The African woman: her visibility and invisibility in Scotland

Zeedah Meirghofer Mangel

How the idea was born

15 years ago, I went through what was to be the first of many trials of life as migrant women. I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, followed soon after by a second daughter. The stress of trying to become ” assimilated” which means invisible, nappies and sterilising of bottles, and getting dinner ready by 1800, soon developed into what I feel was my first sensitising to life as a Black migrant, female, living in a white patriarchal society.

There was no family net to fall back onto when questions about marriage or up bringing of my child arose. The neighbours viewed me with suspicion and kept their polite distance, my parents in law “minded their own business ” (which can be interpreted as selfish indifference in the African context I grew up in). I remember being pregnant up to my neck , and trying to buy maternity trousers. The sales lady kept answering my husband. He got all the attention the service. The society at large expected me to adapt, be seen (and pointed at ) but definitely not heard, to be friendly and always accommodating. My values were considered inferior and I was constantly criticised for the discipline I was teaching my children, as this is a very anti authoritarian society. In this society, I was defined solely through my husband, his language, his society, his values and his standing as a male. Despite my lovely colour, my kinky hair, my bright coloured clothes, I was not visible.

It was a constant battle to sensitise my immediate environment, in-laws, well-meaning relatives and of course my husband. I spent more time doing awareness of work than cooking and cleaning. I fought outside and I fought indoors. (The public was also very private!)

My rich African culture, which gave me five names was neutralised, and I was reduced to no name, just a skin colour. I felt angry, homesick and quite worthless. Invisible.

When my daughter started learning her alphabet in primary one (8years ago) the teacher knew no word for the letter N other than Nigger, accompanied, of course, the matching drawing we all know so well. The teacher’s reaction to my complaint was that I am too sensitive. Which meant, please don’t cause a fuss, stay invisible, stay quiet.

 

Identifying some of the problems Black women face

15 years ago, I went through what was to be the first of many trials of life as migrant women. I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, followed soon after by a second daughter. The stress of trying to become ” assimilated” which means invisible, nappies and sterilising of bottles, and getting dinner ready by 1800, soon developed into what I feel was my first sensitising to life as a Black migrant, female, living in a white patriarchal society.

There was no family net to fall back onto when questions about marriage or up bringing of my child arose. The neighbours viewed me with suspicion and kept their polite distance, my parents in law “minded their own business ” (which can be interpreted as selfish indifference in the African context I grew up in). I remember being pregnant up to my neck , and trying to buy maternity trousers. The sales lady kept answering my husband. He got all the attention the service. The society at large expected me to adapt, be seen (and pointed at ) but definitely not heard, to be friendly and always accommodating. My values were considered inferior and I was constantly criticised for the discipline I was teaching my children, as this is a very anti authoritarian society. In this society, I was defined solely through my husband, his language, his society, his values and his standing as a male. Despite my lovely colour, my kinky hair, my bright coloured clothes, I was not visible.

It was a constant battle to sensitise my immediate environment, in-laws, well-meaning relatives and of course my husband. I spent more time doing awareness of work than cooking and cleaning. I fought outside and I fought indoors. (The public was also very private!)

My rich African culture, which gave me five names was neutralised, and I was reduced to no name, just a skin colour. I felt angry, homesick and quite worthless. Invisible.

When my daughter started learning her alphabet in primary one (8years ago) the teacher knew no word for the letter N other than Nigger, accompanied, of course, the matching drawing we all know so well. The teacher’s reaction to my complaint was that I am too sensitive. Which meant, please don’t cause a fuss, stay invisible, stay quiet.

 

Assessing the needs

I was convinced that there were other women out there who felt like I did, who wanted to change things, who were fed up of being violated or marginalised simply because of their gender or skin colour. I wanted to know whether others also felt we needed our own space and a reachable base which we could contact when in need.

I took to smiling at every Black woman I met, exchanging addresses where possible. And so slowly forming an informal base of contacts. Sometimes in restaurants, or in each other homes. I found myself fighting teachers, other women’s husbands, “interfering in marriages” (by giving women the addresses of a women’s counselling post) going to playgrounds and fighting my children’s battle with them. I sometimes had a catalyst function, sometimes I woke sleeping dogs.

I decided to structures a base for Black women. I needed to find out where they were, the why’s and the what’s. Many of the women I talked to during this needs assessment had been trafficked or were in very abusive situations. Many were lonely and isolated, and there were women too, who wanted to change things, take a participatory role in their new home country, women who wanted to contribute to the society they were bringing their children up in. Many like me were angry and frustrated, others were in denial, and many of the women were so depressed or low, they had given up and reconciled themselves with their abusive situations.

There were also discourses which had to held amongst Black women’s some of us are our own worst enemies, Black women were joining in the “stoning of their own kind” Education for the women was urgent.

 

It was high time to give Black women in Switzerland space and build a lobby!

The thing which further encouraged me at the early phase starting the centre, was my visit to London in 1989 to attend the Akina Mama African Women’s Conference. I was so overwhelmed and proud to see Black women organise themselves. The women in London were not only competent and professional, but they were also out to encourage others to organise themselves.

(Until today, the AMWA has remained the God-Mother of our centre, my personal weeping wall, our Resource persons, trainers and mentors and our staunchest supporters. This solidarity keeps me strong and balanced and focused)

I returned from London very motivated and full of courage.

Creating space and influencing policy:

But having a centre is one thing, influencing policy another.

To be a Black migrant woman in a country where the indigenous woman has only had the vote for 28 years is a constant challenge. (E.g. The political activism of a wife was grounds for divorce and some women only got voting rights 5 years ago). Further, Switzerland is not in the EU, is not part of the UN or NATO. This political isolation makes basic rights an exception because many of the migrant laws are being challenged for the first time.

Becoming politically active was a logical step for me. The revision of laws which we worked on, fought against on the grassroots level have to be implemented. I don’t feel I’m doing anything new, but I am definitely doing it on a different level. And the struggle continues. In the 1995 national election, I was on the candidate’s list and ran for the National visible, non-derogatory level, and giving other Black Women motivation and encouraging self-esteem.

It was a very enriching and invigorating experience. I know that it is possible and that the analysis’s we have done have to be put into actions. Black women can speak for themselves and for others.

5 years later

A practised Team

A recognised service about 5 new women every week

Aims ref. Paper, + court, translations, police, political activism, mentoring

Benefit Gala

Acknowledgement ( Award and funding from the govt. and city)

Photo exhibition

Sale of cards, pepper.

 

Challenges and Strategies to overcome them.

Isolation: Remember that you do not alone find and develop nets with women who have similar aims and ideas.

Professionalism: Starting informally is fine, but don’t forget that implementation requires concept and structure.

Be serious (e.g. transparent, informed,)

Self-empowerment: What is public is very much private. You can’t help whilst need assistance yourself. E.g. Violence

Staying on the ball: Get any training you need. Stay conversant with your issues, learn how to push your causes (this includes meetings such as this, seminars, loads of reading, Internet etc.)

Networking: Make and Cultivate nets with other women. This is very useful for the purpose of knowing where their resources are and which how to best tap which ones

Self Management: Stay focused and assertive and be patient.

Ambition is healthy: Don’t be afraid to voice your visions, no matter how impossible or utopian they may seem. You won’t know until you try.

Friends: Find moral support. Activism can be lonely work you may become unpopular as you must sometimes muddy the waters. There will be envious people, including some of your contemporaries. Find and activate supporters

Lost Causes: learn to cut your losses, some dead horses can’t be flogged and we can learn and we can learn from mistakes

Me, Myself and I Look after your physical and mental health. Spoil your self every now and then. Don’t be afraid to moan or gripe. Be kind of yourself.

 

Celebration

As I look back at the last 15 years of this work, I celebrate the success and the experience.

 

I celebrate the failure and pain which made me strong and more determined, I celebrate the strength and solidarity of other women doing similar work globally.

 

I celebrate Akina Mama Wa Africa always supporting and encouraging me. I celebrate the continuing efforts to make Black women strong and independent.

 

I celebrate the 2 young women (my daughters) who have sat sulking in corners while I had meetings, or listened patiently as I talked, yet again, about the importance of awareness and solidarity or helped me lick envelopes and stamps, fold leaflets and clean the centre or were sleeping on my lap while I wrote press statements or encouraged me by not complaining that they were yet again having leftovers and yoghurt.

 

I celebrate my husband who learnt to love yoghurt and leftovers I celebrate the donors who believe in our work I celebrate the new images I have learnt to appreciate about African Women.

 

I celebrate my Scottish link, which helps train me to deal with racism I celebrate the future African women leaders because I know where they were trained and who them I celebrate the many women in Switzerland who listen to the message of solidarity and growth, I celebrate the team members of the centre in Zurich

 
I celebrate 5 years of growing and getting stronger

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