By Coumilah Manjoo – Anti Racist Activist
For as long as I could ever remember, I did everything everyone wanted me to do, I didn’t question anyone or anything. It took me long enough to realise that I didn’t want to be anyone’s doormat.
As a woman from a black and ethnic minority community, I have felt powerless and voiceless for most of my life. Any notion of being powerful was alien to me. But, still nothing could have ever prepared me for life in Northern Ireland: it has been quite a journey.
The government paper looking at “Ethnic minority women’s poverty and economic well being” found that individual income or household income was a cause of concern for ethnic minority women (Nandi and Platt, 2010). So needless to say, I assumed that employment and education would lead to my salvation. However, the constant violence, verbal abuse, discrimination and harassment I faced in private and public spaces, in education and employment has made me realise that this isn’t true.
After I was physically attacked in the presence of my children in the streets of Belfast, I decided to take up employment. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a ‘scrounger’. I was looking for acceptance and belonging. However, the situation did not change as I was regularly discriminated against through my then brief period as a working mother of two. I assumed that maybe educational attainment would lead me to open minded and likeminded folks.
There began my journey as a mature student after seven years of being a home maker. There’s an assumption that attainment and aspiration is what leads BME women to pursue higher education but once I got there I realised that I still would have to fight for a place to belong. Higher education was very challenging as the field I choose was a path not really treaded on by black and ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. The most challenging time for me was the realisation of how predominantly white the profession was. There was barely anyone who looked like me as students or lecturers.
As much as I tried to integrate I realised that they were all looking for me to assimilate but I couldn’t be anyone else: I didn’t want to either. Whilst the lecturer at Queen’s University stood in front of the students and said the religion forces women like me to wear the headscarf, my dreams of being among likeminded folks were shattered. These weren’t my folks. Facing discrimination, harassment and micro aggressions in my everyday life made me more ‘sensitive’ to the opinions and attitudes of others. Being the only visible ethnic minority student on my courses was quite daunting and emotionally draining. I was conscious of my own value base and experiences that I was bringing into the practice workshops. I was always worried of saying too much or not saying the right things.
I felt ‘imprisoned’ by the education system which was meant to ‘save’ me. The trainers weren’t equipped to ensure that everyone in the group recognised, accepted or/and embraced the differences to ensure that students were equipped with the learning of tools and techniques necessary for ethnic-sensitive practice. Any discussions about race, religion or ethnicity can become laden with emotions and surrounded by sensitivity if not handled by someone equipped to do so. They failed me, but they failed to prepare practitioners who would work with people like me in the community. Therefore, navigating the education system itself became my jihad* (battle).
But underneath it all, I was still me and my lived experiences were a part of me, and I was part of my practice. So it is impossible to envisage any separation from who I was as a person and how I practiced. My identity and personality became part of my practice and could not be hidden. I needed to be me without being defined by my victimhood. As I begin to understand myself I was more self-aware around the power differential: the shift from being a ‘powerless ethnic minority woman’ to a ‘professional’.
A profession that recognises me as agent of social control and social change where I have “statutory powers to act to protect individuals or communities” (Scottish Executive, 2006:27). For me to practice, it was crucial that I acknowledged the power dimensions that came with my professional status, and how it impacts on my relationships with people and other professionals.
But underneath all that presumed « power » I am meant to have, remains someone who has always been made to feel powerless and not good enough.
Being more qualified and ambitious did not lead to more access to “power”. The barriers that women like me have to overcome still exists. I could change everything about me to ‘assimilate’ better but without a systemic and radical change in the system I could never be everything I am destined to be. So for now, for this jihad, no matter how much my voice falters in the face of violence, adversity, intimidation, discrimination and harassment, it is the power within that I will need to finish this journey of life and for this I’ll only ever need to believe in myself.
*The Arabic term jihad literally means a “struggle” or “striving.” This term appears in the Quran in different contexts and can include various forms of nonviolent struggles: for instance, the struggle to become a better person. This falls under the category of “jihad of the self,” an important subject in Islamic devotional works. Read more here.