#summerstories: Between Cambridge and a hard place

Abigail Smith

As the summer rolls on, I’ve started to think about my place in life. Maybe this is a symptom of being a recent graduate, and seeing how young all the freshers are (is it cool to be 21?)

More likely, it’s because I’m entering a strange limbo — to quote Blazin’ Squad, at the crossroads. I have just graduated, but will be returning in October as a post-grad student to the same college — a fresh start in an old setting.


This summer has been something of a blur, filled with the warm haze of sunny days and doing nothing. Each summer activity I’ve done has passed by quickly, as if rushing me towards this next step on my life ladder, sending me headfirst into a course filled with theses and manuscripts.

The world around me, filled with the blue of Cambridge, is at once old and new. I feel at home in safety of Jesus college, but will I still feel so in September? As new faces fill the hall and old friends move on with their lives, I am stuck in the middle, overstaying my welcome. Many of my closest friends are moving out and upwards, travelling or starting jobs. I can’t help but worry that I am being left behind, in a rut of formals, libraries, and bad club nights.

I sometimes find myself worrying that I am getting the worst of both worlds: the anxiety and stress of a new course, without the thrill of a new environment. I have suffered with anxiety for many years, and starting university again brings back the feelings of unsettling trepidation, making me feel once more like an 18 year old, desperate to understand everything there is to know about Cambridge.

But this seems like an unnecessarily pessimistic way to look at it. Doing a masters means I can dedicate myself to a topic I love in a place which, despite my fears, will always be my home.

My MPhil topic is looking at the writing of an almost unknown woman, Katherine Austen. Her manuscript was written during “her most saddest years”, a compilation of prayers, household tasks, and poetry. She was widowed, and left vulnerable, yet expected to manage the estate and raise three children. Austen’s writing is characterised by an uncertainty, a sense that this estate deserves a better record than her words can give it:

“Tis an unhappy fate to paint that place
By my unpolisht Lines, with so bad grace
Amidst its beauty if a streame did rise
To clear my mudy braine and misty eyes.”

Writing about Cambridge always feels a little similar; trying to explain the “bubble”, trying to encompass the weird and wonderful world is almost impossible, and leaves me with a muddy brain and misty eyes. But maybe that is what so exciting about coming back for a second round; maybe now I can come to Cambridge with those misty eyes and not expect to understand everything.

So I stand at my crossroads, feeling like I’m about to do a U turn back to the beginning. There will be new people to meet, new books to read, and a new place in life for me to settle into. There is nothing left but to embrace the known unknown, and meet it when it comes.

Diss Talk: Imogen Flower on Iranian women singers and their quest to make the world listen

My dissertation examined the interweaving of politics, religion, gender and music in relation to Iranian women singers. My focus was on the changes incurred by the revolution in 1979, which saw a dramatic shift from the modernising, Westernising stance held during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979) to the Islamic theocratic rule secured by Supreme Leader Khomeini.

As dominant attitudes towards religion and gender changed, legislation surrounding music, which Khomeini believed was ‘like a drug’, also transformed to correspond with Shari’a law. Under immense religio-political pressure, music largely retreated into the private sphere, with the notable exceptions of the revolutionary hymns and anthems played by the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and the establishment of the annual Hymns and Revolutionary Music Festival in 1986. More specifically, the solo voice was thought to symbolise Western individualism and consumerism, antithetical to the revolutionary vision; and, furthermore, women’s voices were considered to make men think of things other than God. As a result, Iranian women singers were hit hard by the revolution, which appeared to present them with an ultimatum: either stop singing or leave their country.

However, the perceived contrast between the freedoms of the Pahlavi era and the restrictions imposed by the revolutionary regime is problematic, and threaded throughout my dissertation was an attempt to unpick assumptions that women singers lost all agency under the Islamic revolutionary regime. The Pahlavi era certainly presented its own issues for Iranian women, including the forced unveiling in 1936, which created difficulties for the religious population. For musicians, the Pahlavi era’s emphasis on modernisation infiltrated cultural production, and women singers, such as Parissa, could only get licenses to perform pop songs despite being trained in traditional Iranian music. Thus, the view that the revolution and Khomeini’s subsequent Islamic rule was responsible for removing the agency of Iranian women singers required complexifying.

Parissa performing at the Shiraz Arts Festival, 1967.

Although quite typical of contemporary ethnomusicology, this topic raised a number of academic issues for me, as a white British woman assessing my own positionality and my right to comment on other women’s experiences. In the end, I felt compelled to address the subject from an angle which critiqued Western representations of Iranian women, rather than constructing my own representation, which I was clearly ill-equipped to do. I argued that contemporary Western views have been bolstered by Islamophobic sentiment, particularly those which applaud Westernisation in the Middle East and see the reinforcement of the veil in 1979 as dramatically more oppressive than its forced removal four decades earlier. The binaries created between the West and Islam, freedom and oppression, needed to be interrogated and the voices of those at the intersections sought out and listened to. In my dissertation, Iranian women singers provided those voices.

Continue reading Diss Talk: Imogen Flower on Iranian women singers and their quest to make the world listen

@cambridgegirltalk on Spotify

We are excited to announce our brand spanking new Spotify playlists!

Our resident DJs, Emmanuel College lawyer Gee Kim and engineer Martha Dillon, are continuing to curate a series of playlists that celebrate the female voice in all its shapes and forms. From Japanese jazz to Brazilian bossa nova, from downtime to the dancefloor, the @cambridgegirltalk Spotify has got it all.

Spotify has got it all. 


(Main image: Still from ‘Pretty Girl Rock’, Keri Hilson, 2012)

Street style: #DressLikeAWoman

Following the Twitter backlash Donald Trump is facing over comments that his female staffers should ‘dress like women’, Girl Talk decided to take to the streets of Cambridge to ask our fellow students and citizens for their thoughts on gender and personality, dressing and comfort. 


“I don’t think there is one particular way to ‘dress like a woman’. I make a lot of my own clothes so it’s when I’m wearing those that I feel most comfortable. I made this jumper, scarf and hat. I love it because I make clothes for my body and so they fit better. They’re so much more enjoyable to wear because I’ve made them myself.”


“The idea of ‘dressing like a woman’ enforces gender norms on clothes in a dangerous way. It makes clothing restrictive, rather than allowing freedom. If we’re speaking normatively I suppose I do ‘dress like a woman’, but I feel most happy when I feel it looks good on me – not someone else.”


“I dress quite androgynously. For me clothing should be comfortable and prioritise happiness above all else. Clothes are a way to express yourself and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, even if there are people who say you shouldn’t care about your appearance. I love Tilda Swinton’s style because she always looks great – whether it’s a tux or a dress.”

Continue reading Street style: #DressLikeAWoman