Chapter 2: Sitara's Story

Perched in the shadier quarters of the performance hall, tucked away from the spotlight are custodians of the arts, better known as the audience. Stopping by SAA-UK's events come rain or shine, it is they, the underrated frontpeople of culture and heritage, who make it possible for South Asian artforms to thrive in the city of Leeds and beyond.  

Amongst the sea of our supporters is one particularly formidable force who for 20 years has taken a seat at almost all of SAA-uk's events. Her name is Sitara Khan, and in this chapter, we move the rays of the spotlight away from the mainstage and over to the audience as we illuminate her story. 

Summer was out in full force in a lively café garden in Leeds and taking full advantage of the rare spell of sunshine, we sat down beside a raised bed of florals and drank in the summer scene as well as cups of mint tea. 
 
Resting by her saucer was a pocket-sized notebook that bore the beautiful illustration of a South Asian woman on the cover. A pen rested neatly atop. As a skilled wordsmith who has penned everything from academic papers to poetry, it was not surprising to see that she had brought along her writer's tools to our interview.  

“I'm anarchic”, Sitara says, as she shares with me the rhyme and reason behind her poetic verses. “I don't follow rules. I just write as it comes. It's my own rhythm; I can hear it”. She cheerfully shares how at times she will hear the bells of inspiration strike at hours intended for sleep, but she bends those rules too, scribbling down storylines at the break of dawn.  

“I'm not sure that I've yet got a hold of the language”, she jokes, despite her poetry taking her across the world to perform at Oxford University, China, and Dortmund in Germany. When her laughter dies down, she shares with me an early time in her life when the thought of writing poetry, least of all in the English language, was the furthest thing from her mind. “When I first came to England in 1964, I was 14, and I couldn't speak a word of English. I remember going to school and sitting in English class just not understanding what was going on”.  It was necessity that expediated her learning. With her father away at work, it was Sitara, the eldest of 6 siblings, that accompanied her mother while she ran the errands that defined everyday life. There was no other option but to learn English fast so she could translate the world around for her mother. To aid her linguistic and educational advancement, her family arranged private tuition for her. She recalls how her father would even stand at bus stops looking for an English teacher that could help give Sitara the best opportunities. This was further enhanced by the support of a kind neighbours, in particular, Mrs McKay, who came to be regarded as an extended family member. 

Unbeknownst to her at the time, memories of classroom days in the 60's would be the muse for several of her writings in adulthood. She tells me how an incident tracing back to secondary school inspired her to write the poem
Mother Daughter 30 years on. Setting up the story with the backdrop of context she says, “I was the only Asian girl in the whole school, and my hair used to be down to here (she gestures to the middle of her thigh where her long mane used to fall). It was so thick that when my mother would comb and plait it, she could hardly get her hands around one of the two plaits. The girls at school would always comment about how they wished they had long hair, but all I wanted to do was cut mine.”

She recalls teenager banter taking a racist turn. “A girl in my class barked at me,' Why did you come to England'? Her reposit, ‘Because you went to India'. The girl protested, ‘We went to civilise you.' ‘We were civilised already. We had the Taj Mahal!” was her quick reminder. 

The dangerous undercurrent that lay brooding beneath the girl's words was the sad fact that the realities of Britian's colonial legacy had never found its way into the classroom. It was more than likely that she had never known about the turmoil and terror that Partition caused for millions of people from the subcontinent, a bloody repercussion of Britian's imperial legacy. And though only 2 decades earlier, the disheartening reality was that the story of 2.5 million South Asian soldiers that fought for Britian in World War II, Sitara's father amongst them, would not have been included in the textbooks the student and her peers would read from.
 
Fortunately, oppressive remarks would not break Sitara's spirit, and a few years later she would return to the classroom, though this time as a teacher of English, defying all odds. “I had to fight every inch of the way”, she says, recounting how in the entirety of her teaching career she experienced discrimination from pupils and some senior staff members. An undeniable tinge of disappointment laced her voice as she shared, “I was in my 4th year of teaching, and I was still being inspected. I was inspected by the head teacher, the head of department, the English advisor, and even Her Majesty's Inspectors. Some of my pupils made complaints to their parents, saying they couldn't understand me. I remember one said, ‘Miss, after all it's our language. You shouldn't be teaching us this'. Conversely, other parents were angry with their own children for making unfounded complaints”. There was a glimmer of hope in her recollections as she remembers how a handful of parents and colleagues, including those from the English department, would object against unfounded complaints made against her. 

With her unrelenting spirit, Sitara refused to let her career within the field of education conclude on a sombre note, so she sought to tackle the prejudice that existed at the root. Taking up the role of Education Officer for the Leeds Community Relations Council in 1983, Sitara played a significant role in campaigning for the writing and implementation of education policies that recognised Leeds as a multicultural city. The policy was successful in addressing both curriculum and staffing issues. Moving to an even higher post in Calderdale that saw her in charge of multicultural education and English as a second language, Sitara led a team of 100 staff, though only 1 was an Asian teacher. She tells me, “I organised a policy to designate available vacancies to bilingual teachers, so bilingualism had to be an essential criterion. This was met with a lot of resistance, and people even made complaints to the Commission for Racial Equality. I had to defend all this, but in the end, we succeeded!” Each of her contributions have ultimately carved new paths for future teachers of colour to embark upon this career without being hindered by the obstacles she faced.

I could not help but think how terrifying it would be to confront and override racist attitudes as a woman of colour during a less than progressive time, but for Sitara, a passion for justice prevailed over fear. She tells me, “Whenever I see unfairness of whatever kind, ever since I was a tiny tot, I've stood up against it”. 

This political drive is one that inspires her poetry to this day. Whether her stanzas unearth the forgotten legacies of Punjabi soldiers that fought in the World War, or her rhymes plead for Mother Earth's protection, she has spent her life generously lending her words and voice to all that need it.

It was a pleasure to share Sitara's story with you. If you would like to learn more about her work, take a look at her ground-breaking book: A glimpse through purdah- Asian Women - the myth and the reality.
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