Dossier 26: Difficult Alliances: Treading the minefield of identity and solidarity politics

Publication Author: 
Pragna Patel
October 2004
number of pages: 
Southall Black Sisters (SBS) is a collective of South Asian women.1 We operate an advice, resource, and campaigning centre for women in Southall, an area in west London with a large South Asian population. In comparison with many other Asian communities in this country, Southall is heterogeneous and has a cosmopolitan feel to it. All religions and ethnic groups of the Indian Subcontinent are present there, although the Punjabi Sikh ethnic group and religion are dominant.

In the last decade or so Southall has also received a large influx of Somalian refugees, of predominantly Muslim background, who are now beginning to establish themselves as a cultural and social force in the area. They have already changed the social landscape of the area but have not, as yet, asserted a strong political presence. It remains to be seen when and how Somalian women, who are at present preoccupied with addressing language, housing, and educational needs, will assert themselves. At present they remain largely invisible in the public religious and cultural spaces created by Somalian men.

The Southall Black Sisters centre caters to all women. We operate an open door policy, providing a front line service for all women, irrespective of ethnic and religious background. The focus of much of our work, however, reflecting the make-up of the local population, is on South Asian women. Over the years, our campaigning and political work has been largely dictated by the issues and concerns raised in the casework that we undertake. It is the experiences of women who use the centre, combined with our own, that have shaped our progressive feminist outlook.

The centre was set up in 1983 with funding from the local council. We continue to rely on funds from a variety of sources to provide much needed emergency and long-term casework services for black women. The very existence of the centre reflects the fact that the needs of black2 and minority women are not adequately addressed either by indigenous institutions within the community or by the wider state institutions. The bulk of the casework undertaken at the centre has to do with domestic and sexual violence. This means we also find ourselves addressing the attendant problems of forced arranged marriages, abductions of children and young girls, homelessness, and poverty. The other side of the coin is that we are also obliged to scrutinize the state’s responses, including the response of the police, to these issues.

Identities and alliances

Our practice at SBS has shown us that identity and alliance building are closely connected. In fact, we look on them as twin concepts. We must be involved in alliance-building if our aim is to work towards a more egalitarian society. And the identities we choose can either limit or increase the potential for alliance-building.

In a sense, the history of SBS can be seen as a history of resisting imposed identities. We have, throughout our twenty year history, attempted to shake off identities foisted on us by the community, the anti-racist movement, and the state. Reactionary elements within our communities seek to impose identities on us through the confining of women to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, with the aim of ensuring that cultural and religious values remain intact and transmitted from one generation to the next. We have also had to resist attempts by the more progressive anti-racist movements to pin a singular black identity on us. Such constructions, sometimes overtly, but more often tacitly, demand subjugation of all other identities for the greater good of racial justice. This has led to a denial of other experiences and identities such as those arising from gender, caste, class, and other divisions within our communities. In addition to this, we have found ourselves having to resist racist stereotypes and categories fostered by the British state, the effect of which has been to subordinate difference, denigrate minority cultures and religions, and confine us to the status of second class (or, as in the case of refugees, third class) citizens.

More recently, we have been engaged in resisting very specific fundamentalist and nationalist identities that have been fostered by the rise of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu religious fundamentalist/nationalist movements in this country and abroad. The reformulations of identity being imposed in these processes have direct political consequences for progressive, democratic, anti-racist struggles and for women’s demands for self-determination. These movements demand absolute conformity to religious laws as interpreted by male religious leaders, in denial of countless variations in interpretation of religious/cultural practices that have evolved within different black and minority communities.

Our experience as black and minority women in Britain shows that constructions of identity are constantly in a state of flux. They are forever being negotiated and re-negotiated in social and political processes, here and abroad. For example, on the one hand, the construction of fundamentalist religious identities within minority communities in the UK has been a response to both British state racism and events in countries of origin of minorities. On the other hand, such constructions have been underpinned by conservative imperatives to maintain ‘authentic’ cultural and religious values perceived to be under threat in the west. Religious fundamentalist leaders have been able to utilize the newfound religious identities to gain power and control over local territories, communities, and resources.

But above all, the history of SBS has been about the juggling of different identities. We have understood that we all carry with us a multiplicity of identities, reflecting the numerous struggles that we are simultaneously engaged in - struggles against racial and class inequality, against patriarchal oppression, and against religious fundamentalism. We have not been able to give primacy to any one identity, because to do so would have amounted to hiding other realities and signalling the view that our struggles can be hierarchically ordered. On the other hand, we have found it important to recognize that at certain moments some struggles do become more urgent than others, with the effect that some aspects of our identities momentarily take on more significance.

The beginning of SBS, as an organization comprising African-Caribbean and Asian women, is instructive. It was in a sense, a first break with the labels imposed on us by others. It was also an important moment in the history of collaboration between African-Caribbean and Asian feminists. The forming of SBS involved the forging of a new feminist secular identity, one based on a shared history of racism, and of religious and patriarchal control. The absence of the recognition of gender power relations within anti-racist movements and the absence of an acknowledgement of racism within white feminist movements had resulted in the invisibility of black and minority women. This invisibility is what gave rise to the need for an organization like SBS, and it remains a major hurdle to be overcome.

A conscious decision was taken for us to set ourselves up as an autonomous black women’s group. We did not wish to separate ourselves off from anti-racist and other progressive movements, but there was a need to create space in which women’s experiences could be shared and articulated. From the start there was an emphasis on the commonality of our experiences and the need to work out a common agenda for change. This stress on shared experiences and the need for an inclusive approach in our thinking and practice was what guided us out of the paralysis that was gripping many other women’s groups. As an early member of SBS put it, “We made a conscious decision to move beyond slogans and develop solidarity on the basis of mutual understanding of both the similarities and differences in our experiences as Asian and Afro-Caribbean women and then to translate this understanding into practice. None of this was easy.” It was not easy then, but the task of sustaining alliances across difference has become even more difficult since.

The hard fact is that we have failed to sustain Asian and African-Caribbean unity within SBS. Practically, politically, and theoretically we have maintained a commitment to such unity. But the local population in which we are situated is largely Asian, with the effect that the activities and campaigns of the organisation are mainly geared to meeting the needs of Asian women. Also, our alliance has floundered because (although we have now learned this lesson) in the past we simply translated unity into practice by operating a ‘quota system’. For example, we made the decision to ensure that, funding permitting, the number of Asian and African-Caribbean workers in the project would be equal, regardless of the needs of the women coming to the centre. The need to be visible as an alliance took precedence over the need to realistically ensure a more effective and long-term alliance.

Sustaining an African-Caribbean and Asian alliance in SBS has also been difficult because the priorities of the communities differ, partly because of the different ways racism is experienced. For example, we have witnessed the break up of Caribbean families, whereas extended families within Asian communities have been bolstered. But both sets of experiences have come about as a result of the centrality given to ‘multiculturalism’ in British politics – something I return to below. This state strategy has had profound consequences for the roles that Asian and Caribbean women occupy within the family, leading to differing priorities in terms of immediate action. For example, Asian women have been active concerning domestic violence and other forms of restriction within the family, whereas many African-Caribbean women have been active concerning educational under-achievement and the problem of expulsions of their children from schools.

Relations with community and state

Over the years in SBS, we have learned to develop an understanding of how constructions of ‘race’, gender, and class intersect to lock black and minority women in subordinate positions of powerlessness in the home and outside. Demands for freedom and for more choices for women have meant challenging and negotiating with powerful conservative forces within our communities and, at the same time, challenging and negotiating with the racist state. When we deal with domestic violence, for example, we are not simply dealing with a gender issue but simultaneously with the question of how the state responds to such violence and to demands from women for protection.

One of SBS’s current campaigns has addressed the so called ‘one year rule’ within immigration law, which stipulates that people coming to the UK to join their spouse must remain in the marriage for at least one year before they can apply to stay permanently. The operation of this rule means that women whose immigration status is dependent on that of their husband cannot afford to appeal to the state for protection in the case of domestic violence. The effect is that the meagre, but nevertheless real, choices available to women in the majority community are not available to women with an unsettled immigration status. The rule effectively operates to perpetuate patriarchal oppression for women experiencing violence. So SBS campaigns for the abolition of the ‘one year rule’ and its attendant provisions, arguing that women should be able to avail themselves of the legal and welfare resources they need in order to live both free from violence and without the fear of deportation.

Immigration law also has an alternative effect. A series of immigration laws have been enacted by successive Tory and Labour governments designed quite clearly to keep out black (that is third world) men, in particular from the Indian Subcontinent. Sometimes therefore a woman will come to SBS having experienced violence from a man whose right to reside in the UK is dependent on his marriage to her. If the marriage breaks down in such a case, it is the man who is liable to deportation. Sometimes such a woman understandably asks us, for her protection, to support her in having her violent husband deported.

However, to accede to this request would be to legitimate both racist immigration rules and practices and the state brutality that often accompanies their implementation. Many of us remember the recent case of Joy Gardner who was killed by the police and immigration officials when she tried to resist her deportation to Jamaica. Instead SBS has tried to develop a practice that is simultaneously anti-racist and anti-sexist. For example, in the scenario just outlined, our first priority would be to help the woman seek protection from the criminal and civil justice systems and, if necessary, to refer her to a safe house or refuge. But using deportation as a means of protection is something we feel we cannot entertain.

Racism and racial violence can be experienced in different (gendered) ways by women. One classic example, although it has not, to our knowledge, been repeated since, is the virginity tests carried out on Asian women at Heathrow airport in the late 1970s. Immigration officers devised this physical test as a means of sifting out ‘bona fide’ from ‘bogus’ women who, they asserted, were fraudulently posing as fiancées to evade immigration restrictions and gain entry to this country.

The state’s adoption of a policy known as ‘multiculturalism’, especially within the legal and social welfare system, has been particularly damaging for women. Multiculturalism replaces a former, less articulated, policy of ‘integration’ and is currently the state’s chosen means for mediating relations between itself and minority communities. It presents a progressive face, in recognizing the desire of people of minority cultures in the UK to retain a distinct identity rather than having it submerged in the dominant culture. At best, it seems to promise a tolerance of heterogeneity.

The problem with multiculturalism, however, is that it conceptualizes minority communities as homogeneous entities that have no internal divisions. Gender, class, and caste differences are obscured. It involves the state, in a subtle but pervasive way, in intervening to construct identities, and this involvement results in racist and anti-democratic effects. Such homogenizing constructions of minority communities are born out of the state’s endorsement of community leaders. These leaders are un-elected, usually religious, and often conservative males, with little, if any, interest in social justice and equality. Yet they claim to be the ‘authentic’ spokespersons for the community and are the main power brokers, regularly consulted (usually informally) by the police and other state institutions. This multiculturalist contract between state and community leaders amounts to the former granting the latter a degree of communal autonomy (usually over the family and women) in return for acquiescence and preservation of the status quo.

We have witnessed devastating effects of multicultural policies in the everyday lives of women. They reinforce authoritarian, undemocratic, patriarchal institutions and relations within the community. Multiculturalism has been utilised to great effect by fundamentalist forces seeking to control women’s sexuality and prevent alliances and progressive movements from being built.

Creating secular spaces

Within SBS, maintaining alliances amongst ourselves as South Asian women has not been difficult because of the centrality given to the term ‘secularism’. This is not for us an abstract or merely theoretical term. It is actually put into practice in creating a space of mutual respect amongst women. Our starting point is that whether a woman wishes to interpret and practice religion, or to reject religion and culture in part or altogether, her choice is equally legitimate. Our constitution enshrines anti-communal, anti-racist, feminist, secular, and egalitarian principles. It has not been difficult to put this into practice because women readily understand the commonality of their experiences as women. Many of the users of the centre are only too aware that as women from the Indian Subcontinent they share one cultural patchwork quilt, crisscrossed though it is by different religions. Language, food, films, as well as such heavy-duty concepts as shame and honour, are just some of the shared ingredients that go towards making up the social fabric of their lives. Women, for example, in debates about domestic violence or religious oppression, are readily able to identify with each others’ predicaments. They negotiate their differences and arrive at a common stance against domestic violence in solidarity with each other.

By contrast, within the official language of multiculturalism, differences amongst South Asians have been distorted and exaggerated. It is of course important to recognize new variants of racism affecting relations between minority communities, including the disturbing rise of Islamophobia. But many of the differences that are being emphasized are absurd and exaggerated, and they have serious implications. They can affect the ability of projects to obtain funding and politically damage such projects because they limit the possibility of alliances between different Asian women. For example, a recent Home Office research project on the needs of Pakistani Muslim women who were facing domestic violence highlighted the problems of the ‘one year rule’ (mentioned above) and the concept of izzat, or honour, as if these were exclusive to Muslim women. There was nothing in the experiences cited by the research that could in fact be singled out as being exclusively ‘Muslim’. Yet the signs are that social policy is heading towards this kind of spurious recognition of difference, which merely serves to legitimate the creation of new (fragmented) categories of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus.

We find that the women who come to the SBS centre themselves defy imposed identities and labels that serve to separate them from each other. In a recent wave of Sikh and Muslim fundamentalist rivalry and violent activity in Southall, the women at SBS recognized immediately the dangers this represented to their autonomy and freedom, and to community peace. They insisted on organizing a women’s march through a main street in Southall. They wanted to reclaim the community for themselves, to stop what was being done in their name as Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims and to assert their right to be recognized as equal citizens of the community. Their actions in effect served to redefine the notion of community.

Because our starting point is to develop a secular and anti-communal organization, we have been able to avoid some of the dilemmas that have beset other Asian women’s groups in recent times. In some groups the transformation of identities from an inclusive Asian identity to exclusive religious ones has given rise to very real problems. For example, in one Asian women’s group in East London, Muslim women made demands for a separate space within the centre, in which to meet as Muslim women only. They did not make this demand because they faced discrimination and exclusion as a minority within the centre, but because their religious identity, formulated in opposition to ‘others’, would not allow them to seek out common and shared experiences as Asian women living in a racist society. This kind of dilemma is not easily resolved. But it does point towards the need to create a secular feminist space which can guarantee religious tolerance and diversity, allowing for constant negotiation as to the use of the space for all women, without fear of being straight jacketed into fixed identities.

Injecting a personal note here, I must admit that the fragility of our alliances within SBS was brought home to me with the rise of Hindu nationalism and fundamentalism in India. I am of Hindu background, but had actually thought I had erased this in my quest to forge a black, progressive, and feminist identity for myself. But as more virulent nationalist reconstructions of Hindu identity took hold, both in India and in Hindu communities in this country, I found myself forced to acknowledge that part of my identity. This was not because of the need to return to religion, but in opposition to the appalling hate crime - killings, rape, looting and burning of homes - being committed against Muslims in India. I had to take responsibility for what was being done in my name. But the Hinduism I now found I had to assert as part of a wider resistance movement was like that espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, more tolerant, humane, and respectful of other religions.

The need to recognize my own Hindu background was forced on me at the conclusion of a meeting organized by SBS to oppose Hindu fundamentalism. A Muslim colleague broke down and wept at the end of the meeting because she felt as if she had been ‘stripped of her humanity’ by the language of hatred and violence espoused by certain rabid Hindu fundamentalists who had attended our meeting.

For the first time I was forced to recognize that, whilst I was part of a minority in this country, I was, at the same time, by virtue of my membership of the Hindu Diaspora, part of the Hindu majority in India. Words fail you when you find yourself on opposite sides of a dividing line, separated from those with whom in the past you have fought side by side against all types of injustices. I could find no comforting words to utter. But the silence between us also helped us both to remember that we had, both of us, committed ourselves to maintaining at all cost, a secular anti-fundamentalist space within SBS. For me, hope lay in the fact that we had together resisted all forms of racism, religious fundamentalist and right wing movements, and that this common stance might save us now from turning into enemies.

Co-operation and alliance

There is a further problem in the relationships we need to build within our communities. We are forced to recognize that from time to time we need to seek and obtain the support of those who hold power within the community. And here perhaps we should make a clear distinction between the seeking of co-operation and the building of alliances.

SBS has recently had the experience of working with Muslim organizations, including Muslim fundamentalist organizations, in our campaign to free Zoora Shah. Zoora Shah is a Pakistani Muslim woman who killed her male abuser after years of experiencing sexual abuse and economic exploitation. She was jailed for life in 1993, and SBS has initiated a campaign to free her and to expose the criminal justice system for its failure to understand the contexts in which abused women kill. In this complex case we have felt we have no choice but to seek the support of religious leaders. The reality is that the state is more likely to heed the demands of Muslim community leaders than those of a feminist group such as ourselves. It is one more concrete example of how multicultural politics work to the detriment of women within minority communities. It highlights the limits of our power, even when organized collectively as women. We have of course had to adopt a different language in order to obtain the support of a wide range of Muslim organizations. We have found ourselves taking on a language of human rights and humanity, in place of our accustomed feminist language of autonomy and choice.

The response of these leaders to our request for support for Zoora Shah has been interesting. Out of some 600 Muslim organizations, including mosques, that we have contacted, only a bare handful have given total, unqualified support. Most Muslim leaders, ranging from fundamentalists to those who would view themselves as moderate liberals, have been silent or have refused to support the campaign. One reason is that, among fundamentalists and liberals alike, to be seen to support Zoora Shah is tantamount to acknowledging the patriarchal power relations that exist within our communities. Recognizing such a thing would upset their goal: to get Shari’a law, or variations of it, introduced as an alternative to the present civil law in the UK, as a means of controlling Muslim women.

Yet more interesting has been the response of some Muslim organizations that have supported Zoora Shah, not on the basis that she is a woman who has the right to defend herself against male violence, but on a different basis: the need to oppose the British state as racist. According to them, Zoora Shah’s exceedingly lengthy prison sentence is a manifestation of the state’s ‘barbaric’ discrimination against her as a Muslim woman. Yet these same Muslim organizations have also unequivocally stated that if Zoora Shah lived in an Islamic state, subject to Shari’a laws, the proper punishment for her crime would be death. They argue that strict adherence to the Qur’an would find her to have sinned because she has killed, and, furthermore, to have sinned because she did not take steps to end the abuse. This, regardless of the fact that there are many obstacles, including those placed by religious and community leaders, that prevent women like Zoora Shah from escaping male violence.

The chilling nature of this response aside, it is curious to note that one reason sometimes given for tempering Shari’a justice is that since “we are British Muslims,” we should abide by the laws of this country. This assertion of ‘Britishness’ is bewildering given the fact that Islamic revivalism in this country has fostered a Muslim identity precisely in opposition to the British state and to the ‘west’ in general. It is also ironic that this ‘Britishness’ extends to Muslim women only insofar as they conform to religious law. Any attempts by Muslim women to assert their ‘Britishness’ by, for example, determining their own sexuality, would be met with severe punishment for being a ‘western’ practice.

The support we have had from some Muslim organizations should not deflect attention from the underlying patriarchal, and even misogynist, trends within all religious fundamentalist movements. What the case illustrates is the complex ways in which newly formed religious identities have become enmeshed with anti-racist ones, and also how fundamentalists sometimes use the language of anti-racism to wield power and control within our communities.

The trouble is that, if seeking the support and co-operation of community leaders has been problematic for SBS, so too has working, as anti-racists, with anti-racist organizations within our communities. With a few exceptions, anti-racist commentators and activists, in their attempts to build an alliance against racism, have either remained silent about the reactionary character of community authorities, or at worst, actively courted reactionary constituencies. Needless to say, an alliance formed on such a basis has significant ramifications for our involvement in these wider anti-racist struggles. A ‘broad church’ approach to racism is needed. But to mobilize rather than challenge these reactionary religious identities is to render expendable the rights of the most vulnerable sections of our community.

I do not think any of us can afford to underestimate the limitations and weaknesses of the struggles we wage as individual organizations on the basis of our distinctive identities. Feminism is currently short on activism and seriously weakened by fragmentation. Most of us would be hard pressed to draw a hundred people to our campaigns and events. There is no doubt that a practice of alliances is a precondition of a social movement for equality, justice, and civil rights. The challenge is to find the terms on which such a movement can be genuinely inclusive.


1 This article is based on my own perception of the daily work of Southall Black Sisters and the concerns that arise from it. It does not necessarily reflect the views of SBS as an organization.
2 The term ‘black’ was adopted at the inception of SBS as a political label, to reflect the common processes of colonialism and racism experienced by women of Asian and African-Caribbean origins. It has served a useful mobilising or alliance-building function.


This paper is printed with permission from the author.