At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 two members of East End Sisters Uncut - Sarah and Saskia - spoke about the history of the organisation and the importance of intersectionality in feminist organising. Watch the video of their talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.
At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 Julie Begum spoke about her experiences setting up Women Unite Against Racism after Derek Beackon of the British National Party was elected as councillor in Millwall by just eight votes in 1993. You can watch a video of her talk, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.
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Olive Christian Malvery was an Anglo-Indian writer and investigative journalist who exposed poverty and terrible working conditions in London at the start of the 20th century.
Early life in Lahore and London
Malvery was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, in 1871. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1898, Malvery came to London to study at the Royal College of Music.
She supported herself by writing fiction for journals and magazines, giving lectures, teaching elocution, and 'drawing room' storytelling inspired by Indian legends. In the introduction to one of her articles, 'Gilding the Gutter', she is described as "the well-known lecturer, reciter, and social worker".
Undercover for Pearson's Magazine
In 1904, Malvery began work on a photojournalism series on London's poor for Pearson's Magazine. She went undercover, disguising herself and working as a flower seller, a barmaid, a factory girl, and a homeless woman so that she could speak more easily to working class girls and women in east London and elsewhere in the capital, and to learn how they were treated.
The Soul Market and Hoxton Hall
Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1906 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.
Malvery had become friends with Sarah Rae, who ran a social club for working class girls at Hoxton Hall. Through Rae, Malvery met and made friends with many of the local Hoxton girls, some of whom were bridesmaids at her wedding to Scottish-born US diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in 1905. They had three children before his death in 1911.
In later life Malvery continued writing, and produced books about child labour, unemployment, and 'white slavery' (there was widespread fear in this period that young English girls were being kidnapped and forced into sex work).
Malvery also paid for two shelters for homeless women to be built in London, inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 43 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.
Mala Sen was born in Mussoorie in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand in 1947. Her parents divorced in 1953, and Mala grew up with her father. As member of the military he moved often, taking his daughter with him. In Mumbai, she attended the Nirmala Niketan College, studying home science. When she was 15 Mala met Farrukh Dhondy, and they fell in love. The couple eloped in 1965 when Mala was 17, and moved to Britain where she took up sewing jobs in sweatshops to earn a living. They both became involved in race equality activism and writing, joining the Race Today collective.
In the early 1970s the Bengali community in Spitalfields grew rapidly, but faced intense racism and prejudice, including discrimination in access to housing. Families were forced to live in a single room in slum conditions .
In 1976 Mala Sen, Dhondy, and other activists worked with local families to create the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). They broke into and squatted empty buildings, challenged racism and pressured the council to improve housing. One of the key squatted properties were the Pelham Buildings on Woodseer Street, which were awaiting GLC redevelopment. Within three months 41 families were living there.
Although many Bengali women were not allowed to take part in activities outside the home, they played an important role even so. Housing campaigner Charlie Forman commented: “It has been women who have been most militant about staying in the Spitalfields area. They stand to lose more than their men, and have frequently dissuaded the men from signing for distant flats even when there is apparently no other choice.”
Through the activities of the BHAG and other housing campaigners, the dire situation many immigrant families was highlighted and improvements were made to tackle the racism inherent in the council housing system.
Sen believed that supporting people to claim their rights and empower themselves was the best way to achieve political change. She said: “When you are a political activist, you empower other people to take their chance to empower themselves.”
As a journalist and researcher Mala Sen encountered the story of 'bandit queen' Phoolan Devi, and gained Devi's trust, encouraging her to dictate her experiences in a series of diaries which Sen used to write a book about her story. A controversial film followed, which Devi initially opposed and sued Sen. The case was settled out of court and Devi and Sen remained close up until Devi's assassination in 2001.
Mala Sen withdrew from public life in later years. She began writing a book about women and HIV but died in 2011 before it was finished.