Interview with Farhanah Mamoojee




Farhanah Mamoojee, our cover star for this issue, is working to bring the history of Ayahs in Britain to light. Today, we chatted with her about her project and goals. 

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

Definitely my career! I don’t have the stereotypical Asian profession of a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or IT whiz. All my life I knew I wanted to work in the arts. I had to forge my own way there despite other expectations of me. I studied English Literature and History of Art, then went on to do a Masters in Gender Studies focusing on the Middle East, Africa and Asia alongside Arabic, which I later studied abroad in Oman and Jordan. I finally landed my dream job at a world leading auction house, where I currently work. My day to day puts me in contact with arts of the Islamic world, 20th century Middle Eastern art, modern and contemporary South Asian art and some impressive Impressionist masterpieces. Pinch me!

What was your inspiration for starting this project?

I recently watched a documentary by Dr Yasmin Khan on the BBC called A Passage to Britain. Throughout the series Dr Khan explores an extraordinary collection of ship passenger lists from the National Archives (UK) to trace the changing story of migration from the Indian subcontinent to Britain over three key decades, from the 1930s onwards. In episode three, she briefly mentions “ayahs” – local women, hired by colonial families to look after their children, often during the passage between India and Britain. I was astounded at never having heard of these women before – yet again, I was faced with another piece of history concerning South Asian women that has been buried in mainstream history.

After watching that episode, I realised the home for Ayah’s in London which was featured in the episode, was in my local area in Hackney. I found it easily on Google Maps clearly marked “Ayahs House (Former Site)” and walked there from my apartment. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting something.

I was annoyed that when I arrived at the historical house, there was no marking to show what it had been. I was expecting a sign or placard to signify the important history there, to show that countless woman had made the tumultuous journey across the ocean, to a place they had never been, to take care of colonisers’ children.I felt extremely disappointed. The sacrifice these women made, should be made public.

I immediately started researching how to apply for a Blue Plaque. For those who don’t know, a Blue Plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event, or former building

As well as being an important area of the city for the women’s suffrage movement (Sylvia Pankhurst set up the Women’s Social and Political Union here), East London is also one of London’s richest areas steeped in migrant history. The story of the Ayah’s culminates all of this. These women who travelled as Ayah’s (were often forced to sleep out on deck throughout the long voyages) were then abandoned in London, with no money, no food, no promise of travel back to India and no language skills. There are countless stories of members of the public encountering these forlorn women at Kings Cross Station or begging in the streets. They were regularly mistreated by employers who broke their promises. The Ayah’s House was set up by the London City Mission to home abandoned Ayah’s. In 1921 it had to be relocated from 26 King Edward Road, to a larger property at number 4, signifying a growing demand for shelter for deserted ayahs in London. The new home at number 4 accommodated 80–223 women per year in its 30 rooms.serving as a historical marker. The scheme is run by English Heritage and has been running since 1866.

Many of these women were given anglicised names, making it difficult to trace them through national documents, such as the Census. Their identities are all but completely erased from history. My work so far, with the help of the Hackney Museum, has helped me to start looking into archival documents to trace the stories of these courageous women through history.

My application for a Blue Plaque is important in commemorating these women and what they want through.

What goals did you have when starting out, and do you feel like you’ve met them.

What started off as a very juvenile concept has grown into something much bigger. I could probably spend the rest of my life researching the countless Ayah’s who made the voyage to Britain and tracing their lives through history. With some amazing support from my local Member of Parliament (Rushanara Ali – another pioneering South Asian female leader!) I have gained support from Hackney Museum, to put on an event for International Women’s Day 2020. Hopefully my Blue Plaque application will be granted by the end of June 2019 and we can celebrate with an evening of poetry, spoken word, and story telling to honour the women who became Ayah’s.

I had very little expectation when I started this project, but there are some incredible organisations and supportive individuals out there out there, such as Hackney Museum, and the wonderfully diverse South Asian female spoken word collective (Yoniverse) who have given me some great advice and support.

Bring on March 2020 and watch this space!

Who are some Asian women that you look up to?

I look up to all the women I surround myself with, my close friends and family members. My mother, my sisters, my grandmothers who migrated to new countries to give new opportunities to their families. And all the other women in history whose shoulders we stand on. It’s so important we learn about them and continue carving out a space in history for them to be remembered.

Describe yourself in three words.

Sensitive, tenacious, creative.

How do you stay in touch with your culture?

I keep redefining what my culture is, based on things I learn and see, rather than what people tell me my culture is. I’m Indian, so I love learning about Indian art and history by going to exhibitions, reading and watching documentaries.

What is your favorite thing about your culture?

I love that it’s so fluid and hard to define or categorize. As humans we are so intent on putting ourselves in boxes and showing everyone which one we’ve managed to fit ourselves into. India is a melting pot of histories and religions, of languages and cultures. You can’t put it in a box or categorize it so easily. And that’s what I love about it! It’s complexity and free-flowing ways, allow you to carry it with you wherever you go, in any form you like (and yes that includes wearing jhumka with jeans!)

What is some advice you’d give to your teenage self?

Stop worrying about what everyone thinks. Once you’re free of that you will go on to do great things.

What is your go-to coffee order?

I have very high sensitivity to caffeine so I actually can’t hack it!

Instead my go-to is a decaf coconut latte, Pret A Manger does the best ones.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing Asian women today?

People from our own worlds and cultures throw so much expectation our way, it’s difficult not to get entangled in what everyone else thinks you should be, or look like, or act like.

Our generation is breaking free of that and we are showing the world we have important things to do and say and no one can stand in our way!

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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