Aug 16, 2023
South Asian Heritage Month 2023
In this blog, during South Asian Heritage Month, we’re highlighting the history of South Asian feminists in relation to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the UK.
We have been inspired by the 2019 article by Sundari Anithai and Sukhwant Dhaliwal which maps the trajectory of South Asian feminist struggles in Britain and analyses the key issues that have shaped them.
Using this great article, we’ve produced a short timeline on South Asian Feminist history in relation to UK VAWG from the early 70s to the late 1980s.
Anithai and Dhaliwal clarify in their article: “South Asian’ is the commonly utilised term for people who originate from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is both on account of commonalities in sociocultural contexts and a shared colonial and anti-colonial past, as well as the complex histories of migration that shape these diasporic communities, some of which predate decolonisation.” We’ll be using this definition too! (link)
As white feminism was growing, so too were criticisms of its approaches and lack of intersectionality in it. South Asian Feminist’s activism around VAWG and around politics emerged as part of Black feminist critiques of white feminism. It was also emerging in response to the way that anti-racist and class-based politics was male-dominated and neglected gender.
South Asian women’s experiences of disadvantage and discrimination in the public sphere echoed their experiences of violence and subordination at home. South Asian feminist organising in Britain grew out of recognition of these intersecting inequalities.
South Asian feminists argued that access to black and minority ethnic (BME) women’s spaces were invaluable to women who may be victims of violence in and outside their homes. During 1975 and 1976, a London based group of women activists, social workers and anti-racist campaigners began meeting to discuss concerns about South Asian women escaping domestic violence.
This group highlighted how survivors of domestic violence faced exclusion and multiple barriers to mainstream services. These barriers included racism and a lack of understanding of their specific needs and alongside the challenges around patriarchal structures within the South Asian community.
The problems observed and solutions these organisations posed were conflicting with aims of the British state, dominant voices and organisations within their own community, and white feminists who were reluctant to recognise difference and the impact of racism.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS) was founded in 1979 by African Caribbean and Asian women engaged with the emerging anti-racist movement.
They pushed for the right to women to organise autonomously as an empowering way for minority women engage in politics and to speak out on the violence within their homes.
They challenged the sexism of male-dominated spaces, influenced by the history of feminist campaigns in the Indian sub-continent. They also organised public demonstrations (led by South Asian women but welcomed majority ethnicities and men) for justice for South Asian women killed by families and husbands within their local area.
“The first specialist refuges for South Asian women in the UK, Asha Projects in South London and Saheli in Manchester, welcomed women and children in 1979 and 1980.” (Anithai and Dhaliwal)
The 1980s saw a network of specialist services for South Asian women grew in England, Wales and Scotland; addressing issues of domestic violence. Two examples are the Southall Black Sisters, and Asha Projects.
During this time, South Asian feminists made alliances with other black feminist organisations in the UK (e.g. Birmingham Black Sisters, OWAAD, Brixton Black women’s group and Women Against Fundamentalism).
South Asian feminist activism had a wider impact on feminist issues, an example of which was the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia who was convicted of murder for setting fire to her husband in 1989 due to the judge declaring the violence she suffered by her husband as ‘not serious’.
Southall Black Sisters worked to turn this around, and to incorporate the previously ignored experiences of domestically abused women. The Court of Appeal accepted this, and thanks so the efforts of the Southall Black Sisters, Kiranjit was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder and was released immediately. Read more about this case on page 6 of Anithai and Dhaliwal’s article.
This campaign led by Southall Black Sisters (supported by Justice for Women) eventually led to a reform of the law of murder in England and Wales in 2010.
South Asian feminist activism in Britain has challenged dominant gender norms within South Asian diasporas, and challenged the UK government to respond to violence against women, accounting for difference in race and culture.
Anithai and Dhaliwal state that “Early feminist activism challenged the construction of domestic violence as intimate partner violence, which omitted other forms of VAWG, such as forced marriage and family violence by in-laws…. Practitioners considered girls fleeing forced marriage as runaway children and routinely sent them back home to face further violence (Patel 1991; Siddiqui 2003) while academics talked about violence against South Asian girls as a symptom of a ‘culture clash’ (Brah 1996).”
South Asian women’s activists have worked to highlight specific experiences of BME women. For example, drawing attention to violence by in-laws, which can still be overlooked by services due to the a tendency towards only looking out for red flags signalling male-on-female violence.
We have come a long way, and there are now specialist services available to support Asian and BME women, although we know there is still more work to be done to improve access to specialist services for marginalised groups.
Beyond the Streets values a collaborative approach and work with other organisations across a variety of protected characteristics in order to get the best possible outcomes for women we work with. Thank you to all our current collaborative partners for their commitment to working with us.
We recognise that in order to support women from the Asian community and BME women effectively, we need to connect with organisations that represent specific communities. Our Door of Hope project has recently connected with Ashiana who work with refugees, and supply legal advice for women.
We have also engaged with Aanchal Women’s Aid as part of a training swap with their team, and found this to be a great opportunity to share learning and experience. Aanchal also made us aware of Pink Ladoo, which is a team that encourages conversations on gender equality in South Asian communities) https://www.pinkladoo.org
If you work with or for a South Asian organisation and would like to have a conversation about future collaboration, please get in touch with us at email@example.com
Available services and projects today for South Asian women to access support in the UK:
If you know of another organisation, please let us know so we are able to include them here.
Diaspora refers to a large group of people who share a cultural and regional origin but are living away from their traditional homeland. Diasporas come about through immigration and forced movements of people. Source: National Geographic