BY AMINA- Muslim Women’s Resource Centre AND Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre

Banner image: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She campaigned for votes for women nationally as well as locally in Richmond and Kingston-upon-Thames. She was often seen selling the newspaper The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace where she lived. Image credit: Museum of London

My Big Beating Voice is a partnership project between Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre and Amina – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre. The project works with young ethnic minority and Muslim girls to invest in their voices and support their expression. Using creative and wellbeing tools such as storytelling and self-care activities, as well as exploring political ideology, MBBV nurtures their confidence and encourages their thoughts on the position of ethnic minority women in Scotland today. Funded by The Fawcett Society and Spirit of 2012’s Spirit of Women Changemakers grants programme, the project will culminate in a celebration event in March 2018 which marks the centenary of the suffrage movement’s victory and women over 30 years-old no longer being denied the right to vote.

Over the last two months, My Big Beating Voice (MBBV) has focused on women’s history – learning about the contributions and lives of ethnic minority women who have gone before us. This allowed us to reflect on the importance of whose stories get told, where, and by whom.

We asked the young women and girls taking part in MBBV what they had learned about the Suffragettes in school. One young woman enthusiastically shared everything she knew about the Suffragettes from what she had been taught at school. Others in the group felt they’d rarely been exposed to the subject; and all of them, when asked to picture a Suffragette, pictured the Victorian crinoline dresses, the Green, White and Violet – Give Women Votes – image. None were aware of any women of colour being part of the movement. So we responded in our MBBV workshops by introducing women like Sophia Duleep Singh, who was integral to the Suffragette movement in Britain, and of African, Indian and European ancestry; and Ida B Wells, who fought for Women’s and African American rights in the United States; as well as Frida Kahlo who pushed gender and social boundaries via her creative expression and love of surreal self-portraits.

Watching the young women learn and explore the history of ethnic minority women was revelatory, with participants using their new found knowledge to refer to the women like old friends: ‘Mind the time when Sophia hid that suffragette banner in her posh outfit to get past the police and protest in front of the Prime Minister?’, ‘Or what about when Ida refused to give her up seat and took the rail company to court!’. When asked to respond to the stories of these women who contributed so much to history and culture, and share what they take from them, the young women said things like: ‘Strength’, ‘How to be unique and go against what people think’, ‘Determination’, and feeling ‘Empowered’.

When the conversation came back to the absence of these women’s faces, words and deeds in the history that is taught in schools, the young women’s responses were striking: ‘When they don’t teach us about things women of colour achieved in history, it’s like saying we didn’t make a contribution,’ observed one young woman; ‘And when you don’t teach about the contributions ethnic minority people made or celebrate what we did, it makes it easier to treat us with less value now’. Another added, ‘When people do talk about what ethnic minority people do, it’s only ever the bad things’, highlighting the double standards between reporting on terrorism when the perpetrator is Asian or Arab versus when they are not, and the lack of awareness around the harms of the British Empire and colonialism. It seemed we had come full circle to the question of who gets to tell the story, and how.

Sophia Duleep Singh was the President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after the death of founder, Emmeline Pankhurst, and it was during her term that Queen Victoria approved the proposal for women over 21 to have the same voting rights as men (the prior law in 1918 granted women over 30 the right to vote only). And yet she is often absent from mainstream narratives about the Suffragettes. In March 2018, for the official centenary of women’s right to vote, we will support My Big Beating Voice’s young women to continue to build on the legacy laid by women like Sophia, Ida and Frida, and envisage what changes they want to see in the world. We will support them to be those agents of change for their vision, by positioning their voices and their work in Scottish Parliament. At the time of writing, there are no ethnic minority women MP/MSPs at the Scottish Parliament, and so we see this project as one way to ensure that young ethnic minority women’s voices and views are represented. They have a lot to say, and it is time for their big, beating voices to be heard.

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In April 2017 Amina – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre (MWRC) was awarded a Spirit of Women Changemakers small grant, in partnership with the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre (ERCC). Their project, My Big Beating Voice, aims to provide a safe space for Muslim and/or ethnic minority young women and girls to come together to explore and express their voices and views through creative methods such as creative writing, art and storytelling. Visit the project page here.

Find out more about our Spirit of Women grantees here.