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Remembering Yasmine Lakhaney, The UK’s First Female Nightclub Bouncer
Audrey Golden , January 23rd, 2024 10:24

Audrey Golden, the author of I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women At Factory Records, celebrates the life of the Haçienda’s mould-breaking security person and examines the history of female bouncers

Yasmine Lakhaney working on the door of the Haçienda, courtesy of Mirrorpix

Given the stories you’ve likely heard about the Haçienda – the madness and delirium of Manchester’s Factory Records-owned dance club, rumours of punters sliding across the floor in blood – you could be forgiven for thinking that it must have been an environment manageable only through brute force. Yet even in the seemingly male-coded space, it was the tireless, behind-the-scenes work of women that so often kept the club from crossing the thin-black-and-yellow line into pandemonium. You may be surprised to learn that when it came to the most masculine-imagined of jobs at the Haçienda, door security, it wasn’t the blokes who quelled violent outbursts or handled drug-infused mania on the dancefloor. It was Yasmine Lakhaney, the first female nightclub bouncer in the UK.

Unlike the stereotype of the nightclub bouncer, a physically dominating man with the ability to forcefully overpower anyone in his line of sight, Yasmine’s expertise in “doorman” skills came from another type of gendered space entirely that bestowed her with the distinct capacity to handle the feverish and unhinged antics at the Haçienda.

Like any good legend, Yasmine’s story only revealed itself gradually, passed down by word of mouth. “You know, a woman worked as the bouncer, Yasmine,” long-time Factory Records employee Tracey Donnelly was the first to tell me. “You’ve got to find her.” As I started reaching out to women who’d worked at the Haçienda to interview with me for I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women At Factory Records (White Rabbit 2023), I found that almost everyone who worked at the Haç remembered Yasmine; many wanted to know if I’d spoken with her.

With some help from Tracey and a lot of digging, I discovered she’d died in 2011. By 2020, there was very little written about Yasmine or bearing her name in the myriad histories on the Haçienda and Factory Records. After collecting as many memories as I could in interviews, in 2022, I discovered Soraya Lakhaney, Yasmine’s sister, was still living in Manchester. She sat down with me for an interview and provided a wealth of personal memories about the woman I’d come to know through the affectionate remembrances of the Haçienda women, as the first female nightclub bouncer in the UK. She was “revolutionary,” Soraya remembers, a person who was “very future-thinking” and “very much into empowering women.”

Resident DJ Kath McDermott remembers the "Wild West" that was the Haçienda at that point in time, and how Yasmine was a resolute figure in "the eye of the storm". For Alison Agboola, who worked with Yasmine at the Haç, it was undeniable how Yasmine “had this core of steel.” It was a singular trait in Manchester; “I’ve never seen it before,” Agboola says. When Anne-Marie Copeland, another Haçienda co-worker and artist in the British hip-hop group Kiss AMC, asked Yasmine how she could do a job that often required physical prowess, Yasmine told her, “don’t worry, I have a black belt!” Indeed, Soraya confirms, Yasmine had a deep interest in martial arts that was connected in nuanced ways to her religious faith and love of both Eastern philosophy and Northern Soul music.

Yasmine didn’t look like a typical bouncer as far as existing histories of nightclub security go, and she certainly didn’t rely on physicality alone to make the Haçienda a safe space – for the “lads” commonly written into the club myths, but also, importantly, for women and queer clubgoers who made the space their own. Yasmine was a groundbreaking figure, a woman of colour who stood at once boldly and compassionately on the door of the Haçienda.

Like so many women whose histories have been obscured by prevailing myths of male achievement, the exact details of Yasmine’s story are murky. We don’t have an exact date when Yasmine started at the Haç; there are no existing written records that track her first day on the job, or her last. Yasmine began bouncing at the Haçienda sometime in the early to mid 1980s following years of work as a psychiatric nurse at the notorious Ashworth Hospital in Liverpool (more about that shortly). Soraya recalls Yasmine working at the Haçienda for “seven or eight years, quite a long stint,” before she “felt that she couldn’t do any more and wanted new challenges.” It was a good time for Yasmine to leave – the early 1990s, after the Haçienda had undergone a brief closure due to the increased prevalence of drugs and violence, and a general shift in the status of the club. “You work somewhere for a long time,” Soraya says, “and realise you’ve reached a point where you think you can go as far as you can.”

It’s no secret that precise timelines of women’s work are difficult to unearth, especially posthumously; without the source, we’re left with what many dismiss as mere hearsay or, worse, an absence of memory. Since the 1970s, archivists and historians have pointed to the dearth of such written records and have relied on oral history techniques to fill in gaps, as digital librarian and archivist Jessica Wagner Webster points out.

Histories of female bouncers are particularly scant. Delia El-Hosayny has described herself as “Britain’s first female bouncer” at a “small pub in Derby.” El-Hosayny has written that she was the only female bouncer she knew about, but of course, there was Yasmine, too – even if the two women and others working at the time hadn’t knowingly placed one another in a cosmos of kinship. Soraya cites Yasmine as the first woman who worked as a bouncer on the door in the UK, and Teresa Allen of the Haçienda recalls that Yasmine “must have been one of the first ever,” since seeing a woman bouncer was nearly akin to spotting a unicorn. Ang Matthews, the first female manager and licensee of a nightclub in the UK, also tells me that she believes Yasmine was the first woman to take on this role.

It’s no wonder there’s difficulty saying with certainty who came first given the normative frameworks with which nightclub bouncers have historically been described; as journalist Alex Williams writes definitively in The New York Times, in the 1970s and ’80s, “bouncers were guys who worked for cash and essentially made up the rules as they went along.”

Even if Yasmine didn’t know it, she paved the way. Pieces in the feminist news journal Off Our Backs – written by, for, and about women – reference female bouncers at lesbian nightclubs in Washington, DC in the late 1970s, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find other references to female bouncers during that decade. Mirna Eljazovic wrote about her later experiences as a female bouncer in Toronto for Vice, describing the gender-based violence that cultural norms made common for women to endure in the job while noting that women rarely work in the profession enough that we hear their stories. With so few female bouncers in the early days, the stories of their experiences are scarce.

That number has grown, but similar to other historically male-dominated fields, it remains obscure, a collection of isolated stories prevented from influencing the way we think of the job itself. During the early days of the new millennium, Irish nightclubs sought out female bouncers in response to the perceived rise in women drinkers patronising bars and clubs.

In present-day New Delhi, Mehrunnisa Shaukat Ali retains the title of the first female bouncer in India, although she is now one of many. Like Yasmine, Mehrunnisa trained in martial arts and runs her own security company, where she employs other women as bouncers. Emem Thomas, founder of Dragon Squad Limited – a team of more than three dozen female bouncers operating near Port Harcourt, Nigeria – says hiring female bouncers in areas where gender-based violence is common produces safe(r) spaces for women.

As the twenty-first century has pressed onward, more women have entered this “security” profession globally, but the figures remain lopsided. By the early 2000s, sparse estimates suggested that women made up about 5 percent of the bouncer workforce. By 2014, new data suggested that number had risen to about 7 percent. In some regions, that figure may be as high as 10 percent.

Yasmine courtesy of her sister Soraya Lakhaney; picture taken by friend known only as Rick

Yasmine’s trailblazing story becomes less surprising when you understand the Haçienda – as so many women who made it run were keen to point out to me – that the nightclub was so much more than an ecstasy-fuelled haze marked by misogynistic attitudes prevalent in the North. To be sure, the Haçienda was a space where female clubbers could be themselves without fear of sexual violence, and a place where women could explore creative impulses across art genres and forms. We can surmise that the Haçienda’s inclusivity in this regard may have been due in no small part to having Yasmine on the door for so many years. After all, she wasn’t, as Soraya put it to me, “a woman pretending to be a man, but a woman who could be a woman in the company of men: a strong woman, a resourceful woman, an empowered woman.”

And it’s more than just the image female bouncers offer to a club, and to the female and nonbinary punters patronising it. Indeed, challenging masculine notions of “security” makes violence less likely to occur in the first place. Dragon Squad’s Thomas observes how women in security roles “have a way of taking off danger by listening to troublemakers and victims in a way that most men do not have patience for.” Meanwhile, Eljazovic similarly describes being able to “de-escalate certain situations prior to them becoming physical because I could calm men down better with my charm rather than resorting to my fists” in Toronto and highlights circumstances where female clubbers concerned for their safety could rely on her for security over the male bouncers “because I could understand and empathise better than the men could.”

We often envision “secure” spaces like nightclubs as masculine ones, ruled by violence and physical force, but there’s another way to frame the stories we tell about those environments. Female bouncers, unlike male counterparts, anecdotally respond less with physical violence or aggression and instead with protective measures for patrons, turning nightclubs into spaces of joy and inclusivity.

Yasmine is celebrated for analogous approaches. DJ Kath McDermott remembers her as being “so firm but fair with everyone, so careful and calm.” Gonnie Rietveld, a musician from the Factory Records band Quando Quango and long-time Haçienda employee, recalls how Yasmine “could actually deal with difficult people without getting angry or aggravated, and thereby could diffuse any stressful situation.”

The repertoires shared by female bouncers – the recourse to calming rather than escalating – have practical value, but surely there’s much to be said about such methods resulting from socialised conceptions of gender. Is there something more to it? When certain qualities are ascribed to a particular gender, we must interrogate how they become normalised. Yet Yasmine’s experience goes beyond and suggests a possible connection between the female-coded spaces of mental health nursing and the male-coded spaces of bouncing. Both professions require a set of skills that is difficult to come by, designed to temper violent tendencies and shape reasoned and compassionate responses to turmoil regardless of the practitioner’s physical stature.

If you consider that, then it becomes less surprising to learn that Yasmine entered the world of bouncing as a former psychiatric nurse. She trained for three years for a degree in London, then moved to Liverpool, where she worked at Ashworth Hospital, a high-security psychiatric hospital that the BBC describes as the home of “Britain’s most violent patients”. Indeed, reporting for the BBC, Judith Moritz described Ashworth as a place that felt “like a prison” where “its patients are considered such a danger to the public they are kept under high security”. Here Yasmine worked with “the full spectrum of patients,” her sister Soraya recalls. Assigned to a secure unit of the hospital, Yasmine provided psychiatric care for patients diagnosed with a range of mental health disorders and psychoses, including paranoid schizophrenia and psychopathy. While the reputation of Ashworth preceded it – the institution got its start in the early 20th century treating World War I soldiers experiencing shellshock and shortly thereafter grew into a hospital for the criminally insane — Yasmine saw each of her patients as individuals she cared about and recognised that they needed to be “treated as unique human beings”.

Yasmine’s emotional and intellectual work at Ashworth often mirrored her later experiences at the Haçienda. “The work was very draining emotionally and physically,” Soraya says, since “the shifts were long and Yasmine needed to be vigilant and alert at all times as an event could happen at any moment where the unit might need to go into lockdown.” She added: “The job [at the Hac] was very stressful, needing to be able to deal with the unexpected at any moment, to deal with any individual or any situation outside and inside the club.” Indeed, she emphasised, “It would take a lot from anybody to be that aware and alert, to be so very present all the time and over so many years.”

Unsurprisingly, Yasmine thrived professionally at Ashworth and developed meaningful relationships with patients and co-workers because of her “very loving, supportive, and empathic nature.” Soraya also recalls how Yasmine’s faith kept her grounded and allowed her to “show care and unconditional positive regard to the patients.” Although Yasmine nursed “very challenging” patients, many who were near-lifelong internees of the psychiatric hospital, those patients “responded to her empowering attitude and strong but gentle nature.”

The history of the lives of psychiatric nurses, like the history of female bouncers, is sparse. We know that psychiatric care work began in the early 19th century, but as medical historians Anne Borsay and Pamela Dale argue, its history has been largely neglected when compared with other histories of caregiving. The dearth of knowledge is particularly strange given the “celebratory histories of Victorian/Edwardian nursing personalities and autobiographical accounts of working as a twentieth-century nurse,” they suggest, yet perhaps not so unexpected since psychiatric nursing practitioners were women whose experiences were more often shaped by race and class. Indeed, Borsay and Dale emphasise, “historic policies” in nursing “discriminated against those who were not white, female, middle-class, London-based, and trained in a voluntary hospital”. What that discrimination means is that the history of the psychiatric nurse “tends to be overlooked or described in a way that suggests inferiority to the general trained nurse.” In addition, the specific skills of psychiatric nurses have been understudied and, as Borsay and Dale intimate, undervalued.

Ashworth was the subject of an official inquiry in the early 1990s, amidst renewed attention to quality of care in psychiatric hospitals and the process of decarceration. The attention was due in part to the public release of Frederick Wiseman’s incendiary documentary about Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts, Titicut Follies (1967), released by order of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the 1990s after decades of censorship.

Physicians wrote to the BMJ defending the dedicated work of many psychiatric nurses at Ashworth. For devoted carers there, they underscored, the work was carried out under often very difficult circumstances as they treated their patients with dignity and respect. One doctor also pointed to the psychological toll of this work, noting the “physical and mental scars” that ultimately led nurses to seek new professions entirely. From what we know of Yasmine’s experience, it seems possible that similar traumas may have led her to seek a new career path where she could thrive.

So, as strange as it seems to think of life as a psychiatric nurse at one of the UK’s most notorious hospitals for the criminally insane would prepare a person for work as a bouncer at what might be the UK’s most infamous nightclub, but the trajectory is there. At Ashworth, Yasmine “had the right balance of being tough and setting clear boundaries with the patients, and showing genuine concern, care, and regard for them,” Soraya underscores. And we know from the dozens of women who worked with her at the Haçienda, Yasmine took a similar approach there. For what it’s worth, Yasmine wasn’t the only woman to shift from a career in nursing to one at the heart of Manchester music. Una Baines also trained as a psychiatric nurse before joining Mark E. Smith as part of the original line up of The Fall.

Some of the stories from Yasmine’s time at the Haçienda that draw on her background in nursing are funny, even if a bit gory. For example, Suzanne Robinson, who ran the canteen, recalls a particular New Year’s Eve night on which a punter approached Yasmine for help after falling on the dance floor. Robinson recalled Yasmine’s first words to her: “Suzanne, can you do anything for this girl, she’s not prepared to go to hospital…. She said she’s fallen on the dance floor and she’s got a piece of glass in her bum.” Robinson had a chest freezer, tweezers, and antiseptic. She and Yasmine spent that New Year’s Eve together in the freezer of the Haçienda kitchen, “picking little bits of glass out of this lady’s bottom.”

Other experiences that drew excruciatingly on Yasmine’s previous life as a trained carer are more difficult to recall. In the summer of 1989, Yasmine was among the Haçienda workers on duty who responded to the first ecstasy-related death in the country. Claire Leighton, who was only 16 years old at the time, collapsed on the dance floor on Whitworth Street West after taking ecstasy and was later pronounced dead. Yasmine tended to Claire, Soraya recalls, was the person who called for the ambulance, and “was holding the girl’s hand and was with her, trying to keep her centred, being with her in the last moments of her life.”

Although Ashworth might have prepared Yasmine in distinct ways for her work as a bouncer, her job at the Haçienda was demanding and unyielding in a way that is difficult to imagine. “High energy, exhausting work,” Soraya describes it, and reflects how “sustaining that kind of energy level, mental presence, and alertness over many, many years . . . I think it takes a toll.”

In the end, Yasmine’s story as the first female nightclub bouncer in the UK is startlingly remarkable, yet it’s also a story that highlights Yasmine as a real person with interests and difficulties; she was a groundbreaker, and she was also a modest woman for whom work was ultimately about the community she formed and participated in. “She contributed in a way that was right for her” by the end of her time at the Haçienda, Soraya recalls, “and she gave and helped others. When her colleagues were going through hard times, she'd be there to support them, and they were there equally to support her. I think that was a great thing about the team at the Hacienda, especially the band of women that were there.”

Yasmine was proud of her work at the Haçienda throughout her life, and up until the end. While she didn’t necessarily look back with rose-coloured glasses – there’s nothing perfect in this world, Soraya reminds me – Yasmine remained honoured to have been “part of such a strong female team”. The significance of that work in Yasmine’s life can’t be neatly summed up, but when Soraya told me that she buried her sister in one of the Haçienda T-shirts and jean jacket she’d worn to her beloved northern soul all-nighters, I found myself moved beyond any words that could be written about Yasmine’s revolutionary work. That revolution was never televised, but we can all get to work on rewriting the legacy of the Haçienda by placing Yasmine at the front.

I Thought I Heard You Speak by Audrey Golden is published by White Rabbit