Speech given at the launch of Women’s History Month, Thursday 20th January.
I like the forward looking spirit of this initiative even though it is a history project. Unfazed by the cuts that are shutting libraries and museums, privatising health and public services and skewering our educational aspirations, the women’s history month is a declaration of war on our invisibility. Hope to God that Cameron doesn’t appropriate this project as his ‘big society’ project. It still comes as a shock though – that we should feel cut out of the national conversation without a month dedicated to the unearthing of our histories.
One of the earliest lessons I learnt as a feminist was not to leave your footprints in sand. How many women have been buried by history! How many women of note I keep tripping over from earlier times! If we cannot see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the national story, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, we cannot properly belong. And for black women, a sense of belonging is even more muddied by conflicting loyalties to race and sex.
This initiative adds value and validates our work. It is about appropriating the symbolic power attached to representation. It is about reshaping our collective identity as a nation, our sense of who we are. History, they say, is written by the victors. It is time for the ‘losers’ to rewrite it, to round it off, to tell ourselves a new story of who we are and who we want to be. This explains the rash of the recently launched disability and LGBT history months which join the longstanding Black History month initiative.
So my political activity, from the very beginning, consisted of cataloguing/recording/analysing. It chimed with my own interests. I brought together the first collection of essays on the work of Southall Black Sisters, Against the Grain in 1989 and although it was self-published (one of the many ways of marginalising us) at least a record exists – in black and white with a copy in the British library and several more in our stockroom.
Sadly I have been around long enough for many of the political campaigns that I have been involved in to qualify for attention during Women’s History month but I hope that this initiative will also focus attention on the present. The very act of excavating the past can feel like a ‘privilege’, it can encourage complacency, a false sense of empowerment and a sense that the present is substantially better. After all, there are reasons why it is politically convenient to hide certain stories from view even as they play out in our midst. I am referring particularly to the women in my book Enslaved. Refugees – women who have been trafficked or smuggled into the UK – whose very presence here is an uncomfortable reminder to all of us that we have reaped the benefits of western adventurism in their countries and we are now building gated communities and nations in a scandalous attempt to keep them out.
Many are starved, imprisoned, beaten, sexually violated, physically abused and made to work 18 hours a day, 7 days per week. The scenarios are many and varied: a massage parlour on your local high street where a trafficked woman sells her body; a beach where cocklepickers work in the middle of the night; the kitchen of a middle-class family where the ‘servant’ sleeps; or the bedroom in which a man imprisons his ‘foreign’ wife. Until their passport is in their hands, until it has the right stamps on it, they have few rights, no family life, no access to healthcare or housing; they are non-persons. The social cohesion and inclusion debate does not even begin to touch their lives. They no more scratch at our consciousness than rats living below the floorboards, reminding us of their existence by their occasional scratching noises and their footprints in our flour.
These are the kinds of dark corners of ordinary women’s lives that a women’s history month should illuminate. If raising awareness is the first step in bringing about political change, the next challenge is to transform that awareness into political action. And that is where we all come in.
Rahila Gupta is a writer and journalist. Her last book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery, explores the role of immigration controls in enslaving people with no formal status in the UK.