British-Bengali writer and activist seeks more dialogue on her culture

Julie Begum, pictured receiving a Civic Award for charity her work with Swadhinata. Picture: Swadhinata Trust

The lives of 20th century Indian suffragettes was the subject of a talk on International Women’s Day by British-Bengali writer and activist Julie Begum at Whitechapel’s Ideastore.

Known in the Tower Hamlets’s Bengali community for her  theatrical and analytical work on the borough’s minority population, Begum’s talk attracted a diverse audience, including. the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs.

“Though you might believe only white women were entrenched in the UK struggle for women’s suffrage, there were a great number of Indian suffragettes and suffragists who also took part,” said Begum.

A great deal of Begum’s activist work as the Swadhinata Trust’s chairperson has been dedicated to promoting equal inclusion of Bengali achievement and culture in popular historic dialogue.

The Swadhinata Trust is a community group dedicated to the inclusion and celebration of Bengali culture among young people in Tower Hamlets. They create and sell teaching resources, such as academic texts, talks and consultancy services.

As Chairperson of Swadhinata, Begum has contributed to the production of several texts published through the Trust,  including ‘Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain’ and ‘Bengalis in London’s East End’.

“I was never represented in any of the education I received from state schools in the UK,” Begum explained to EastLondonLines.

“I wanted to know why I ended up here, why my parents came to this country. There was nowhere that provided these answers. I helped set up the Swadhinata Trust for young people like me who wanted to know about their place in the world.”

Begum’s work is underpinned by her firsthand experience as a lifelong victim and spectator of racial violence in Tower Hamlets.

“I was born and brought up in 1970s Tower Hamlets,” she said. “Everyone in my family and beyond experienced racism on a regular and daily basis.”

“When I was just a child, a local boy from a well-known racist family on our council estate tried to force me to eat dog s**t because he thought that’s what we ate,” she continued. “My father confronted his father about his son’s behaviour; the police were called and my father was arrested for threatening behaviour.”

Begum’s most recent literary work is her play The Altab Ali Story; a graphic commemorative piece about the historic killing of Bangladeshi textile factory worker, Altab Ali in 1978. 

Climactic end monologue of Begum’s play The Altab Ali Story. Picture: Begum’s YouTube channel

“The play references cases of rape and genocide in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, as well, of course, as instances of racism faced by East London Bengalis in the 1970s,” she said.

“There wasn’t anything I felt I couldn’t write about,” Begum explained, speaking about challenges she faced in writing the piece.

“As well as being a part of an East End speed histories group that regularly write and perform stories about the area, I attended a writing workshop that helped me explore stories that hadn’t been told before. That meant something to me.”

“I tell the Altab Ali story from the personal point of view of a mother who has lost her son, and a best friend who has lost someone whom he loves,” Begum explained.  “These are human situations to which anyone can relate, especially if they have lost a loved one.”

The Story of Altab Ali is due for a commemorative performance on May 4 in Altab Ali park, honouring the 40th anniversary Ali’s murder.

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