She Speaks We Hear

Bringing women's voices together, unaltered, unadulterated

Interview with Activist and Chaplain, Zahrah Awaleh

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To commemorate Black History Month we have interviewed activist and Hospital Chaplain Zahrah Awaleh. You can vote for your favourite Black Briton here and learn about others. For BHM events across the country you can go to https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk 

Thank you so much for taking part in this interview as part of Black History Month. First of all tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in Scunthorpe, South Humberside, in 1974 and grew up there till I was 12. My father came to the UK in the 1950s as a Commonwealth citizen, since Somaliland was a British Protectorate till 1960, to find work and responded to the call inviting subjects of the empire to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. My father, Ali Noor Awaleh, worked in the British Steel Corporation for decades, and I still see remnants of British Steel everywhere. For example, where I live in east London the street lamps are made in Scunthorpe as they have the name of the then owner, Corus, on them. That’s my dad, right there, and although he’s no longer with us, I feel his presence in so many ways, and that one was one I recently discovered and delighted me.

I went to secondary school in Sheffield, where there is a thriving Somali community right to this day. When I lived there in ‘86-’90 I was amongst the old seamen families from Somaliland, where my parents come from. Coming from a small steel town where racism was the norm and ethnic minorities were a tiny minority and moving to Sheffield  which had older established minority communities such as Yemenis, Somalis, Pakistanis, and Afro Caribbeans felt like I had joined society, I belonged in England and I became proud of my identity as a black child, a Somali, a child of diaspora, and a British citizen. I learned who I was, and how I got here and the Somali community and its centre on the Wicker was crucial to that formation. I felt I belonged to a distinct Somali community, having no blood family living in the UK, and I belonged or at least had a right to belong to British society.

“It’s not the job of minorities to “teach” white society how to be fairer and more equal, they know how to do it, they just need to act. “

What does Black History Month mean to you?

BHM is an opportunity to remind the wider British society how people of African and Afro Caribbean origin got here and the history of empire. We can all learn what they have contributed to British society in spite of all the various obstacles of discrimination, and what structural discrimination and injustices they still endure because of systemic white privilege and white supremacy. Society is not built for minorities to succeed or receive fair treatment, and that is a process of inquiry to ask why, and how is white society going to fix this or change it to make it fairer. It’s not the job of minorities to “teach” white society how to be fairer and more equal, they know how to do it, they just need to act. 

As a Black Muslim British woman, what identities do you hold on to?

I am a woman and love being a woman, despite the sexism I have faced within family, community and society. However, I can’t separate my identities and neither can anyone else, so I’m Woman, Black African, Muslim, British and Somali and foremost I am a Black African Woman because I relate to their experiences the most because we share them. The person that had the most profound influence on me after the Prophet Muhammad as I was growing up was Malcolm X. He articulated in precise and intelligent language the horror of white supremacy and how to question and challenge it as a Black person and relate it to the wider white supremacy of empire, colonialism and how pan-African unity was one movement to tackle it along with other similar movements. He blew my mind at the age of 16 and opened my eyes to global anti-racism, and he did the same for millions of others of African and other descent.   

Have you experienced any racism or Islamophobia growing up or in your adult life?

I grew up in a working class steel town where most people were decent I would say, but I lived with daily experiences of racism and micro-aggressions due to the culture and system of white supremacy in British society. I rarely experience Islamophobia now I think anti-black racism is more prevalent in my life and in the lives of my children from a predominately south Asian Muslim population where we live in east London. The school children that my children make friends with have been raised to see them as inferior, all of them, because it was the process of colonialism and white supremacy in India that brainwashed their ancestors and that has lasted till this day. That doesn’t mean that we should just accept it, on the contrary it is our duty as humane people and Muslims to speak out and stand up to challenge and tackle it. I discussed this with my children’s school and they are taking measures to address racism and anti-blackness within school and in wider society. I must add that within Somali communities we are also brainwashed by colonialism and empire, so I have experienced tribalism, colourism and racism within my family and community and stood up to it. 

You like to write, what do you write about?

I write about what interests me and have discussions about it on Facebook and love the way it brings people together to deconstruct issues and understand them from different perspectives. 

You’re a hospital chaplain, how did that come about?

I worked in youth careers guidance for 10 years and I decided to work more closely with Muslim communities again and support patients, helping to reduce health inequalities in the acute hospital setting. My sister had died recently, and I wanted to do something relevant to provide spiritual care to all patients, whatever faith or belief they had. I had been teaching yoga in the community too, and I hoped to bring it into my role as a chaplain, so when I approached Macmillan Cancer Centre at UCLH where  I worked and they welcomed me to teach, that was such an honour and responsibility and I loved it and learnt so much.

How did you get into Yoga and how does it help people with illnesses?

I have always loved sport and movement and I love to dance, so when I was introduced to yoga at university it just felt right. I still have contact with that first teacher and she is a close friend and mentor of mine. Yoga is a way to integrate the mind and body and rebalance the inner and outer of what we experience. We are so busy and preoccupied with the senses that we use for the external world, we forget about our inner world of emotion, sensations and even our physicality so our bodies suffer and we may become sick. Yoga can help prevent the build up towards illness by making us aware of what feels right and wrong, so we take action if necessary, including going to the GP and having specialist care when needed and using complementary therapies. We do not have to just get on with life in pain and suffer. Yoga can also be a therapeutic tool to cope with illness and life limiting conditions, reduce pain and increase mobility, and re-educate us about better use and integration (i.e. literally ‘integrity’) of our bodies and minds over our lifetimes to feel more human and whole.

“I hustle, I don’t juggle. Women have been hustling, i.e. using intelligent organisational skills and prioritising their time for their families and work, since time.”

How do you juggle motherhood, work and all the other projects you’re involved in?

I hustle, I don’t juggle. Women have been hustling, i.e. using intelligent organisational skills and prioritising their time for their families and work, since time. I allocate, I’m not a martyr and I don’t want to die an early death, actual or spiritual, so I ask for help and assistance when I need it. This is key, because often women think they need to do it all themselves, when they don’t, because men certainly don’t and have no issues with that so why should we?

Thank you so much to Zahrah for answering our questions in such an insightful and personal way. Interview by Sharmeen Ziauddin. She is passionate about politics and faith and you can find her tweeting about these things @britpakgirl.

Image credit: Elainea Emmott

Author: She Speaks We Hear

Bringing women’s voices together, unaltered, unadulterated. Platforming stories and experiences of Muslim women, so they can own their narrative.

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