my feelings to move beyond grief.
So that is when my novels, My Heart Sings Your Song and Where Have We Come became a reality. I researched and read books to gauge the market, did I want to write a self-help book, should I write a blog and tell people of my experience. Then I came across a group of writers Cecilia Ahern and Jojo Moyes to name a few, who didn’t always write the typical tale of happy ever after. I read books published by South Asian authors, many with experiences that resonated with me, but none that I could identify with. I have grown up in England, I straddle both cultures, I’m a British Asian, foremost. My Gujarati background is the icing on the cake. My parents didn’t once blame me for my child’s illness. Many others did, my reluctance to follow rituals, customs, every superstitious belief, the alignment of planets, anything to beat me with to justify their anger at seeing our child as he was. I believe it’s in the psyche of the South Asian community to first and foremost blame the women. What annoyed me most as I was researching was that nearly thirty years after my experience, women were still being subjected to the same superstitions and customs in Britain. Some of the families that practised this were the third generation out of India. Women who were my age, telling their daughters, daughters-in-law that their child was disabled because of what they had or hadn’t done.
I sent a couple of chapters and an outline to people and received favourable comments, encouraging me to write it, but no-one was interested in taking me on as a writer. The book became a monster, both in its desire to be fed and its size. I edited scenes out, created chapters and asked people to help structure the story. My journey isn’t typical, I decided I would self-publish, whilst I waited for my early readers to get back to me with comments and alterations. I learnt what I could about publishing, the drafting, the formatting, the editing, and eventual publishing. I chose to have all the processes in my hand, after all, it is my story and I didn’t want comment or edits from people who didn’t know it or understand the cultural relevance of it.
My only aim is to tell the story, that was the goal I had set myself, but I’d also set another which has helped me through the difficult process. If I can help one woman, someone who is in or has been through a similar situation understand that they are not alone, then I have done my job.
So what’s next for me, I have got the writing bug, I have stories that I want to tell, stories about multicultural Britain, about friendships that grow regardless of background and race. I want my stories to be read by a broader readership, not just aimed at South Asian readers. The University Series that I’m planning deals with issues, such as bereavement, depression, disability, cancer, infertility, caste, interfaith relationships, infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, sex before marriage, topics that are still taboo in the community. I want to grow as a writer, learn the craft, tell stories of women from different communities, stories that people like me can identify with.
As for my anxiety and depression, I’ve heard things have changed; more and more support groups are being set-up in communities up and down the country to deal with depression in the South Asian community. It is a taboo subject that hardly has any airing. No-one, who has a thriving career, a big house, healthy and happy families can get depression. It’s good that finally, we are talking about it. I want to open up discussion in the community to these issues honestly, without repercussion, to allow women to express their voices.
Mostly I want people to realise that there are ways to express your emotions. For me it was storytelling, but it can be music, art, anything that allows you to deal with your emotions. If all you want to do is rage at a mountain than rage at it, it is your right to do what helps you cope. Anything is achievable if you put your mind to it.
What does Global Feminism mean to you?
When I started to work in a male dominant newsroom in the ‘80s I was optimistic that finally women were given the same opportunities as men. As the years’ progress, I began to realise that feminism explores the idea of equal rights for women but not necessarily equal rights to all women in all society.
The world is getting smaller and we hear more and more about the injustices faced by women across the world, how patriarchal societies, poverty, governments perpetuate the inequalities faced by women. Global Feminism for me means the right for every woman to equality at home, in the workplace and in society. It is about giving women opportunities to assert their rights. It is about making change happen by giving our voice to those who do not have one.