A feminist front for fighting back

Homebreakers to Jailbreakers
September 3, 2004

Nearly 20 years ago, the Oxford University Women's Studies Committee ran a series of seminars on "Race, class and gender" (how that second noun marks the passage of time and academic-political fashion). Amid stimulating sessions pondering the complex relationship between these cross-cutting vectors of social differentiation, one stands out in for its luminous sense of direction, depth of analysis and passionate commitment.

It was given by members of a group which, to my shame, I had not heard of: the Southall Black Sisters (SBS). This was established in 1979 and for the past 25 years the group has endured through massive social and political changes - not to mention the controversies and complications of pressure-group activism - steadily developing and pushing home its anti-racist, feminist, secularist and humanist message, campaigning and taking on substantial loads of casework. These essays provide an inspiring vision of the group's activities, as well as a fascinating - and often disturbing - analysis of the changing context in which it operates.

The initial impetus for the group's establishment - the women's movement and the race uprisings prompted by anger against the police and conflict with the National Front - generated a longstanding concern about the failure of criminal justice to attend to the particular needs of black women. For example, the SBS exposed the way in which purported sensitivity to cultural particularity, such as the deference accorded to the male-dominated Asian family structure, reinforced reluctance to intervene in cases of domestic violence against Asian women. But one key to the group's success has been its desire to place this specific focus within a broader framework: to articulate the overall position of black women in relation to state and private power, and to address the problem of "intersectionality", through which the needs of black women are marginalised because their claims fall between the twin stools of racism and sexism.

SBS developed policy arguments and support services in fields as diverse as domestic violence and immigration and criminal defences such as provocation. The campaign for which they are most widely known is their support for Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who was convicted of the murder of her husband at whose hands she had suffered many years of extreme physical and emotional abuse. The ultimate reduction of Ahluwalia's conviction from murder to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility broke new ground, not only in recognising the relevance of evidence of domestic violence in assessing the culpability of women who kill their abusers, but also in reshaping the partial defence of provocation, modifying the requirement of a "sudden and temporary loss of self-control" so as to open up the defence to those in vulnerable positions who may react to provocation when, as in Ahluwalia's case, the abuser is asleep.

SBS has also campaigned successfully on immigration policies such as the "one-year rule", the requirement that those who enter the country through their relationship with a spouse remain in that marriage for one year before being able to apply for permanent residency, trapping many women in situations of domestic violence. And, in recent years, a concern with cases of abduction and with the effects in Britain of political developments abroad, notably the rise of religious fundamentalism such as Hindu extremism in India and Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie, have given SBS's work an important global dimension.

Certain things stand out from these essays over and above the campaigns in which SBS has been central. First, the essays provide an illuminating window on the circumstances of pressure-group politics in the changing political environment. Several reflect critically on this issue, debating the significance of the fragmentation of political identities, the dangers of co-option for small groups required to work in an increasingly multi-agency context, the decreased politicisation of sectors of the population and the increasing emphasis on legal strategies to the group's activities, particularly in the wake of the Human Rights Act.

Second, the essays are marked by a clear analysis of the relationship between different racial and economic positions and genders. While resisting the reduction of black women to a single "essentialised" identity, SBS consistently addresses the intersecting social forces of race and sex in shaping our life chances.

Third, the strength of the overall analysis is underpinned by its rootedness in SBS's day-to-day casework. SBS provides the strongest possible case for the intellectual as well as the political importance of a link between theory and practice: for combining work with local communities and the effort to shift state policy; and for the blend of principle with a sense of strategy. These essays epitomise those commitments and the achievements they have made possible.

Nicola Lacey is professor of criminal law and legal theory, London School of Economics.

Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters

Editor - Rahila Gupta
Publisher - Zed
Pages - 301
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
ISBN - 1 847 440 9 and 441 7

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