Cambridge student and period poverty activist Amika George almost rejected her MBE

She had doubts about the connection of the honours system to ‘the atrocities of British imperialism’

21-year-old Cambridge student and activist Amika George told Vogue that she nearly rejected the MBE she was offered this year as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

She thought of Britain’s “horrific” imperial history, and “couldn’t think” of “anything more shameful” than associating herself with this through accepting the MBE.

However, after some deep “self-reflection”, she decided to accept, as she felt it was an “opportunity to represent my community and my family, to draw attention to the lack of colonial history in our education system, and highlight the stark underrepresentation of young people in political spaces”, and one she couldn’t “let slip by.”

She was offered an MBE for her activism surrounding period poverty

Whilst revising for her finals in the University Library, Amika received an email saying she had been “honoured with an MBE as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours, upon the Prime Minister’s recommendation”, which would make her the youngest recipient of the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year.

She received the offer for her work founding the non-profit organisation Free Periods when she was 17 years old, which aims to fight “for an end to period poverty” and tackle the “stigmatising taboo” around periods.

Four years on from starting a petition in her bedroom, the work she has done with her organisation means free period products are available for every school and college in England, so “students have equal access to education, unhindered by their period.”

After finding out she was being offered an MBE, she felt an initial sense of “shock” and “joy”, but was then “thrown into a spiral of self-reflection” about whether she should accept it.

Amika considered how George the Poet and Benjamin Zephaniah had rejected their MBEs due to the honours system’s “colonial connection”, whereas David Olusoga had accepted his OBE as a “signal of the growing recognition of Black people’s contributions to British culture” and the singer MIA had dedicated hers to her mum, whose job it had been to hand-stitch the medals in the 1980s.

There was a “powerful case” for both, she said, so the following days were “filled with anxiety and agonising doubt” as she considered what she should do.

Amika considered rejecting the MBE for its association with ‘horrific’ British imperial history

The word ‘empire’, particularly in British history, was a particular sticking point for Amika, she told Vogue, as it “conjures horrific images of racist exploitation, economic extraction and a continuing legacy of global division.”

She did not want to associate herself with this word through accepting the MBE: “I couldn’t think of a more shameful word to permanently attach to my name.”

Although she had been in the education system for 13 years, she thought about how she had never been taught about these “atrocities of British imperialism” and “the brutal imprint it left on so many countries.”

She said she was “deeply embarrassed” by the fact that university was the first time she heard about the Amritsar massacre, and “fully understood” the “devastating ramifications” of Partition in India.

As she researched more, she found that contrary to the curriculum’s portrayal of Churchill as a “wartime hero who united the nation with rousing speeches,” Churchill believed in eugenics and declared himself “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”

Amika explained how “the ugly, violent history of the British empire is British history”, something we need to start acknowledging: “Our sense of national amnesia around Britain’s imperial past perpetuates a false and romanticised version of events that actively encourages patriotic pride in Britain’s role in the slave trade and colonialism.”

She eventually accepted it ‘as a way of representing [her] community’

In the end, she said she reframed the MBE “as a way of representing my community” and “showing the next generation of young British Asians that they hold just as much political power as their white friends, and that they are just as ‘British’ as anyone else – no matter how many times we’re asked where we’re ‘really’ from.”

By accepting her MBE, she hopes she is “demonstrating a slow, but increasing recognition of young people as real, political actors” – she started her non-profit, Free Periods, at age 17, an organisation which now makes free period products available for every school and college in England, ensuring their students have “equal access to education, unhindered by their period.”

Amika said she is accepting her MBE “on behalf of every single person who supported, signed, protested and donated to our case” and added that she doesn’t see it as “a reward for my personal achievements”, but rather as “an indication of our generation’s irrepressible energy and hunger for transformative change.”

She also remembers her grandfather, who came to Britain in 1957 at aged 28, and fought in two conflicts with the RAF and received two medals for this contribution, which she remembers him showing to her “proudly” just before he died.

He reminds her that she comes from “a long line of uncelebrated activists” who “refused to let adversity slow them down, who have served their communities, often with no recognition or reward, and found strength and compassion even in the bleak face of racism, prejudice and cultural dislocation.” She said that her accepting her MBE is “for them.”

She also called for the need to “acknowledge the reality of empire through honest and unfiltered education in schools in order to move past our history”, and therefore felt that to her, accepting her MBE was one way of doing this, of “drawing attention to the horrors of that imperial history” and its ongoing presence for people of colour in Britain.

“Perhaps,” she says, “as a young person of colour, I don’t have the luxury of rejecting this MBE. The opportunity to represent my community and my family, to draw attention to the lack of colonial history in our education system, and highlight the stark underrepresentation of young people in political spaces, is one I can’t let slip by.”

Feature image credit: Amika George via Instagram