By Sohaila Baluch
What does it mean to be in the archives as a racialised and gendered body, as a researcher, as a keyword search term, and as an archival record? These are the questions that occupy my thoughts as I explore Bishopsgate Institute’s archives for information on British South Asian women’s histories.
As part of a research placement funded by the London Arts and Humanities Research Partnership, I’ve been investigating how these women navigated belonging when their impact on British cultural identity was routinely neglected. Traditionally, those with power and authority have shaped historical archives and reinforced existing social and political hierarchies. This tradition has had a significant impact on the visibility of British South Asian women and their voices within libraries and special collections.
The items that document their lives are fragmentary or incomplete, with many perspectives altogether absent. Finding materials that speak to the everyday experiences of this diaspora group is difficult.
“Being Seen, Being Heard” displays some of the materials which start to address the silence and stereotypes which surround British South Asian women, both historically and today. It reveals these women’s struggles at work and against racism, their experiences of finding their voice, accessing education, and their contributions to social networks, traditions, and cultural practices. It includes items that show the ways in which they empowered themselves and their communities through social and political activism. It displays the works of important British South Asian feminist scholars, such as Heidi Safia Mirza, Amrit Wilson, NIra Yuval-Davis and Avtar Brah.
The display case also includes three items which remind us that there was a female South Asian presence in Britain before the Second World War. The first of these is an engraving from The Illustrated London News (1857). The engraving forms part of a short article that tells us about the Queen of Oude’s state visit to the Theatre Royal in London’s West End. The text does not include the Queen’s name, Begum Hazrat Mahal. Nor does it mention that she was one of the few women who challenged British rule in India, leading local resistance against the British East India Company during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858. Instead, the article pays attention only to the visitor’s modesty and dress.
The second Victorian item is a daguerreotype by Richard Beard titled ‘Hindoo Tract-Seller’, from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851). The image shows an “Indian” man wearing traditional clothing which consists of a plain white kurta (a cotton, knee-length shirt), a cotton shalwar or trousers and a fitted patterned waistcoat. On his head, there is a white turban and on his feet some canvas-type moccasins. By his side is a young South Asian girl, wearing a plain cotton dress and what appears to be dark stockings. She has a scarf tied around her neck and wears a type of turban covering the top part of her head. She may or may not be wearing shoes, it is difficult to tell. Her presence in this context is not for leisure, but for labour. Unlike the male tract seller, she is neither identified nor classified. The nuances of her personality, emotions and experiences are not captured, yet here is tangible proof that testifies to her existence in Victorian London. Her presence also highlights a growing fascination with the Orient and the “exotic” at this time.
The third item is a black and white photograph of a group of children wearing patriotic fancy dress for Empire Day. The photograph was taken around 1930 in an unnamed location.Among the group is one South Asian girl. Her pose, expression, gesture, and clothing set her apart from her classmates. She is dressed like a Maharani, a woman of the Indian royal household, in an embroidered sari. Her hair is partially covered, and around her neck are several necklaces. She wears bangles on both wrists. She is looking directly at the camera, and her arms are placed in front, her hands touching. This is a gesture immediately recognisable to me, as a British South Asian woman. It is commonly used to convey respect, humility, or deference to those who hold power.
I choose to reframe this gesture here. There is empathy and compassion in the girl’s pose. She is intentional and thoughtful in her actions. This young girl’s gesture expresses her connection to, and respect for her cultural heritage, an important aspect of her personal identity. She is taking a moment to pause, reflect and centre herself. This, too, is the purpose of this display.
“Being Seen, Being Heard” provides a chance to pause, to reflect and to centre the stories of British South Asian women. The focus of my research inquiry is to highlight their diverse experiences and contributions, while also recognising the challenges and barriers they have faced and continue to face. Foregrounding these narratives moves towards increased visibility of British South Asian women and the significant role they have played in shaping British society. It also acts as a call to others, both to challenge dominant narratives and to give space to alternative perspectives and experiences.
Items in this displayed in the cabinet are from the following Special Collections:
London Collection; Feminist Library Collection; Feminist Library Pamphlet Collection; Journal Collection; FORMAT photographic Archive; London Collection Illustrations; Working Class Lives Collection; Labour History Collection; Nettie Pollard Archive
 The Oude State was also known as Awadh, or Oudh. It was a princely state in the Awadh region of North India, annexed by the British in 1856.
 An alternative name used for the Queen of Oude was the Begum of Awadh.
 The first Empire Day took place shortly after the death of Queen Victoria, to mark what would have been her birthday on 24 May 1902. The event was celebrated annually in schools across the Empire during the first half of the twentieth century to promote imperial ideals through patriotic speeches and songs, alongside dances, concerts and parties.
Sohaila Baluch is an interdisciplinary artist with a research-based practice that draws from feminist strategies to unite performance and fibre arts. Her work engages with durational processes that prioritise the notion of gendered labour to challenge dominant aesthetics and hegemonic discourses. Sohaila is a PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art, London, UK and a recipient of the London Arts and Humanities Scholarship. Her research is focused on disrupting established and traditional narratives that tell racialised bodies they do not belong through a feminist activist fine art practice that uses embodied knowledge as a mode of resistance and reimagining.