Final Word interview: Syma Ahmed, Glasgow Women's Library

08 June 2021
Syma Ahmed, BME Women’s Project Development Officer at Glasgow Women’s Library, talks to us on the tenth anniversary of the She Settles in the Shields project, which explores the of experiences BAME migrant families, focusing particularly on women

What makes Glasgow such a great city for a project such as BME Women’s Project?

Glasgow is ranked as one of the most friendly and welcoming cities in Britain. Valuing everyone, regardless of their background, Glasgow has also been named the cultural and creative epicentre of the UK by the European Commission, coming first in the ‘openness, tolerance and trust’ and ‘cultural participation’ categories. 

At Glasgow Women’s Library we take pride in celebrating the lives and contributions of those who have chosen to make Glasgow their home. For the past ten years we have been dedicated to developing the BAME Women’s Project. By offering a space for BAME women to learn, explore their creativity and document their stories, we have been able to work together to create a rich collection of books and archive materials which are representative of the diverse communities that reside in Glasgow.

Could you tell us more about the women’s organisations and projects that have existed for migrant women in Glasgow over the decades, particularly the earliest settlers?

There was very little available for early settlers in the 1960/70s. Although a few community projects supporting migrant women started to appear in the 80s, they often lacked capacity and resources. Unfortunately, this led to the needs of BAME women falling on to the shoulders of only one or two female workers who were in the area (not exactly feasible with a growing population).

Luckily, in the early 90s, several BAME female workers and community champions joined forces and established Meridian —the first BAME women’s resource centre in Glasgow. A thriving space that welcomed hundreds of BAME women through its doors, Meridian provided an opportunity for these women to develop skills, gain qualifications, train for employment and enjoy a programme of social and recreational activities. BAME women were able to flourish and for many the centre was a stepping stone that led to empowerment and independence.

What would you say were the broad differences between the experiences of women migrants and their male counterparts? 

The initial struggles for first generation migrants were survival and learning to cope in an unfamiliar country. They went through considerable emotional and financial hardship, often feeling alone and isolated. Migrant men and women took on traditional gender roles upon arrival in the UK, with men becoming the main breadwinners while women retained their traditional responsibilities of housework and looking after children and the extended family. This allowed for migrant men to integrate better into society due to their employment. On the other hand, integration was harder for migrant women due to language barriers, which meant there was a lack of opportunity for personal development and interaction with the outside world. 

Migrant families were keen to retain their culture and exercise religious practices through setting up institutions and classes that catered to the needs of men and children, but not women. With men at the forefront, women were working overtime in the background - beyond their caring and teaching roles - to set up community projects to cater for their own needs. 

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Women’s lives and contributions have always been neglected in society compared to their male counterparts; with migrant women further marginalised in this respect.

She Settles in the Shields, which is approaching its 10th anniversary, includes tales of both challenging periods and times of celebration for those early migrants. Were there any stories that really stayed with you? 

She Settles in the Shields is a wonderful project documenting the lives of migrant women who settled in the Pollokshields – a vibrant and multicultural area in Glasgow. We interviewed over 30 women and I loved listening to each and every one of them. I felt a great amount of respect for the early migrants who shared their colourful life experience between the two continents. Migrant women experienced many hardships settling in a new country so different to their own but they were determined for their children to have a better quality of life. Through sacrifice and hard work, they encouraged their children to integrate into Scottish society while still maintaining their cultural roots. I felt extremely proud listening to the women who took it upon themselves to develop community projects in Pollokshields that catered for the needs of women and children.

Growing up in Pollokshields proved beneficial for this project as I was so familiar with the area and community. My first interview was with my own grandmother, Hajira Bibi. I was in awe listening to her life story in its entirety and learned so many new things about her. This is where my love for oral history blossomed and I encourage everyone to take the time out to document the stories of their loved ones. 

Another story I was drawn to was that of Octavia Johnson. While many stories are from economic migrants, Octavia and her husband - who was a church minister in Pakistan - were specially invited by the Church of Scotland in the early 60s to move to Pollokshields and support Pakistani Christians with language barriers. Her family was housed in the heart of the community where she continued to support her husband in his work as well as establishing initiatives to support other migrants in the area. 

This October, Glasgow Women’s Library will be celebrating ten years since She Settles in the Shields was first published. We will be hearing from second and third generation BAME women from migrant families in Pollokshields and sharing their lives and stories for everyone to enjoy.