Alumna of the year 2012, Dr Aisha Gill, celebrating her award, together with fellow former students (immediately adjacent: Oonagh Corrigan and Tabitha Freeman) and staff members Miriam Glucksman (far left) and Lydia Morris (far right)
In 2012 former student Dr. Aisha Gill, who completed her BA, MA and PhD within the department over a period of 10 years (1993-2002), was awarded Alumna of the Year for her academic work and activism in the field of gender-based violence against black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan and India.
Oration by Professor Nigel South
Aisha Gill studied for her BA, MA and PhD degrees here in the Department of Sociology at Essex – and was awarded her doctorate in 2002.
Today Aisha is a senior lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton University and a respected academic and activist in the areas of health and criminal justice responses to violence against black, minority ethnic, and refugee women in the UK.
Her work has been recognised by many awards. In 2011 she was named “Professional of the Year” at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards – which recognise professionals who have become leading practitioners in their chosen field, setting an example to other women and having their contributions recognised by their peers.
She has also received the Hind Rattan Award in the field of education in January 2011; a United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women, Award to enable attendance at an Expert Group Summit on ‘Legislation to Address Harmful Practices’, in Ethiopia in 2009; and Research Council Scholarships and the Fuller Bequest Project prize while a student here at Essex. And, in addition, an award of some significance at the time, from the Home Office Police Research Innovation Scheme in 1997 marked at the end of the project by a meeting with the Home Secretary of the day.
Aisha has served on numerous government working parties on “honour” killings and forced marriage, and written about how the civil and criminal justice systems of the UK, India and Iraqi Kurdistan respond to victims in these cases.
She has been involved in addressing the problem of Violence Against Women at the grassroots level for the past thirteen years. She is a board member of the ‘End Violence Against Women’ Coalition; an elected member of the Women’s National Commission, United Nations Advisory Group; invited advisor to the Independent Police Complaints Commission strategic support group; a member of Liberty’s Project Advisory Group; a member of Kurdish Women’s Rights Watch; a past chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project; and a board member of ROSA, the UK Fund for women and girls.
She has been a frequent provider of expert advice on legal and policy issues related to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage to Government departments including the Ministry of Justice, to Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service and to the voluntary sector, and has challenged politicians to be more inclusive of Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee voices in policy-making on issues of gender-based violence and human rights.
Her current research interests include rights, law and forced marriage; ‘honour’ killings and violence in the South Asian/Kurdish Diaspora and femicide in Iraqi Kurdistan and India. She has published widely in academic journals and books and is often in the news as a commentator or contributor to mainstream popular media.
That I think is the background to the award – but if I may I would like to add a few personal comments as I was Aisha’s academic supervisor throughout her years here at Essex.
In this capacity I was privileged to see a young scholar undertaking a journey through difficult and new areas of research and politics – from tentative but brave steps in an undergraduate dissertation to the pioneering work of her PhD thesis. It is important to recognise that when Aisha started her work on the subject of honour killings and violence it did not attract much serious attention from academics, the media or from policy makers or public services.
Whenever opportunities arose to enter the ‘Lion’s Den’ of sceptics or the unsympathetic – in order to present her findings and make her case – Aisha always rose to the challenge. And though the proverbial Lions might have been fierce beasts – my money was always on Aisha.
And she has continued in this vein – campaigning, challenging and changing – and, in terms of what the Government would like to see social science research doing – she has been making an impact and a difference to the world we live in.
We are proud of her achievements.
Response from Aisha Gill
I arrived at Essex University in 1993 and never looked back.
Growing up in the 1980s in an inner-city area in the East Midlands meant dealing with racism, poverty, social exclusion and various other inequalities on a day-to-day basis. Having five siblings didn’t help. Neither did the fact that I was not expected to do well educationally. When I got suspended from school at age 14 for clowning around in the playground, my father’s belief that I was a hopeless case was cemented.
A few years later, in order to assert my independence I had to leave home. At the time, 17-year-old Asian women did not go against their family’s wishes and make their own choices. But I did… and was subsequently disowned by my immediate family. I had no contact with them for over a decade. This rejection stirred my anger and I channelled all rage into my education.
Living in bedsit-land for 3 years in Bedford, I put myself through evening classes, passed my GCSES and started studying for my A-levels thank to support from charities and my local education authority. When I applied to Essex University, Dr Colin Samson interviewed me and I was offered a place on the condition that I got a C in Sociology. Of course I accepted, but I was determined to get an A – which I did.
I remember my first term being quite scary as I found it hard to settle into such a different lifestyle among so many students from different corners of the world. As the end of the first term approached, I began feeling increasingly anxious as I was one of the very few ‘home’ students who did not have a home to go to at Christmas.
Instead, I made Essex my home. To take my mind off my troubles, I undertook my first stint of charity work that December with a Colchester-based homeless charity. I used this experience as the foundation for my first year research project and got a 1st. Although this mark of success was hugely rewarding, more important was the fact that I’d discovered a passion for something that made a real, practical difference to other people’s lives.
I soon started working in the violence against women sector… and never stopped. I remained at Essex for my MA and then my PhD as I was lucky enough to receive scholarships to get me my through my studies. During this time, I decided to devote my research work to changing society’s responses to violence against women: my mother’s generation never had the support and so had suffered in silence.
By this time my close friends Tabz, Winks and Oonagh had become my surrogate family at Essex. Like a true family, they supported my passion for this work and, in 2002, together we raised £2,000 for a domestic violence charity. This was partly thanks to a generous donation from another friend who, although initially keen to sell his car before he left for Saudi Arabia, was persuaded to give it to me for free to be raffled off at the summer ball ‘in a good cause’.
Essex University gave me a fantastic foundation for a career as an academic, a teacher, and as an activist, together centred on the desire to throw light on difficult social problems in order to nurture change. Since leaving in 2002 and joining the University of Roehampton, I’ve continually challenged misconceptions about violence against women and encouraged politicians to listen to the views of black, minority ethnic and refugee women when developing policy. My research has also helped to expose some of the many ways in which women around the world are victimised through violence, including in the UK, India and Iraqi Kurdistan, where I was involved in a two year project investigating the murder of women in the name of ‘honour’. I have also been instructed as an expert witness in a number of so-called honour killing murder trials in recent years and have contributed to drafting legislation on VAW for the United Nations and the UK government. In September 2011 I was promoted to Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton where I teach a wide range of modules in criminology and supervise undergraduate and graduate dissertations. I remember Essex as a great place to learn. And I pay tribute to some of the intellectual ‘giants’ in the Department of Sociology – Colin Samson, Ken Plummer, Catherine Hall, Miriam Glucksmann and Nigel South. I could not have asked for better academic training, so it is wonderful to be acknowledged in this way. It is an absolute honour to receive this recognition.
For those of you graduating today who are interested in research and want to make a difference in the world, I urge you to remain steadfast. Getting a degree is only the beginning. Enjoy this special day. Celebrate with your loved ones and make the most of the opportunities cultivated here with your friends and lecturers to go for it. Education is power and opens so many doors. You just have to believe in yourself.
So, from the bottom of my heart – the only way is Essex!