This month we have interviewed inspirational fabulady Huma Munshi, who started the #fuckhonour hashtag, which trended on Twitter. Huma is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.
SSWH: Huma, how would you describe yourself?
Huma: I am a Londoner of Indian and Muslim heritage, a feminist, writer and activist. I work for a large trade union on equality policy, organising major conferences, researching and publishing policy papers and working with trade unions, public and voluntary sector and other organisations.
SSWH: What motivated you to work for a trade union?
Huma: There isn’t a history of activism or trade unionism in my family as far as I am aware. But becoming a trade unionist was a critical part of my evolution as an activist and working for one full time was a (bit of) dream. I was initially interested in organising in the workplace on issues of women’s equality such as the gender pay gap and sex discrimination. That’s how I became active.
One of my earliest activities was holding a recruitment event with staff showing the film, Made in Dagenham and using that as way to stimulate a discussion about women trade unionists who fought for equal pay.
I then started representing members in my workplace to help them get justice. I represented members who were disabled and were being put capability procedures due to disability related sickness absence or similar, or fighting different types of discrimination. I also helped develop policies on workplace support for women fleeing domestic violence and a mental health policy.
I am passionate and committed to the union movement because it is about organising, fighting and campaigning knowing we are stronger as a collective and that every employee deserves dignity and equality in the workplace.
I also research policies, write article in the press and blog, work with different groups and sometimes with politicians responding to government consultations. It builds on my time working for the Mayor of London which was a very tricky job but really challenged me, built my confidence and shaped my politics and values.
“For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour.”
SSWH: As a woman of colour and a feminist do you feel represented by mainstream feminism? If not what could mainstream feminism do to bridge this gap?
Huma: A tricky question!
I think a large part of my recovery as a survivor of a forced marriage was helped by understanding the structural inequality women face. Learning from other women, I developed the language and finally an understanding of the oppression I had experienced. This was very significant for me. For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour. It was only as I read and listened to other women did this abate. It’s still not entirely gone, but women, and in particular women of colour, have helped me immeasurably. I realised it was never my shame.
I have many concerns about the wider feminist movement. As a woman of colour, my feminism must be grounded in race equality, (this blog by Claire Heuchan, a Black radical feminist, is really good on addressing racism within feminism), disability equality and an analysis of the impact of class. To not take that into account perpetuates many of the oppressions that the feminist movement should seek to remove.
I also find the silence of feminists who see marginalised women being oppressed or bullied utterly abhorrent. Their silence gives the actions of a few legitimacy to continue.
SSWH: Sharing your own personal story of forced marriage cannot have been easy. Why did you decide to share and write about your personal experiences?
Huma: I didn’t immediately share it with my name. For a while I wrote anonymously nervous about the backlash and my families reaction (though we haven’t been in contact for a long time).
When I started writing with my name it was a deliberate choice, it was in the knowledge that other women shouldn’t feel the shame I have felt. And someone has to stand up to the bullies because that’s what the perpetrators are. Like all bullies they continue because they expect victims to stay silent. Unsurprisingly victims do stay silent because we are not believed, we are attacked, we have not been brought up to expect justice. I want to change that. All my campaigning has been about overturning this unjust system.
So I did it for women and I did it for myself. I wrote with my name after I returned from from a trip to India. This trip was almost 10 years after I had last been to India and gone through the charade and trauma of my forced marriage. That journey was extremely triggering and scary but I realised I was a different person and I had worked tremendously hard to get better.
“Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.”
It felt empowering and it fell right to write that piece. It’s been tough since but I’ve never regretted it as it helped women and may go some way in shifting attitudes and bringing about a wider change in service provision and attitudes.
Writing my comment piece in the Guardian addressing the comments made by George Galloway was another step. It addressed his victim blaming and sexist campaign.
SSWH: What advice would you give other women who have had similar life experiences to you?
Huma: Don’t give up. Even when it overwhelms you, even when your spirit feels like it cannot continue, don’t give up.
Remember: you are not alone, you matter despite what you’ve been told. Your thoughts matter, your desires matter, your intellect matter, your choices matter.
Seek out other women, read, listen and share. Get support through therapy. Don’t suffer your pain alone.
Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.
SSWH: Finally what helps you to feel empowered and confident?
Huma: Writing, speaking out and being an activist.
Letting love into my life (both with my partner and with other good friends who provide love and care) and cherishing that.
Remembering all I have achieved despite circumstances which may have broken me. Knowing that I worked tirelessly for my survival and acknowledging – on my good days – my victories.
Our sincere thanks to Huma for answering our questions!
Interview by Akeela Ahmed (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)