Anwar Ditta was a migrant’s right’s campaigner, an anti-racism activist and a mother who fought tirelessly against the Home Office to be reunited with her children. In 1976 her campaign began in Rochdale and by 1981 her incredible fight had been heard around the world.
We will share Anwar’s legacy today, alongside a short interview with Anwar’s daughters, Samera and Hamera. Samera and Hamera share their personal experiences with us which are featured at the bottom of this post.
Anwar Ditta’s father came to the UK from Pakistan in the late 1940s. Her father moved following the British government’s invitation to Commonwealth citizens to come to England to work and rebuild the country after World War II. Anwar was born in Birmingham in 1953 but she was brought up in Rochdale. At the age of nine, following her parents’ divorce, she was sent by her father to live in Pakistan with their grandparents. There Anwar married her husband, Shuja Ud Din and had three children. Shuja moved to England in 1974 and Anwar followed shortly after, returning home with the aim of finding a job, buying a home and then applying for her three children to join her. They remarried in Rochdale to make their settlement easier, doubting whether their Islamic marriage would be recognised under English law.
Home Office Rejection
Following the birth of their fourth child in 1976, Anwar and Shuja applied for their children living in Pakistan to join them in the UK. The Home Office delayed the result for an agonising two and a half years and in May 1979, rejected the application. The Home Office claimed they were not convinced that the children belonged to Anwar and Shuja and had discrepancies about whether Anwar had ever been to Pakistan and the legitimacy of their marriage. This was the impact of the legislation passed by the UK government in 1962, 1968 and 1971 which increasingly tightened immigration laws with the aim of preventing Commonwealth citizens from settling and restricting the rights of Black and Asian immigrants.
Anwar appealed the decision in June 1979 but it was rejected a year later in July 1980. The judiciary did not properly review the case and it was dropped two months later.
Despite providing evidence of passports, her children’s birth certificates, testimonies from Anwar’s midwife, witnesses who were present at the birth of her children, a testimony from the imam who performed the marriage in Pakistan, fingerprints, official documents and a countless collection of photographs. The Home Office refused to overturn their ruling. Anwar also underwent a very invasive procedure to prove that she had given birth to more than one child. In the 1970s, it was common for Asian women to be subject to ‘virginity tests’ at Heathrow airport to check if they had previously married and would need a visa. This clearly shows the level of institutional racism Anwar and her husband were battling against.
Campaign/ Working Life
Anwar’s campaign to bring her children back to her was one of the most high-profile campaigns in immigration history. In November 1979, the Anwar Ditta Defence Committee was formed which organised rallies and demonstrations across the country. They were supported by other campaign groups including “Rochdale Against Racism”, the “Anti-Racism Committee of Manchester City Labour Party”, the “Asian Youth Movement” and many more.
Anwar spoke at over four hundred public meetings as well as petitioning in the town centre every weekend, going door to door to collect signatures to send to the Home Office. This is remarkable in any circumstance but especially as both Anwar and Shuja were campaigning and attending meetings whilst working day and night. Anwar had to give up a job because of the time off she needed to attend meetings which led her to work as a machinist for the NHS earning only 80p for every two hundred pillow cases she sewed. Anwar and Shuja were also sending money to their children in Pakistan to pay for schooling, paying off phone bills for phone calls to them all whilst paying their mortgage in Rochdale.
Anwar claimed that without the generosity of the public they would not have succeeded. People sent donations and came out in masses to march with them. Even students sent their pocket money and Anwar received countless letters of support. Although Anwar’s MP Cyril Smith dropped the case, it was picked up by labour politicians Joel Barnett and Tony Benn. She also had the support of Neil Kinnock and the actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave. The campaign gained international recognition when Granada Television made a World in Action documentary about Anwar’s fight in 1981.
On 14th May 1981, after six years of separation, the Home Office finally relented.
Anwar’s campaign became the second example in history to use DNA testing (commonly used today) in order to prove the legitimacy of her case. She had offered to use blood tests from the outset which the Home Office had ignored, so it was the Defence Committee who paid for a doctor to be flown to Pakistan to carry out blood tests on Anwar’s children and Anwar’s Sister-in-Law as the Home Office had accused Anwar and Shuja of attempting to take her children into the country instead. The results proved conclusively that Anwar’s children were her own.
Once reunited with their children, the struggles faced by Shuja and Anwar did not end. Despite the large amount of public support, Anwar also faced abuse. She had been told to go back to where she came from, spat on and had her hair pulled. Anwar was sent racist letters with razor blades inside and even faced abuse on the school run. In addition, the Home Office did not offer any financial compensation or otherwise following the final ruling and when Shuja lost his job, they faced extra difficulties as they had debts to pay off from the campaigns.
Despite this, Anwar and Shuja still marched in support of others facing similar difficulties. Anwar understood that her case was not isolated and there were many others struggling. As mentioned in TRIBUNE magazine, the laws introduced in recent years by the government to make England a ‘Hostile Environment’ for migrants demonstrates how important it is to remember Anwar’s campaign.
Speaking in 2020, Anwar urged the Home Office to think about how lives are impacted when immigration legislation is introduced, feeling as though her life was still not put together over forty years later because of the years of her children’s childhoods that she lost. The youngest was still breast feeding when she left for England. Anwar adds a face to migrants who are usually treated as just a statistic by mainstream media.
Unfortunately, Anwar Ditta passed away in November 2021 however her incredible fight and legacy will live on. Anwar donated all the letters and documents from her campaign to Manchester Central Library which is open for the public to view.
Interview with Anwar Ditta’s daughters, Samera and Hamera
Samera was born 1976, Hamera was born 1983- 2 years after the children were allowed entry