Karishma Dharni

We Cannot Lose Hope. The Fight Back Starts Now!

A huge thank you to everyone who came to our party last Friday 13th December 2019 and helped to make it such a resounding success. The feedback we have received has been fantastic. By popular demand, we post the speech given by Pragna Patel which captured so perfectly what many were thinking and feeling after the election. We cannot lose hope. The fight back starts now!

Hello everyone. It is wonderful to see you all (even on this roughest of days). I know it really hurts!

I have been asked to say something on behalf of SBS. I had planned to simply thank everyone but my colleagues say it will not do. I am under strict orders to say something about SBS and the moment in which we find ourselves.

What is to be done? A couple of weeks ago, as part of our anniversary celebrations, SBS held a wonderful poetry evening involving many of our survivors of abuse who found their voice through their powerful and moving stories and poetry, some of which you have heard today. On that occasion, I talked about the importance of not losing sight of our achievements even whilst contemplating this dark moment in history. I said that it felt like we were desperately trying to hold onto to a box of gems whilst sinking in a political bog. Well that bog has just got deeper and dirtier but we will just have to hitch up our clothes that little bit higher and wade through it because the fight back has to start now.

I guess what we need to do is to remind ourselves that even in such madness good things can be achieved. We can’t afford to descend into utter despair and hopelessness. What we need to do is to sharpen the tools of our trade and re-focus and re-invigorate our struggles in whatever spaces we find ourselves. We need to find ways of moving forwards instead of squandering our resistance by drowning in feelings of loss, sadness and fear.

It is not as if we have not experienced black days like this before. After all, SBS was born under the all-consuming shadow of Thatcherism. Yet, throughout the four decades of SBS’ existence, with the help and support of many of you here tonight, we have achieved positive change despite working in often dire political and economic contexts; contexts that have reeked of decline, inequality, division, corruption and greed.

At SBS, we are fortunate to work with women whose courageous everyday battles for freedom, justice and rights continue to inspire us and keep us grounded. They have jumped over a great many hoops and obstacles that we can’t even begin to imagine. We have learnt so much from our users: how to call out injustice when we see it; how not to take ‘no’ for an answer and how not to feel beholden to power. But perhaps more than anything, they have taught us to collect the political residue that builds up from each and every individual account of resistance and use it to construct a collective politics of dissent and hope. Dissent is necessary to speak truth to power, and hope is necessary to counter the dominant and pessimistic ideologies of hate and violence that are raging all around us.

It is hard to sign post key milestones in our history. There are so many to choose from, both big and small, representing failures as well as successes. But here are some of my top picks over the last four decades – representing our history of struggle not submission.

  • Krishna Sharma, the young woman whose death in 1984 inspired the first public demonstration against domestic violence on the streets of Southall. That demonstration broke many taboos and silences around gender-based violence.
  • Kiranjit Ahluwalia, the young woman who in 1989 was compelled, first to take the life of her abusive husband to protect herself and her young sons, only to find herself prosecuted and convicted of his murder – her successful campaign to overturn that conviction served to expose a criminal justice system struggling to free itself of its patriarchal roots, leading eventually to a fundamental reform of the defence of provocation in criminal law, and significant normative shifts in public perceptions of domestic violence, especially in minority communities.
  • Zoora Shah, who found herself condemned by a criminal justice system which was unable or unwilling to recognise the circumstances of utter destitution and oppression in which she was compelled to taker the life of her abusive pimp in order to protect her young daughters, one of whom has just been elected to Parliament by a community in Bradford a community that once vilified her mother but has finally confronted and perhaps even come to understand her mother’s struggle for justice.

I can go on with the stories of many, many other women who have inspired us over the decades.

But equally, there are the struggles that have seemed endless and impossible to win in contexts of unprecedented austerity measures and harsh anti-immigration border controls with its culture of surveillance and dehumanisation.

  • Our efforts over the decades to ensure protection for the thousands of migrant women who find themselves trapped in domestic violence because of immigration controls – these efforts culminated in the introduction of the Domestic Violence Rule in 2002 and the Destitution and Domestic Violence Concession in immigration law in 2012, which have thrown a vital life line to thousands of migrant women. (This milestone is actually one of my personal favourite)
  • Similarly, our challenge over the decades to aspects of multiculturalism that allowed a patriarchal settlement between minority communities and the state – eventually led to the recognition that multiculturalism cannot be an excuse for moral blindness; that the state has a legal and moral duty to intervene in its protective capacity wherever and whenever gender based violence and abuse takes place. This paved the way for the introduction of the 2007 Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act and led to policy shifts on issues such as HBV and other specific cultural forms of harm.
  • And then there have been our perennial struggles for funding and our very survival on our own terms. In 2007 and 2008, for example, we were compelled to challenge by way of judicial review an attempt by our local authority to withdraw much needed funds for our services – an attempt based on the flawed assumption that the very principles of social cohesion and even equality itself were undermined by the existence of specialist services like ours. What began as a local campaign for funding turned into a significant struggle for the very meaning of equality itself. At the conclusion of the case, equality as a transformative concept was re-affirmed by Lord Justice Moses.
  • Since then, the Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty, which was the foundation of our challenge, have become an indispensable tools in our struggle against the growing accommodation of illiberal and sex discriminatory religious practices in law and social policy. We have used these tools to great effect in challenging religious fundamentalist impositions such as strict female dress codes, gender segregation in schools and universities and the establishment of parallel legal systems that seek to regulate women’s lives in ways that deny them choice and freedom.

None of this work would have been achieved without the help and support of friends, lawyers, activists, writers, artists, MPs and many others in this room today. I have often said that no one achieves anything on their own and that is certainly true of SBS. It would take too long for me to call out each and every person’s name and I am bound to forget some, but please know that we are so very grateful to you all for your support and assistance over the years. From the bottom of our hearts, on behalf of everyone at SBS, I thank you for your kind support, expertise, generosity of time and ideas, inspiration, solidarity, funds and donations.

I would however like to mention all those at SBS who have worked tirelessly and hard, often behind the scenes but always with great humour and imagination to make things happen; to keep SBS afloat in these difficult times. Our staff: Meena, Shakila, Manjeet, Hannana, Debdatta, Mili, Raman, Kalpana, Shamma, Suman, Neeta, Sadhana, Janaya, Yashmita, Sehrish, Wagma, Frankie, Susan, Sidra and Parminder. Our volunteers and those who have provided technical support: Adam, Mitch, and our voluteers: Rajni, Natasha, Anju, Taranpreet, Tsara, Roshan, Nia, Gunita, Iram, Anishkaa, Sarauniya, Shabnam, Nabila and Sahair.

I would also like to thank the many volunteers and staff that have come and gone over the years.

And last but not least, I would like to thank our Management Board members and Trustees, Sandhya, Rahila, Sukhwant, Sharon, Chitra, Ritu, Syeda, Muneeza, Shamshad, Poonam and Navita. They have all made SBS what it is today.

Folks, we are in political and economic unchartered territory – the storm clouds of fascism and right wing authoritarianism are gathering around us. We must ready ourselves for what is to come next. But whatever comes next, I think we can all agree that our task is to prepare to be the conscience of the country. We are still fortunate. Around the world, those who dare to speak out for the subversive ideas of freedom, equality and secular democracy are no longer safe.

I want to end with the words of Howard Zinn, as American historian, playwright and socialist thinker. I came across them today. I think we can take refuge and comfort in their wisdom:

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory. “

I said right at the beginning that tonight we will not succumb to despondency or fear. Bojo will not last forever. To remind ourselves of this: we have taken a leaf out f Channel 4’s book, we have commissioned an ice sculpture of BoJo. Here he is. He will melt away by the end of the night like the wicked witch of the west! When he finally does, we want you all to give the biggest cheer that you can muster.

(I want to thank Ice Box for giving us a massive discount in the creation of this sculpture.)

Thank you all so much for coming tonight. It is so wonderful to be celebrating our birthday with each and every one of you. We hope you have a fantastic evening. Here’s to the next 40 years.


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