Southall Black Sisters interview - Black Flag

Southall Black Sisters are a black women's group that were formed in the late 70s and are still going strong today. They have campaigned tirelessly for the rights of women who fight back against domestic violence and more recently against creeping fundamentalism within Asian and other communities. SBS are not anarchists, but we should have plenty to learn from their struggles and their courage over the last 20 years. We interviewed Hananna and Anita from SBS at their resource centre in Southall.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 30, 2020

Why and how was Southall Black Sisters set up originally?

I wasn't around at the time, but SBS was set up by a group of Asian and African-Caribbean women, initially in response to racism and the problems black women were experiencing in the late 70s and early 80s. One of the earliest campaigns was against the virginity tests being imposed by immigration officers on Asian women arriving at Heathrow Airport to meet their British fiancés. Other work was around racial harassment and supporting strikers (in particular the Chix factory strike in 1980). In the early 1980s we started campaigning around violence against women when someone called Ms Dilu and her five daughters were set alight by her husband. He had set them on fire because she produced no sons. And later there was the death of Krishna Sharma who was an Asian woman who hung herself after years of violence from her husband. And although the verdict was suicide, we said she had been driven to this situation — it was murder in our minds. We demonstrated through the streets of Southall in protest at that death.

It was one of the first demonstrations in the country against domestic violence within Asian communities and it broke the silence around the issue.

Was it at that point that you decided to work as a women-only group?

No, that started in 1979 when we first established ourselves and the unity there had been formed around the issue of being black and anti-racism. But we recognised the need to look at women's issues as well at that stage because they weren't necessarily going to be addressed by the anti-racist movement or by the community. We wanted to deal with the issues raised by the deaths of local women. The resource centre became a reality in around 1982, initially with GLC funding and later funding from the local council, It's always been under-resourced — but now we've established a centre that is quite solid in a sense in that it has a clear politics and direction. The establishment of a resource centre has meant that we are able to provide a 'service' to women. But we have never given up our campaigning and actions. Other groups, when they have got funding, have often dropped the campaigning side of their work. We think we have gained respect through our campaigns and have created change — some funders support that. Others don't and want you to be a charity (which we are not) which could preclude much of the work that we do at present.

Do you have paid workers only, or are other people involved?

We have four paid workers and do take on volunteers from time to time, when we can provide them with support. But much of the work, especially support group activities, demonstrations, public meetings etc. is carried out and organised by our membership and the women who have come to us for help in the past and now want to be involved politically and give something back. There is a strong political activism that we encourage amongst our clients and membership and it is important that they own the centre and that ultimately they run it and decide its direction. Unless women feel that way, you're not really progressing the empowerment or politicisation of women or women using their own experience to create change. Women really want to help others when they've found solutions in their own lives — they want to pass on their experience and many of them have joined the management committee — so my clients are also my bosses — it's that sort of relationship...

What sort of problems do women come to you with at SBS?

Largely domestic violence; rape, sexual abuse, mental abuse, physical violence, immigration problems... forced marriages have become a big issue, abduction, sexual harassment, racism, housing issues, depression...

How do you deal with such diverse issues?

Well most of these problems are about domestic violence and the other issues are related to it. We often refer-out straight benefits or immigration problems, and concentrate on the domestic violence issues and support. We often simply give women the information and advice that they need to help themselves, rather than doing it all for them. We also get a lot of calls from women around the country which is difficult because we don't have the resources to deal with all of them. So we often have to refer them to agencies in their local area — but of course, there is nothing like SBS in their local area and often there is nowhere for them to go.

So what actual support would you provide to, say, a woman experiencing domestic violence and wanting to leave the abuser? Obviously you would tell her about her legal options, but would you also offer practical support as well?

Yes, we'd make sure she had somewhere to go — possibly a refuge, we'd make sure she could get there and would contact social services if, for example, she had no means of accessing benefits to pay for accommodation. We'd support her through ongoing matrimonial problems (eg. divorce) and any criminal proceedings. Often other issues then come up like immigration problems, childcare problems etc. And it's important that these issues are dealt with to prevent them from going back to violent situations because they could just give up.

Many risk being rejected by their families or communities for having challenged their husbands. They can be severely isolated and this is made worse by language problems, lack of skills and knowledge of what to do and where to go. Simple things like how to get from A to B. Many women we see have never been out of Southall. Others have only just arrived in the UK. We have to help them with things they're not familiar with — the ultimate aim is that they become independent and able to handle these things themselves. A small scale example is if you are taking a woman to a solicitors firm, a woman who can't speak the language, throughout the journey, you point out where to get off, landmarks, etc. so she can do it herself next time. Support groups are vital in this process, they are run by long-term and ex-clients or other members of SBS, and also provide friendship networks.

SBS are well-known for their campaigns and actions around the one year rule1 — can you tell us what the practical problems are for women trapped under this rule?

Well to put it simply, they have no rights! They face deportation because they do not have their permanent leave to stay. They have no recourse to public funds which means they cannot get social security benefits or public housing. They can't even get into a women's refuge half the time because they can't pay the rent. Many will decide to stay in a violent situation rather than face the risk of deportation or destitution. They are all relatively new to the country and many don't speak English.

There are also women whose husbands actually want them to be deported (because they don't want them anymore and want to take another wife) — they will tell the home office that the marriage has broken down and the woman will have no choice in the matter. Others may have been here for the requisite amount of time, but their husbands have hidden their passports or deliberately failed to tell them that they must apply for their indefinite leave to remain before the twelve months is up. Such women can be vulnerable to total strangers who offer them accommodation and 'help' but then exploit them. Luckier ones may have friends or relatives who will offer them refuge and financial support. We often have to beg women's refuges to take women trapped under this rule fleeing violence — but a lot of them still say no.

Women with children can sometimes get money and accommodation under the Children Act from social services, but single women have a much harder time accessing similar help under the National Assistance Act and we are at present fight-ing a judicial review case on this issue. It is clear that asylum seekers can get National Assistance Act help, but councils are far more reluctant to see it used to help women trapped under the one year rule. We hope to set a precedent in terms of local authority responsibilities in this court case.

There are further problems coming with the government's new act affecting asylum seekers — the Children Act and the National Assistance Act help may cease to be available to asylum seekers at all and people will be dispersed around the country. Asylum seeker women fleeing domestic violence will be even more isolated than they are now and won't get the support they need. We have already seen several local authorities attempting to send asylum seekers out of their areas and have seen the effects on women. Some women are fleeing violence abroad and this is the basis of their claim for asylum and they need specialist help. We think the new Act will be a major problem for the future for our work and for women. We are already visiting women in detention centres and prisons, but we will have real problems visiting women dispersed around the country.

What about the new government proposals on the one year rule and women fleeing domestic violence?

Well there have been concessions, after we have argued and campaigned for a very long time, and of course we welcome them, but at the same time we are not satisfied, because the burden of proof is far to high. Women will have to produce an injunction, a conviction or a police caution to fall within the concession. If a woman can show such proof of violence from her spouse, within twelve months of entering the UK, she will, in theory, be given indefinite leave to remain and will not be deported. But most women won't have such proof because, for a whole range of reasons, they don't pursue legal remedies. Many women won't get legal aid to pursue an injunction, especially if the violence occurred some time ago, or they've moved out of the area and there is no imminent danger; others don't want to go to the police because they still fear being deported, and have real fears around police racism. Often with minority communities, the police argue that such problems should be dealt with by the community themselves, that they are frightened of upsetting 'community leaders' and will avoid intervention at all costs in ethnic minority domestic violence cases.

Women who have undergone mental (rather than physical) abuse may have no legal remedies — so really a lot of women will fall outside these concessions. We have made our objections known, and the government have promised to monitor the situation but they won't even know about half the cases because women won't come forward and we are very angry about the situation. This concession simply won't help the women it is purportedly supposed to help.

What is your attitude to the one year rule?

Well, of course, we want it abolished — but the politicians are worried about their racist electorate who would object to abolition as a part of immigration control. They abolished the primary purpose rule, which was the right thing to do, but we say that the one year rule does not actually serve much purpose even if you support immigration control. The vast majority of marriage applications are accepted. The one year rule simply serves to keep women in a vulnerable and dependent situation unnecessarily.

You touched upon police attempts to avoid upsetting 'community leaders' earlier — can you tell us what has been the response from these "leaders' to your work?

Well, the community has been quite hostile to us and in the 1980s there was a concerted attempt to close us down. Community leaders petitioned against us and tried to get our funding stopped. We were called 'outsiders' and 'homewreckers' and were described as a 'conspiracy against the very fabric of Asian culture'. And there was a very real possibility that we would have closed down, had the women not fought hard for the survival of the centre.

Since then there has been a bit of a shift in attitudes. During the Kiranjit Ahluwalia campaign2 , we had more support from men in the community and even some community leaders began to pay lip service to the issue of domestic violence. Having said that, its hard to know how deep this shift is, how genuine it is or whether is simply politically expedient for them to say that domestic violence is not acceptable at this moment in time.

We did get a lot of support around the Kiranjit campaign. People had to ask themselves why was she driven to kill? Why didn't she leave him? What were the pressures on her? And these questions were put in a wider context in the sense that it was about other women who had killed, domestic violence in general and it created a national debate. And this debate had an impact in the Asian community, especially as it was inspired by an Asian women and we were highlighting issues of domestic violence within this community. People said don't raise domestic violence because you are washing your dirty linen in public and it will create a racist backlash but we responded that we were talking about Sarah Thornton3 too, and about Emma Humphreys4 and other white women who had gone through similar experiences. Domestic violence is not confined to the ethnic minority communities,

Even the left, including the anti-racist left who didn't want us to expose this issue had to shift — they couldn't remain silent about it. And it's a shift that has been created by feminists, and in particular, black feminists who have worked to create these changes. But obviously there is a long, long way to go, and now we have the issue of fundamentalism to deal with, for example, and forced marriages and other culturally-harmful practices like female genital mutilation. And women dealing with these issues are facing a backlash from within their own communities and from the anti-racist left who say don't raise these issues because it makes the community look barbaric. Religious fundamentalism and a rise in orthodox and conservative ways of thinking amongst young men is becoming a big issue for us. Some young women are getting involved in this movement too. There is a battle for the control of women's lives, young women's lives particularly as they are on the front line in terms of their rights being attacked. In the North and the Midlands you have bounty hunters and networks of men who hunt down young women who have left home and return them to their families and this is part of the wider context of fundamentalism. It's not restricted to Islam, but is happening in all religions on an international level. In terms of our work, we are seeing women facing greater pressures to conform to traditional roles and values and an there is an increase in forced marriages.

Some community leaders, for example the Muslim Parliament, say they oppose forced marriages but at the same time, their views are compromised by their religious values in that they view children born within forced marriages as illegitimate and this has severe consequences on the children who will face stigma within the community if they are considered to be illegitimate. There is a whole debate around religious identities which is infringing upon the women's movement, the black women's movement. Community leaders are looking at gender, and are stating their opposition to domestic violence and forced marriages, but at the end of the day, who do they really help on the ground - do they actually give the support that women need at the time of crisis? No they don't - they didn't help Zoorah Shah (see insert below) when she asked. This is the real test.

SBS is a secular organisation and we have to hold onto these values - it means that women of all religions or no religion can come to us and religion is not used as a tool to oppress women. If your organisation has a religious identity then other women from other religious groups will not want to approach you, and equally women who are from the same religious background may be put off because their problem may stem from their religion. So we are totally committed to a secular environment at SBS.

SBS appear to be a lone voice speaking out publicly on these issues and are vocal in supporting women who fight back — some who have landed up in prison for doing so. Is this deliberate — your support for women who have made extreme choices, often challenging accepted behaviour within their communities and refusing to be victims?

It is important to emphasise that for many women there was no choice and to show why choices didn't exist - many women did try to seek help. Kuranjit's family told her to try again, the injunction that she took out didn't work, she felt the police wouldn't help her. With Zoorah Shah she was a prostitute - she was prostituted - the man she killed was sexually abusing her, raping her, economically exploiting her, and was part of the criminal underworld himself and she did try to get help from his relatives, including his brother who was on the Council of Mosques - but because of her position she didn't get the support; she was condemned by that community and how do you escape that? How do you escape it? Suicide is the means by which a disproportionate number of Asian women escape such situations and Zoorah was, by that time, clinically depressed.

It is depressingly common for women who have become sex workers, whether through choice or by force, to find that no-one will help them when they are sexually abused— people make value judgements — she brought it upon herself etc. Was this the attitude in Zoorah's case?

Yes - she had to argue diminished responsibility in the end - men get away with pleading provocation or diminished responsibility when they kill their wives. Someone like Zoorah, she had gone through extreme abuse - abuse that few men go through - but the courts don't recognise this. Zoorah was raped in the cemetery where one of her children was buried - this was the level of abuse she suffered. In some respects the courts will recognise 'battered women syndrome' (not that we accept this definition, women don't kill because they are mad, they kill because they are angry too or acting in self-defence) but in Zoorah's case she didn't fit into the court's narrow ideas of a deserving victim. The courts have a view on acceptable behaviour for a woman and stereotypical images of how a passive Asian women should behave. Zoorah had a stain on her character — she was a prostitute — and therefore had no honour to preserve. So Zoorah's imprisonment was a racist as well as a sexist decision — she was punished for failing to conform to racist stereotypes.

What is happening with Zoorah's case at the moment?

Well, she lost her appeal and we are now trying to get her tariff reduced and waiting for a decision on this. We've got a campaign going to get the tariff reduced (contact SBS for further details) and are looking for further grounds of appeal.

Do SBS do a lot of prison work and how do women get in touch with you?

It is increasing — women find out about us from other inmates and some probation officers get in touch with us. There's not many Asian women in prison and those that are there are isolated and often want to contact an Asian women's group to help them. We would, of course, and do help with the cases of African-Caribbean women as well, but we have become, by default, identified as a group helping Asian women. The actual work normally starts with making sure that the women have legal representation and sometimes we would get more involved in the case and give a woman the support that she needs. We haven't been able to get involved with campaigning on prison conditions, but recently we dealt with a case where a woman went on hunger strike because of racism within the prison service. The hunger strike is now over because some of her demands were met. But generally speaking, our prison work is about supporting inmates, initiating campaigns, reducing their isolation and ensuring adequate legal representation.

Do SBS get involved in one to one support for prisoners, for example, visiting, letter writing etc.?

Not in a formal way, it would be a lot to organise, but women like Kuranjit have been invaluable in supporting other prisoners — and prisoners and ex-prisoners support each other.

How much faith do you have in the legal system — and how important do you think legal reforms are, as opposed to practical support and direct action to deal with these issues?

The law is important in that it affects women's lives and dictates what you can and cannot do, rights and entitlements, but yes practical action is crucial, giving support to women, and making sure that women don't get turned away because it's assumed that forced marriages, for example, are a cultural practice that has to be respected and that the community should be allowed to resolve these problems themselves. Training and education to change social attitudes is part of the long-term aim and is crucial if anything is to change. Campaigning itself creates awareness and creates debate. All our campaigning is about creating long-term change so that we are not just about providing a service — we don't want to be an alternative social services! Unless you use your experience and what you've learned to create long-term change then all you're doing is helping individuals you're not helping the collective...

What can people do to help and what campaigns are important at the moment?

Support our campaigns and give us money! The important campaigns are,
1) forced marriages — if anyone has any information on forced marriages — please get in touch with us,
2) Zoorah Shah — support our efforts to get a reduction in her tariff,
3) the one year rule campaign — if anyone has got cases that don't fit within the concessions then we need to know about them too.

Contact Southall Black Sisters at: [historic contact details are in the PDF of this issue - use instead]

Zoorah Shah

Zoorah Shah came to the UK following an arranged marriage. She was beaten by her husband and his family and forced to undergo abortions when they suspected she was carrying girls. Her husband's violence lead to at least one miscarriage. Eventually he abandoned her and her three children: she was left homeless, destitute and unable to speak any English.

She was 'befriended' by a married man called Azam who provided accommodation and other 'help'. However this was at a price — he demanded sexual favours in return, He became violent when Zoorah refused to do his bidding and his abuse included forcing her to have sex in the cemetery where her children were buried. Azam was convicted of heroin dealing, but his abuse continued from prison as he tried to pimp Zoorah to inmates who were being released. Zoorah turned to Azam's brother (a prominent leader and head of Bradford Council of Mosques) and other community leaders for help, but they refused. In desperation she turned to Azam's acquaintances in the Bradford criminal underworld but suffered further abuse at their hands. On Azam's release from prison, his abuse of her resumed and he forced her to have sex with other men. The turning point for Zoorah came when she suspected that he had designs or her daughters, She administered a dose of arsenic to Azam, and he died later that day in hospital.

Zoorah was charged with murder. She did not give evidence at her trial as she was too ashamed to reveal the details of her sexual history. She was sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 20 years. She has been in prison for six years.

In the last century, women in the West resorted to the use of poison to escape abusive relationships. Many were sentenced to hanging or life imprisonment since the stifling social mores of the time could not show an understanding of their experiences. In the USA, female slaves often resorted to the use of poison to escape rape and sexual abuse by their white masters. The use of poison by Zoorah was not the act of a 'cunning' woman driven by greed, but the desperate act of a woman unable to take control of her sexuality and life. The Bradford community is perhaps even more oppressive for Asian women than it was for women living in the nineteenth century. Many Asian women from northern England have been killed in recent times, for daring to break with the codes of their religion and culture. Contact SBS or ABC for further details of Zoorah's case and how you can help. - Michael Tarnoky

  • 1The one year rule covers people who come to the UK to live with their British spouse on the basis that their spouse will support and accommodate them without recourse to public funds. After 12 months, if they can show that they have lived together as man and wife and intend to continue doing so, they can apply to stay permanently in the UK. If the marriage breaks down before the 12 months is up, the non-British spouse can face deportation or destitution as they cannot access any state benefits or public housing. SBS research between 1994 and 1995 showed that out of 755 women threatened with deportation because of marriage breakdown, 512 were fleeing domestic violence.
  • 2Kiranjit Ahluwalia killed her husband in a final act of survival. She was sentenced to life for murder. As a result of the SBS campaign, her conviction was reduced to manslaughter and she was released
  • 3Sara Thornton is a British woman who was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of the 1989 murder of her violent and alcoholic husband, Malcolm Thornton. Thornton never denied the killing, but claimed it had been an accident during an argument. The prosecution at her trial argued that she had carried out the act for financial gain, and she was found guilty of murder. The case became a cause célèbre among women's groups, and ignited a political debate on how the courts should deal with the issue of domestic violence. At a retrial in 1996 Thornton was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and freed from custody.
  • 4Emma Humphreys was convicted in 1985 of the murder of her violent 33-year-old boyfriend Trevor Armitage. Aged 17 when convicted, Humphreys spent a decade in prison before winning an appeal against the conviction, on the grounds of long-term provocation. The Court of Appeal reduced the conviction to manslaughter, and she was released immediately.