Women and the Asian Youth Movements

Demonstration of the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign.
Demonstration of the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign.

Anandi Ramamurthy analyses the involvement of women within the Asian Youth Movements and how the groups engaged (or didn't) with issues of gender, sexism and women's liberation both within the organisation as well as in their activism.

Submitted by Ed on February 13, 2019

The strength of the black anti-imperialist political identity with which the AYMs identified was a powerful political marker and engaged both men and women, through both political action and cultural expression. For the most part the attitudes of the AYMs were outward looking, but, like the Panthers and the Black Power movement as a whole, machoism and forms of masculinity that were sexist also influenced the way in which they organised. The focus on race undoubtedly left women's issues as important but secondary, although it should be remembered that the youth movements varied between different towns and cities in their focus and priorities.

The male domination of the AYMs was influenced by the early phase of migration from the subcontinent where workers first brought their sons or nephews to Britain to work. Many of the members who I interviewed came to Britain in the mid 1960s when the number of families would have been extremely small. The difficulties for those women and girls who were present from these traditionally rural communities to gain access to independence that would enable them to participate in political activity along with the predominance of young men in the community meant that Bradford AYM, for example, began its development as entirely male and even later women were only ever involved in small numbers. As Jani Rashid commented:

We didn't have many Asian women in the organisation, my sister was a member, she didn't always come to meetings 'cos we were a largely male group. We did increase our membership to more than just my sister later on, … but I have to say in terms of membership it was very very limited in terms of women... there were accusations from ... all sorts of groups that we were a sexist organisation... but I didn't feel it was... most young Asian women were still sort of... kept at home by their parents, and you know to be exposed to the likes of young men from the Asian Youth Movement wasn't the right thing to do... (J. Rashid 2007)

In character it is therefore not surprising that there were elements of machoism present in the behaviour of the young men and in their organisation. It was not only influenced by traditional forms of masculinity present within South Asian cultures but also by traditional forms of British masculinity that were present in northern mill towns, where young men had historically gained their place and purpose in society through hard physical labour (Winlow 2001, Russell 2004, Kirk 2000). In reflecting on their past behaviour, many of the men involved in the AYMs, now in their fifties, recognise the way dominant masculinities existed both in their language as well as in their behaviour. As Iqbal from AYM (Bradford) reflected, 'I left Bradford around 1980 and when I left there were hardly any women, and there used to be one woman in AYM ... and there would be a dozen of us that would hover around her. It was terrible [laughs]'.

There are also visual indicators of machoism in some of the images repeatedly used in AYM literature, such as the image of an 'angry young man' with a raised fist, which appeared first in Kala Tara to represent the struggles in East London, then on an early bulletin of the Bradford 12 campaign and, later, in leaflets produced by Sheffield AYM in support of the Miners' Strike in 1985 (Ramamurthy 2006:53). Harwant Bains has commented on the 'machismo' of the Southall Youth Movement and its patriarchal attitudes towards women, which he describes as similar to those found amongst male elders of the community (Bains 1988).

Shanaaz Ali, who campaigned with the United Black Youth League, reflects on the difficulties for women being part of political action. This was not just from the point of view of the dominance of men in the organisation but also because of the wider community's attitudes:

I suppose one of the memories is the difficulty in going to the marches 'cos a lot of them were at the weekends and we couldn't skive off college [laughs] and go without your parents knowing. And the dilemma I had at home was my father (because I was a girl) just saying, 'What are people going to say?' It wasn't the done thing that you went and did that sort of thing as a girl. Sometimes I just lied and went, and said, 'I'm going to the library to do my work'. Or I'm going off to a friend's or whatever.

It is clear that many of the youth involved in the movements were not always conscious of the difficulties for women members. As Shanaaz recalls,

The political activity was all wrapped up into this sort of social thing as well... you were socialising and politicising and you were going on marches... but we'd have to go home after marches, because it was just not on to go out late or anything like that. (Ali 2006)

Members of Birmingham Black Sisters (BBS) also remembered the way that the AYMs did not enable women to participate equally, since meetings were often held in pubs and clubs that many women did not wish to visit. The personal behaviour of some of the men was also shameful at times. Shanaaz reflected on how difficult it was to even get her own sister involved never mind other girls. Despite these difficulties, the political activity that she got involved with gave Shanaaz a sense of identity, where she could 'channel the feelings of being different' and Shanaaz comments that some older comrades appreciated the difficulties. Shanaaz's involvement and feelings of camaraderie with the young men with which she campaigned, highlight the importance of looking beyond the youth movements as an expression of an essentialised black masculinity, reified as 'a certainty around which all else revolves' (Alexander 2000:135). Her experiences highlight the complexity of the AYM and UBYL identities that were influenced by a performance of masculinity that was macho, but was not exclusively so.

All Asian Youth Movements did not have the same characteristics and the clear organisational structures in AYM (Bradford), for example, enabled them to curb machoistic attitudes to some extent. The aims of AYM (Bradford) clearly listed opposition to discrimination on the basis of 'race, colour, sex, religion etc'. In their practise, AYM (Bradford) also established codes of conduct to prevent women that they were working with from being harassed or intimidated. One of these rules established that no member of the AYM could date a member of a family that the AYMs were working with on a campaign. The differences between AYMs Southall, Manchester and Bradford are reflected on by Kuldeep who was well placed to compare the experience of all three youth movements, since while born in Southall, she studied in Manchester and had friends in Bradford:

what I like about Manchester was it was quite formal, and I think this is something, that discipline ... I think Bradford AYM was an inspiration in the way they were structured and they were quite formal about things in a way I think Southall wouldn't have been, because Southall had a degree of familiarity and a bit of a macho culture. And I liked the formality of Bradford and Manchester; their structures, committees, Chairs, you know, appointments, all that kind of stuff ... it was not just about people's egos and about people who were popular being appointed to positions and it was more democratic and fair, and encouraged women to get involved as well as stand for positions... People were much more committed to the cause and it was less about egos. (Mann 2006).

While Bradford tried to establish codes of conduct and operated formal structures to curb the excesses of machoism, AYM (Manchester) made an even greater effort to address women's issues and the involvement of women. A section of their magazine Liberation articulated Manchester AYM's position:

Asian women are the most oppressed section of our community, subjected to oppression at home in addition to the general exploitation as blacks. Although we are living in an industrialised society, most of our people retain feudal values and customs. AYM will struggle against these reactionary aspects of our culture. AYM believes that the emancipation of women is a prerequisite for the liberation of society at large. (AYM Manchester 1981c:6)

For its size, Manchester AYM had proportionately more women involved and two key members of the movement were women.

Manchester adopted an image on their membership forms of three Asians, two of whom were women, shouting through prison bars as a gesture to acknowledge the centrality they viewed women's role within the struggle. This image was first created by the Mukhti collective in London in the 1970s. The magazine produced by Mukhti expressed a similar anti-imperialist and anti-racist perspective. Manchester as a much bigger, more affluent urban environment, attracted a more diverse group of people than Bradford and the women members in Manchester came from families that were from urban areas in the subcontinent or were women students, many of whom were not living at home. The commitment in Manchester to women's participation can be seen from educationals they organised to discuss the classic text The Social Basis of the Women's Question and their first public meeting, which also highlighted women's issues and women's contributions to liberation struggles through an invitation to Amrit Wilson to speak about Asian women in Britain and a female member of the Tamil Tigers to speak about women's involvement in the struggle for Tamil Eelam.

Manchester was also the only AYM in the country to establish a women's wing. Nilofer recalls the experience of the women's wing:

We had a women's wing and had some separate meetings and discussions about how we were going to organise. A lot of time was taken trying to recruit other women. It was hard to get women involved. Having a women's wing enabled more women to get involved. We talked to the families to allow the women and girls to come on marches. We had a separate form for women to affiliate to the women's wing and got involved in organising an international women's day event. We showed a film with Smita Patil, an Indian actress known for her feminist roles, to discuss women's position and the role of women in society. We also offered personal support to women like Nasira Begum ... , which was obviously something which men couldn't do. (Shaikh 2006)

While the women's wing was small, its existence was important. Given that two of the campaigns with which they were involved were Nasira Begum's and Jaswinder Kaur's — women who were facing deportation as a result of domestic violence and that a third campaign, the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign (which was a key campaign that galvanised AYM Manchester as an organisation), involved a woman struggling for the right to bring her children to Britain, the personal support that women members were able to offer victims of immigration discrimination was invaluable, although it was easy for women to be left organising women or with social care roles.

For AYM, racism was always emphasised over issues of sexism. The fourth key immigration campaign with which Manchester were involved was that of Akhtar and Walait. This campaign challenged the primary purpose ruling which operated from 1983 to 1997, which argued that thousands of arranged marriages were not valid by suggesting that the principle reason for the marriage was to gain residence in the UK. In this campaign it would have been possible to expose the Home Office's racism and sexism by suggesting that Asian women should go to live with their husbands in the sub-continent if they married men from overseas, but the campaign focused primarily on the issue of Walait as black: 'the home office message to Walait, a black British citizen, is if you want to live in peace with your husband, leave this country'. This left the Home Office's sex discrimination poorly articulated, since the Home Office's position was only made in the context of inscribing traditional gender roles.

Although AYM (Manchester) engaged with issues pertaining to women's oppression they were keen to do this in a way that did not isolate male community members if at all possible. In 1983 when the City Council decided to close North Manchester School for Girls, many families were concerned about the lack of a girls-only school in north Manchester. Two men in the community decided to set up a Muslim Girls' Sixth Form College. The curriculum that they established was narrow focusing on English, mathematics, crafts and cookery, and excluded all science subjects.

One women's group publicly denounced the Muslim girls' college initiative in the press. This created antagonism and galvanised men in favour of the college. Nilofer and Rifat from AYM (Manchester)'s women's wing argued that while they were against any religious schools, they wanted the community to be involved in the decision making and to be properly informed about what this college was really offering. They put out loads of leaflets focusing on the second rate nature of the schooling offered by the college and called people to come and take part in a public meeting. At the meeting they publicly asked the proposed director Mr Salaam if he was planning to send his own daughter there. He was not because she was studying the sciences. In the end, only one person signed up for the college and the initiative collapsed.

In reflecting on the AYMs and their political strategies as a whole, despite a theoretical belief in women's emancipation and the structures and policies that they wrote, it is clear that the AYMs did not forefront gender issues in the campaigns with which they were involved, nor did they take up issues that were specific to women. In the deportation case of Jaswinder Kaur who was threatened with deportation as a result of leaving her husband through domestic violence, the AYMs in Manchester and Bradford as well as UBYL stressed the racism of the immigration laws with the slogan 'The racism of the immigration laws are destroying black people's lives'. They did not highlight the right of women to challenge domestic violence. Gender issues were never a priority.

The need by Asian women to raise issues of concern to them and to challenge patriarchal oppression within their own communities led to women forming their own organisations, the most notable being Awaz, Southall Black Sisters (SBS), BBS, and Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). Amrit Wilson remembers 'always having to fight our corner' in the wider anti-racist movement, and explains why it was necessary to set up separate women's organisations.

Many of us had earlier belonged to the predominantly male black movement or the predominantly white women's movement. By forming Awaz in 1977 we had taken a stand against the sexism of the former and the racism of the latter. But these were not the reasons why we, a handful of mainly young Asian women, had set up the group. It was rather that we desperately needed a way of addressing our needs and those of other Asian women. (Wilson 2006:161).

Awaz, for example, were the first to campaign against the scandal of virginity testing in 1979 after a 35-year-old Indian woman spoke out about the test she had undergone at Heathrow when entering Britain as a fiancée. They also supported Asian women workers at Grunwick's and Futter's in North London. They demonstrated in alliance with other black groups against police racism and also did the political groundwork to set up one of the first Asian women refuges in the UK (Wilson 2006:162).

Gita Sahgal has commented on how 'it was partly because of [SYM's] lumpen posturing and sexual harassment that SBS had been formed' (Sahgal 1989:14). While issues of racism were being raised repeatedly in Southall, there was little mention of women's oppression, and so 'women felt they ought to come together and make their voice heard' (Hendessi 1989:10). In November 1979, Southall Black Sisters was formed to support campaigns against both racism and women's oppression. While mainly mobilising South Asian women they did make links with African and Caribbean women too. As Avtar Brah highlights,

Our aim was to devise effective strategies for working within our own communities — for challenging the specific configuration of patriarchal relations of these communities as well as in the society at large — while actively opposing the racism to which all Black people, men and women, are subjected. We had to make connections between our oppression in Britain and that of women in the Third World. (Brah 1989:13)

The group supported Southall Defence Committee that came together to support anti-racist campaigners charged with public order offences after the death of Blair Peach, as well as campaigns against racist attacks. They worked alongside other groups in Southall such as Southall Rights to provide advice on aspects relating to women's lives. Like the AYMs, they also supported trade union struggles in the black community such as the strike by women workers at the Chix factory in Slough. Tensions between SBS and other organisations did exist, as Mandana Hendessi recalls:

Some organisations tried to trivialise our role within the community -e referring to us as a small group of women or mocking the name. Why don't you call yourselves Southall Brown Sisters. There were a lot of struggles in trying to assert ourselves as an important political group in Southall. We had to cope with sexism from other organisations. (Hendessi 1989:11)

SBS, Awaz and BBS were very much part of the anti-racist movement during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Asian Youth Movements supported some of their initiatives. AYMs in Bradford, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham supported the campaign by SBS in support of Balwant Kaur, murdered as a result of domestic violence in 1985. They also supported BBS' campaign to free Iqbal Begum, jailed for killing her husband after suffering years of domestic violence.

Iqbal Begum's case brought the issues of racism and gender oppression together since she received a life sentence after believing the term 'guilty' meant gulti (Punjabi for mistake) when no interpreter was present to translate for her in the court. There is no doubt that there was a genuine desire from AYM (Bradford) and AYM (Manchester) in particular to support struggles for women's liberation, and this desire can be seen in the support that they won from organisations such as SBS, Awaz, and the Wages for Housework and Black Wages for Housework campaigns during the campaign to free the Bradford 12.

While the AYMs worked with Asian women's groups, tensions did exist. AYM (Bradford)'s failure to contact black women's organisations at the conception of their idea of a black freedom march led to criticism and the eventual abandonment of the whole idea. Macho attitudes in AYM (Birmingham) and their lack of women members led BBS to dub the Birmingham Asian Youth Movement as 'the Asian Young Men's Association'. The AYM in its turn critiqued BBS, as Sheera Johal recounts,

Birmingham Black Sisters always saw us men as at fault but there was a class issue. In the Kewal Brothers strike, BBS wanted to organise the women separately, which caused divisions. We felt that it was imperative that all the workers were together. We had a committee with various organisations and we organised funds and meetings. (Johal 2006)

Surinder Guru however, has highlighted the key difficulties for some of the women strikers at the time with both the racism and sexism of the Union being manifest. The Union for example organised a meeting in a pub with no childcare, and the sexism of the IWA (Indian Workers’ Association), in particular, impacted on the strike support group:

Inside the meetings the atmosphere was one of such total domination that we found it difficult to speak out. This was made worse by the fact that when we did speak the men did not debate with us or even openly disagree, they merely humoured us and carried on making decisions behind the scenes. (Outwrite 31 in Guru 1987:278).

When BBS critiqued IWA in the feminist magazine Outwrite, the women were accused of being middle class. The criticism of women being middle class was a retort that many black women were faced with when trying to put across their perspectives. While this may have sometimes been the case, and Guru recognises this in her reflections on the work of the Kewal Brothers Strike Support Group, such comments did not engage with the problems that BBS were raising, of men holding on to information and making decisions without consulting the women involved (Guru 1987:279).

Amrit Wilson has reflected on the way that in many campaigns 'any woman that became articulate was suddenly labelled middle class, no matter what her or her parents' background' (Wilson 2007). Many Asian women's organisations had a large proportion of female students, because as students they were often less bound by the patriarchal strictures of Asian communities. Also as students they tended to have more time and be more willing to take risks. These students could not simply be dubbed 'middle class', many of the Asian students in the late 1970s and early 1980s came from families that were relatively impoverished and while they may have come from lower middle class backgrounds, as teachers in village schools or low-paid clerical workers in the subcontinent, they were often from rural communities and their parents were declassed through migration so the class positions were complex and constantly changing. Sometimes when Amrit raised issues about gender, she would be accused of not being 'black' enough, or being middle class, yet so many of the men involved in making these accusations were middle class themselves. The AYMs also recruited students in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. Yet the high number of students in Asian women's organisations were criticised. 'What should have been focused on were people's roles within the struggle, what matters is what they do and their view of the world' (Amrit Wilson 2012).