Monday, February 25, 2008

Supporting my sisters in Southall

SOMETIMES it's tears, sometimes
triumph! But Southall Black Sisters'
hard work and bravery has brought an all-too rare success story we ought to support.

SOME years ago, at the height of the row about Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses'. a group of brave women stood holding placards on a road island in central London. Across the road from them on one side were angry young Muslim men whipped up by religious leaders to clamour for the burning of books, and death to whoever they were told had blasphemed against the prophet.

On the other side of the road, a bunch of white racists bellowed their hatred of the Muslims, the liberal Asian writer, and the women, who stood their vigil for their freedom and ours, against fascists and fundamentalists. I think the women's demonstration may have been organised by Women Against Fundamentalism. I was not there. But I was told that among them were several prominent members of Southall Black Sisters.

If so, their presence was appropriate and symbolic. Based in an outer west London area with a large Asian population and a history of social and anti-racist struggle, the Southall Black Sisters have grown up taking their stand against the prejudices of British society and the reactionary, patriarchal and backward forces in their own communities.

Formed in 1979, their choice of name may reflect a now no longer fashionable identity by "colour" label put upon them by enemies, but it remains a valid assertion of unity, no matter whether your family roots are in Gujarat or Punjab, East African or Afro-Caribbean, and whatever your religious background. This has renewed importance today, when street gangs and 'respectable' politicians alike foment and exploit sectarian division.

I've met some Southall Black Sisters at various meetings, demonstrations and social occasions. But along with campaigning, their main work to change things and challenge outmoded authority has taken the practical form of providing help, advice and support to women who come reporting problems, domestic abuse and violence.

Their work has been the subject of academic theses, and sometimes news headlines. Their success in helping free Kiranjit Ahluwalia, jailed for murdering her husband after suffering ten years of his abuse and violence, set a precedent, and inspired a movie, "Provoked". This has also been made into a book.

Deputy prime minister Harriet Harman MP referred to the Southall Black Sisters by name in a speech last July, as to what sort of organisations deserved support. Already honoured with an award by the civil rights group Liberty, last week Southall Black Sisters were at Westminster to recieve the Asian Voice Lifetime Achievement Award for service to the community.

Yet ironically, amid such recognitions, comes the news that the future work of Southall Black Sisters, if not their existence, is threatened. In a letter sent out recently, Pragna Patel warns : " We are currently facing threat of closure as a result of our local authority's (Ealing) decision to withdraw our funding as of April 2008.

Since the mid eighties our 'core' funding has been provided by Ealing. Over the years we have on average received £100,000 per annum from the local authority and this is utilised to provide advice, advocacy, counselling and support services to black and minority women in the borough who experience violence and abuse. The experience and insights gained through this work has led us to become a strategically important service, providing advice on policy and legal developments to government, and international, national and local organisations and
professionals. The Ealing grant has, of course, had to be supplemented by funds raised elsewhere.

The local authority's decision is based on the view that there is no need for specialist services for black and minority women and that services to abused women in the borough need to be streamlined. This view fails to take account of the unequal social, economic and cultural context which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for black and minority women to
access outside help or seek information about their rights. In effect the council proposes to take away essential life saving services provided by SBS. Ealing council suggests that we either extend our service to cover the needs of all women in the borough or that we set up a
consortium of groups to provide such a service for the same sum of money. The amount of funds available to the voluntary sector in Ealing has shrunk year in, year out, but the withdrawal of funds to SBS will have a number of far reaching consequences.'

Southall Black Sisters say they have never denied their services to any women who came to them for help. But pretending as the council seems to do that all women are equally in need of their services only ignores reality and strengthens inequalities. Problems such as forced marriages, about which some politicians have pontificated lately, 'honour' killings, and immigration difficulties, are bound to affect Asian women more than others, and Southall's ethnic make-up gives it an obvious emphasis. Women from a particular background or 'traditional family are bound to feel more confident approaching a friendly face with their troubles, and talking to someone who understands because they have been there.

We have already read of the tragedies in the child welfare and protection field, elsewhere in London, caused by the uncertainty of professional social workers faced with what seemed like a different culture.

If Southall Black Sisters are forced to reduce their services, or diffuse the expertise they have acquired and been able to offer other parts of the country, the consequences could be just as serious. As they point out: "The suicide rates of Asian women for example, are already three times the national average and homicides - where abusive men and families kill their wives, daughters or daughters-in-law - are also high within some black and minority communities. In all likelihood, any reduction in our services will see a rise in suicide and homicide rates amongst black and minority women".

Ealing's pretence to be cutting support in order to back more generalised services is undermined anyway by the news that amid all the talk of cohesion and "integration", the council has not only chosen to undermine a group that cuts across religious and ethnic divides and bridges differences, but is seeking to set up Muslim women only groups!
Southall Black Sisters say there is no demand for such groups, so I wonder whose idea was it? What are the chances, I wonder, that a young Muslim woman who goes to religious counsel will be encouraged if she wants to resist religious and patriarchal authority, whether on dress code, choice of partner, or escape from an oppressive marriage? How will separate groups counter the hostility which some persons have tried to incite between Sikhs and Muslims in Southall?

Southall Black Sisters have asked supporters to write to the leader of Ealing Council, Jason Stacey, and to send them a copy, as well as messages of support. They are also calling a demonstration tomorrow evening, 6pm -7pm at Ealing Town Hall. This time I think I will be there.



26th February 2008
6pm to 7pm

7pm onwards: we need to pack out public gallery
in the Liz Cantell Room (Ealing Town Hall) on the
Ground Floor to support Southall Black Sisters

Ealing Town Hall, Uxbridge Road, Ealing W5 2BY
Bus: 65, 83, 207, 297, 607, 112, E1, E2, 37, E8, E9, E10, N23, N2
British Rail & Underground - Ealing Broadway
Other transport: nearest major roads, A406, M4, M40, M25
Parking at rear after 5pm Mon-Fri. A Small charge
applies between 8am and 6pm at weekends. Large
multi-storey car parks within a five-minute walk
at Springbridge Road and Ealing Broadway Centre.


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