Book celebrates the stories of female migrants to East London

Cynthia Cockburn says the world that men and women live in is rather different Pic: Cynthia Cockburn

Cynthia Cockburn says the world that men and women live in is rather different Pic: Cynthia Cockburn

Two Tower Hamlets women have become subjects of a book that shares the stories of many migrants that have sought asylum in London.

The author, Cynthia Cockburn, spoke to Eastlondonlines about her motivation behind writing Looking to London: Stories of War Escape and Asylum and what she learned during the process.

“Hinda and Uba I met in Somali Week at an event, they were sitting behind me,” Cockburn said, recollecting how she met some of the women she spoke to about their experiences coming to London. “We got talking and I asked if I could come and meet them and their families and interview them.

“Hinda and Uba were memorable because they were so normal, in a way. Hardworking mothers making a living in the East End. The interesting thing to me is that they did not want to mention clan at all, they are so fed up with clan that they didn’t want to say anything which is understandable I think.”

“I met Dahabo (from Brent) in a different way,” she said, “she’s a very active woman and she had chosen to join the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which is a pretty white international, rather elderly organisation of peace activists. You don’t meet many Somali women in that kind of context, they have so many preoccupations in their own community to deal with first but Dahabo, I discovered, was also very involved in her own community. She’s a hairdresser and a henna artist but she has also set up a women’s organisation for Somali women who have sought asylum to help with their well-being and care of children.”

Some of the subjects of the book have become activists, supporting other female asylum seekers. Pic: Cynthia Cockburn

As well as the Somali women from Tower Hamlets, Cynthia Cockburn also spoke to some Kurdish women from Hackney and noticed a difference between the two communities and how they have adapted to their new homes: “Hackney has been relatively positive and the Kurds have an almost easy community life in the sense that they have political movements that are not too divisive within the Kurdish community and which hold them together and give them a focus and a sense of longing.”

“In Tower Hamlets, as I understand it, there are several problems,” she said. “One is that the community of Somalis is much poorer than the Kurds in Hackney would be. It’s predominantly Somalilander and it’s drowned under Bangladeshis in terms of numbers, and formerly in terms of administration.

“Not that it’s all bad, I’ve heard good things about Tower Hamlets too but I did get the sense that anyone who is not a Somalilander has to struggle a bit to have their identity recognised.”

Professor Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer whose work often focuses on women and war.

She is a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology at City University London and an honorary professor in the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick.

However, her earliest work focused on men and masculinity from a feminist angle – it wasn’t until the 1990s that she started to shift her focus: “I started focusing on more issues in 1994, then I started to interview more women and focus more on women. To be honest, I was tired of interviewing men, 14 years was enough!”

Cockburn is also an anti-war activist, a theme that a lot of her previous work has also focused on through the standpoint of the women affected.

While she does not think that the danger women face when seeking asylum are necessarily worse than men’s, they are more vulnerable within their own community.

“I think the world that men and women live in are rather different,” Cockburn told ELL.

“The violence that men are going to suffer is going to come from other men and the state.”

“The violence that women are going to be likely to suffer will most likely come from men: men of their own community and men of other communities.”

“I guess they are also liable to suffer violence of a different kind such as FGM or marriage as a young girl, which may not sound like violence in the way it is usually meant but it is still a kind of violence.”


Cynthia Cockburn likes using photography as part of her research. Pic: Cynthia Cockburn

Cockburn herself moved to London from Leicester at 19-years-old in search of success, calling herself a “labour migrant” in the book’s introduction.

Cockburn calls this an exaggeration as she recognises that although there are some similarities in their motivations to come to London, she was fortunate enough to have a more secure journey than the women escaping war torn countries.

“For me, I didn’t have the negative experiences to set against the positive ones. For them coming here, they may find work if they’re lucky, but they will not have their family around them to fall back on if they need to. But to be a labour migrant in any case is less hazardous to be than an asylum seeker.”

While her experience migrating to London from the Midlands was much safer than the women she interviewed for this book, Cockburn was still able to relate to the perception people have of London and why it is such an intriguing place to create a new life: “I chose to come to London because various people told me that’s where you would get along, that’s the place to go,” she said. “I didn’t know what London was, where it was or what I would find there, but once I had made the step, I found it life-changing. It opened up so much of the world.

“Suddenly, in one step, you’re among people from all over the world and you’re in a place that has a past, a history that is made up of many people.”

“And the fact that it is a world focus,” she continued. “If you feel like somewhere is a focus of the world, it has to have something that it is offering.” What does London offer? A fresh start that allows asylum seekers to leave the dangers of their home countries behind and start a family or become an activist that helps women who gave gone through a similar ordeal.

Looking to London: Stories of War, Escape and Asylum is now available at Waterstones and on Amazon.

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