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.