Girls aren’t allowed to……. By Naseem Akhtar

I thought things would change for the next generation of girls.

I grew up in B12- Sunny Balsall Heath. Sister of five brothers and because of them I loved sport. Football, Cricket anything. If I could be one of the boys I’d want to be in their team. When I was 9 we’d visit my uncle’s house and went out to play I used to sneak onto my cousins bike –  when I could- his bike was just my size.  ‘Girls don’t cycle….. I was told off …. so I didn’t cycling …. when they weren’t looking. I finally learnt to ride a bike at the grand old age of 36.

I went to a girls school and couldn’t understand why girls didn’t enjoy sport…. I learnt to swim at secondary school – Naseem where’s your costume? Mrs Curzon my formidable PE teacher asked. I couldn’t tell her my mum didn’t want me in a swimming costume … but too scared to tell the truth about wearing  a costume I just said I’m not allowed. This is a GIRLS school – of course you’re allowed bellowed Mrs Curzon. That’s why your parents sent you here.  I thought she’s right! I went home argued with my mum and got my first ever costume and went swimming at Stirchley baths… I loved it.

What do women really want….

By the time I was 28 I was a single parent of two boys. I always thought the next generation of girls would get to do everything we weren’t ‘allowed’ to do but as a single mum I realised nothing had changed in sunny Balsall Heath –  especially for women and girls. I went back into education and became a qualified nursery nurse and  got a job straight away in a local school. Next door to the school a Capacity Building revolution was happening in Balsall Heath through Balsall Heath Forum. They wanted to know what women wanted in the area so they set up a women only residents group for women only as local Asian women were not getting involved in their local resident’s groups. Through regular meetings the women came up with an idea of setting up a health and fitness facility run by and for women.  I was offered the opportunity to develop the idea and Saheli Women’s Group was formed and we decided to ask local women through an independent consultation:  What did local women really, really want?

Build it and they still won’t come ….

265 local women completed the questionnaire and said they wanted a women’s centre in Balsall Heath and no they didn’t use the biggest sports centre in Birmingham on the edge of our neighbourhood. Why ? because they didn’t feel welcome, their culture/language/needs of the community were not understood. There was some ad hoc sessions for ‘women only’ and even if you went for that hour women you felt  there were too many men in and around the building. They felt they had to rush in, change and then rush out before the men came in. It felt more like 30 mins not 1 hour. Through the questionnaire the women said they wanted to take part in: swimming, exercise sessions and health related activities and they wanted these activities when they  were free to access them at their own leisure. Most importantly the centre had to be run by women, for women.

The report proved what local women wanted and I requested help though the local  regeneration board and I remember  feeling nervous and scared presenting to this board of men (it was all men) and when the request was discussed the local councillor said:  If we give you an Asian women’s centre then the Irish community will want a centre and then the Chinese community will want one…. I remember answering It’s for ALL women not just Asian women in our area – and challenged back –  Why did he think it was only for Asian women? He was quite embarrassed making an assumptiomn it was just for Asian women but we didn’t get anywhere.

What women? Asian women? All day?

I took the report and met the leader of the PCT – We do health not sport he answered. I took my report to the head of Leisure – We do fitness and sport not health he answered and  you want a women’s centre ? Run by women for women? And you want to fitness and sport? All Day? Just women ? That’s never going to happen!  Oh yes it will I thought –  Maybe not now but one day.

Through Saheli Women’s Group we secured £5K from the Neighbourhood Network Scheme and combined it with Connexions £5k I set up a young girls club. The young Saheli’s aged 13-18 took part in learning to ski, canoe, rock climb at the Ackers and even how to ride a bike. I learnt to ski, canoe, rock climb and to finally ride a bike – properly – with them – reliving my youth but most importantly giving girls the opportunities I never had growing up. All these activities and programmes over the years helped Saheli to prove that women and especially Asian women can and do want to learn and take part in fitness and sport.

Saheli Adventure Hub

In 2006 we open the Saheli Adventure hub thanks to a man, yes a man. Who called me after I was invited to take part in a presentation on how little a difference is made for grassroots community in deprived neighbourhoods through regeneration money. I remember presenting and saying  to many of the officers in the room – Regeneration is just a stepping stone for you on your carer ladders and you always ‘do to’ the community and ‘not with’ the community. In Sparkbrook over £140K per person had by that time been spent by the local regeneration board but I couldn’t see the evidence of it. Nothing had changed in my neighbourhood for girls, women and families but if they’d given me £140K I’d show them how to change women’s lives in my neighbourhood. One of the officers called me the following day and said he heard what  I said and he liked what I said and had I heard there was a new fund. This time they just wanted our initial ideas of what could change the lives of our communities and if they liked the idea they would help us to grow the idea and fund it. I sent a picture of the girls cycling in a park with yellow cagoules on stuck in a ravine with mud splashed all over their faces, Smiling, beam at the fun of it some wearing their Hijabs with Helmets on top and said we’d like a women’s centre in Balsall Heath. Here’s what our independent report said.  We secured £0.5M from Sport England’s Active England grant.

What’s your adventure with Saheli?

In 2021 you can run: a 5k, 10K, Half a marathon or a full marathon take weekends away and run in events across the country or in Europe with the Saheli Run Group. You can learn to ride a bike: in the Park, in the street, 5-25 miles or in the Velo 40/100 miles event with Saheli Cycling Club. You can learn to knit, crochet, take part in talking art with Saheli Social Clubs. You can take part in zumba, aerobics, chair based exercises, yoga and body conditioning in Saheli Hub.  We now deliver across the inner city of Birmingham in three Wellbeing Centres and two GP sites and all we want to know is as a woman …. What’s your adventure with Saheli?