What would a set of key asks from Southall Black Sisters (SBS) look like? We can start by looking at a snapshot of the issues that SBS has faced in just the first two months of 2015; we find new and recurring themes and concerns which, taken together, encapsulate the enormity of the task ahead of us and others who work and campaign on multiple fronts to achieve in our lifetime some semblance of gender and social justice in our communities.
Key parts of the welfare and legal state – including the social services, police and legal system – are undergoing the process of marketisation. Public bodies that should be driven by the protection principle are driven by more authoritarian imperatives of state indifference, control and surveillance that consign those who cannot help themselves into the neo-liberal dustbin of ‘superfluous people’. In consequence, the very vulnerable and marginalised women with whom we work are forced into greater depths of marginalisation.
Earlier this year, on our way out of Ealing Town Hall after lobbying the local authority politicians responsible for the continuation of our grant – a sizeable amount without which we would be forced to scale down our much needed front line services drastically – we were met by a small group of protesters who were holding a candle lit vigil and protesting against the closure of the few remaining charities for the disabled and mentally ill in the area. As a direct consequence of those closures, a user of a mental health day centre had committed suicide. It was a painful reminder of the reality of a fast contracting state and voluntary sector that can no longer provide the safety net for those on the margins: a reality that gives lie to the government’s rhetoric of ‘localism,’ which paradoxically has taken power and resources away from local authorities and placed them firmly in the hands of deregulated and unaccountable private bodies.
The dismantling of the welfare state is nowhere more evident than in the engagement of abused women with the legal system which has now a reached a crisis point as a result of savage ‘slash and burn’ cuts in legal aid. Far from being offered meaningful protection and redress in the face of domestic violence, abused women find themselves face to face with their abusers in court, without advice and representation, having to navigate complex laws and procedures. We simply do not have the capacity to assist all the women that arrive at our door in various stages of homelessness, destitution, trauma and distress. More and more are contacting us from all over the UK, hoping that we will throw them a life line. Our fear is that, in the absence of proper or any support, women will simply give up their struggles for protection and freedom or refer to profoundly patriarchal and second rate systems of religious arbitration and mediation which reinforce their structured inequality in the family and community. Either way, we fear that many will be forced to internalise their abuse to the detriment of their health and lives.
The growing power and appeasement of religion can be seen in instances where bodies like the Law Society considered it appropriate to issue guidance on the drafting of ‘Sharia’ compliant wills that, amongst other things, served to institutionalise misogyny. In response to our protests that the task of the Law Society was to promote a human rights compliant culture rather than a ‘Sharia’ compliant culture, the guidance was withdrawn and a welcome public apology was offered. But we are clear that behind this sorry episode is a new settlement between neo-liberal and religious right forces, with a very specific impact on women, sexual minorities and other marginalised groups in our communities. Violence and especially sexual violence is a resource drawn upon by fundamentalist and patriarchal religion, often deploying the language of freedom, choice and agency to subvert these very principles. As the distinction between religion and politics is blurred, the gender equality paradigm is defeated not only by neo-liberalism but also by fundamentalists and religionists who are gaining in power in order to re-invigorate patriarchal rule.
So, what do we ask of the state as we hurtle towards the general elections? A good starting point would be a renewal of the commitment that was made as part of the post war settlement following a previous collapse of morality and civilised values: to guarantee liberty, education, health care and welfare support from the cradle to the grave. This, in turn, requires nothing less than a commitment to the fifth pillar of the welfare state: legal aid to safeguard human rights, equality, the rule of law, and democracy itself.
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Pragna Patel is a founding member of Southall Black Sisters (@SBSisters), a landmark organisation in the history of black and Asian feminism. Southall Black Sisters was founded in 1979 in the aftermath of the race riots in west London. The charity campaigns for and offers practical support to women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages. Chaired by Patel, the small group has long punched above its weight. In supporting Kiranjit Ahluwalia, imprisoned for murdering her violent husband, SBS successfully challenged the legal definition of provocation, and changed an immigration ruling which trapped non-British women in abusive marriages.
The group has often spoken out about the government’s community cohesion programmes, which maintains the power of male religious leaders. A secularist campaigner, Patel also co-founded Women Against Fundamentalism.
‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.