My mother was 17 when she came to the UK from Pakistan. Like many young women, she dreamed of travelling and getting a first-rate education abroad in a safe and happy country. Her reality turned out to be very different. When she went shopping, shopkeepers often smiled at her with their "good old British charm", but then refused to accept payment directly from her. They kept a jar of water filled with dishwasher soap and asked her to drop money in there lest her brown skin rub off on them.
When I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s, it was not the cultural and diverse hub it is today. Being one of the very few non-white families in the city came with a price. The UK is the only home we've ever known and loved, but during my childhood some people never failed to point out that we didn't belong here. Our parents were forced to turn our house into a fort, with bars on the windows and a steel-enforced front door, which took two people to open. Our car was petrol-bombed numerous times. The ten-minute walk to and from school became something we dreaded, as we ran the gauntlet of having eggs thrown at us and racial slurs from our neighbours and passers-by.
In my teenage years, the racism became tinged with sexism. We were already dealing with the patriarchal culture that existed within our own communities, but now we also had to deal with the idea that Asian women were viewed as "exotic and submissive" and black women as "always sexually available". On one occasion, a middle-aged white man asked me what my religion was. When I answered "Muslim", his response was "Oh wish I was one of them, then I could have four of you".
Over time, things changed for the better. More movement of people meant greater diversity. Black and Asian women fought for their rights and for those rights to be protected in law. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, legislation got stronger and attitudes slowly changed. The blatant racism slowly became less acceptable in a "decent" society. This isn't to say that racism stopped or disappeared, as any person of colour will tell you - it just became less obvious and turned into something more insidious. Life felt a little safer in some ways. The physical attacks on our home and property were less common, but the constant feeling of dread remained in the back of my mind. I knew my experience was not uncommon, so I got involved in women's rights around this time too in an attempt to do something positive for all women and girls.
Since we are at least now talking about these issues publicly with movements like Black Lives Matter and seemingly better awareness of violence against women, I had hoped on some level that things had moved on here. But deep down, I knew that there is still a huge gap between what some people might say and what they really feel - which is hatred for anyone they think may rock their apple cart of power. This fear of losing privilege means that various combinations of structural sexism, racism, discrimination and hatred against anyone seen as "other" permeate our lives.
bell hooks wrote that "all people of color are threats [to white supremacists] irrespective of their behavior". And women of colour represent a "double threat" to patriarchy by challenging both sexism and racism at the same time. Nowhere is this more evident than when the US Republican Party, which is largely controlled by Conservative white men, did not condemn Donald Trump for hiring a chief government strategist, who previously oversaw a website promoting anti-women and anti-Muslim views. In the current climate, it did not really shock me that over half of white women in the US voted for a man who not only threatens their bodily integrity, but also their reproductive rights. Many women internalise misogyny, just as some people of colour internalise racism. It was sadly not a major surprise in June either when anti-immigrant hate crimes - particularly directed at women - increased after the UK voted to leave the European Union.
My direct experience is British, but in the connected world we live in, decisions made in countries like the US and UK have major implications for so many others. They matter to the female survivors of violence for whom the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan provides shelter in this conflict-torn country.
They matter to those fleeing the horrors imposed on them by their government in Syrian refugee camps, which the Syrian Women's Forum For Peace is trying to help remedy. These decisions have policy and financial implications in terms of international aid. They make it less likely that women will be involved in critical peace-building efforts and, at a personal level, they influence how people treat each other and, consequently, how safe women and girls feel in society.
The sexism and racism I faced growing up has helped to make me who I am today. I am passionate about the rights of women and girls because I know what is like to be that girl who feels scared and confused by why she is seen as different, when she feels the same. As a woman, I know what it's like to deal with the constant barrage of obnoxious behaviour you are forced to deal with simply for walking down the street. I've been fighting for an end to violence against women for over 15 years - most recently at Donor Direct Action. During this time, I've seen that one of the best solutions to challenging the harmful status quo and to breaking down the hateful structures that divide and hold women back, is to directly support those underfunded critical efforts, which are changing mind-sets at local level.
Front-line women's groups around the world are best positioned to make things better for girls and women in their own localities. These visionary individuals are at the core of the feminist movement, which is not just about women and girls. It is about ensuring the safety, freedom and fearlessness of all humanity. Amid this huge global uncertainty, their work is urgently needed now more than ever. They are a key part of the solution we so desperately need. Feminist activism is transforming the lives of women and girls, but it can also change the entire structure of societies for the better. This is why those who currently hold the power are afraid. It is also why I will never give up.
Donor Direct Action partners with visionary front-line women's organisations around the world.
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