Wake up, activists are pounding on doors of ivory towers

May 28, 2004

Academics espouse the ideology of multiculturalism but it is often only to satisfy their own goals, says Rahila Gupta.

When activists decide to tell their own story and analyse their own practice, are they treading on sacred ground marked out by academics as their own, I wondered as I began to edit the first major collection of essays written by and about Southall Black Sisters. SBS has been in existence for nearly 25 years, setting alight the front line between our aspirations as black women and the efforts of community leaders and the state to squash them. The epigraph page of the book From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers proudly carries a quote from Alice Walker: "I am an activist. It pays the rent for living on this planet."

There had been mutterings among the ranks that the insights we had gained in the heat of activism and shared at conferences had been appropriated by some academics without acknowledgement. Then there were those exhausted activists who exchanged the sound and fury of SBS for the relative comfort of the cloistered life. One ex-member of SBS, now a senior lecturer in sociology, complained that her activism within the university system had been reduced to ensuring that race and gender studies did not slide off the curriculum. There was also a general wariness of academics who wanted access to our clients to support their research, to draw their conclusions, to publish, to establish their reputations and to move on without any real outcomes for us.

There was the time when we were approached by a sociology student who wanted to devote her thesis to the Metropolitan Police's handling of domestic violence. Great! We rubbed our hands in glee. At long last we would have the systematic, in-depth information to support our anecdotal evidence of the poor treatment received by women from the police. We knew that the stamp of authority that an academic thesis carries would make the Met sit up and take notice. But for the student it was simply a piece of research, the parameters of which were defined by the needs of her course.

And the end product, while satisfying her academic goals, failed to meet the wider commitment she had made to our project.

But are the tensions between activism and academia really as stark as all that? The problem with putting any thesis under the microscope is that the detail can throw the larger picture off balance. After all, SBS has been involved in projects with academics, many of whom were themselves ex-activists. Sensitive academic practice sees the value of supporting action from the inside out. In this spirit, the Centre for Islamic and Middle-Eastern Law, based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Interights organised a series of seminars on the issue of honour crime between 1999 and 2002 to facilitate and support activists in their work.

The seminars were attended by activists, academics and lawyers from countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil, Palestine and Jordan and provided a fascinating insight into the scale of the problem, the huge variety of definitions and the range of initiatives developed to deal with it. Honour killing shot into mainstream consciousness in Britain when Rukhsana Naz, a 19-year-old woman who was carrying her lover's child, was strangled to death by her mother and brother in Birmingham in 1999.

However, from our inception, SBS has been familiar with the concept of "honour", or " izzat ", which has been used by men to justify violence against women for having breached accepted, read sexual, codes of behaviour. Our key strategy has been to put pressure on the state to be more responsive to the needs of minority women. In fact, SBS has serious problems with the ideology of multiculturalism. Through the politics of multiculturalism the state more or less enters into an informal contract with the more powerful leaders in the minority community - disempowering women and trading women's autonomy for community autonomy.

We were challenged by an academic at the seminar for our overreliance on the state in developing strategies to deal with honour killings, as opposed to raising awareness and working for change in the community. It was ironic that an academic was putting forward a strong and persuasive case that civil society should not be merely a beneficiary but an agent of social change, that it was important to challenge the community and to work at grassroots level - a view that you would normally expect to hear from activists. It helped us refine our thinking about why the state was so important to women. When the community is so undemocratic, how do you attempt to influence it? Where power lacks transparency, what are the levers of change? The debate also helped us to unpack the term "community".

We felt that there was a false dichotomy between the community and women, as if women were somehow not part of the community.

Women create their own alternative communities and we certainly play a part in the creation and sustenance of those communities. How much more grass roots can you get, when you start at the bottom of the pile?

We raised our experience of the limitations of working with the community.

When Zoora Shah, a Muslim woman who had been driven to kill her abuser after 12 years of sexual slavery, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993, we courted the support of Muslim community and religious leaders.

Admittedly, this was part of our wider strategy of putting pressure on Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, when we made our representations to him to reduce her 20-year tariff. Out of the 600 or so Muslim organisations that we contacted, only a handful supported us. One of the reasons was that, for liberals and fundamentalists alike, supporting Shah was tantamount to accepting that patriarchal power relations that exist within our communities. Such a divergence of views perhaps lay behind the reluctance of their umbrella organisation, the British Council of Mosques, in taking a stand on the issue. Organisations such as the Islamic Tarbiyah Academy lent cautious support to the campaign by signing the petition to free Shah while pointing out that, in an Islamic state, she would have been stoned to death for her actions.

We received some support for Shah from the community leaders on the basis of the racism of the British state and the criminal justice system - that they would have been more lenient towards a white woman facing the same charges. The language we used to draw them into dialogue was very carefully constructed. On the plea that Islam was essentially humane and compassionate, we argued that they should support a woman such as Shah. We knew we could not win that cooperation using the feminist language of choice and autonomy.

In our experience, community leaders are more prepared to listen when the state takes a lead on a particular issue, even when sections of the community might see it as racist interference with their cultural practices. When the Home Office set up a working group to look into the issue of forced marriage, chaired by two well-respected members of the community, community leaders came out and condemned the practice - a response we would have been unlikely to get if we had approached those leaders directly. Of course, it is important to change community attitudes, but the question we have to pose is how do we work together with those who perpetrate, sanction or condone domestic violence? Many of the women who come to us for help do so only after having gone through the deeply unsatisfactory mechanisms offered by elders and leaders - those of reconciliation and return to potentially life-threatening situations. We were juxtaposing our experience on the ground with a theoretical position expressed by an academic - that change should be instigated from the bottom up.

But it was an important exchange of views. Often we do not get that opportunity, especially when academia shacks up in its ivory tower, as an interesting anecdote from feminist Gloria Steinem illustrates. When Steinem was in Italy visiting scholars in women's studies, she suggested that they invite women activists to a meeting that they were planning. The scholars refused to invite the activists "because they didn't know the texts". To which Steinem replied: "But they are the texts."

Rahila Gupta is editor of From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters , published by Zed Press.

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