Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
MARGARET OWEN OBE (# 29)
Margaret Owen OBE
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Jewish (Ashkenazi)
Margaret Owen OBE is a Cambridge educated barrister who, after working in various fields including immigration and asylum law, reproductive health rights, and as a consultant to various UN organisations, now focuses on the rights of women and girls, especially, but not exclusively, in developing countries. She founded the first international human rights organisation addressing widowhood issues and is currently the Director of Widows for Peace Through Democracy (WPD). However, she is also heavily engaged in other human rights concerns, such as the Kurdish question, Iranian refugees, and the situation of minority groups generally, such as the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and Iranian refugees in Iraq. She is also a founder member of GAPS UK (Gender Action on Peace and Security) and the UK Women’s NGO Alliance, and through these organisations, and through WPD, she is often in consultation with UK government officials on policy matters. She also works with the UN and with a large network of partner widows’ organisations in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. She was awarded the OBE in 2010, for services to human rights, particularly to widows overseas.
Asked about her early days during a recent interview, Margaret says: “I am a Londoner but spent my childhood, during the Second World War, as an evacuee in the countryside. My parents were both Jewish but they came from two rather different backgrounds. My mother’s parents were orthodox and came to Britain from Lithuania in the mid 1850s. They spoke Yiddish at home and adhered to Jewish Orthodox traditions, yet my grandmother had a great desire for all her seven children, including her two daughters, to achieve success and fulfilment through education. My bright mother won a scholarship to an excellent girls’ independent school and from there, during the First World War, a classics scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. On arrival, she managed to persuade the college to let her change to medicine, and she became a doctor, specialising in paediatrics.”
“My father’s family, on the other hand, were more secular, and rather disapproved of orthodox Judaism. He was a highly regarded and very successful city solicitor.” Margaret had two older brothers. She was seven when World War II broke out and with her school, South Hampstead High School, was evacuated to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.
“I was almost the only Jewish girl in the school and since food was already scarce, my parents were politely asked if I might be allowed to eat ham, pork and bacon and, since there was no synagogue in the vicinity, if I might also attend the church services with the rest of the children. I rather enjoyed singing hymns and learning the parables. I envied my friends who knelt by their beds at night, but I managed to convince our teacher that Jews stood on the ends of their beds to pray (we were forbidden to stand on most of the beds as they were only camping ones) - I had seen a picture in my bible of Moses receiving the law (the Torah) from God on top of Mount Sinai. So for the rest of the war I was given exclusive rights to the only metal bedstead in our dormitory and, night after night, I stood up on the bed and recited the ‘Shemah Yisroel’ that my mother had taught me!”
“I have to confess that still to this day I feel more comfortable in a little village church than in a large and grand London synagogue, although the music at the West London Synagogue is quite exceptionally beautiful and we have as our Chief Rabbi the amazing Baroness Julia Neuberger, .whose sermons are compelling and memorable.”
“For the last fifty years, I have lived, as well as in London, in a beautiful ancient cottage in a little Dorset hamlet, where life revolves around the Saxon church. I am the number four organist but, although everyone knows that I am Jewish, I am also regularly invited to read one of the lessons. Of course, I cannot and do not take Communion, but the blessing I receive instead I find strengthening and rewarding. I am not especially ‘religious’ but I am very aware of my spiritual needs, and the commonalities in all the great world religions. So in my frequent travels overseas, to do with my work, I quite often find myself attending services in churches (Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox) in mosques, and in Buddhist or Hindu temples, for these are all places where people congregate, where communities connect with each other and pray for peace and salvation, the victory of good over evil, and for compassion and the forgiveness of sins.”
Margaret continues the story of her childhood: “I did very well at my school during the five years of our evacuation and returned to London very confident, academically and socially. I had had a “good war” and had not missed my parents at all, probably because before the war, in my bourgeois professional family, we children had been mostly brought up by our nanny. But once the war had ended, my mother felt I should be ‘taken down a peg or two’ and decided that I needed a bigger school, and one where there were more Jewish girls. So I entered St Paul’s Girls’ School, where indeed there were quite a number of other bright, Jewish girls. But I did not really fit in with them. Many were the daughters of wealthy businessmen, who would parade at weekends wearing sophisticated ‘black market’ clothes at a time when clothes were still rationed, and we others were used to wearing hand-me-downs. They lived in very smart flats or large houses in north London, whereas I still had bars on the windows of my old nursery and (though she would later) my mother certainly did not own a mink coat! My own parents were more socially aware, more moral, and placed greater emphasis on modesty and restraint during those years of post-war austerity. I really did feel an outsider then but at the same time, I didn’t feel uncomfortable with it. Of course, at St Paul’s Girls’, I was no longer the cleverest since there were other girls who were exceptionally bright, and clearly destined for academic distinction in the future.”
“But,” Margaret adds, “if I could no longer be top of the form in every subject, or best at games and gym any more, I could always be the best at being naughty! I think I was a bit of a show-off, and liked to make everyone laugh; I was very good at mimicking our teachers, and often failed to stop when they appeared in our classroom and were watching me. In a way, I was a born rebel and wanted to be different from the crowd and, most certainly, to think differently. I was to be remembered as one of the liveliest pupils in my form.”
“In austerity Britain, as part of the post-war generation, we felt that our teenage years had somehow passed us by. We were at a girls’ school, so we didn’t have boyfriends and, while I was aware that some rather mature, ‘sexy’ Jewish girls appeared to go to dances and talked about ‘fun’, I had no interest and no desire for any of it. In any case, I didn’t feel I was pretty or attractive, and the only young men I really liked were my two older brothers whom I loved and admired greatly. I never felt that I fitted in with all those terribly smart, well-dressed girls whose display my mother considered to be rather wasteful, unnecessary and slightly vulgar.”
“However, when I too got to Cambridge (to Girton, following in my mother’s footsteps) to read Law, my life changed. I was one of only two women reading Law at that time although, quite frankly, I hadn’t really wanted to go to university at all; I had wanted to be an actress. I had acted a lot at school - always men’s parts, like Richard II and Macbeth. As it turned out, I arrived in Cambridge at an extraordinary time: some exceptionally talented men, actors and directors, were there at the same time as me, such as John Barton, Peter Wood, Peter Hall, and Jonathan Miller, who were later to become great names, famous in the theatre, film and later on, in television. We had a wonderful time and I will always think of that part of my life with great pleasure.”
After Cambridge, Margaret did not in fact tread the boards, like some of her Cambridge contemporaries, but was called to the Bar. She took up a pupillage in Chambers but had to live at home with her parents, since she did not earn enough to live independently, unlike many of her graduate friends who were already working. At that time, of course, there were very few women practising at the Bar and Margaret discovered that it was very much a male preserve and survival within such an environment was sometimes very tough indeed, not to mention highly competitive. After some experience of this world, she decided that it was a time for a change, time too to create some distance between herself and her parents, who were far too controlling; she wanted a bit of freedom.
At the age of 23, Margaret accepted a job in advertising, as a copy-writer at J Walter Thompson. For the first time, she started to enjoy an independent life. She also went for a year to work on a Kibbutz in Israel, contributing pieces from there as a freelance journalist and writer. At the Kibbutz, she shared the most extraordinary life experiences with many equally intelligent, optimistic, idealistic and positive young men and women. Of course, that was the Israel of 1956, eight years into the creation of the new Jewish state, and a remarkable spirit prevailed that is sadly long gone from the Israeli state of today. “It was an incredibly exciting time for me to be there; we were all young - the oldest person was only 23; I managed to learn Hebrew; and I made the most incredible friends with whom I continue to be in touch even today.”
“Having returned to Britain, I got a job with the (new) Granada Television Company in Manchester - again, quite deliberately, so as to be at some distance from my home - and that is where I met my husband to be, a Professor at Manchester University. Initially, we lived in Manchester but once he was offered the Chair at Imperial College, we moved back to London. My parents greatly approved of the marriage, my mother especially, who thought that, being older, my husband would succeed in controlling what she saw as the ‘wild and excitable spirit‘ within me. After our fourth child was born, I went back to do a second degree, this time in Social Administration, at the LSE. While not lacking confidence, I never thought of myself as pretty or clever, and my mother always seemed to treat me as if I were a child, never knowing anything. I was therefore more than delighted to get the only distinction the LSE awarded in Social Administration that year.”
This was the time when Ugandan Asians were being driven out of their homes in East Africa and many were arriving to England. Margaret became a member of a coordinating committee set up to welcome them to the UK, and to arrange for the provision of education in the temporary camps created for them. She recalls: “Then the United Kingdom Immigration Advisory Service gave me the task of writing a report called, Stranded in India, about the thousands of Ugandan Asians who were trapped in limbo, a report which I hope made quite a lot of difference to many people in this desperate position. I also went back to work again, for the UK Immigration Advisory Service, this time as a lawyer specialising in immigration cases. This job was not only stimulating and deeply rewarding - you could make a huge difference to an individual’s or a family’s life and life chances - but I also had to travel extensively, thus broadening my understanding of the plight of those who were underprivileged, oppressed and discriminated against in many parts of the world.”
“I was then offered a most interesting post, to head the Law and Policy Division of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) an association of family planning organisations from all over the world. Of course, that job got me involved in all the aspects of oppressed women’s lives - we were not only concerned with family planning and abortion rights but also about the status of women, the lack of education available to them, and their human rights, or should one say, their lack of them. This got me travelling even more and it was truly an amazing job, a job, alas, that came to a sudden end. This was 1980 and in the USA, almost overnight, Ronald Reagan’s government withdrew all funding from bodies like the IPPF; instead, US Pro-life, the Pro-Family Lobby and the Neo-Cons took over the reins of power. Suddenly without a job again, I became a freelance consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO), The Commonwealth Secretariat and a few other organisations, but this was also a time of great sadness - my husband, by then aged 70, became ill and died. I found myself a widow at the age of 58.”
Losing a partner often wrecks the life of the survivor; some people never recover from their loss, never stop grieving, and cannot face the future alone. Margaret comments: “Very strangely perhaps, never during my married life, certainly not until my husband became seriously ill, had I dwelt much on the thought that because I had married a much older man, I was destined for an early widowhood,. He was ill for almost two years and by then, of course, our children had left home and were living their own, independent lives. After his death, given that I was only 58, many friends hoped that I would meet another man and start another relationship, but I never did. My husband had been very dear to me; he understood me very well; we had much in common and had shared a wonderful life together. He had also helped me greatly with my work; he was brilliant editing various texts and with clarifying my thoughts when I needed help. He had often given me wise advice, seeing me through managing complex issues arising in my work, issues which I cared about passionately. He was also rather unusual for his generation, insofar as he supported me and looked after our four children and the household during my extensive travels. At his death, I was suddenly on my own again. I forced myself to be active: three months after his death, I found myself lecturing on Human Rights and teaching English to politicians and activists in Slovakia and, on my return, I got a job at the Royal Institute of Public Affairs as a director of Judicial Administration, teaching and training Commonwealth lawyers.”
“Then, quite unexpectedly, someone brought to my attention the plight of a very sick baby in Malawi - the mother was the wife of one of my trainees, a magistrate there. Her baby needed surgery and the cost of the procedure, either in Malawi or in neighbouring South Africa, was well beyond their means. Hearing about their story, a dear friend of mine, a paediatrician living in my Dorset village, very generously offered to make available the necessary help in our local hospital in Salisbury, so I invited mother and baby to be my guests. They arrived in my London house, having come all the way from their village in Malawi, and knowing by then that I was a widow, the first thing the mother said, even before she sat down, was: ‘You mean, your husband’s brothers let you stay here and let you keep all these things?’ She was astonished that I had simply been able to inherit what she saw as all my husband’s property; this was unsurprising, perhaps, for in many countries, upon the death of their husbands, wives are often driven from the family home - they have almost no property rights and are often subject to the most appalling treatment by their late husbands’ relatives, sometimes even by the whole community.” This Malawi mother’s remark was to be a great catalyst in Margaret’s later life, the source of a driving force which has carried her forward right up to the present day. In 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, Margaret set up her own organisation with as its main focus the rights of widows and of wives whose husbands had disappeared in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Margaret continues her story: “Although many more of the women of my generation were going to University compared to that of our mothers, we were still very much the ‘second sex’, still very much destined to be homemakers, sustaining a good marriage, and rearing the children. To be honest, having grown up in a pretty much traditional family, I saw marriage as a sort of cage. I felt that my own mother, who strongly promoted traditional family values even in the autumn of her life, seemed at times almost frustrated with the limitations that had been imposed upon her: by having to entertain my father’s clients and keep up a household that would demonstrate his success in the city, she had to sacrifice some of her own youthful ambitions. At times she seemed almost jealous of me, of my developing career and of what I had managed to achieve, in spite of having four children.”
Many women of a certain age can feel that, as they age, they become almost invisible as women, struggling with the fear that they will remain invisible for the rest of their lives, and feeling that they have somehow become virtual outsiders just by growing old. Of course, many men feel the same too but are reluctant to articulate or to share such feelings. Asked if advancing age had made her feel invisible as a woman, or made her feel like an outsider, Margaret responded almost without hesitation: “I do not feel like that. I love being old, and no longer needing to show that I am attractive to men. All that is over. And because I am old, I can say what I like. I no longer worry that I must be liked and popular.”
Margaret continues: “I have always felt myself an outsider and I love it that way but being 81 is not the cause of it really. Once I became a widow, at the age of 58, I felt that I no longer had anyone controlling me, neither father nor husband. And by that stage, my own children no longer made great demands on me either. Nor did I feel that my ‘visibility’ as a woman was any longer very important to me. Unlike in one’s youth and early middle age, one is no longer affected by sexual desire; this is most convenient, just at the time when one is no longer sexually attractive, popular or even much liked! How neat!”
“I am much more confident now, more able to be passionate about the issues I care about, than I have ever been in my life before. I am also far more confident about the opinions I hold and I now have no hesitation in expressing them. I am much happier now too. Of course, sometimes I feel lonely, all widows and widowers do, and sometimes I miss my husband a great deal. But having said that, I have a number of friends, friends who are themselves old but who have to look after frail, sometimes very ill, or severely disabled partners; my husband has been gone for over 20 years and I am quite free of any such responsibilities. I am able to travel extensively, commit myself to causes that I hope will make a difference to people’s lives, I can do what I like.”
“I feel much more fortunate than those women who, in their 70s and 80s, are trapped by circumstances they cannot escape. I was fortunate in being widowed at an age when I still had the time, energy and good health to build a new career and to live a life full of delightful friends, most of whom are younger than me. I have just returned from Turkey, where I was a member of a six-person delegation at the trials of 45 Kurdish lawyers who are simply in prison because they are Kurds, trying to represent their people. There I was, at the age of 81, in the company of other, much younger, professionals. When it comes to Kurds, I feel myself almost an honorary Kurd, perhaps because, being Jewish, I feel a sort of kinship with them, with their plight, statelessness, and their continued persecution. They are the largest displaced people in the world, not even allowed to use their own language. A population of fifty million who lived together as a united people under the Ottoman Empire are now divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the Caucasus. In Turkey, it is almost like physical and psychological genocide.”
“Recently, I went on a seven-day hunger strike in protest at the continued detention of many completely innocent people in Guantanamo Bay and particularly, along with others, to support the 160-day hunger strike of a British detainee there, Shaker Aamer, who was picked up 11 years ago in Afghanistan when the Americans were dishing out bounty money to pick up people who might have had some connection with Al-Qaeda. He has been in detention now for all of these 11 years. He has a British wife and four children, living in London’s Battersea. He has been beaten and kept in solitary confinement but no-one has managed to produce a shred of evidence as to why he is actually a prisoner at all; no charges have ever been brought forward against him. Twice he was cleared for release, in 2009, but he is still there, now under threat of being sent to Saudi Arabia, the country he left when he was a teenager. At the age of 46, he is now dying, half paralysed from the beatings and torture he has suffered in Guantanamo Bay. Julie Christie, who is now 72, went on hunger strike a week before me; I did it at the age of 81; and after me, a former MI6 officer, Harry Ferguson, did it because he knew better than most what had been happening to detainees in Kandahar, at Bagram Air Base, and indeed at Guantanamo Bay itself. Though we made strong representations to the UK Government, they are apparently leaving it to the US to decide the future of this man. We might have to do more to push for his release; indeed, I might have to go on a much longer hunger strike and because I am 81, I should get quite a lot of publicity and publicity is what is needed. I can do this too because I am an outsider.”
Asked if she has any regrets being an outsider and whether she would have changed her lot if this had been possible, Margaret responds unhesitatingly: “I always felt like an outsider. I have never been able to stand as a candidate for any political party because I could not endure the straightjacket of a party manifesto. There have been times in the past when I have harboured desires for joining, for belonging, for taking part and I have often wondered why I didn’t fully belong to any particular class or religion. I was born into a Jewish family but I don’t belong to any Jewish community; I read the Gospel in my Dorset village church but I don’t really believe the legends and I have never been baptised. I am classless and am proud to be the granddaughter of an economic migrant from eastern Europe! How my mother would be embarrassed: although born into a relatively poor immigrant family, through education and a good marriage, she became, in her maturity, rather a snob!”
“I am also an outsider now because I am old. But I am proud to be the outsider and I feel confident to say so. Someone recently remarked that I must surely be part of the British upper middle class, to which I replied with pride, ‘No! I am a third generation economic migrant, a refugee.‘ No, I really do belong to the world of outsiders; the ‘world of outsiders’ is my true and proper home.”
Interview Date: 23rd September 2013
Updated: 31st October 2013
To learn more about the work of Widows for Peace and Democracy, go to:
A legacy website of the The Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) is at:
For the campaign for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question, Peace in Kurdistan, go to:
Many women feel that, as they age, they become almost invisible as women, that they have somehow become virtual outsiders just by growing old. Margaret has always felt like an outsider but has never been uncomfortable with it. There have been times in the past when she has harboured desires for joining, for belonging, for taking part and she has often wondered why she didn’t fully belong to any particular class or religion - she is classless and proud to be the granddaughter of an economic migrant from eastern Europe. But now she is also an outsider because she is widowed and she is old. Nevertheless, Margaret devotes her life to a variety of important human rights concerns, particularly the rights of widows in developing countries.
Photography: London 23rd September 2013