‘Listening Voices and Telling Stories’: A project about Rotherham and its ‘Imagined Communities’
‘Listening Voices and Telling Stories’ is a collaborative research project between academic staff from the University of Sheffield and a group of women from different ethnic backgrounds (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Germany, Poland) who live in Rotherham. This project was funded by the ESRC as part of the ARHC-led Connected Communities programme. The ‘story’ of this project began at a corner of the Mowbray Gardens Library in Rotherham in November 2013. The initial aim of the project was to try a different learning trajectory by investigating the connection between poetry, education, and life stories. As the project progressed we identified powerful commonalities in the narratives of the women. They had experienced ‘interruptions’, loss and vulnerability in their personal and educational journeys caused by domestic oppressions, marriage, patriarchal society, war, being a carer, and structural and financial barriers . Because of these restrictions none of the women could have access to (higher) education.
To address the powerful tropes of ‘interruption’ and exclusion we decided to encourage the women to write about ‘ordinary’ stories of everyday life. At the same time, we dedicated parts of the sessions to read the works of contemporary female poets from different ethnic backgrounds (Kishavar Naheed, Parveen Shakir, Debjani Chatterjee… ) whose work and life exemplified resilience, emancipation, and transformation through the medium of writing. It was interesting to find that the group connected to the poems and our discussions about the poems created a transcultural space for belonging, recognition, empathy and self-actualization. At the same time, fictional texts presented missing tools – concepts, emotions, images, metaphors and vocabularies – which are not usually provided in ESOL-based texts and pedagogies. After reading the works of female poets, women consciously decided to open a window into their lives despite the agony of revisiting a traumatic past. However, this process connected the group like a thread and generated trust and friendship. Loss became a shared language and writing became a kind of ‘healing’ and a literary revenge. The following story is written by Mina (translated by me), a 32 year old woman from Afghanistan who landed in the UK in 2013 with her husband and children:
I was 13 years old when I finished year 6 at school in Afghanistan. I was very excited to start year 7. I was a bright pupil and learned everything quickly but war broke out and I never went back to school again. The war ruined thousands of homes and made thousands of people homeless. It was a terrifying and horrible situation, especially for women. They were forced to veil themselves with burqa and became the subject of violence in different ways. I was a 13 years old child but, still, had to wear a burqa. I didn’t want to be covered from head to toe. I cried and cried for weeks. Taliban attacked us if they saw our bare hands and feet. I got married at 16 because I couldn’t continue my education and there was nothing else to do. Besides, it was dangerous for young girls to remain single. During the war, if Taliban liked a girl, they met her father at night and showed money and a gun. The father had to accept the money and give his daughter, or get killed. In most cases, a young girl had to marry a man who already had two or three other wives and many children. Finally, those violent and war-seeking people are gone and people are free but still suicide bombing and terrorist attacks occur in my country everyday which makes me sad.
The powerful narratives elicited from other women who were born in Rotherham indicated the awareness of power structures in social, communal and educational systems in the UK. Chris, another member of the group, who has German/Polish background but was born and grew up in Rotherham, shared a painful story about her life: ‘the trauma of failing my 11 plus in 1963’. It was a big challenge for Chris to write about her experience which ‘ripples down my life like a tear in the fabric of my soul.’ Despite being a talented pupil with a promising future, Chris’s educational journey was interrupted by ‘this infamous exam which I now know was flawed and resulted in social engineering divided mostly Working Class children from Middle Class children’. Chris decided to leave school at the age of fifteen because, I could not bear the thought of failing at exam time and been castigated again. My parents would have thought it was a waste of a year when I could have been contributing to my keep. The backdrop to that decision was the increasingly fragile nature of my home life; domestic violence and alcoholism.
However, what is significant about Chris is her resilience and amazing passion for reading and writing. She has published poetry and has a vast knowledge not only about English literature but literary works from other countries. Chris is currently writing her own memoir.
Chris’s experience inspired more stories. Zanib, who is a British born Muslim woman of Pakistani background, along with other Muslim members of the group who were also born and grew up in Rotherham, provided a different lens to look at the unheard voices of British Pakistani women who suffer double injustice: racial and patriarchal. As Zanib puts it, ‘ I am amazed how many painful experiences I have hidden away and every time we meet, one of the ladies shares something and my own experience of the same things come flooding back like experience of school or even a tin bath.’ Zanib writes that, ‘in my life I faced so may barriers and had to fight so hard to get any kind of education, I hungered for it and still do.’ She feels that the system of education sometimes focuses more on differences between minority groups which affects teachers’ attitudes and their different expectations of students:
Only a few years ago one of my local primary schools would not give Muslim children homework and the reason being they go to Mosque and I challenged that and said the world of work will not make allowance for them because they are Muslims so why is education, they need to have a good education to a get a job. My niece got A* in English GCSE and her teacher said to her ‘I cannot believe you got A* as English is your second language’ she said to her ‘its not its my first language, I am third generation British Muslim.’ My niece cannot speak Mirpuri.
Zanib has an amazing passion for writing poetry and has recently been awarded an MBE for services to the community in Rotherham after more than 30 years of working in the voluntary sector. She criticizes patriarchal traditions that ‘interrupt’ women to pursue their dreams. In a poem called ‘A Man’s World’, Zanib expresses her thoughts about ‘male-centred’ cultures that are transmitted throughout generations and women’s struggle to resist it:
A man’s world
Its one step forward and two back,
“You cannot win in a man’s world” I remember my great grandmother saying
A world of two unequal’s, the leader and the follower
“They say and we do” my grandmother always said
“The man is always the master” my mother would say,
“But I will never be his servant” I said
We will strive for a more equally gendered world,
“It will come one day” my daughter said
We will win at the end,
“Where you have failed, we will not” my granddaughter says
If it takes five generation of women to change this man’s world, so be it,
“That will never happen”, said my son and grandson. “We are here to maintain the status quo.”The man wins again
The welfare of the city and its communities is another important factor that links the women and their stories. The recent child abuse scandal has aroused more concerns about the deficit images of Rotherham. Chris told us that ‘I have felt ashamed to be associated with misogynistic Rotherham. While we were on holiday, when asked where we came from, we said Sheffield!!’ The Muslim members of the group who consider themselves members of the religion strongly ask for having a voice in a community which they regret is represented by men. Liberty, a Muslim woman of Pakistani background, believes that ‘educating the public, young boys, men, and different cultures about respect for the female and boundaries is just as much important as the exposure, correction and punishment around the issue of abuse of young children/girls.’ Another Muslim member of the group who wishes to remain anonymous points out that ‘ women don’t come forward or show interest unless they are paid workers and its part of their job or they run an organisation and go there to represent their organisation. Sometimes I think the biggest thing on their mind is what outfit they need to wear at a wedding next week.’ The following piece which is chosen from Zanib’s poem ‘Dead Town’, is a nostalgic image of a city which is let down in different ways:
Yesterday has gone and took with it all that was good
Closed steel factories, closed coal mines, closed hearts, empty and hallow
No more massively tall industrial chimney’s with smoke blowing out of them, no power stations and cooling towers, no more reminders of our past lives
No more community ties that bounded us together as one
The unbreakable chain of friendship, solidarity and common purpose, lost
No one single football team supported of red and white, loyalties change quickly now
No corner pubs and working men’s clubs, no more singing and merry making…
However, during our conversations in the group, the women have many times asserted that ‘this corner of the library’ has become a safe space where they are appreciated for what they are. In an email exchange, Zanib wrote to me that,
Over the few months we have built up trust and feel comfortable with each other that we can now share the most painful parts of our lives with each as we might with our own sisters. We share our very personal life journey through stories, writing and poetry and celebrate our inner strength as women and the instinct of survival, for we are survivors. (Poverty, violence, oppression, discrimination, broken marriage, whatever life throw at us, we got up again)
Similarly, Mina told us that what she has learned in this group has been more helpful than what she learned in her ESOL classes. In a recent telephone conversation with her mother in Afghanistan, Mina had told her how this group has become a source of learning, hope and resilience.
As the above examples show, the transformational writing of everyday stories provided an emergent space – a new linguistic reality – in which the women could oppose logocentric patriarchal ideologies, creatively reconstruct the narratives of their lives, and ‘imagine’ new ways of being and seeing. At the same time. it provides an attempt to resist deficit images that have defined gender, community, and the city (Rotherham). The above pieces of writing also reflect the hybridity of the project itself. Rather than rush out a fixed methodology , this project will investigate the possibility of this emergent space which starts from the acknowledgment of missing discourses and unheard voices in what can be called ‘imagined communities’. By addressing the personal accounts of loss, interruption, resilience and hope in poetry and the stories of everyday life we attempt to ‘imagine’ unacknowledged ‘communities’ of people from different ethnic backgrounds whose stories weave the fabric of the same cloth. Our group in the Mowbray Garden library is an ‘imagined community’ – a ‘home’ for dwelling, observing and sharing – a family that includes academic and non-academic women who see themselves as citizens of the same land of imagination and resilience.
The outcome of the project will be a book constructed by the women’s writings which can shed light on the ways this invisible community of women in Rotherham can creatively engage in ‘culture-making’. This project also provides an interdisciplinary dialogue between the Schools of Education and English at the University of Sheffield and can offer a different way of knowing about the concept of ‘community’ and identity with a focus on social justice.