To celebrate International Women’s Day, this month we pay tribute in our Newsletter to remarkable (extra)ordinary women. What better way to start than by signalling the 20th anniversary of the early death at the age of 40 of a truly remarkable woman, Aqeelah Nazhat Alam (09.08.1957 – 07.07.1998). An unswerving campaigner for the end of oppression and abuse of all kinds, her passion for justice and liberation was born from bitter personal experience – but transcended that experience to become something much more all-embracing.
In 1980s and 90s, Aqeelah was pivotal in setting up the first Asian Young Women’s Project in Islington. One of, if not the first person to go on mainstream British media to explode the widespread myth among Asians that sexual abuse does not happen in ‘our community’. Many, many years before the Rochdale child abuse scandal exploded into the nation’s awareness she told me of a ring of taxi drivers of Pakistani origin based in the region, who were grooming young Asian women – drugging & sexually abusing them, and taking photographs of this abuse in order to control them – she said that the police ‘were not interested’ and did not properly investigate these allegations.
The cohort of radical women who, like Aqeelah, did take girls and young women like these seriously, and did help deliver as many as they could from intolerable situations, did so at risk of their own lives. Death threats and physical violence toward them were not unusual. One of Aqeelah’s closest friends from those days recently recounted them being chased by a group of men brandishing machetes as they escaped with a young woman who was at risk of a forced marriage. However, it should be remembered that clashes with the National Front and later the British National Party, had prepared these women for resilience in the face of such challenges.
It is this generation of women that established projects such as Southall Black Sisters and Newham Asian Womens’ Project. Like many of her peers, Aqeelah was not narrow or sectional in her focus: she was passionate about the united cause of women of the Asian and African diaspora and their common cause with others – such as Irish and Palestinian women – and people of all colours and genders who experienced multiple oppression – racism, sexism, imperialism, expropriation.
Born in Nairobi the eldest daughter in an Indian Muslim working class family, Aqeelah experienced as a child a triple trauma: the death of her father when she was 8; her consequent dispatch to stay with relatives in an England which (it was the 1960s) was characterised by normative racism; and the experience of violent sexual abuse that went unchallenged during the years that followed. All this she survived, only to find that the same rebellious temperament which had probably kept her alive, was so unpalatable to the adults around her who should have been protecting her, that she was no longer welcome in the family home. So it was that at the age of 15 she found herself on the street, and living by her wits alone.
Small wonder, then that when I first met her (aged 32) she was a firebrand, burning with the unquenchable desire to save other women, particularly women of African and Asian descent, from the suffering she had herself endured. She worked by all possible means – mostly unconventional – to rescue girls and young women from forced marriages, coercive control and sexual abuse – but more, she worked to help them nurture a sense of self, of pride, of strength, of fun, of possibility, of freedom.
Personally, she was charismatic, chaotic, argumentative, sometimes overbearing, sometimes too angry and quick to judgment, glamorous, fun loving and very vulnerable in her unguarded moments. She could drink nearly anyone under the table, and dance like the night would never end. She was not fearless, but she was incredibly courageous. She was also big hearted and generous to a fault. As she learned to heal her own childhood wounds, she moved from ‘wide world’ activism towards an activism of inner world and outer relationship healing. She increasingly concerned herself with counselling and spirituality without ever losing her critical perspective upon an unjust world. Aqeelah understood instinctively that we cannot heal ourselves or change the world by simply being against something: we have to know and heal ourselves, and our creativity and spirituality are central to that endeavour. She made masks, wrote poems, found her creative stream. She worked as volunteer co-ordinator at a counselling service for survivors of sexual abuse. And in her latter years she saw counselling clients of all colours and genders who were healing from sexual abuse, violence and coercive control. She was helping them reach for the keys to the prison cell of the soul.
In 1998, Aqeelah died quite suddenly of a very rare congenital brain condition, which had lain dormant and unsuspected since birth. In 40 short years she had lived like a whirlwind. And finally, having never before sustained a relationship, in the last six years of her time on earth, she had found someone with whom to share her life and her innermost thoughts, her dreams and her vulnerabilities, her anger and her aspirations. She learned to sing, to swim and drive, she bought her own home – things that she had longed to do, but which had passed her by earlier on. And she was, at last, planning a family – something she had always dreamed of, but had never before seriously believed possible. It was the greatest honour – and challenge – of my life to be the person with whom she chose to spend those last six transformative years. And it is my privilege to pay her tribute these 20 years later.