AN unassuming Victorian house in a residential street in Southall, west London, is home to a unique institution that has a towering reputation for radical feminism. Set up in 1979 against the backdrop of race riots, Southall Black Sisters has mobilised campaign after campaign in defence of black and Asian women who have fallen victim to violence and abuse.
More than a quarter of a century on, the institution has earned international and national recognition, is consulted by the British government on matters of racial sensitivity, and has won significant battles on behalf of abused women -- and it is still fighting.
The racial and religious tension whipped up by bomb attacks on the London transport system in July, which have been blamed on African and Asian fundamentalists, has made the job of the handful of staff who work at Southall Black Sisters harder than ever.
Hannana Siddiqui, joint coordinator, who has worked for the Sisters for 18 years, said the institution was created to tackle racism and sexual oppression. "We felt we had to fight on both fronts," she said. "Ideally, there would be a time when we don't need to exist, but it's not now."
When Southall Black Sisters began, Siddiqui said, Asians and Caribbeans came together to form a common political identity about being black. Their combined power has achieved many triumphs, but Siddiqui said pressures were again mounting on women as religious identity, across the faiths, becomes more pronounced and reaction takes the place of feminism.
At the same time, the government is introducing increasingly draconian immigration legislation as it seeks to tackle the extremism that brought about the September 11 attacks and later the London transport bombings.
"There is a rise of religious fundamentalism. There is more pressure on women to conform to traditional roles," Siddiqui said.
The Sisters' first case remains one of its most famous victories against the oppression that can result.
Kiranjit Ahluwalia, an Asian woman locked in an unhappy arranged marriage, set fire to her husband Deepak in May 1989 after suffering his brutality for 10 years. She was charged with murder and imprisoned for life, with a recommendation she serve 12 years.
Southall Black Sisters believed passionately a miscarriage of justice had occurred - and embarked on an intensive legal campaign, coupled with Herculean efforts to mobilise public opinion through meetings and demonstrations and by generating media coverage.
"Kiranjit became a household name. For us, it was also a high point of feminist activity in the 1990s," Southall Black Sisters says on its website. "The case received support from unexpected quarters within the community and did much to raise awareness of domestic violence and to understand the plight of women trapped in such situations."
At last, in September 1992, three years and three months after she had entered prison, Ahluwalia was released. She had won her appeal on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The Appeal Court judges also made a significant concession by accepting the notion of cumulative provocation and that the period of time between an act of provocation and the defendant's response was not necessarily a cooling down period but could be seen as a boiling over period.
This marked a change from the established assumption that only the heat of the moment could constitute mitigating circumstances. (Ahluwalia's story is being made into a film, 'Provoked', directed by Jagmohan Mundra and starring Indian actress Aishwarya Rai.)
Another of the Sisters' high-profile cases, but with a less successful outcome, was that of Zoora Shah. Shah came to Britain from Mirpur in rural Pakistan in the 1970s following an arranged marriage. Her husband subjected her to violence before abandoning her when she was pregnant with their third child.
Isolated and destitute, she found herself befriended by drug dealer Mohammed Azam. Azam threatened and sexually abused Shah, including forcing her to have sex in a cemetery where she had buried two children who died at birth. The final straw was when Shah feared Azam had sexual designs on her daughters. She administered arsenic bought in Pakistan. Shah was charged with a number of offences, including Azam's murder, found guilty and sentenced to 20 years.
Southall Black Sisters helped to prepare an appeal on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but it was unsuccessful, partly, the Sisters said, because the judges considered her story of surviving on her wits in an all-male criminal world in absolute poverty to be "incapable of belief". Shah's sentence was reduced to 12 years, but she remains in jail.
As well as campaigning for individuals, Southall Black Sisters seeks to bring about widespread change, such as on the issue of forced marriage.
The issue was brought to the attention of government and media by the case of Rukshana Naz, a 19-year-old woman who had been forced into marriage and was murdered in Derby, northeastern England, in 1998 after she became pregnant by her lover. Her brother strangled her while her mother held down her feet. Her mother said: "It was written in her kismet."
In the ensuing public debate, Southall Black Sisters was invited to join a government working group on forced marriage, but resigned in protest when the group insisted on offering mediation and reconciliation as options to women in a forced marriage.
"We felt that women usually come to organisations like ours as a last resort, having attempted reconciliation through the traditional community mechanisms of family elders and community leaders," the Sisters said. It remains concerned that statutory bodies are reluctant to intervene because they maintain forced marriage is cultural practice.
"We have been campaigning for a widespread acceptance of the view that it is racist not to intervene and that it is the human right of all women to expect and be afforded state protection against violence," Southall Black Sisters has said. The fight goes on.
Nira Yuval-Davis, professor of gender, sexuality and ethnic studies at the University of East London, has hailed the significance of Southall Black Sisters and sums up its ongoing struggle. It is not just about battling racial stereotyping or entrenched attitudes within the Black/Asian community, she said, but taking "a much more general ground-breaking role in advancing understanding concerning violence against women, criticising simplistic multi-culturalism and multi-faith policies and establishing what a genuine non-sexist, non-racist society should be like".
The day when there will no longer be a need for such an organisation seems as far away as when it was founded 26 years ago. (NewsNetwork/WFS)