She Settles in the Shields: Untold Stories of Migrant Women in Pollokshields
Syma Ahmed smiles as she gazes as the picture of her grandmother on the front cover of her book She Settles in the Shields, a pioneering look into the lives of South Asian women in Glasgow.
Ahmed has worked for over a decade as the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Women’s Project Development Officer for the Glasgow Women’s Library, the only women’s library in the UK with official accreditation.
Ahmed beams with pride when talking about She Settles in the Shields, a project which aimed to uplift women’s oral histories by bringing them together into a book. In partnership with the Pollokshields Development Agency, the goal was to celebrate migrant women stories, especially those from South Asia.
The joy she feels in her work is tinged with huge sadness. Her first interview was with her grandmother, and Ahmed recalls how emotional it was hearing her life story. Just a month before the book launch, her grandmother passed away.
Ahmed urges everyone to sit down and hear the stories of their grandparents: “The migrants that were coming in from South Asia in the forties and fifties following the partition were the first generation and they are now in their old age. A lot of them are now passing away”.
Ahmed’s grandmother was her best friend, and she remembers during the celebrations of the book launch the mix of feelings she had. “I was at the launch and I was just overwhelmed thinking ‘I’m so glad I did this, because if I didn’t I would have lost her story forever’”.
She urges people to consider these events with more importance, now more than ever in today’s political climate. For Ahmed, divisions have only been exacerbated by certain sectors of the media, which allows the average person to have “this perception and this stereotypical idea of what these communities are like”.
Ahmed wants to highlight that the South Asian community were welcomed by the government in the post-war era to help rebuild Britain. Furthermore, many Indian and Pakistani soldiers fought in both world wars.
For her friends and family in the workforce, in education, and in everyday life there is discrimination. A lot of this, she feels, is due to ignorance and misperceptions.
Ahmed says: “It’s about understanding that there’s good people and there’s bad people out there. If you look at all religions, none of them teach evil or bad or harm, the main message is about humanity and thinking about other people. That’s the essence of it.”
“There’s extremists in every religion. Being a Muslim myself, you see things being taken out of context.”
The conversation moves onto law and the contrast between society, culture, and the legislation supposed to be in place to protect people. Campaigners and MPs have been urging misogyny to be classified as a hate crime for years , however this has yet to materialize. Racism is on the rise across the UK post-Brexit, despite laws in place against hate crimes.
This is a worrying problem for Ahmed, and she feels the law is too slow in catching up with social changes. Ahmed feels that when new legislation is passed, there is discussions and reports but “nothing really changes”.
She continues: “It’s important to report things, but it’s about working with hard-to-reach communities and showing them how to.”
For Ahmed, the delay in legislation against honour-based violence (the mistaken belief that someone has brought shame to their family or community by doing something that is not in keeping with the traditional beliefs of their culture) was a huge failing by the judicial system and the police.
She says: “I was looking at the cases and there was a clear cry for help by these women, and a lot of them lost their life because there was no law to protect them.
“Then after this happens, there’s all this training from Police Scotland to show what honour-based violence is and why it happens, but it was almost like it was too late.”
For Ahmed, a lot of the work done is in a space and language that these communities are unable to take part in. She urges that there is a need to reach these communities, by collaborating with organisations such as the Woman’s Library.
She continues that with the divisiveness seen across the country post-Brexit, these communities are scared of what the future will hold. Ahmed feels the law could act as an important buffer between the two.
Last year, more than 80 lawyers, activists, and artists signed an open letter warning that attitudes to race and racism in Scotland are “rolling backwards”.
Jackie Kay, who has been the national poet laureate of Scotland since 2016, says the country needs to “grow up” and take more responsibility for the treatment of black and ethnic minority people.
A report in October 2019 found that racism was a common experience for students at Scottish universities, with The Equality and Human Rights Commission saying some institutions are “oblivious” to how big the problem is. Students surveyed said they tried to act more ‘white’ to fit in with their fellow students, and tried to hide their ethnicity.
However, against this backdrop, Ahmed remains hopeful for the future. “I think the general public is beginning to realise how chaotic and volatile the political climate is, and people are seeing the reality.
“There is some good coming out, I feel like it’s getting worse but then it will get better, and we just need to continue the work that we’re doing.”
She smiles, and looks around the Women’s Library, saying “we’re headstrong and we’re going to continue.”
Ahmed’s grandmother smiles up at her from the book she cradles in her hands, she can feel her support radiating down to her in everything she does.