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The Sari Squad, Stri Shakti and Enlarging Capacities.

In Real Life on January 20


“I do not allow myself to be overcome by hopelessness, no matter how tough the situation. I believe that if you just do your little bit without thinking of the bigness of what you stand against, if you turn to the enlargement of your own capacities, just that itself creates new potential.” Vandana Shiva.

On the 21st January 2017, around 1 million women will be sharing their Stri Shakti – woman power and strength – around the world, inspired by Women’s March Washington. Initially organised as a response to the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the idea has spiralled in to a passionate stance for all human rights and funadamental freedoms, for what we have achieved so far and what yet has to be done and to counter all forms of discrimination, inequality and divisive politics.

“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.Jo Cox

Personally, 2017 is not a year for me to remain silent. With Trump’s inauguration today and the looming doom of Brexit, I will be marching in London, exhilarated by striding alongside fellow women and men who believe that change for the better is possible. It is.

Last year was BIG, politically and personally. After the Brexit vote and the tsunami of anti-immigration rhetoric I felt I was dragged back to a 1970’s/80’s discourse about race, immigration and far right activity. Internally kicking and screaming, for the first time in years as I turned up at work in a Brexit stronghold, I acutely felt the colour of my skin, the way I did as a kid in 1970’s Sheffield. I realised that for quite a few years I was ‘just me’ and people had stopped asking me ‘do you eat with your fingers’ (no, I use my toes) and ‘do you have to have an arranged marriage?’ (check my roots, I’m practically fossilised in the world of arranged marriages).  Fortunately, I worked with an open and politically aware bunch of colleagues who were keen to discuss the vote and it’s impact.

Yet, there I was again, 6 years old and walking down Glossop Road with my sister, being told ‘go home Paki’ by 2 skinheads. I turned around and shouted back ‘I am home’ whilst my sister told me to shut up worried we would be attacked. Small girl. Big gob. Enlarging capacities to stand up for myself.

11 years old and having a football kicked deliberately at my head and then kicked in the back, ‘go home’. I told Dad. Dad told me to tell them – ‘I was born here, this is my home. I’m here because you were there’. So I did. They didn’t understand it but they left me alone. Small girl. Big Gob.

14 years old, 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s ranting about immigration (again) and after being repeatedly verbally abused by the prettiest girl in school with big boobs I packed my Cadbury pencil tin with pens, put it in a carrier bag and the next time she ‘took the piss’ I swung it at her head. She never bothered me again. Neither did anyone else. But it was me who ended up in the Headmaster’s office. Me who was the problem. Small girl. Big Gob.

“That amazing power of being able to stand with total courage in the face of total power and not be afraid. That is Stri Shakti.” Vanadana Sharma

Teenage me was bursting with anger, confusion and frustration. I channelled this by becoming vegetarian, exploring animal rights, anti-racism, graffiti’ing the entire cubicle wall of one of the girls’ toilets at school, increasing my truanting and marching at Greenham Common and Molesworth against nuclear weapons, shaking fences and helping to bounce a police car. Mum and Dad thought I was on school trips during these demonstrations. I had a lucky escape once when my sister spotted me in a news clip on the evening news, marching obliviously at Greenham Common across the TV screen.

“If we were to lose the ability to be emotional, if we were to lose the ability to be angry, to be outraged, we would be robots. And I refuse that.Arundhati Roy

Around this same time riots were exploding across the country and unbeknownst to me in the industrial North,  a small group of women were doing their little bit to fight extremism in London:

“Then there was the legendary Sari Squad. These were women, mainly of South Asian origin, who were experts in various martial arts and ready and willing to take on any racists who would try and spoil our fun. They founght with style, and would usually burst in to song after seeing off any attackers.” Benjamin Zephaniah. 

As Zephaniah describes them they seem like a bunch of super-shero Asian woman swooping in to defend humanity. In my imagination, I see The Sari Squad with rolling pins and chapatti pans, taking off their rubber flip flops to fight off the thugs. They were political, defiant and inclusive. I wish I could’ve been there, been part of their squad. Collaborative sisters for justice. I wonder where they are now?  (above is the only image I could find of the Sari Squad on the google)

By cosmic flukery I was born female. I was Mum and Dad’s great fourth hope and expectations were high. The youngest sibling of 2 sisters and 1 brother. Instead of popping out with a penis I popped out with a vagina. Sorry Mum and Dad but I reckon on an intergalactic level you chose this and so did I. Us Indians, we love males. So much so that there are too many of them now in India and there are not enough wives. Hope you are learning your lesson – the world needs women.

Expectations for us daughters were low growing up, both within the family and within school. But for  reasons that became apparent to me later, we weren’t forced in to the kitchen to cook or do the housework.  Instead we followed hobbies, from soul music to writing to sewing (as long as they were home based hobbies!). We all became quietly rebellious in our own ways. At school my eldest sister was encouraged to become a secretary. She went on to gain degrees in politics and social work. My middle sister was told she wasn’t clever enough to do O-levels. She went on to complete nurse training, a degree and ran A & E departments.  I was told by the school careers officer that I could not become a writer and by the teacher that I could not stay at school to do A -levels. Well, you all know where I am now! And no, none of us had arranged marriages.

“The most common way people give up ther power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Alice Walker 

We were enlarging capacities, creating new potential. New potentialities = a powerful weapons of mass construction.

You see, the personal is political. The political is personal. My life has been defined by race, gender, cultural patriarchy and god knows what else. I cannot escape either in the eyes of the bigger world out there and the 1970’s/1980’s rhetoric I grew up in that tried to diminish my power. Yet, I am thankful for each and everyone of these experiences. They made me strong, the made me rebel. They made me in to a woman with a Big Gob. They taught me compassion and to fight for the underdog. They made me resilient and able to stand on my own two feet. I absolutely love men but I don’t need one to support me. I am the sum of the cultural, historical, political, social, ecomonimc his-tory but I’ve made it my her-story.  I love being who I am with the ever evolving identity I have. All of this has given me the courage to live just a little bit bigger everyday.  Small woman. Big Gob. Doing my little bit. Doing people’s heads in regularly. Ha!

So tomorrow I am marching for all the wayfinders who came before me. For my mother, my grandmothers and ancestors who paved the way for me to enjoy the extraordinary freedoms I am priveledged enough to experience.  And for all the women (and men) who are still fighting for their fundamental rights and freedoms across this world. I am an idealist but a realist. And that realism often overwhelms me. So I’ll concentrate on doing my little bit for now with no expectations for where it may lead. Maybe it’s time for The Sari Squad to make a comeback?

“I function like a free being. I think getting that freedom is a social duty becasue I think we owe it to each other without prescriptions and demands. I think what we owe each other is a celebration of life and to replace fear and hopelessness with fearlessness and joy.” Vandana Sharma

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