The story of Mrs Phule and Fatima Sheikh

Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh

Even an ordinary person in India today would probably not know those names.

So you are forgiven for wondering: who are they?
They were 2 phenomenal women,

One Hindu, a Dalit, that is an untouchable, the other a Muslim.

Nearly 2 centuries ago they united, despite their different background and religion, against the culture of patriarchy and misogyny which ruled unhindered in their time.

They challenged the barbaric practices and oppression of men, such as female
infanticide and the killing of widows.

Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh rebelled against the beliefs that the sole purpose of women was to belong to men, as chattel, first to their fathers then to their husbands. That women had no need for education.

They fought against the views that the only value of women was in the dowry they
brought into a marriage and the siring of sons. Sons, not daughters.

Those two phenomenal women sparked an early movement for women’s rights in a
country where there were none.

SP and her husband were chased out of their house, for their opinions and their
work. They took refuge with Fatima Sheikh. This in itself was a challenge to the
common beliefs on caste and religion.

Together they set up the first school which educated women of all caste and religion, a first practical step towards abolishing caste and gender discrimination. They were the first female teachers in India, one Hindu and one muslim. They showed the way and other women followed and continued their work.

As the decades went by, through the 19 th century and into the 20th , the legal environment started to put in place legislation to support women. There is a long list of acts of law to map the small but significant steps of progress.

Despite all this, culture and social education still lag behind today. Nowadays barbaric acts committed on Indian soil reach a global audience and we are horrified. Yet is it surprising that such male attitudes remain when you know that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work act did not come into force until 2013.

One shining glimpse of hope is the International Day of the Girl Child. This is seriously respected in India, especially in schools, colleges and education. We can but hope that things are changing for the better.

Marie Paule Sheard

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By the time I was born
She’d already lived through two World Wars
And had false teeth and grey hair
I saw her often and ate a mountain of her blackcurrant jelly and coconut pyramids
But it took many years before I really got to know her

My granddad was a centre of attention kind of guy
And she was like a bit part player, bringing in the tea from the kitchen.
After he died she lived alone on the ground floor of the house they’d rented
In north London, near the old Arsenal football ground
The rest of the house was let to lodgers.

I was playing in a band and Holly, the drummer who was from LA
Needed somewhere to store her kit, so I asked my nan.
She didn’t mind, she said she wasn’t using the living room anyway…
Nor did she mind if we turned up around midnight to drop it off.
She was always ready with tea and biscuits and we’d sit and chat with her.
This was nearly half a century ago and Holly, a long time back in LA still remembers it
Apparently she really enjoyed the sitting and chatting with my nan.

I guess I’d taken her for granted,
And I was quite surprised to hear that in her eighties
She was a woman who had fears but also still had dreams.
She loved what me and Holly were doing and
Wanted to hear all the stories we had to tell, well maybe not all of them.

A bit late in the day I know, but for me she’d suddenly become a real person.
And I was sorry I hadn’t found her earlier.
I was sure she had a lot more to say and now we were running out of time.

She told me a story often repeated in her family
Of how angry her mother was with her father who was drunk
When he registered her birth and got her name wrong.
So a few years later, when my daughter was born,
I took my nan’s intended name and gave it to her.
Seemed like it was the best I could do.

Jackie Parsons

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CHOCOLATE CAKE and ATOM BOMBS (or Less Bombs, More Cake)

Theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer diagnosed with tuberculosis
Moves to the high desert country of New Mexico to recuperate.
Two months before the US enters World War II
Franklin D Roosevelt approves the development of the atom bomb
And is of the opinion if the Allies don’t get there first
The Axis powers will, so the race is on.

Oppenheimer is now part of the Manhattan Project
And when looking for a secure location for their top secret laboratory
Has no hesitation in suggesting the area around Los Alamos
Seven thousand five hundred feet above sea level,
North of the state’s capital Santa Fe

Edith Warner, Baptist, teacher, and maker of cake
Came to New Mexico to recover from a breakdown
And is running a tea room at the railway station near Los Alamos
Robert, a regular visitor, looks forward to his slice
Of the best chocolate cake he’s ever eaten.

The US military are concerned with secrecy and security
So they requisition the town of Los Alamos
Closing it to anyone not working there.
Edith and the laboratory workers
Fear for the future of their precious escape.

Thanks to Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi
The powers that be agree to allow
Edith Warner’s ‘The House by the River’ to not only remain,
But for those working on the terrifying destructive power
That will change the world forever,
An extra room is added to serve dinner at $2 per person
And in respect of Edith’s beliefs – no alcohol

Jackie Parsons

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Woman Life Freedom

Woman Life Freedom is a Kurdish slogan, a rallying cry challenging violent patriarchal deadly authoritarian government . Used during the protests which erupted in Iran as a response to the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2023.My poem is about women fighting for freedom, for the right to vote, to have an abortion, contraception, to say no or yes to sex, their choice, to wear what they like, to cover or uncover their hair, their bodies, to march, and shout aloud, in UK, US, Iran ,Nigeria, Afghanistan etc etc etc, millions of phenomenal women.

Woman Life Freedom
Her body was not yours,
her mind her own.
Her right to place a mark
by the politicians’ name she chose
hard won by those wild women
long ago; long skirts stained from dragging
in the dirt of prison yards; throats
too sore to swallow from gagging
on long rubber hose; stomachs drowned
in liquid-force-fed-mush; they fought on;

Their bodies were not yours.
Lillian Lenten lighting fires,
Mary Richardson smashing windows,
Emmaline Pankhurst teetering
on the edge of death-by-hunger,
Emily Davison killed by royal hooves,
Sylvia, Adela, and Christabel,
willing to win by any means
with ‘nothing off the table’
so just the fight they fought, and won

Her body is not yours.
Her womb her own to guard
from seed sown carelessly
and new life she cannot bear
amongst the stony, US soil
of resentment and despair.
Her choice alone, her right to have sex
or say NO, resist and fight for life.

Their bodies were not yours.
women in their thousands in Iran
on Women’s Day in ‘79
reject the hijab, face the threat ‘death to the unveiled.’
Masih Alinejad, Fatemeh Sepehri,
proclaim once more in 2023
their hair, their clothes, their own to wear,
to cover or uncover as they choose,
while Mahsa Amini dies in captivity
in the hands of male
guardians of ‘morality.’

Our bodies are not yours.
Our words our own to shout aloud.
All around the world, our rights
are under threat, but we stand firm,
our history erupts like lava flows
to burn away the lies, the silence, and the chokeholds
on our freedom.

Drusilla Long

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Sestina – Mother and Child

She sits and looks at her child,
looks with love at her child, disabled.
The Mother, single, looks through laughter,
then through tears.
She, the one who cares.
She, the one who fears.

Why the fears?
Because she, alone, looks upon her child.
Because she’s the one who cares.
Her life also disabled.
And so, the tears,
and so, the laughter.

The child, cushioned with love and laughter.
Whilst the mother hides her fears,
she laughs through her tears,
as she looks upon her child.
Her child called disabled.
Is she the only one who cares?

The child knows no cares,
immersed in her laughter.
Unaware she is disabled,
oblivious to the fears.
Destined to be forever an innocent,
whilst her mother’s heart tears.

In time there are less tears,
the mother slowly feels less cares.
No change in the child,
but now more fun and laughter.
The different life, the mother once wished for,
fades, her life difficult but not disabled.

Onlookers may see her life as disabled.
Cruel people can cause the tears.
But mother and child live freely, without fears.
They shrug off their daily cares,
with fun and with laughter.
And Mum enjoys her child.

Disabled, yes, but full of cares?
Tears yes, but also laughter.
Fears yes, but also fun. Mother and child.

Malcolm Henshall

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You pass a woman in the street,
not a second glance given,
so ordinary,
nothing special,
But, she is a nurse,
saves lives,
comforts the dying.
She is phenomenal.

Look at her over there,
dressed smartly,
but no different
to many others.
Ordinary, not special.
But she is a social worker,
protects children,
suffers abuse.
She is phenomenal

Another sits opposite you on the bus,
she looks tired, worn down.
Aren’t we all, you think?
She’s nothing special, ordinary.
But she is a carer,
cares for those
who no one wants to care for,
with pay that no one
wants to work for.
She is phenomenal.
They, and many others, are phenomenal.

Malcolm Henshall

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“You’re an angle,”
the drunken man said
at 3.30am, in A&E.
“An angle?” the nurse replied.
“You’re an angel, an angel” he slurred
“Don’t suppose angels have to use food banks,”
she muttered.
“I clapped for you,” he said
“Well thank you, she said,
but applause don’t pay the bills.”
“Do you know what might have helped though?” she asked
“You not getting drunk and falling over,
then this angel wouldn’t have had to float down and see to you”.
“But you’ll forgive me, he said
because you are an angel.”
“No, I’m not,
just an ordinary woman, mother
trying to do my best.”
“Not an angel then,
but allow me to say…
you are phenomenal

Malcolm Henshall 

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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

The phenomenal woman I highlight here is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and I also give a nod to the phenomenal feminists of the 1970’s who helped preserve Elizabeth’s legacy.

Elizabeth Garrett was born in 1836 in Whitechapel. When she was 5, her father moved the family back to his native Suffolk and as there were no schools locally, she received little formal education until she was 13, when her father had made enough money to send  Elizabeth and her sister to boarding school in London.

After leaving school, Elizabeth continued to read widely, study Latin and Maths, and take a keen interest in politics.

She was determined to become a doctor, but as women were barred from the profession, she initially trained to be a nurse and paid for extra lessons in anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Despite this, her applications to several medical schools in England and Scotland were all rejected. Undeterred, Elizabeth discovered a route through the Society of Apothecaries and on passing their exams in 1865, she obtained a licence to practise medicine.

She set up a free treatment dispensary for women and was made visiting physician at the East London Hospital, but her qualification was still considered inferior to a medical degree. Discovering the Medical School at the Sorbonne in Paris would admit women, Elizabeth taught herself French, enrolled on their course and completed it successfully in 1870, although the British Medical Register still refused to recognise her qualification.

Nonetheless, she founded the ‘New Hospital for Women’ and staffed it entirely with women. More women were demanding the right to become doctors, so Elizabeth established the ‘London School of Medicine for Women’ to train them. In 1876, the BMR was forced by act of parliament, to admit women to the medical profession.

Elizabeth was also active in the Suffrage Movement, organising petitions and marches, taking part in raids on the House of Commons and speaking on a lecture tour with Annie Kenny. When she retired from medicine and moved back to Suffolk, Elizabeth remained politically active and was elected mayor, the first female in Britain to hold that office. Other ‘firsts’ included: becoming the first female Dean of a British Medical School and the first woman to sit on the London School Board.

Elizabeth died in 1917 and the hospital she founded was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in her honour. It continued to function as a women only hospital in its Victorian premises on Euston Road.

However, in the 1970’s, Camden Health Authority decided the hospital wasn’t viable. It was ‘too small’, ‘too old’ – ‘women only’ was divisive and anyway, big was better!

Nurses were no longer allowed to train at the Elizabeth Garrett and the premises were left to deteriorate; for example, the lift broke down and wasn’t repaired, which meant operations couldn’t be performed as the upper floors weren’t accessible.

In 1976, Barbara Castle, Minister of State for Health and Social Security in the Labour government, signed the closure order. This sparked an outcry from numerous women’s organisations across the land, and from many high profile female commentators and politicians, including the leader of HM’s Opposition, and several male peers in the House of Lords. Debates took place in parliament and angry petitions were signed.

Staff, fearful that patients or equipment would suddenly be moved to other hospitals, occupied the building and festooned it with defiant flags. Outside, hundreds of women, including myself, mounted regular noisy protests, waving our homemade banners and singing revolutionary songs. The battle raged for 3 years, but in 1979, an unimaginable first: Britain’s first female prime minister reversed the closure, reinstated funding and Elizabeth’s feminist flagship thrived for another 20 years, before finally being subsumed into University College Hospital.

The building near Euston station remains though, still bearing its founder’s name, and is now the HQ of the UK’s largest trade union, Unison, which represents 1.3 million public service workers.

Barbara Lawton

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She Little but she Tallawa

She Little But She Tallawa is a poem about an Eighteenth century Jamaican heroine, Nanny, small and wiry. ‘Tallawa’ means strong. She was trafficked from Ghana to Jamaica to become a slave. But once there, fought her way free and using guerrilla tactics successfully fought the British over many years whilst setting up Maroon communities and armies in the Blue Mountains. The Maroons were a formidable army who defeated the British over decades, attacked plantations and freed slaves. This led to a treaty with the British, who granted them 5 hundred acres and their freedom but at a cost; against her wishes, her siblings agreed to help track and return runaway slaves. Rebel groups from the Asante tribe were common throughout the Caribbean and South America.

She grabs the cudgel
Armed and ready
Looks to the hills
Where she will plough her own furrow

Desperation bleeds hope
Steals the lock
Door opens
Smells freedom

Though hell will run her down
She not looking back
Run, run,
Through river
Down gully
Dash way the scent of blood-thirsty
Bloodhounds and bloodier men

Up, up the mountain
Deep into the impenetrable forest
Scrabble, slither and slide
Gather herbs
Plait branches
Lay traps
‘Come if you bad.’

‘Is war you waant
Is war you gwine get.’

Higher she climbs
Scaling the ridge
To a world where she makes the rules
Where she will decide what to plant
When to harvest
When to sleep
When to wake
Free from whip-laced exhaustion
And scars that will not heal

Elephantine leaves quiver
Birds of prey swoop
Fly, fly high into the sky
Smelling blood
But no match
For Nanny

Yes man
She little but she Tallawa

Myrna Moore

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Bertha (Antoinette Cosway) The Woman in the Attic

Bertha (Antoinette Cosway) The Woman in the Attic (inspired by Jean Rhys’
Wide Sargasso Sea)

My real name Antoinette Cosway
New husband Rochester
Brands me Bertha
My land, house, body
mind (what little remains)
All his

I know who I am
But he calls me Bertha
But she will never be me
I know my real name
I whisper it, trace it
On the window – pane

Once Mistress of all I could see
Acres of land stretched before me
Emancipation came
Freeing the slaves
Trouble as far as the eye could see
Came Knocking
He, Rochester came knocking

Sold off
Shipped off

Off-loaded to his Yorkshire estate
Guarded, like an escaped prisoner.

I hear them say: His wife, pity she’s mad
Beware the mad woman in the attic!
Pity for himself
But ‘tis I should be pitied
Of my very soul

Hot sun, bougainvillea, frangipani
Christophine, my one amie
Stripped away
My only confidante
Now free and faraway
Remember me

Christophine, you taught me well
Watch them
Know them
Then Act

The governesses come and go
He comes and goes
He does not know my strength
He does not know the lengths

To which I will go

Surrender, never.
My warder asleep
The house creaks
Waiting, holding its breath

I will see his face
No more
Hear his voice
No more
Nor will they

The candle casts shadows
The shadows leap
Higher and higher
Voices shouting
I laugh

Myrna Moore

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