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THE NEWSLETTER LADY

'The mainstream media don't find the stories of our suffering newsworthy, so our struggles remain hidden. Why don't we write our stories for ourselves?' said a quiet voice, one of four women sitting on the floor in a small apartment block thirty years ago.

I was fortunate to be one of those women in that small Durban Women's Group, to have been befriended by the woman behind that soft voice, a petite, gentle social worker with deep compasionate brown eyes. Feminity which gives feminism its beauty and strength.

Her name is Shamim Meer. I didn’t know it then, but this young visionary, daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer, had come up with a simple yet powerful way to keep communities in touch with each other.

A community newsletter. We called ours SPEAK.

Then, as now, there is a need to speak across communities, but with hardly any phones or transport – and, then, no computers, we had a dilemma. These days we live in an age of mobile communication, but many communities still do not have access to computers or the internet.

Thirty years later I am able to catch up with Shamim to hear how it was done then, in Apartheid South Africa.

We know that the problems experienced in communities apply to everyone. Why a newsletter for woman? I ask Shamim. 'As women we're interested in the particular way problems affect us, how we respond to them,' she says. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? The emphasis behind SPEAK was on 'opening up', giving a space where working-class women could speak about the things that affected their lives. Through reading stories of how others handle situations, women feel supported to face issues in their homes, organisations, and to face the authorities. Many women also wrote letters, which were published regularly.

Shamim gives me a fine example of a trade union strike. A women said that when she went to work her husband was happy, but when she went to a strike meeting he said you can't go, you're going to meet another man. But the men were free to go to meetings.

And when women in trade unions were battling to get issues such as sexual harrassment on the table for discussion, SPEAK was able to support them by writing about it.

Where does that leave the men, I ask Shamim?

'Many men were reading SPEAK too, to our surprise,' she says, and I remember this very well. We were intially alarmed, for we had not thought of men as readers. But the more we thought about it, the more pleased we were, because we realised that it was important to include men in discussions on women's rights. We began to include interviews with men on issues like violence against women, sharing housework, and abortion.

Men also read SPEAK because they felt it gave them information on the struggles of the times in a clean, accessible manner.

Often our regular letter writers were men!

The memories come flooding back to me as Shamim reminds me about our working from our kitchen tables, with our own money. To us it was more than just another project. It was a political commitment. We begged and borrowed, often using equipment of friends and contacts on student representative councils at universities.

We reminisced about how we used to sell SPEAK at mass rallies, with police charging in with teargas and dogs. But we continued to distribute the newsletter through our contacts, with women's trade unions buying bulk subscriptions.

Shamim tells me something which I did not know, that in time the group was able to raise funds from overseas donors such as Oxfam UK. I had left S.Africa by then, as a refugee in the United Kingdom, while Shamim and the other women were still working hard to keep SPEAK going, when everyone was under the close scrutiny of the security forces.

It was rather funny, Shamim says, that the police's habit of ignoring women's issues worked in our favour. Like when one of the women was taken into detention for questioning. The police questioned her at length about her trade union activities but skimmed over SPEAK because they did not think it important!

'Very early on we decided that SPEAK should be independent from the women's group,' says Shamim with that sharp look in her eye, the same look which these days dissects organisations to test their commitment to gender equality. Being apart from the women's group gave SPEAK a longer lifespan because the women's group was already under police scrutiny. A tactical decision.

Working collectively was one of the biggest lessons I learnt from working so closely with Shamim. Each issue of SPEAK was a joint product, not identifying individual writers. This was in part for security reasons, but also because we believed in collective working and felt it was 'elitist' to claim personal attention.

Newsletters are about human relationships. The actual contact involved in listening and sharing solutions is the real work, which is being done in groups all over the world everyday. There is great advantage in recording what is happening when it happens, while memories are fresh. Not only for support and to share solutions across borders, but also because we need to make sure that the lessons we learn are written down so that history can carry forward our struggles for generations to come.

'Words on paper can be read in your own time, then shared and passed on,' says this shy woman with wisdom beyond her years. 'We monitored SPEAK and found that ten other people read the same paper after the first reader!'

The stories in SPEAK live on in a book edited by Shamim Meer called WOMEN SPEAK (see main picture and http://developmentbookshop.com/women-speak.html).

I'm indeed lucky that in our autumn years I continue to enjoy a lifelong friendship with a woman who has touched my life in so many ways. Read more about Shamim at http://www.ces.uc.pt/emancipa/cv/gen/shamim.html

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Wonderful!

What a truly wonderful and heroic story. Thank you very much for sharing. I like the way you frequently wove in quotes from Shamim. It also seems to me that the origin of SPEAK is very similar to that of World Pulse--giving women a space to share their stories, connect and feel supported and empowered by other women and men around the world.

Great job, keep it up!

Kind regards,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Monica Clarke's picture

Thanks Rachel

Thanks for reading and for your comment Rahel. Yes, it feels that history is repeating itself for me at World Pulse - I feel it is just so the right place for me! Love and hugs, Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Nusrat Ara's picture

Thanks for sharing the

Thanks for sharing the wonderful story. The fact that the these women have shown so much courage and determination so long back is inspiring.

Love

Nusrat

Monica Clarke's picture

Thanks Nusrat

Thank you Nusrat for reading and for your comment! Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Paulina Lawsin's picture

The newsletter serves as a

The newsletter serves as a candle in the dark. I congratulate your group for your bravery. You are blessed to have Shamim around. You just don;t know how many women's lives you have touched with your articles. The next profile should be about Monica.

Cheers from the Philippines,

Paulina

Monica Clarke's picture

Thanks Pauline

How kind of you to say these nice words to me! God bless you in your work, too. Love and hugs, Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

olutosin's picture

Great contribution to the society

Thanks for the Newsletter.

You guys are great...

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

Monica Clarke's picture

Thanks Olutoson

Thanks for reading and for your kind words. God bless you in your work! Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

olutosin's picture

Thank sister....

I wish yo uwell dear sister and if I have never told you, I love South Africa and I feel at home with my people there....Love you.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

Emily Garcia's picture

Fantastic!

Dear Monica,

This is a wonderful article! And can you believe my surprise when I clicked on your assignment and saw the image of a book I just picked up from the library? Yes, Women Speak is in my hands this very moment! I haven't started reading it yet, but I can't wait to. I'm so happy to learn about your friend, Shamim, and look forward to learning more about the women of the South African struggles who contributed to the Newsletter.

Sending you warm wishes,

Emily

Emily Garcia
World Pulse Online Community Lead

Monica Clarke's picture

Wow!

You and I are meant to mingle well into the hereafter! Isn't it incredible? Love and hugs, Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Dear Monica,

I am very glad to learn about how a group of inspiring women in a community brought about positive change out of struggles. I was really inspired by the fact that men in the community are found reading "SPEAK". That's really a CHANGE. I was so motivated by herself and the words of Shamim and very proud of you were also a part of such wonderful initiatives.

With Love from Burma (Myanmar),
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

How is my dear Pollen doing today? Thank you for writing to me and for reading my article. I am so pleased that you found it interesting and useful. I send you greetings and lots of loving.

Please send me news of how Metta Moe Myanmar is going, and tell me what you are working on at the moment. And, of course, how are your studies going? I remember you saying that you would like to study public policy – have you started your master's degree? I wish there were something I could help you with.

I don't know much about public policy, just have lovely memories of delivering babies in the shantytowns in Cape Town in the nineteen sixties, when I worked at the bottom in the community, not knowing much about laws and policies, hoping that good people like you were monitoring from the top to ensure protection for the women whose babies are now in parliament in my country! You are one of the babies from that era, now grown up and able to make big changes in the lives of the young and older women in Myanmar.

So I hope that you will continue to do your studies so that you will make many waves which will cause great storms of change for the young people in Myanmar, who are the parents and leaders of tomorrow!

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Insha Allah's picture

I left a message in your Email inbox.

Dear Monica,

I left a message in your Email inbox.

With Love from Burma (Myanmar)
Pollen

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Stella Paul's picture

Privilged!

I am just back to India. During my 17-day stay, I always thought of you and saw in more than one places, more than once! Now, after reading your story, I feel I saw Shamim too - in women who were there with no material resources, but with hearts filled with grit and bravery. South Africa is beautiful and its women are wonderfully strong and warm and determined. You Monica, especially lived in an era I didn't and to hear the stories of that era of Apartheid and how women struggled then and overcame, is a true privilege. I thank you for sharing this story and enriching my knowledge. I have one complaint though: please don't use the word called 'twilight'. You are a morning star my darling!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Monica Clarke's picture

Morning Star Monicar

Je m'appel Monicar le Morning Star.... I like that! Looking forward to hearing about your Durban adventures and the outcome of the conference through your eyes. Love and hugs from France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Anne D.'s picture

Wonderful story

Dear Monica,

What a wonderful story. The topic of women speaking up is timely and resonates all over the world. Thanks for sharing the story of how SPEAK began and for helping us get to know Shamim Meer. Your strong quotes and vivid descriptions really transported me as a reader.

Monica Clarke's picture

Thank you Anne

Coming from a journalist, this is indeed a compliment, thank you Anne D. I say - how about updating your profile so we can use the intelligence and wisdom behind that knowing smile? What is your particular genre? Please will you send me a link to a latest writing of yours?

Love and hugs from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Michelle Coburn's picture

Congratulations again

Dear Monica,

Over the past week I've so enjoyed reading the posts from the Pulsewire community in response your first assignment. You did such a great job and I'm glad you bravely pushed on through your doubt and uncertainty to complete the article. The final result is wonderfully informative and has inspired me to hunt for my own copy of 'Women Speak' and to find out more about Shamim. Thank you! Here's to the next step on your writing journey.

Love Michelle

Monica Clarke's picture

Phew!

Hi Michelle,

Never wrote back to say thanks for your encouragement during the scary time leading up to this assignment, dear Michelle. You held my hand and helped me to remember that doubt is but a rubber which comes to rub out so that we can start again. I did, and am happy. And.....phew! finished with the seond one too!

Thanks for being there with me.

And howz you journey going? Thinking of you...will catch up by Skype next week sometime, when you've settled in.

Love and hugs from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Kate Rivera's picture

Wonderful in so many ways. Well done.

Dear Monica,

This is such a beautifully told story of your long time mission to help working class women raise their voices effectively and be listened to with respect ; first during Apartheid and continuing to today. It is well crafted, clear and inspirational. You are indeed an activist as well as a skilled storyteller. Your ability to bring us into the narrative of your long time bond with Shamim, and the results of that meeting is obvious from the many comments you have received.

Your commitment and determination to your purpose shines through the details of that important first meeting. You heard Shamim's invitation, and began to take action,collaboratively and collectively. And now, through your story we know that this mission was fulfilled by SPEAK, and continues through your work with World Pulse and the newsletter at the SB Centre in South Aftrica.

I'm so glad you were able to overcome your hesitancy to write this article, and now I'm eager to see what else you will share over the next months.

Warm wishes for a Happy Holiday,

Kate

Kate Rivera

"Tell me then, what will you do with your one wild, sweet, and precious life?"
Mary Oliver, American Poet

Monica Clarke's picture

We'd like to get to know you Kate

Hi Kate

Kate with the lovely smile! Thank you for your kind words, and sorry that it took me so long to respond. I had a fall in London during the holidays and have been housebound since then with incredible pain, which has not yet gone. I'm now catching up on mail and of course, saw I had not responded to you.

How about telling more about yourself in your profile? You look like your life is full of laughter and, also, from your brief picture, it looks like you are able to call the world to account. Do tell! Tell what you do with your one wild, sweet, and precious life? !

Love and hugs from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

mrbeckbeck's picture

Wow!

Great work, Monica! This is a great profile of an inspiring woman activist with decades of successes in her hands. I love the history you've shared with us, and how personal and down-to-earth your writing style is. It was really enjoyable to meet her, and to see your own history too.

Thanks for sharing!
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

Monica Clarke's picture

Bonne Annee, Scott ! I'm ever

Bonne Annee, Scott ! I'm ever so grateful that I joined World Pulse last year, and as a result got to know you and Rachael and Emily. May the team be stronger and your work continue to be strengthened by the healing and support you are giving to us.

Love and hugs, with thanks from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

MaDube's picture

The brave women of the

The brave women of the apartheid struggle such as yourself and Shamim are amazing which takes me back to my previous discussions with you about how these contributions were not recognised and were not given the applause they so deserve during the transition and even now. But oh well, just know that we hear you SPEAK and admire your courage for the work you did and continue doing.

Monica Clarke's picture

Happy New Year, Rumbi! I'm

Happy New Year, Rumbi! I'm now panicking about the second assignment and hope I can find the words, which seem to come so easily to you! I'm watching your space. Love and hugs, Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

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