The WI has hardly any black or Asian members. Its leaders say that's because in the ethnic minority communities 'their husbands won't let them out'. Would any other club get away with this? Julia Bard reports
In a community centre in north Cambridge, early arrivals are setting out the furniture for their Women's Institute meeting: the usual rows of chairs, and a table at the front complete with pink and white embroidered tablecloth, minute book and handbell. But this is not your average WI meeting. At the table sits the group's president, Shashi Lattan, resplendent in her Indian shift sparkling with tiny mirrors. Next to her sits the minutes secretary, Neelam Bhardwaja, in a red, purple and gold sari. Even those women who are wearing European clothes defy the Archers model of a WI member. Meena Bagga, in the kitchen, wears a bright red Benetton tracksuit. There is neither a tweed skirt nor a twinset in sight.

Buchan Street WI - or rather Mahila Mandal, as its members prefer to call it, in Hindi - is an institute with a difference. Two thirds of its 40 members are Asian. Originally an independent Asian women's group set up by a few friends, its members asked to join the WI three years ago because they wanted to be part of a national women's organisation. Shashi Lattan, a founder member, says: "I wouldn't have joined the Wl on my own because I thought I'd feel excluded. But when we approached the Cambridgeshire federation we had a positive response. Now we have Gujerati members, Bengali, Punjabi, English, Scottish, Welsh, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. We have housewives, doctors, scientists and shopkeepers."

Despite an accelerating fall in membership nationwide, from nearly 380,000 in 1982 to 278,000 in 1994, and a corresponding loss of income from subscriptions, the organisation nationally has made little or no effort to attract more Asian, black or Jewish WI members. The National Federation of Women's Institutes, the central organising body, holds no records of its 275,000 members and has never attempted to collect information about their ages, ethnicity, class composition or interests. But you only have to glance at any WI gathering to see that the great majority of members are white.

Cambridgeshire federation, the county branch that covers Buchan Street, is exceptional in having supported the group until its WI was firmly established. A similar initiative in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, was frozen out. Binder Sheina, who had set up an Asian women's group in the town, approached the WI but then waited three months for the county officers to find a date when they could send someone to talk to her group. "When I first phoned, I sensed the hostility and I could feel my English going downhill," she says. "They didn't even send the subscription information we asked for." Binder Sheina knew some of the Asian women from Buchan Street, and they had emphasised the advantages of joining the WI: "Shashi Lattan, their president, came all the way from Cambridge; she encouraged us so we kept the gates open. But now the women have decided that they don't want to be part of the WI because the WI didn't return our calls and didn't listen to what we said. I think it's just ignorance, but I can't spend all my time educating them and I don't have the energy to keep fighting."

June Smith, treasurer of Hertfordshire county federation, admits she was initially worried that the group would be solely for Asians, since under WI rules the organisation must be open to all women. But she was soon convinced that their request should be followed up. "There's no reason why this group couldn't be a sister institute to the existing Letchworth WI," she says. "It's an exciting prospect; we can all learn from each other." Recently she expressed her views at a regional meeting where there were representatives from several county federations, but, she says, "I was quite a lone voice." The Letchworth Asian women gave up before she had time to convince her fellow officers.

Isn't the WI interested in attracting ethnic minority members? The national chairwoman, Elizabeth Southey, was "unavailable for comment" over several weeks when I was researching an article on this subject for the WI's own magazine, Home and Country, and had "failed to replace the handset" for three hours at the time when I had arranged through her own press officer to speak to her for the Independent.

"There is no discrimination in the Wl," insists the general secretary, Rhiannon Bevan, "because the organisation is open to all women. It offers friendship and tolerance, and in many ways it's been quite radical. We did have an ethnic woman on one of our promotion leaflets about four or five years ago, but when we have tried to get ethnic women to join there has often been a problem with their culture and traditions. ... Their husbands wouldn't let them out."

Various versions of "their husbands won't let them out" were offered as an explanation for the low representation of ethnic minorities by WI members in Wiltshire, Middlesex, Gloucestershire, Suffolk and even Cambridgeshire - and this, from an organisation which was established in 1915 precisely to reach rural women isolated in their homes. Buchan Street Mahila Mandal, with its many active and enthusiastic Asian members, would seem to show that 'traditional cultures' are not a hindrance.

Rather than make specific changes such as introducing English as a second language into its education programme, or simply approaching isolated rural ethnic minority women, the WI nationally prefers to stick to its policy of being nonsectarian.

Rosemary Davies of Gloucestershire WI wrote in response to my request to contact ethnic minority WI members: "The committee fully agrees with the idea of featuring any woman who has achieved success in her chosen field or has an interesting story to tell. We feel very strongly, however, that black and ethnic minority women should not be singled out for any other reason. We would be very reluctant, therefore, to ask or to approach any of our ethnic minority members to take part in any such feature."

With pounds 21,000 of last year's pounds 95,734 deficit attributed to "a greater than expected decline in paying members", the WI is facing a crisis. The organisation's promotional fortnight, starting next Monday consists mainly of roadshows, craft demonstrations, concerts and car stickers. But concerts and car stickers are unlikely to reverse the decline of an organisation that seems to disregard a growing sector of rural women who need support and have much to offer.

Any will to change WI policy seems to be limited largely to grassroots members. Struck by the sea of white faces filling the NEC in Birmingham at last year's national general meeting, Cynthia Howell, a WI member from Nottinghamshire, wrote a letter to Home and Country: "When I travel around the rural Midlands, it is evident that there are a great many black and Asian women bringing up families and trying to improve their quality of life. I hope we make it sufficiently clear to these potential WI members that they would be welcome and that their contribution would be valued."

Muriel Rutherford, a member from Buckinghamshire and headteacher of a school where all the pupils are Asian, believes the problems of attracting Asian women can be overcome with a little effort. "Many are committed to long hours of piecework at home and speak little English. Our best chance of success would be to start in a more bilingual, middle-class area and then the idea would spread." She adds: "We have so much to share, if people could only think of the richness we've gained from being a multicultural country."

The writer is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to the WI's magazine, 'Home and Country'.