Sticking their necks out in Southall: They fight for female victims of injustice, but nobody thanks them much - until yesterday. Melanie McFadyean reports

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ALONG a side street in the west London suburb of Southall, an unprepossessing pebble-dashed, shop- fronted semi bears the sign 'Southall Black Sisters', subtitled, 'Women Only, Advice Campaigning Resource Centre'.

Inside the cramped offices, the walls are covered in colourful posters, leaflets and photographs. One old poster bearing the slogan 'No More Racist Murders' flanks snapshots of a day trip to the seaside - Asian women in saris and cardigans, younger girls in shorts, children in swimsuits. There are reminders of many campaigns - for Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Salman Rushdie, for Asian women's strikes from Grunwick's photo processing factory in the mid-Seventies to the strike at a metal-finishing factory in Birmingham, where a group of 19 Asian women have been out since June.

Pragna Patel and Hannana Siddiqui, two of the three full-time workers at Southall Black Sisters (SBS), were at the centre on the day I visited; the third, Meena Patel, was out. They sat at their overloaded desks during their lunch break, eating sandwiches, continuing to work. There was no time for office

gossip.

Their organisation may have a right- on, feisty sound, but Pragna and Hannana are not battle-hardened harridans. They are mild of manner but firm. They speak at length about their work, but are markedly reluctant to talk about themselves. They see their own histories as irrelevant.

Yesterday, however, these self-effacing women became the centre of attention when SBS won the Martin Ennals Civil Liberties Award for their work on human rights over the past 10 years. 'Throughout their existence,' announced Liberty, the human rights group that makes the annual award, 'Southall Black Sisters have shown courage and persistence in their battles to improve women's rights, often against a background of vilification and abuse from their own community.'

The history of campaigns to highlight the problem of cruelty to women and domestic violence within Asian families is marked by cases that haunt Asian society in Britain: Mrs Dhillon and her three daughters, who died in 1980 in a blaze started by her husband; Krishna Sharma, a battered wife who hung herself in 1984; Balwant Kaur, murdered by her husband after escaping to a refuge in 1985; Gurdip Kaur, murdered by her brother-in-law in 1986. Their most recent and best known campaign was for Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who was jailed for killing her husband after years of violence and was eventually freed on appeal in September.

Pragna, a slight, attractive woman of 31, has worked at SBS since leaving university 10 years ago with a degree in sociology and English literature. She refers briefly to a childhood impression. 'From as early as I can remember, I knew I didn't want to end up like the women I saw around me, living a very basic existence, having children, doing the housework. Their faces were very sad, they seemed ghostly to me.'

Hannana Siddiqui will impart only the barest personal details. Yes, she has had to cope with family pressure to marry, obey and submit. Eventually her resistance paid off. She went to university and joined SBS five years ago after working with other community groups. But in Against the Grain, a book brought out by SBS in 1989, Hannana wrote with passion about a women's picket line she joined against a Muslim fundamentalist march in London in 1989. 'Their cries of whores and prostitutes reminded me of the insults I had to bear when I went out with my friends and exposed my legs; when I refused to marry and had boyfriends; when I wore make-up and cut my hair. Once I said I wanted to be an actress - my father slapped me. I do not want men and mullahs to build my future. Salman Rushdie's right to doubt and dissent is also my right.'

Hannana and Pragna work 12-hour days, seven-day weeks for pounds 15,000 a year. Each worker has about 30 cases at any time and takes on at least five new ones a week. Last year alone SBS handled 530 new cases and 674 inquiries from all over the country for information and advice. A temporary worker, Sadhna Issar, is being funded for a year by Children in Need and volunteers also help out with administration. Their budget for this year is pounds 78,000.

'We have managed to retain funding from the borough of Ealing,' says Pragna. 'How have we managed?' she smiles wryly. 'Because we do a lot of work social services should be doing and it's cheaper and easier for them to send Asian women clients to us rather than using six social workers.'

The predominance of Asian people in Southall suggests to the stranger that here is a 'community', an exclusive entity closed in on itself to protect its culture and morality. This is a mirage - Southall is a very mixed area. There

are Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. There are people who have eschewed religion and embrace none. There are radicals and progressives, traditionalists and conservatives.

Pragna ushers in a client. She has that sad, ghostly look, huddled in her overcoat, her sari brushing against the stairs. They speak in Hindi. The woman has left her violent husband and in revenge he has reported her to the Home Office, recommending that she be deported.

Such stories explode the myth of the homogeneous Asian community. Much of SBS's work has served this purpose, inviting abuse and criticism across the political and religious spectrum. The group's alliance with white feminists has been criticised.

At times it has seemed that SBS could please no one. Pragna recalls, 'In 1987, the Indian Workers' Association, the most well established Asian welfare organisation, tried to shut us down, saying we were working against the fabric of our culture. They called us home wreckers and lesbians. We were campaigning for women's safety after an attack against a female employee at the Dominion Community Centre in Southall.' But their persistence has paid off. The Labour MP for Ealing Southall, Piara Singh Khabra, a Sikh, who was president of the IWA at the time, has since accepted SBS, praising them for their work with Kiranjit Ahluwalia and their stand against fundamentalism. He has received threats from Sikh fundamentalists himself.

Pragna digs a file out from under a huge pile. Yesterday's new case: a woman has gone to the police after 20 years of brutality from her alcoholic husband. He had smashed a glass table, sending shards of glass flying into her neck. The police said there was nothing they could do. SBS have complained to the police and taken the woman on to their books.

Hannana is working on an immigration case, something SBS have to do increasingly frequently. 'The client's husband was arrested and tortured in Punjab by the police, suspected of having links with Sikh separatist terrorists. The Sikh separatists were threatening to kill him. If he goes back he fears he will be killed by either the police or the separatists. The British government has refused asylum on the grounds that they don't think he is endangered and don't consider him a political refugee.'

The group stuck its neck out yet again when it came out in support of Salman Rushdie. 'The fundamentalists see us as alien, corrupted, Westernised, anti-Asian,' says Hannana. 'They say we shouldn't be taken seriously.' Taken seriously or not, in alliance with other like-minded people in Southall, they have succeeded in preventing local schools from opting out, averting the danger of those schools being run on religious sectarian lines.

Pragna Patel is disturbed by the current sectarian rioting in India, which has claimed hundreds of lives. 'As a group we come from many religious backgrounds. We are horrified by the bigotry and violence of Hindu fundamentalist zealots. Hindu organisations here in the UK are partly responsible because they have financed the right- wing Hindu militants and given them their blessing. The impact here was immediate - a Hindu temple was burnt down in Derbyshire within hours of the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, and several more temples have been attacked elsewhere. And there is one thing all fundamentalist groups hold close to their hearts - a determination to control women's bodies and minds.'

When Helena Kennedy QC cast her vote for SBS to win the Martin Ennals Award, she had their courage in mind. 'The stand they have taken in support of Salman Rushdie and against fundamentalism is incredibly brave. They are very strong on many issues of justice, for women's rights, against domestic violence. We have seen an extraordinary erosion of civil liberties in the Thatcher years. Southall Black Sisters have not only put up resistance but have confronted issues about which other organisations have been much more tentative. They are an inspiration to all of us.'

(Photograph omitted)

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