The immigration story is often one of escape from poverty, separation from loved ones, and building a new life in a foreign environment. It is one familiar to many people of South Asian origin, and many Pakistanis. But seldom is the central Pakistani protagonist a woman, one from the early wave of immigration from South Asia in the 1950s, and one who ran a successful business in times when women business owners were rare in the UK, let alone Pakistan.
Akhter Jaffery, now in her 80s, has such a story. She moved to the UK in 1959. Until then, most migrants had been men who had arrived to study or perhaps to work in factories in North England.
“My husband had come three years earlier for his PhD, but soon after, had run out of money and couldn’t make ends meet. He worked several cleaning jobs and eventually found work as a teacher in a school. First you need a meal, only then can you study. You cannot go on with no food on the table. He had rent to pay, children he had left behind, so a PhD was soon out of the question,” she says.
In a neatly symmetrical sequence of events, the couple had been married for three years and had three children when Akhter’s husband went off for his PhD. She joined him in the UK three years later.
One of her aunts had warned her against leaving, saying it was not done for women to emigrate. “Nowadays, people come and go. But going to England was a very unusual, unheard of thing to do in the 50s,” she says.
“When the day came for me to leave, my mother-in-law gave me some rice and lentils in a container. I stopped her, but she insisted. ‘Take it, you may need it.’ It was the mindset at the time – people travelled with food.”
Akhter was in her 20s when she arrived in London, where she saw few brown faces. “I did not see any Pakistani or Indian women when I first moved,” she says, but a few years later “they were all over the UK”.
She remembers arriving with her three children at Heathrow, London. “My husband had come to pick us up from the airport. He took us home – a one-bed flat in Chalk Farm. I was a bit taken back by the size of the place.
“‘Is this how you live?’” I remember saying, and he replied, “‘This is how everyone lives.’”
“There was nothing to eat. My husband had not prepared a meal. It was not something men were expected to do, so I remember preparing the lentils and rice my mother-in-law had placed in my suitcase. It was very uplifting in a foreign place, especially for my husband, who had only had English food the last few years. We had not had a meal as a family in a long time.”
Akhter had had “a very good life” with her in-laws and children in Pakistan. “I had never worked before, so I had to prepare myself to take up work when I moved to London,” she says.
After months without work, Akhter came across an advert for ‘home work’ in a newspaper. “I went over to the address mentioned the very next day. It was a huge house in Belsize Park. A man opened the door, and showed me to the waiting area. His wife came and took me upstairs to a workshop. She showed me several designs for brooches and flowers made with mink. The job involved a fair knowledge of designing, drawing and handwork. But I was thrilled inside. I was self aware of my creative flair and I knew I could do this easily in no time,” Akhter says.
“She asked me to do some sample work and bring it the next day, and so I did. From then on, I was given work several times a week. The independence the money had brought me, the ability to support my family, was very elevating. I earned about £90 a week hand-sewing brooches and flowers. £90 a week felt like a lot of money considering my weekly rent at the time was £50.”
“I earned and paid rent, fed my children and could take care of things. It was a lonely life, but fulfilling. I never asked my husband about his income. It was culturally incorrect to question your husband. I did not know what my husband earned, or if he had any savings or if he was in debt. I just took care of the house, financially and physically.”
It was Akhter’s husband idea that they go into business on their own, in 1962. “He insisted that we start dealing with fur retailers directly rather than going through this woman. I was very reluctant. Neither of us had any business experience. And this job ensured a regular amount of money each month that we needed to run the house. But he was very persistent.”
“We started out with £10. He went and brought trashed pieces of mink from a fur coat factory in East London. For £2, you could collect the mink trash. He bought wire and threads to stitch the pieces together. He had also secured a direct deal with a fur coat retailer at Marble Arch for supplying mink accessories. Now we were in business directly,” she says.
The business flourished and quickly expanded. “As soon as I delivered an order, I would get a cheque and an even bigger order. In a few months, the burden of work took its toll. It was so much that I could not handle it alone. I knew a few very impoverished Pakistani women. Some had moved to England from villages in Pakistan after marriage. Most could speak no English. Their husbands had a difficult time finding work. But they knew how to sew so I employed about five to seven women. I would design and then draw a pattern and pass the cuttings along with the material to these women to stitch the flowers and brooches.”
Over the next decade-and-a-half of hard work and long hours, Akhter and her family moved to Belsize Park, then Paddington and then to Shepherd’s Bush. “Now, when I think of these times, I feel a bit surprised at how I managed all that work. Doing all the household chores while also running a business… God gave me some special strength to carry on, and I did. From having been very poor, we were flooded with money.”
In the 1980s, fur shops began to close down due to the animal right movements across the UK and Europe. “This is when my business came to a close. Some kids started making a noise about how it was a cruel game where only the rich benefitted,” she says.
Akhter then did a few courses and moved for a while into the beauty industry. “Every night, I would attend classes between six and ten after having tended to my children all day. And then I opened my own salon. But the business did not last long. I left for Pakistan, and had left two workers to care for the business, but when I came back after a month, things were not going too well. I eventually closed down the salon, and later my husband invested in a newsagent’s shop. It felt like a very low-end job, having run a high-calibre business earlier. We worked at the store for about 12 years, and then sold it to retire in the late 1990s.”
Now in her 80s, Akhter lives alone at her house on Goldhawk Road. Asked to sum up her immigration experience, she says: “It was very difficult. Life was very hard. If I try to explain my life, it will take days. I can’t sum it up in a few hours.