Jan 21, 2015
'The mainstream media don't find the stories of our suffering newsworthy, so our struggles remain hidden. Why don't we write our stories for ourselves?' said a quiet voice, one of four women sitting on the floor in a small apartment block thirty years ago.
I was fortunate to be one of those women in that small Durban Women's Group, to have been befriended by the woman behind that soft voice, a petite, gentle social worker with deep compasionate brown eyes. Feminity which gives feminism its beauty and strength.
Her name is Shamim Meer. I didn’t know it then, but this young visionary, daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer, had come up with a simple yet powerful way to keep communities in touch with each other.
A community newsletter. We called ours SPEAK.
Then, as now, there is a need to speak across communities, but with hardly any phones or transport – and, then, no computers, we had a dilemma. These days we live in an age of mobile communication, but many communities still do not have access to computers or the internet.
Thirty years later I am able to catch up with Shamim to hear how it was done then, in Apartheid South Africa.
We know that the problems experienced in communities apply to everyone. Why a newsletter for woman? I ask Shamim. 'As women we're interested in the particular way problems affect us, how we respond to them,' she says. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? The emphasis behind SPEAK was on 'opening up', giving a space where working-class women could speak about the things that affected their lives. Through reading stories of how others handle situations, women feel supported to face issues in their homes, organisations, and to face the authorities. Many women also wrote letters, which were published regularly.
Shamim gives me a fine example of a trade union strike. A women said that when she went to work her husband was happy, but when she went to a strike meeting he said you can't go, you're going to meet another man. But the men were free to go to meetings.
And when women in trade unions were battling to get issues such as sexual harrassment on the table for discussion, SPEAK was able to support them by writing about it.
Where does that leave the men, I ask Shamim?
'Many men were reading SPEAK too, to our surprise,' she says, and I remember this very well. We were intially alarmed, for we had not thought of men as readers. But the more we thought about it, the more pleased we were, because we realised that it was important to include men in discussions on women's rights. We began to include interviews with men on issues like violence against women, sharing housework, and abortion.
Men also read SPEAK because they felt it gave them information on the struggles of the times in a clean, accessible manner.
Often our regular letter writers were men!
The memories come flooding back to me as Shamim reminds me about our working from our kitchen tables, with our own money. To us it was more than just another project. It was a political commitment. We begged and borrowed, often using equipment of friends and contacts on student representative councils at universities.
We reminisced about how we used to sell SPEAK at mass rallies, with police charging in with teargas and dogs. But we continued to distribute the newsletter through our contacts, with women's trade unions buying bulk subscriptions.
Shamim tells me something which I did not know, that in time the group was able to raise funds from overseas donors such as Oxfam UK. I had left S.Africa by then, as a refugee in the United Kingdom, while Shamim and the other women were still working hard to keep SPEAK going, when everyone was under the close scrutiny of the security forces.
It was rather funny, Shamim says, that the police's habit of ignoring women's issues worked in our favour. Like when one of the women was taken into detention for questioning. The police questioned her at length about her trade union activities but skimmed over SPEAK because they did not think it important!
'Very early on we decided that SPEAK should be independent from the women's group,' says Shamim with that sharp look in her eye, the same look which these days dissects organisations to test their commitment to gender equality. Being apart from the women's group gave SPEAK a longer lifespan because the women's group was already under police scrutiny. A tactical decision.
Working collectively was one of the biggest lessons I learnt from working so closely with Shamim. Each issue of SPEAK was a joint product, not identifying individual writers. This was in part for security reasons, but also because we believed in collective working and felt it was 'elitist' to claim personal attention.
Newsletters are about human relationships. The actual contact involved in listening and sharing solutions is the real work, which is being done in groups all over the world everyday. There is great advantage in recording what is happening when it happens, while memories are fresh. Not only for support and to share solutions across borders, but also because we need to make sure that the lessons we learn are written down so that history can carry forward our struggles for generations to come.
'Words on paper can be read in your own time, then shared and passed on,' says this shy woman with wisdom beyond her years. 'We monitored SPEAK and found that ten other people read the same paper after the first reader!'
The stories in SPEAK live on in a book edited by Shamim Meer called WOMEN SPEAK (see main picture and http://developmentbookshop.com/women-speak.html).
I'm indeed lucky that in our autumn years I continue to enjoy a lifelong friendship with a woman who has touched my life in so many ways. Read more about Shamim at http://www.ces.uc.pt/emancipa/cv/gen/shamim.html
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.