"...they needed to challenge their community on how it perceived BME, working class, Pakistani and Muslim women..."
by Ishah Jawaid, Bootcamp Trainer
When I first met the women of the Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance (REMA), they were working on a project supporting women in the community. The group were frustrated that their local leisure centre had male lifeguards during the women only swimming sessions, and although one or two of them had tried to speak to the centre management individually, nothing had changed. They didn’t know what they could do about it.
I told the group about Campaign Bootcamp’s new Everyday Activism project, a local training programme being piloted in Yorkshire that supports people to learn how to campaign on issues that affect them. I said I could help them work together to build a campaign around their concern and suggested that maybe we start with a problem tree, an activity that helps people understand the root causes as well as the multiple impacts of the problems they face.
The group, about a dozen working-class South Asian Muslim women living in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, quickly realised that the problem was more complex than lifeguards. They began to observe other ways in which the centre was not a safe space for women. The group also saw that there was little space in Rotherham for a broad range of voices to be heard. Too often the local authorities would turn to a few self-appointed ‘community leaders’ to speak on behalf of a large and diverse community.
I began meeting the women once a week on a Monday morning, and through workshops and activities I supported them to learn how to create campaign goals and strategies, how to write a petition and how to organise themselves as a group. The women quickly began setting up their campaign, giving themselves a new name, Women’s Space in Leisure (WSiL).
In a town like Rotherham, which is economically deprived and extremely divided on issues of race and religion, the women recognised that they had multiple barriers to face when working on their campaign. It was not simply the case that they needed to challenge their local leisure centre, they also needed to challenge their community on how it perceived BME, working class, Pakistani and Muslim women–namely the idea that they were passive, uneducated and oppressed.
They started gathering signatures on a petition and launched their campaign at an event at Rotherham United Football ground called `Celebrating Women in Sport’. Although this might be biased, I would definitely say that they were the best received speakers there! The buzz the women created meant that international athlete and Olympic torch bearer, Dana AbdulKarim offered her support.
Many of the women had never done any kind of campaigns work before, and the idea of being involved in one was quite daunting. Some had left school at 16 and had become carers for their children and extended families. They also talked about how they had faced multiple barriers in their lives that made it difficult for them to participate in community work, so the fact that the group was able to start campaigning and were now speaking publicly about it was a great achievement
After gathering a large number of signatures for their petition, they requested a meeting with the local council and the leisure centre management and were invited to meet with representatives of both.
Several of their demands have been met already:
- Staff rotas being amended so that more women lifeguards are available
- New steam room/sauna being built for women to access
- Part of the gym being allocated to women only
- A member of the group being offered free training to become a lifeguard herself
- WSiL being asked to join an advisory board to help the leisure centre improve women’s access to facilities in their current and new centre which is being built.
The women of WSiL have said that because of the Everyday Activism training, they have felt empowered to take back control of issues that have affected them and see that there is so much more they can do. In fact, they have now set up a new project One Voice, an empowerment project that provides support and training to improve access to education for women in Rotherham who otherwise would not have the opportunity to do so.