50 Years of Women’s Liberation in the UK: Pragna Patel
Pragna Patel is a founding member of Southall Black Sisters’ advocacy and campaigning centre and Women Against Fundamentalism (now non-operational). She worked as a coordinator and senior case worker for Southall Black Sisters (SBS) from 1982 to 1993 when she left to train and practise as a solicitor. In 2009 she returned to SBS as its director. For 40 years, she has been centrally involved in some of SBS’s most important cases and campaigns involving domestic violence, immigration and religious fundamentalism. She is also a member of Feminist Dissent and has written extensively on race, gender and religion.
This is the speech that Pragna gave as part of the opening plenary at Women’s Liberation 2020 at University College London on 1st February 2020.
You can watch Pragna deliver her speech here.
What a hopeful moment in history we have reached as feminists!
I know you are thinking: “What is she talking about in these times of growing social, political, economic and climate crisis.” But what I also want to acknowledge and celebrate today is the fact that all over the world women are leading an unmistakably secular resistance against tyranny, misogyny and oppression. There is a new kind of feminism stirring in the air. The women of Rojava have long been lone stars in trying to forge a new social contract. But they are now joined by women from around the globe. From Sudan to Chile to India, women are on the rise demanding a new kind of feminist citizenship based not on identity but political values. It is exciting because it feels different. Just when the world has reached a dangerous moment in history, teetering on the edge of democracy, waves of ordinary, marginalised and poor women are rising up to demand economic equality and justice and to prevent their leaders from ripping up well-crafted democratic constitutions borne out of long and painful struggles for freedom. Showing immense resilience and courage they are assuming leadership in defence of key principles of secularism, democracy and equality tied to state accountability for gender justice. These are nascent movements and we do not know where they will lead but they give us hope.
I cannot tell you how inspired I feel by seeing mass gatherings of women in Chile defiantly chanting anti-rape songs in new and fresh ways that are being copied by women all over the world. Or of Indian Muslim women supported by students and other sections of Indian society, protesting against the controversial and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registration Act. These discriminatory Acts are deliberately created by the Hindu nationalist government of India to make for the first time, religion a prerequisite for Indian citizenship and to identify illegal immigrants. The full and disturbing significance of this is that they parallel the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany which amongst other things excluded Jews from citizenship rights. Chillingly, as we speak, India is building detention camps to hold those who cannot verify their status. It is a direct attack on Muslims and the poor.
What is particularly startling and unprecedented is the way in which the protesters are reclaiming symbols of Indian nationhood and subverting it at one and same time. They chant the word ‘Azadi’ (freedom) and sing the Indian national anthem and Italian anti-fascist songs simultaneously whilst flying the Indian national flag, not in some jingoistic way but as a powerful reminder to the political ruling classes that it is they the people who own India’s constitution and the Indian nation. At the centre of these mass protests is the now routine reading of Urdu poetry and Gandhi’s sayings and surprisingly, the preamble to the Indian constitution. These mass recitations in particular bring a lump to my throat every time. The Indian constitution came out of the struggle for Indian independence but has now found a new audience of women, college students, taxi drivers, journalists, doctors, scientist and others. It is read with such urgency and passion that it would have made the founder of the independent republic of India proud. The defence of India’s secular constitution is not about the defence of some abstract concept but a living, breathing ideal and the protests around it are increasingly seen to be signifying India’s second freedom struggle.
I am going to recite the preamble here and now – not only as an act of solidarity to those women who are engaged in the struggle for the soul of secular India but also because it reminds me that what they are defending are principles that are neither western nor eastern but universal and feminist:
[The Preamble of the Indian Constitution]
We, The People of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens:
Justice, social, economic and political;
Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
Equality of status and of opportunity;
And to promote among them all
Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.
What this teaches us is that even at the risk of state repression, police brutality, violence and torture, globally, women are taking custody of these values and keeping alive the promise of feminism by bridging the gap between feminism and secular democracy. They are locating women’s liberation struggles within the context of wider social transformation. Perhaps such protests show us all a glimpse of how feminism can move forward?
Women’s Liberation in the UK
50 years ago, through acts of consciousness raising and civil disobedience, many women in the UK and the West sought to forge their own contract with the state demanding equal legal and social rights. It was the start of a women’s liberation movement in which women sensed their own collective power and created landmarks that sent ripples throughout the world effecting great changes in the lives of women.
By the 70s and 80s, when I came onto the scene, the women’s liberation movement or what is sometimes known as second wave feminism was in full swing on many fronts. There were rights campaigns for example for equal pay, better working conditions, the right to contraception and abortion and for shelters for victims of domestic violence. Of course, the Women’s Liberation Movement was not without its internal divisions and tensions. Black feminists for instance, began to challenge the movement for its failure to make racism a core part of its agenda for political action and for the lack of substantive inclusion of black and minority women’s voices and experiences in the making of feminist history.
Women of African-Caribbean and Asian descent with links to the American civil rights movements and anti-colonial struggles initially tried to carve out a more expansive vision of feminism that was concerned with locating women’s struggles within wider movements for social justice and against other forms of oppression both in the UK and across the world. This is why the secular term ‘black’ was so vital in the UK in challenging racism and in forging a common cause between Asian and Afro-Caribbean women and that is why today SBS refuses to relinquish the term black. For us, it has come to symbolise unity across difference that in today’s fractured and polarised political climate is more relevant than ever.
Even before the term intersectionality was invented, black women tried to show how the processes of race, class and gender intersected and had a differential impact on women from different social and ethnic groups both nationally and internationally. For example, we challenged feminist understandings of the family and the state by demanding the need to also look at practices such as the virginity testing of Asian women carried out by immigration officers that were both racist and sexist. Organisations like the Brixton Black Women’s Group and coalitions like (OWAAD) – the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent – challenged oppressive police stop and search practices against black males and raised awareness about the use of depo-Provera a contraceptive injection that was primarily aimed at black and working class women in the UK or the forced sterilisation of women in the global south. We argued that these were also political priorities for feminism.
But black feminists also fought for recognition in their own communities and groups like SBS particularly challenged traditional as well as anti-racist notions of community that did not include women. For example, from the late 80s onwards, whilst acknowledging the need for a multicultural society, SBS began to voice criticism of the government’s policy of multiculturalism for giving prominence to the politics of representation that placed conservative leaderships in positions of power. We were concerned about the ways in which the dominant multicultural model, constructed minority communities as homogeneous entities without internal divisions along class, caste, sexuality or gender lines. We were concerned about the ways in which multiculturalism created the space for unelected community representatives, usually from religious and business classes, to act as mediators between the community and the state.
No one questioned the allocation of power in minority communities and how it was exercised by these leaderships. In reality, community identity was defined by male conservative leaderships and even anti-racist activists but always to the detriment of women’s interests. It was an approach that left countless black and minority women without protection and rights and left SBS with no option but to resort to legal and political challenges using the human rights and equality framework and language – themselves the product of feminist and anti-racist struggle.
The balance sheet of feminism
Much has been achieved on the domestic front in the last 50 years including services for women subject to rape and domestic abuse, the introduction of laws on equal pay, sex and race discrimination, violence against women, forced marriage, FGM and coercion and control to name just a few. Even the limited reforms in immigration and asylum laws that take account of domestic abuse, gender persecution, slavery and trafficking are matters of great pride.
At the international level, we have seen successes through the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW, and the Istanbul Convention, all of which have redefined the concept of human rights. We have seen the galvanising potential of the Me Too movement and the mass uprisings of women against femicide and rape. Equally, we still face a colossal uphill struggle especially in an increasingly volatile political context dominated by authoritarian, fundamentalist and populist political projects; characterised by hostile anti-immigration policies, neoliberalism and austerity resulting in the creation of a vast disposable underclass. Equal pay is still a distant dream for most women and violence against women and girls has arguably increased not decreased. Misogyny and patriarchy continues to thrive in state structures, in the media and in civil society signifying a concerted backlash by regressive political forces.
On the minus side of the balance sheet we also have to factor in challenges that are of our own making. We haven’t yet found a way of getting out of the cul-de-sac of identity politics; a politics that generates cultural and religious relativism; essentialises gender and race identities, and muzzles voices of dissent from within. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves sliding towards a regressive politics that reinvigorates patriarchy and inequality whilst appearing to be anti-racist and progressive. This is particularly the case amongst a section of academic and activist feminists who work within religious conservative and fundamentalist frameworks to counter imperialism and racism but who do not concern themselves with the political consequences of the frameworks within which they operate. These feminists appear to focus more on women’s piety and agency in the context of religion which only serves to validate regressive religious power as a viable political alternative; a power that uses the very structures of democracy in political, legal, cultural and social spheres to subjugate women and to destroy not only the rights that have been painfully won but also the very idea of a progressive, secular universal framework of rights on which struggles for women’s equality and freedom have been based.
In short, there is a lot for us to reflect upon even as we celebrate.
I said at the beginning that I believe that throughout the world, a new kind of feminism is stirring even in the midst of fear and terror. Women are naming and shaming, they are occupying public spaces, organising rallies and sit-ins and draping themselves with the symbols of peace, unity and justice. They are in brief, holding power to account. It is exciting and invigorating. It both reaffirms the rights of women and reminds us of the values that we have to nurture and uphold if feminism is to triumph. Now is the time to join these new struggles and to fulfil our collective feminist destiny whilst at the same time pay tribute to the feminist freedom fighters and defenders of human rights and democracy who have gone before us and to whom we owe an immense debt of gratitude.
There is much to celebrate and yet so much also to critically reflect upon; so much to get angry about and yet much to feel hopeful about.
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