The ‘In Visibility’ interview series celebrates the inspiring feminists who fight for gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.
Pragna Patel is a founding member and director of the Southall Black Sisters advocacy and campaigning centre. She was also a founding member of Women Against Fundamentalism, which formed in the aftermath of the Rushdie Affair in 1989, to address the rise of religious fundamentalism in all religions and its specific control of women. Pragna has over 30 years of experience in advocacy, policy and campaigning work with some of the most marginalised women in British society.
She has written extensively on race, gender and religion. Her publications include: ‘Faith in the State? Asian Women’s Struggles for Human Rights in the UK’. Feminist Legal Studies, Spring issue, and ‘Multifaithism and the Gender Question: Implications of Government Policy on the Struggle for Equality and Rights for Minority Women in the UK’ in ‘Moving in the Shadows’ eds. Yasmin Rahman, Liz Kelly and Hannana Siddiqui (Ashgate Publishers), 2013.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Is there one reading, film, artwork you recommend to others interested in supporting action to achieve gender equality?
I suppose it would have to be ‘Refusing Holy Orders’, by Gita Saghal and Nira Yuval-Davis. The reason I mention it is because, I think, one of the most immediate and most urgent challenges we face as feminists is responding to the question of resurgent fundamentalism in all religions.
Refusing Holy Orders is one of the first books that looked at the phenomenon and its rise in all major religions and actually contextualised it in the context of British multiculturalism and racism. I think one of the most urgent asks that we have before us is the need to defend secular spaces – both as a way of guaranteeing freedom to religion, as well as freedom from religion. And this book highlights the ways in which fundamentalism as a political phenomenon has arisen.
What are the most important legal cases concerning violence against women?
Opuz v. Turkey, because it signals yet a further development in international human rights law on government duties to investigate with due diligence, in relation to violence against women. So, obviously we need to continue to build on that.
Another one, I believe, is Jessica Lenahan Gonzales v. USA because, again, it talks about state failures in relation to violence against women. In both cases, they highlight very much the international failure of institutions to investigate and to protect women. And that’s an ongoing failure – a systemic failure.
Another case that I’d like to believe will gain in significance is that of Seeta Kaur which has become an SBS campaign: Justice for Seeta Kaur. This is important because it highlights why treaties like the Istanbul Convention need to be ratified by the UK. This country has signed this Convention but not yet ratified it. As I understand it, one of the stumbling blocks has been the issue of extraterritoriality – this case in particular highlights how international law on violence against women needs to build in questions of extraterritoriality.
Were there any role models, acts of advocacy or social movements that influenced your journey?
There have been a number of role models, I couldn’t pinpoint any one in particular.
In the 70s, the first generation of South Asian political activists in the UK who began to challenge racism, unlike the previous generations that tolerated racial violence and racism. This was a younger generation, they were second generation Asians who were saying: “we are here because you were there” – making direct links between experiences of colonialism and the racism that black and other minorities were facing.
There have also been a number of black activists from the United States, but Angela Davis in particular was a role model because she talked about intersectionality in the 70s. She theorises the need to tackle race, class and gender at the same time. That very much influenced my thinking and, subsequently, Southall Black Sisters’ politics and advocacy. Which, is very much based on the idea that those hierarchies and struggles – struggles against racism, against sexism, against classism – are one and the same. You can’t achieve victory in one without the others.
Other role models, during that same time period, came from the law centre movement – which I thought was a fantastic movement and very much the unsung heroes of a really important social movement for access to justice. Those law centres have since been decimated or are under severe threat of closure, and so we now realise just how vital they were in making sure that the law actually met the basic needs of ordinary people.
Is there a specific moment in your career that is most memorable?
Oh, I have several. I can’t pinpoint one particular moment that is most memorable. I suppose if I had to pick a few highlights, one would be of course be the Kiranjit Ahluwalia case. In the early 90s, for the first time in the UK, we (Southall Black Sisters) worked with many other feminists to raise the question of the criminal law response to battered women who kill. The case highlighted laws on homicide, and the ways in which the criminal laws themselves (such as the law on provocation, the law on self-defence) were structured around very male norms of behaviour – which meant men who killed in domestic settings were much more likely to avail themselves of the criminal defences of provocation or self-defence. Unlike abused women, who could not avail themselves of these defences because they found that their experiences of killing batterers (usually when they were asleep or otherwise incapacitated) was always construed as a premeditated.
Other important moments have to include the reforms Southall Black Sisters have achieved on immigration laws (see, the Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds Campaign). Particularly where immigration law overlaps with gender-based violence, making it difficult for women with insecure status to leave an abusive relationship without fear of destitution or deportation. That was a 20 year campaign to achieve that change – it finally led to the introduction of the Domestic Violence Rule and Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession. This made it easy for some migrant women to leave a violent relationship without fear of deportation, to apply for indefinite leave to remain based on their experience of domestic violence and to obtain emergency benefits and housing pending their application to remain in the UK. It was a particularly significant victory because we were always working against the grain in relation to the pervasive anti-immigration culture on that one.
What advice do you have for advocates and/or civil society organisations currently working to end gender-based discrimination? Do you think there are any underused opportunities that can be used to impact change on the ground?
My main advice to advocates and civil society organisations is to tie their advocacy to campaigning. The best model, I think of (tried and tested at Southall Black Sisters), has to be one that combines front-line services with campaigning that uses those front-line experiences. I think both are necessary to achieve gender equality on the ground and achieve lasting impact. The reason I say that, is that the very users of our services become the agents of change themselves. It’s not just about working with women in a welfare-ist sort of way, but also working politically with those women to achieve the normative shift that we need around violence against women – and to create a kind of critical mass and movement for change that is necessary.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges to achieving gender equality today?
There are a number of issues. First, as I have mentioned, we have the retreat of the welfare state, including the shrinking of legal aid. How can you achieve gender equality when you cannot access the very tools and services that are needed to deliver gender equality?
The other thing, I think, is the need to address the rise of the reactionary forces of racism and fascism. In fact, some would say that actual fascist movements are on the rise. If we look at what’s happening around Europe, the most popular political groupings are fascist or alt-right groups. They are achieving power, electorally they’re achieving power, which has very severe consequences for gender equality issues – particularly if you happen to be women within minorities, or minorities within minorities.
Challenging fascism is a feminist issue. But fascism also comes in many colours. It is not only white, far right parties who are being incorporated into mainstream politics or those who are operating on the fringes (but still powerful). We’re also talking about the rise of religious fundamentalists movements that are also authoritarian, totalitarian, that also have very fascist tendencies if not slide into fascism.
Are there any advocates or civil society organisations you believe are doing exceptional work to tackle violence against women?
I want to pay tribute to all the women’s organisations who work around domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, harassment and trafficking, as well as socially committed lawyers, who are doing fantastic work on tackling violence against women.
There are groups like the Women Asylum Seekers Together, based in Manchester, which was started by an inspiring asylum-seeker – Farhat Khan – who fled Pakistan, who fled domestic violence, who fled discriminatory Sharia laws and who had such difficulties applying and getting the government here to accept gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum. Eventually succeeding, she decided to set up her organisation because of her own experiences of isolation and lack of support for asylum seekers – particularly women asylum seekers. She is a tremendously brave woman doing fantastic work supporting other women asylum seekers so that they’re not struggling in isolation and raising issues about the inhumanity and the cruelty of the asylum system in the UK.
I also want to pay tribute to Sisters Uncut, who take direct action that has involved occupying places that highlight corporations who fail to pay tax – showing how there is a direct link between that kind of abuse at the multinational/corporate level and the severe lack of services on violence against women. I think more and more, in this social and economic climate, as feminists, we are going to have to take direct political action as a strategy. So, Sisters Uncut, for me, is indicative of a resurgent, young, feminist movement that is leading the way.
There are, of course, individual lawyers who are working away on violence against women issues. There’s a fantastic legal organisation called the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit doing wonderful legal work raising issues of exploitation for women who have been trafficked either for sex purposes or domestic labour.
How would the UK’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention impact gender equality?
The first thing I would say about the Istanbul Convention, is that it would add to our human rights armoury of weapons – in terms of another convention that we can invoke to try and hold the government legally, morally and politically to account. So, it’s a really important convention.
It contains some important provisions including recognition of the need to access legal aid, welfare services, refuges and shelters. At a time where the welfare state is diminishing and where legal aid is being drastically cut, it is really important that we have a convention that signifies the importance of access to legal aid as kind a pre-requisite for asserting substantive rights and to hold governments to account.
There are also other also interesting provisions that point to the need to avoid mandatory alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in contexts where violence against women survivors and abuse victims are involved (Article 48). There is an article about the need to avoid using religious laws and values that prevent women from minority background from leaving violent relationships (Article 42). I think these are really, really important recognitions. Religious based systems of arbitration can be discriminatory against women and, therefore, must be treated with caution. These recognitions within the Istanbul Convention mean that we can invoke them wherever state institutions are trying to accommodate (which they are at the moment) minority religious codes within the legal system that are detrimental to gender equality in minority communities.
Want more? Watch Pragna’s TEDx Talk: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Or, join Southall Black Sisters’ mailing list for the latest updates on their work.