I lock up at work and pace it down the High Street. Heavy, wooden doors hide the elusive world of Oxford University on either side. After spending the day being treated as invisible – or worse, inferior - by a select few students I’m willing to bet have never been the server instead of the served, anything related to Oxford life makes me fume. A thought crosses my mind: isn’t it strange how I’ve lived here for 13 years, but I’ve never laid eyes on the postcard-perfect scenes of quaint quadsand immaculate grounds that are sprawled across the heart of the city? When you think of Oxford, you think of sunshine thrown onto the riverbank as punts amble along, studentscycling down cobbled side streets, dreaming spires and dusty libraries… you don’t think of the 3am Turkish takeaways from Bodrum, its neon sign shining like a beacon on a night out, the Rose Hill estate with 13 year olds asking you to buy them cigarettes, or the Dodgy Deli selling expired beer in crates for a fiver. The Oxford I know and the Oxford you know are not the same.
I head to the assigned rendezvous for bad days – the muddiest bench at the bottom of South Park. My best friend, Iman,waits for me with coffee and music to blare to the empty hill.We first bonded over a shared appreciation of the kind of obscure, droning indie rock that makes you want to down a bottle of red and curl up in her bed. As we grew older, our connection to each other deepened through the shared experience of growing up as women of colour in a city of division. Now she’s thrown herself into the heart of it, studying Art in a place that makes her feel like an outsider despite being the only local one in her class. We sit and vent our frustrations. Now, I’m in love with my city in so many ways. I know its ins and outs. I know where to run for cover when it rains, which cafes will let you walk in to use their toilet, which kebab vans won’t give you a dodgy stomach to deal with on top of your hangover. Yet, I feel like a tourist... I’ve been mistaken for one enough times. There’s an underlying air of displacement when you share a city with an institution so historically elitist.
“Just one more year”, Iman says to me, “then you can finally get out of here – imagine!” But why? Why should I feel this desperation to trawl through this year? Especially when we are so fortunate, so privileged to be able to lead the lives we do. But what’s clear is that we need something to make us excited about where we are instead of wallowing in the same pubs, parks and streets filled with boredom and anticipation to get out. We shouldn’t live waiting for a future life, ungrateful for the one we are living now.
She sighs and throws the butt of her cigarette. “Hey, how about we go to this drum thing I saw on facebook?” my friendmuses. “It’s a free drop in workshop, just something stress-relieving I guess… might be fun to just bash some drums for a bit”. Agreed.
And so we migrate from the Bench of Frustration to the community centre (I know this place well, as one of the aforementioned “public” toilets). Two hours, two drum kits, and two beats later, we’re hooked. The workshop, led by drummer Zahra Tehrani, is one of the bi-weekly sessions provided by Young Women’s Music Project. The organisation provides a supportive space for girls aged 14 - 21 to make and record music, hold gigs and events, and learn how to challenge issues affecting them such as class, race, sexuality, gender, mental health, and consent.
This particular workshop sparked the chain of events leading to Iman and I saving up for our own drum kits, joining girl bands and an all-girl drum troupe to play at two festivals thissummer. This kind of opportunity is reserved for daydreams, when you’re singing along to your favourite songs imagining you were on the other end… but through Young Women’s Music Project, here we are, with an entirely new passion in life we never even considered this time last year. Yet there’s a bigger impact still: the discovery of an escape when we feel trapped in our city (or perhaps, trapped in our skin in our city). This is our stress-relief when we’re on the brink, our safe space to build confidence in music but mostly in ourselves as we share stories, share advice and share laughter with girls just trying to grow up in peace.
“Zahra, you have no idea how much I needed that”, I tell her after one drum session. “This has been one of the longest weeks of my life” I confessed, mind muddled with thoughts weighing in from different problems at the time. It felt to me like they were coming at me from every angle, “but to come here and just have nothing in my mind but a drum in front of me and a rhythm to follow, that’s therapy.” This has been a cliché since forever, but it’s a cliché because it’s true – music is an escape from life. Or rather, music is a way of working through your lot in life. Yet for an industry in which women must often fight for a safe space of their own, Young Women’s Music Project offers a foothold for girls to grow together. The teaching and events on offer are fantastic - but it’s more than that. Take Nikki, for example – she’s a member that’s not even into music. She’ll dance and sing along to the charts after a shot or five, but that’s about as far as her intereststretches. Yet she shows up every week without fail. Growing up as a young woman, particularly a young WOC, it is special to find a space where you can make mistakes and laugh about them, share a problem and know everyone will take time out to hear you out, where you can be honest and confident and free to connect through that girl-bond which can only be described as sisterhood. A sisterhood born out of music and expression. “Young Women’s is the only thing that makes me glad I’m in Oxford”, Iman confessed once, and there’s something very wrong about that. But for now, it’s a start to us carving our own space in the city we should be calling home.
Written by Siam Hatzaw
Edited by Olivia Havercroft