A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.