I'm grieving my mother but I also want to honour women like her

The contribution to societies of women like my mum is not documented and that is an enormous loss

A dressmaker's shop in London in the 1960s. Getty Images
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Everyone has that moment when time stops. The clock shatters and life after is not the same as it was before. For me it was early on a Wednesday morning. At 1:52AM to be precise. That’s the thing about when time stops. It is very specific. I had three missed calls in my sleep. And then I rang back and got the news. My mother had passed away. My recollections of the minutes after that are at the same time both intense and blurry.

My husband woke up. And all I could keep repeating was “My mum died. My mum died.” I was stuck on repeat with tears and wracking sobs taking my soul and exploding it into the world around me. I messaged my closest friends the same simple statement. My mum died. What else at that moment was there to say?

Grief is all around us, ubiquitous and pervasive. I am not the first. And in the experience of grief I am sadly not special. But loss is individual, wrapped up in an intimate relationship which by its very nature is unique, something specific no one else can ever know. *My* mother died. But in this very individual moment is a bigger societal experience: the loss of a mother, the loss of a loved one, the loss of what was and could have been. The moment after which life will never be the same.

In receiving the condolences for my mother and finding great consolation and comfort in them, I have found myself giving comfort to others who continue to grieve their loved ones. “My mother passed away 21 years ago and I still visit her grave to ask her advice, I get clarity.” “My mother passed away when we were young, but at each family milestone of a birthday, Eid, or gathering the pain is still there.”

It sounds cliched and trite to say it of something so existentially enormous for each of us as individuals: those who shaped us will always live in our hearts. But since that phone call just two raw short and painful weeks ago, I have begun to wonder why shouldn’t the lives of our elders – particularly our women – live beyond that? Why should they not live in the collective space as shared memory, that build our history and shape our approach to the future as a society?

Two weeks ago I lost my words. But it became increasingly vital to me to write my mother’s story.

Gathering oral histories, which otherwise will be lost to posterity is crucial, especially of women. The long tribute I wrote for her – I did not censor myself, or edit it’s length, but wrote with candour and expressed everything I felt needed to be said – was, of course, to honour my own mother, in that sense it was a selfish act. But I did it purposefully: I wrote it to encourage others to write the stories of their elder women and normalise the articulation and publication of their stories.

Too often the stories of (immigrant) women are lost. Not having been “leaders” or documented for “firsts”, having lived what are too easily dismissed as “ordinary” or “unremarkable” lives, these are in fact women who built our families, communities and even our nations. They were the women who created the transition to a world today where women have more choices, independence and public presence, and whose ways of womanhood have much from which we all – men and women – can learn.

My own mother lived at the cusp of history, as so many do. But the acknowledgement and recording of the impact of the feminine on our culture, history, religion and spirituality is disastrously absent.

Gathering oral histories, which otherwise will be lost to posterity is crucial, especially of women

Born in Tanga, a town in the north of now Tanzania, her maternal grandfather and her father were both migrants from India. Her life was at the crossroads of the dispute between the German and the British Empires, and she grew up in the decline of British rule.

Mum was an extremely talented seamstress and dressmaker. After moving to London, she sewed haute couture garments for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Sasha Hetherington on Kings Road, which was then at the height of its global status.

It was precisely through the immense talents of her hands, her creative vision and incredible artistry – and those of so many immigrant women like her – that the UK’s international place as a fashion leader was built. But the contribution of women like my mum is not documented, instead such women have been derided for their image and their alleged backwardness.

The same lack of recognition applies to such women’s role in culture, religion and society.

We think of religion as passed down by scholars and books. But for me it has been in the softness of the hands of my mother, her wisdom and her encouragement, in the seat next to her at the prayer mat, and the prayers she recited for me. It is in the stories of religion she told, peacefully, truthfully, with sweetness and smiles.

The same applies to the implicit way our society sees gentleness too often as weakness. From the unfailing positivity, kindness and compassion that I watched my mother exhibit over a lifetime, it has become obvious that these same "softer" attributes are also undervalued and therefore under promoted in a world of toxic masculinity, public bombast, creating controversy for clicks and grabs for power. These attributes of being compassionate, loving, gentle and subtle are in huge deficit in society, but we need to first recognise their importance and then revive them. This applies in particular to men who, in broad brush terms, do not take women as role models, and do not apply the feminine attributes, seeing them as weak.

We need to fill our public narratives with the stories of women and their contributions to ensure they are recognised, and to ensure that their attributes are not lost when we lose them. It is hard enough to suffer their loss as individuals. Their collective loss is a societal tragedy.

Published: September 30, 2022, 9:00 AM