SOUTHALL BLACK SISTERS
Join us as we reflect on our history and celebrate our survival against the odds
In 1979, Southall’s largely working class community was galvanised into resistance against economic upheaval and racial tension under the shadow of Thatcherism. Mass anti-racist rallies challenged the National Front’s provocative decision to march through the area in a move designed to intimidate the largely Asian population. What followed were mass arrests and assaults on Asian and African Caribbean youth and white anti-racist activists, culminating in the demolition of a black community centre and the murder of Blair Peach by the then Special Patrol Group, a militarised arm of the police. Although young people in Southall had protested against the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976, this was the first time that all members of the community, young and old, men and women, had come together to make their presence felt. A courageous but fragile ‘black community’ was born.
This moment also saw the birth of Southall Black Sisters (SBS). We arose out of the anti-racist defence of Southall and in the process sparked a feminist consciousness. The burning of a local woman ‘Mrs Dhillon’ along with three of her five daughters by her husband for failing to produce a son was the catalyst. Like any rebellious child, we charted our political journey towards a secular, anti-racist feminism that both drew on and challenged the orthodoxies of the movements into which we were born. The challenge we set ourselves was two pronged: we sought to address the failure of the anti-racist movement to deal with the gender question and the failure of the feminist movement to deal with the race question. In so doing, SBS emerged as one of the first black feminist campaigning groups in the UK to challenge both racism and sexism at the same time.
SBS broke the silence on domestic violence in the early 80s with protests against a spate of domestic abuse related murders and suicides of South Asian women in Southall and elsewhere. Unlike the race mobilisations in 1979, born out of anger and indignation, the same community responded to these atrocities with silence. By mobilising around domestic violence and gender inequality, we set ourselves not only against traditionalists who sought to subjugate women through the maintenance of a patriarchal status quo, but also against aspects of the anti-racist movement that lapsed into narrow identity politics which denied other forms of inequality born out of religious, caste and gender divisions and differential access to power within marginalised communities. Our dissenting politics broke with the anti-racist myth of community unity.
In 1983, we set up frontline advocacy services that have since provided a lifeline to women in Southall and across the country. We have supported thousands of black and minority women across the UK and beyond: to exit abuse, assert their rights and regain their dignity. Our feminist campaigns have drawn on the routine experiences of the women who come to us with stories of violence and abuse, including more culturally specific forms of harm such as forced marriage and honour based violence.
Since the 1980s we have challenged and resisted gender and racial inequality against a backdrop of profound political, economic and social change. From campaigning for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia – a seminal moment in our history – to calling for more humane immigration laws and defending the existence of specialist services, we have had to contend with growing state authoritarianism, a ‘hostile’ immigration environment, and deepening economic inequality born out of austerity.
Crucially, we have also sought to challenge the more reactionary aspects of ‘official’ multiculturalism. But by the early 1990s this approach to race relations had morphed into a policy of multi-faithism: a regressive development at the heart of which lies the use of religion as the main basis for social identity and mobilisation within minority communities. Nowhere was this challenge more clear than in our defence of Salman Rushdie, another pivotal moment for SBS that led to the formation of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF); a coalition of feminists who tried to develop a feminist politics of solidarity based on political values and not identity.
Today, the gains we have made in defending secularism, equality and fundamental human rights are under threat. Events across Europe, the US and indeed throughout the world reflect the ascendancy of a politics of intolerance, hatred, censorship and violence – evident in the rise of religious fundamentalism and the Far Right. It is a politics driven by fear of the other’ in which governments themselves are complicit.
We did not think that SBS would survive this long. It has been a long and arduous journey that has brought us from the margins to the centre of cutting edge activism, debates, laws and policies on race, religion and gender. We do not know what the future holds. We hope that our legacy will inspire the next generation to further the cause of humanity and progress.
To mark our 40th anniversary we will be holding a series of events (see below) reflecting on our history and celebrating our survival against the odds. Please join us.
We have also brought out a series of greeting cards so check out our store.
Calendar of Events
SBS Film Festival @ Rich Mix
In collaboration with UK Asian Film Festival and Feminist Dissent, we are screening four films that resonate with the four decades of SBS history. Each echoes the central political themes that have informed the work, campaigns and analysis of SBS and reflect the migrant experience in this country.
Standard Rich Mix Cinema ticket price per film:
- Adult £10.95
- Standard Members ticket price £8.95
- Concession £9.95
- (16-25) Members ticket price £6
- One screening only, panel discussion and Food £25. Cash bar.
- Day pass (i.e. two films, including a panel discussion and food) £33.00
30th March: SBS Film Festival @ Rich Mix
Based on the story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia who set her husband alight after ten brutal years with him. She was sentenced for murder in 1989 and after a three-year campaign, SBS secured her released on the lesser charge of manslaughter. This case brought about a significant shift in the way in which the homicide law was interpreted to take into account the violence suffered by women like Kiranjit. The campaign and the media coverage turned SBS virtually into a household name. Kiranjit’s journey from victim to perpetrator neatly encapsulates the spectrum of work on gender-based violence that SBS has covered.
Director: Jag Mundhra
Producer: Sunanda Murali, Manohar
Cast: Aishwariya Rai, Naveen Andrews, Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Nandita Das and Steve McFadden
United Kingdom, 113 mins, 2007, Hindi and English with English subtitles
BURNING AN ILLUSION (1981)
A groundbreaking film by Menelik Shabazz. Based in Thatcher’s Britain which overshadowed the birth of SBS. It is a sensitive exploration of the race/gender intersection in the Caribbean community when a young black woman treated contemptuously by her work-shy boyfriend changes the dynamics of their relationship after he is falsely arrested and beaten by the police. We are showing this film as a nod to the early hopes for post-colonial black unity which shaped SBS’s politics and remains a political impulse to this day.
Followed by panel discussion Struggle Not Submission.
Director: Menelik Shabazz
Producer: Vivien Pottersman
Cast: Cassie McFarlane, Victor Romero Evans, Beverley Martin, Angela Wynter, Malcolm Fredericks, Corinne Skinner-Carter
United Kingdom, 101 mins, 1981, English
PANEL DISCUSSION: STRUGGLE NOT SUBMISSION
Chaired by Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Guest Speakers: Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Pragna Patel, Rahila Gupta, Rohit Sanghvi and Menelik Shabazz
Struggle not Submission: Black Women’s tradition’ a slogan that encapsulates forty years of campaigning by Southall Black Sisters. Against all the odds, Kiranjit Ahluwalia was released from prison for killing her violent husband after a successful campaign run by SBS. The panel will discuss the commonalities of experience faced by Asian, African and Caribbean women and the early hopes for post-colonial black unity which shaped SBS’s politics and remains a political impulse to this day. Kiranjit’s journey from victim to someone in charge of their destiny in Provoked is shared by Pat in Burning an Illusion, having to deal with sexism from black men against a backdrop of institutional and societal racism.
6th April: SBS Film Festival @ Rich Mix
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)
The rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s, partly as the result of the failure of anti-racist politics in the UK, represented a serious setback to the nascent growth of women’s freedoms in the Asian community. This film along with Brick Lane (2007) touches on the fault lines within communities and questions explicitly the notion of community homogeneity thereby revealing the fallacy of multiculturalism and religious identity politics, issues that crop up time and again in SBS’s work.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) depicts an Asian community that defies pious stereotypes, a younger generation that asserts non-conformist sexuality defiantly in the face of prejudice from white racists and conservative Asians. Path-breaking for its time, it offered a timely critique of the race, class and gender upheavals under Thatcherism whilst also anticipating the demise of progressive secular identities.
Director: Stephen Frears
Producer: Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe
Cast: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Derrick Branche, Rita Wolf, Souad Faress, Richard Graham, Shirley Anne Field and Stephen Marcus
United Kingdom, 97 mins, 1985, English and Urdu with English Subtitles
BRICK LANE (2007)
Brick Lane (2007) picks up on some of these themes of defiant sexuality and secular identities in the face of rising fundamentalism. It focuses on a newly arrived migrant woman from Bangladesh whose nostalgia for home is compounded by an unsatisfactory relationship with her husband. She is driven into an affair with a young man who responds to the racism of white youth in Tower Hamlets by embracing religious fundamentalism.
Followed by a panel discussion Subversion and Dissent.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Producer: Alison Owen
Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson and Harvey Virdi
United Kingdom, 101 mins, 1985, English and Bengali with English Subtitles
PANEL DISCUSSION: SUBVERSION AND DISSENT
Chaired by TBC
Guest Speakers: Monica Ali, Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Gita Sahgal, Rashmi Varma and Maryam Namazie
The rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s, partly as the result of the failure of anti-racist politics in the UK, represented a serious setback to the nascent growth of women’s freedoms in the Asian community. My Beautiful Laundrette and Brick Lane touch on the fault lines within communities and question explicitly the notion of community homogeneity thereby revealing the fallacy of multiculturalism and religious identity politics, issues that crop up time and again in SBS’s work.
22nd & 29th June: Southall Feminist History Walking Tours
Walk in the footsteps of campaigning women. Start at Southall Town Hall where it all exploded in 1979 when the community protested against a National Front meeting. Take a walk through the heart of Southall stopping outside landmarks where SBS history was made, end up at the SBS office to look at posters and photos of the key moments and then walk down to the high street for a leisurely lunch at a local Indian restaurant.
|Walk Times:||11:00 am – 2:00 pm|
|Prices:||£30 per person including lunch|
|£15 per person without lunch|
Further details to follow, watch this space.
12 October: Readings by SBS Survivors of Violence
SBS support group will read from their forthcoming book of short stories, “Starting Over”, written especially for SBS’s 40th anniversary year, preceded by a presentation on the history and work of SBS.
12 October 2019, 2pm-5pm
112 The Green, Southall, Middlesex, UB2 4BQ
Further details to follow, watch this space.
30th November: Poetry Evening with Jackie Kay and others
Survivors of violence from the SBS support group will also read from their writings
Further details to follow, watch this space.