Karishma Dharni

Activism is the rent we pay to live on this planet – Our tribute to Pragna Patel

Southall Black Sisters’ Management Committee are sad to announce that our Director, Pragna Patel, is standing down on 5th January 2022, after several powerful decades at the helm. The title of this tribute is a paraphrased quote from Alice Walker, one of Pragna’s favourites, and the guiding light behind her dedication to building Southall Black Sisters into an organisation that we can all be rightly proud of.

We pay tribute to Pragna’s integrity, political intellect, courage and vision. We cannot thank Pragna enough for how far she has taken us all – the organisation (the strength of its advocacy work and its national profile), anti-fundamentalist, anti-racist and feminist politics, and shared understandings of violence against women and girls (VAWG) across the sector.

Pragna has led SBS for 30 of its 42 years of existence – as one of the Founding members, its Chair and its Director, at various times – working so often against the grain, with a rare energy, generosity, and vigour. Her expertise and drive have steered SBS through many choppy waters.

A truly remarkable visionary, warrior, pioneer and a heavy weight in the feminist, racial and social justice movements, Pragna has impacted the lives of thousands of women who have been through SBS’ doors and also inspired many others to become feminist activists.

This short piece cannot do justice to her legacy but it’s our small way of paying tribute.

Pragna started out, in the early 80s, as an anti-racist activist at Southall Monitoring Group (SMG), a community organisation challenging racial harassment and police brutality.

SMG gained a national profile for family and defence campaigns in the wake of racist murders, the murder of Blair Peach by the police Special Patrol Group, and the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by racists on the streets of Eltham, which led to the recognition of institutionalised racism.

A seminal moment in the history of racial justice that influenced greatly the drive not only to seek justice but to hold the state to account for its failings.

This remains a foundational principle in SBS. It was Pragna’s grounding in police harassment campaigns that ensured that caseworkers at SBS were trained to log complaints against the police whenever Black women’s reports to the police were ignored. SBS campaigns have also repeatedly highlighted police racism and sexism.

Pragna joined SBS in her early 20s having fought her own personal struggles. She wanted to forge her own path as an independent woman able to make her own life choices. That simple fact challenged her family and the patriarchal religion and traditions in which she was brought up. In addition, as the daughter of a factory worker, she faced racism, sexism and financial hardship throughout her youth. Her personal experiences fed her passion and courage to actively fight against injustice in all its forms. Her first-hand experience of the intersection of class, race and sexism has informed her political beliefs.

Though SBS was founded in 1979 as an activist group by Asian, African and Caribbean women who wanted to address both sexism and racism, Pragna raised funds to establish it as the first Black women’s centre in Ealing in 1983.

After years of devastating cuts to local services under Tory PM Margaret Thatcher, Pragna led the struggle to raise funds from the then left-wing GLC to open SBS as the borough’s first specialist advice and support centre for Black women fleeing violence and abuse.

We have always been proud to call ourselves Southall Black Sisters, not only because SBS was born out of the anti-racist struggles of the 1970s, and was founded by Asian and African and Caribbean women, but because Black has always been a political term that asserted the importance of unity in the face of shared struggles against racism and shared histories of colonialism.

SBS was never just an advice centre. It is at its core a campaigning organisation fighting to change the lives of the women in our families, communities and society in general. Pragna has shown us what a strong woman with a powerful vision, a hunger for political change, drive and determination can achieve. She has propelled a small west London organisation which started with three workers, into a world-renowned organisation whose expertise and unique views are sought out locally, nationally, and internationally.

Pragna and SBS have never been afraid to take up challenging campaigns. Her first major campaign was fought with the slogan, ‘They call it suicide, we call it murder’ when a local woman, Krishna Sharma, killed herself as a result of the violence she suffered at the hands of her husband. Outrage at the lack of police and community action against the husband, spurred Pragna and other women at SBS to organise the first women’s march through the streets of Southall. We subverted the notions of family/ community honour and shame that normally kept women trapped in violent homes. We picketed the husband’s house to bring shame him instead for his violence. We were heavily criticised for carrying out this campaign both by reactionary forces in the community and anti-racist groups. One side attacked us for breaking up homes and families, and the other side criticised us for exposing divisions in our community. We were accused of pathologizing Black men and giving ammunition to the racists.

Pragna has continuously faced down accusations that she (and we) as South Asian women are not Black and instead asserted the importance of unity in the face of shared struggles against racism and histories of colonisation. We have inherited this politics and we are proud to call ourselves Black women. Asserting our blackness continues to be a way of implicitly and explicitly challenging the cul-de-sac of racial and religious identity politics.

In her many years at SBS, Pragna has ensured that our politics and campaigns are grounded in the experiences of the women that come to us for assistance. Her writings on multiculturalist and multifaithist practice, police racism, identity politics and religious fundamentalism are a response to those experiences and the hopes articulated by women themselves.

As Co-ordinator and Senior Caseworker from 1982 to 1993, Pragna pushed the limits of casework in advocating for Black women suffering multiple forms of violence and abuse in the home and racism from statutory services. She set standards for high quality case work which continue to this day.

Pragna left SBS briefly in 1993 to train as a solicitor but she had already enabled monumental change to the law by 1992 when SBS’ campaign to free Kiranjit Ahluwahlia (an abused woman who murdered her husband) led to a questioning of the sexist ‘reasonable man’ framing of legal arguments on self-defence and provocation as a defence for murder. This pivotal moment in feminist legal history is surely a highlight in progressive reform and something which future generations of social justice activists can learn from.

As part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of SBS, Pragna was on a panel with Rohit Sanghvi who was part of Kiranjit’s defence team where he was asked how he came to take up the case. Rohit recollected that, at first, he hesitated to take on such a tough case that surely was doomed, but ever the legal mind, Pragna challenged him to hear her out and if she didn’t change his mind by the end he could walk away.

The two remained locked in a room whilst Pragna made her case. Such an excellent job she did that he agreed to assist on Kiranjit’s case free of charge! This truly exemplifies Pragna’s dogged determination and her adept skills in debating and arguing for the rights of abused women. That legal and political astuteness has ensured that SBS has made countless important and complex legal interventions on cases pertaining to the rights of minoritised women.

There are so many examples of Pragna’s determination to shine a light on inequality and injustice. She was one of the first to critique multiculturalism from an anti-racist feminist position in terms of the ‘hands off’ attitude of statutory sector workers to Black victim-survivors of abuse and violence leading to their differential treatment. She pointed out that this amounted to racism.

Never one to back away from what she saw as important causes, Pragna also pushed Southall Black Sisters to the fore in the previously unfashionable campaign for a liberalisation of immigrations laws which trapped migrant women and those with no recourse to public funds in violent situations, at a time when few VAWG activists were taking up the issue.

Under Pragna’s steer, SBS went on to hold the state to account on their unequal and discriminatory treatment of migrant women subject to abuse. Despite great opposition and government indifference, Pragna successfully brought about important changes to immigration laws.

The fact that No Recourse is widely talked about in the feminist sector and parliamentary corridors is down to SBS’ sustained campaigning on this issue since 1996. Over the years, Pragna has joined forces with activists and academics to fight the increasingly insidious lobby against immigration by taking a stand against the hostile environment and the introduction of multiple layers of internal borders and state surveillance agendas.

As a first generation migrant from east Africa and the daughter of a factory worker, Pragna knew all too well the experience of political displacement, hostility to immigration and the poverty that shapes the lives of minoritised women, limiting their ability to exit abuse and activate their autonomy. Pragna has continued to talk about class inequality and the material dimensions of women’s experiences. She has implored women’s organisations to be involved in fighting poverty and deprivation, particularly in campaigns for workers’ rights and against the government’s neo-liberal austerity agenda.

Indeed, SBS was founded in a highly deprived but politically daring locale. From its very beginning, SBS has been involved in supporting working class struggles, including in 1984 when Pragna and other SBS members and users joined with anti-racist organisations to take a delegation of women from Southall and Brent to Nottingham to support the miners during the strike against pit closures.

This same energy was needed when Ealing Council outrageously withdrew funding from Southall Black Sisters citing the very fact that the organization worked for black and minoritised women as not being in line with the government’s commitment to equality, cohesion and integration!

SBS mounted a two-pronged campaign – political and legal – for the right to exist as an autonomous Black women’s organisation. In effect, the Council’s decision was an attack on Black women’s self-organisation.

The legal campaign resulted in a U-turn by Ealing Council as the Judicial Review concluded that the Council had failed to assess the adverse impact of its decision on BME women. The political campaign continues for recognition of BME women’s right to funding for autonomously organised specialist services.

In her drive to get Black women’s specific experiences recognised by the VAWG sector and by the state, she pushed for acknowledgement of forced marriages as far back as the 1980s, honour based violence, transnational abandonment and various forms of faith-based abuse including djinn murders, witchcraft stigma, and sexual abuse by preachers and religious leaders.

She took a public stand against religious organisations which brushed VAWG under the carpet and encouraged women to return to households and marriages where husbands and extended family members were subjecting them to violence and abuse. This early critique of the role of religious organisations was matched by incredibly difficult and personally risky stands against resurgent fundamentalism.

She was also one of the first minoritised women in the UK to speak out on the impact of religious fundamentalism in our communities. Through Pragna and others, SBS forged important alliances with activists and academics, Iranian, Irish, Jewish, secular and religious women who have been vocal on attempts by fundamentalists to undermine their freedom of movement, freedom of expression and reproductive rights.

She helped to establish Women Against Fundamentalism in the wake of the Rushdie Affair in 1989, standing her ground in the face of much verbal abuse and denigrating comments, not least the accusation that SBS women were ‘coconuts’ – brown on the outside and white on the inside.

This was when some of the most iconic slogans were coined including “Our Tradition: struggle not submission”, “Religious leaders don’t speak for us”, “Blasphemy laws police dissent”, “Fear is your weapon/Courage is ours”.

What Pragna and others could see back in the eighties was the resurgence of religious mobilisations and the marginalisation of minoritised women by the deals that religious groups struck with government – what we now refer to as multifaithism. This has come to pass as a major obstacle to women’s rights globally.

For Pragna, secularism provided the space in which women’s rights could flourish. When describing our particular understanding of political blackness, Pragna said, ‘We invested the term with secular and progressive political values that sought to emphasise unity and solidarity across communities in the quest for social justice, while resisting the myth of “community” that failed to reflect caste, class and gender fault lines.’
Along with Maryam Namazie of Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain, SBS campaigned against gender segregation when Universities UK (UUK), the governing body of British universities, issued guidance in 2012 which permitted gender segregation of women in university spaces in order to accommodate the religious beliefs of external speakers.

This was followed by a campaign against the Law Society’s guidance to lawyers on how to prepare ‘Sharia’ compliant wills. This ‘shariafication by stealth’ in the government’s tolerance of sharia councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals was one of great concern to Pragna, the thin end of a wedge that could in time be leveraged by other religions to make demands of the state to restrict women’s freedoms.

Pragna is the embodiment of intersectional feminism, always recognising and facing down many different injustices at the same time. These struggles have been relentless, but she has been fierce. As a public figure, she has borne the brunt of many of the criticisms that SBS’ work has been subjected to over the years – of fuelling racism, of complicity with the state, of taking resources away from African Caribbean and other minoritised women. Her responses have been stoic, considered but firm.

Pragna has deservedly received a string of awards including being a co-recipient of the inaugural Bob Hepple Equality award- named after Bob Hepple the former lawyer of Nelson Mandela. In 2011 she was named as one of the Top 100 Women Activists and Campaigners. More recently she received her honorary Doctorate from Keele University for her outstanding contribution to women’s rights, social justice and secularism. And one that she wasn’t sure about was when Cosmopolitan awarded her the Woman of the Year award especially when she had to be made up for the photoshoot.

Each time the awards have raised the profile of SBS and given the organisation credibility and political integrity. And each time she has received an award, she has been humble, always recognising the immense contribution of colleagues and comrades that have worked with her and enabled her contributions.

One of her strongest legacies is a formidable sense of the possibility of solidarity across the divides. A strong critic of identity politics, she encouraged the organization to work with as many allies as possible, despite this being such arduous work and when many would have lost the will.

In one her most recent public engagements with Suresh Grover, her long standing comrade from The Monitoring Group, she reminds us all of the importance of unity in political struggle and what achievements can be born from ‘understanding what unites us is more than what divides us and that we really need to come together urgently to find ways of rising to some of these challenges. More and more I am coming to the view that we need to come together not on the basis of identity but on the basis of need’. We will hold onto these words as we move into a new chapter of SBS’s life.

Pragna has been and, we expect, will continue to be a prolific writer, one of the few Black feminist activists in the UK who has diligently documented insights from her own struggles and SBS’ casework and political engagements. These are hugely valuable tools for future generations of feminist activists. We have to applaud her tenacity given that she has been writing alongside the daily pressures of managing an essential service.

And she has done all of this with humour and creativity. For anyone who has had the pleasure of socialising with her will know, she has always been able to find reasons to laugh and stay positive. Her creativity overflowed during protests when she penned specific slogans and even entire protest songs. We want to leave you with one such set of lyrics, set to a popular Bollywood number and sung at anti-religious fundamentalism protests:

Salman hai mushkil jeena yahaan (Salman , it is difficult to live here)

Zara hatkey zara bachkey yea hai Bradford meri jaan (Step aside, be careful, this is Bradford, my dear)

Kabhi multi kabhi culture ya phir kabhi kuch (Sometimes multi, sometimes culture or anything inexplicable)

Milta hai yahan sub kuch yea hai dhandey key baes (You get everything here with all the wheeling and dealing)

Votoon ki to hai chamatkar yahan (It is the votes that shine and glitter)

Zara hatkey zara bachkey yea hai Southall meri jaan (Step aside, be careful, this is Southall, my dear)

We applaud and celebrate Pragna’s extraordinary work, her courage and her resilience. It was her personal magnetism that drew so many of us to SBS. We sincerely wish Pragna all our best as she moves on. Thank you Pragna for all that you have done and all that you have shared. Southall Black Sisters has made history on many occasions with you at the helm.

We will do everything within our ability to protect this precious legacy for the women of today and tomorrow. We are proud to continue the great political traditions you have started and instilled in all of us.

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