A century since some women got the right to vote in Britain, an eruption of women-led movements from Tamara Burke’s #MeToo campaign to the Gulabi Gang, a group of pink sari-clad Indian women fighting sexual violence, have galvanised global attention that the fight for gender equality is far from over.
A spirit of feminist revolt has been ablaze in all corners of the earth since time immemorial, and yet it has often been seen as the preserve of white, middle-class women.
In Bradford, a city which recently hosted the third Women of the World (WOW) Bradford festival that celebrates women and young girls and takes a frank look at the obstacles they face, an uprising of women straddling the fault-lines of class and race continue the fight for equality in all arenas of their lives.
We spoke to three Bradfordian women who have fought and won battles personal and public, the ripple-effects of which have been felt locally, nationally and internationally.
Asma Elbadawi, a spoken-word poet, artist and basketball coach who along with a global collective of activists, helped successfully overturn a ban on religious headgear in professional basketball implemented by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in May 2017.
When did you start playing basketball?
I started playing basketball at university when I realised they had a women’s team. It was something I always wanted to learn, so I decided to join and played with them for two years.
I didn’t wear the hijab then, but in those two years, I only ever saw one girl from Bradford university play with a hijab (headscarf) on. The fact that I saw this one girl from my hometown playing with a hijab gave me this feeling that, “You know what, when you go back to Bradford and you choose to wear your hijab, you can play basketball in Bradford because that community is accepting of Muslim women wearing hijabs”.
Was there any point where you were made to feel your hijab was an obstacle to playing?
I actually didn’t know that the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) had banned professional basketball players from wearing religious headgear. But when I played a game for the Bradford Dragon’s in Wales, the opposition team’s coach said my teammates and I shouldn’t be allowed to play with the hijab on.
It was an interesting conversation because they didn’t involve us in it. But our coach said, “These are my players. This is their faith, and there’s no way I’m not going to let them play.” The opposition team ended up playing against us, but they played under protest. We didn’t win unfortunately but had we won, they could have appealed our win just because of what we were wearing.
How did the campaign #FIBAAllowHijab begin?
A Bosnian-American Muslim basketball player called Indira Kaljo had been campaigning for two years on this. She was a professional basketball player but when she decided to wear the hijab, she was no longer able to play because wearing the hijab was seen as a danger to players according to FIBA’s regulations at the time. She wanted more women to get involved with a petition she created on change.org to strengthen our voice and tell the world about the ban.
Once we started sharing our petition, the signatures and the media coverage avalanched and over 132,000 people from around the world signed the petition. We started the petition in May 2016. On May 4th 2017, FIBA approved the rule change to permanently allowed players to wear religious headgear, but the ban wasn’t lifted until October 2017.
What words of advice do you have for other young women like yourself who want to get involved in sports but are reluctant?
A lot of Muslim women have said to me, “I joined a basketball team, but I was the only other visibly Muslim woman there. Everyone else was white, so I stopped going.” But I thought to myself, “Do you know how many people came and did the exact same thing as you, but no one stayed long enough for the next person to come? Before you know it, there would have been a diverse team for them to join that day, but people were too scared to be the first to do it.”
The more people see you doing something, the more they join in. It’s a ripple effect. My biggest piece of advice would be don’t be afraid to be the first. Whether that’s the first hijabi on the team, the first woman on the job, whatever it is, don’t be afraid to be the first person to do it.
Fiona Broadfoot, an activist, campaigner and sex trade survivor who was groomed into prostitution at the age of 15 and left after 11 years. She won a High Court battle in March 2018 to no longer have to disclose working in the sex trade to future employers, a process which she said criminalises women and is in breach of human rights.
What motivates your activism and advocacy work?
There’re high levels of women who have been involved in the sex trade who suffer with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or are murdered. My cousin were only 17 when she were murdered. So many women are silenced either through mental health, chronic drug addiction, PTSD or murder and I haven’t been, so I think it’s my duty to speak out for the murdered women, the women who have been groomed to be sexually ready, to be porn ready by society.
Why did you decide to go to court to get prostitution decriminalised?
The law is so archaic and so misogynist, it criminalises women for prostitution. I exited that world, I’ve had a beautiful son, I’ve done so much work with vulnerable girls and women and trained professionals across the globe, but I still have an eight-page double sided document that describes me as a “common prostitute”. I was a child when I was criminalised, but I was a still vulnerable adult after, so it was not a choice.
None of the men who ever bought me for sex were ever accountable. Their lives, their wives and their children aren’t affected. But scores of women are living in absolute misery because of ridiculous criminal records they should never had had in first place. They don’t dare tell their partners or their children about their past. Many of these women were victims, many of them sexually abused as children, so these women were already groomed and ready for the sex trade. That’s why I fight, for the hundreds of women who contact me daily because they’re locked in abuse.
What do you think of the language used to describe women involved in the sex-trade?
I never use the term “sex worker”. I find it really offensive because the people who coined that phrase have never experienced what I have. Using that terminology gives permission for men and supports men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. I don’t call women involved in the sex-trade “prostitutes”. Prostitution is an act. I’m not a “prostitute”, I never was a “prostitute”, I was prostituted. I will say “women in prostitution” instead and people say that it sounds long and complicated, but “sex work” normalises and legitimises it. Language and terminology are really key. Once you change that narrative, people see the sex trade for what it is, which is violence against women and girls.
Jodie Ravina Champaneria, speaking on behalf of her grandmother Champa about her journey migrating from Kenya to Bradford, to set up a successful shop that became well-known in the city.
Tell us about Champa. How did your grandmother get to Bradford?
My grandmother Champa was born in Kenya in 1938. She was one of seven sisters brought up by her mother as their father died when the girls were very young. My great-grandma made a living by preparing 3 meals a day, 7 days a week for Indian railway workers. Champa was taught to work hard from a very young age, but she always told me she had a wholesome upbringing with a lot of respect and freedom. She had 2 children by age 22, and shortly moved to Bradford with just £50 in her pocket.
What did your grandmother do once she settled in Bradford?
She opened her own business single-handedly within just a few years of arriving, and she also cared for her youngest son who had Muscular Dystrophy. There were many difficulties during her journey to get to this point - mostly people telling her she couldn't do it, including her own partner and a previous boss who often made racist comments. Her shop on Girlington road was very successful and it brought her a lot of respect.
How has your grandmother’s life impacted you?
I'm lucky to have so many strong women in my family and I would say Champa is very central to ours. She looked after me when I was younger when my parents weren’t around. She is humble and determined and I really admire this. I think also with myself being of mixed heritage, she helps me connect with and be proud of our culture.
As a Bradfordian, what are your thoughts on what people outside of Bradford make of the city?
Sometimes people who have never set foot in our city dismiss it; but then again they don't know about the rich history, the people that have come to make Bradford what it is, or the way it really is a progressive city with some of the most grounded, kindest people I know. I know my family didn’t want to leave Kenya, but much like many other families, they made Bradford their home wholeheartedly. I think at a time when the wider society is experiencing a lot of turbulence, it is important to come together and listen to each other.