speaking at the DON’T turn back time on women’s equality march

I spoke at the rally following the ‘DON’T turn back time on women’s equality’ march organised by the Fawcett Society on 19th November 2011. This is what I said:

We’ve heard today about the disproportionate and negative impact of the cuts on women. As the last speaker, I want to end by zooming in on the impact of the cuts on black women – and I use black in a political sense here – who make up some of the most marginalised and vulnerable women in our society.

Black women are already living in poverty and experience less access to rights. Black women are more likely to be poor and experience multiple forms of inequality and discrimination – 40% of black women live in poverty and 52.8% of black women are unemployed. Over two-thirds of England’s black population lives in the 88 most deprived local authority areas. The issues affecting black women are not mainstreamed into policy and practice – the voices of black communities to which governments listen are usually men who largely do not speak (or care) about women’s rights and our feminist movement needs to do better at reflecting the needs and realities of all women.

We are experiencing some of the most inhumane and brutal spending cuts to services historically set up through struggle to address poverty and inequality. We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on the welfare state that, amongst many other things, will take away the realisation of our right to live free from violence and access legal aid, protection and justice. We are experiencing a fundamental change in the nature of our country. Specialist refuges and other black services are disappearing. They are blaming us, the people who dare to dream of a more equal, a more just, society. It is the fault of multiculturalism, they say, of socialism, of feminism, of workers, unions, immigrants and young people who were not instilled with respect. We here know this is not true.

We know the cuts are affecting the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most. Research published at the beginning of the month found more than 2,000 charities are being forced to close services and make staff redundant. We know that women will be disproportionately affected by the cuts – 1 in 5 women’s groups have already closed and many more face an uncertain future with 60% of refuges and 72% of outreach services having no funding in place come next April. 95% of women’s groups face funding cuts in the next year. Black people, communities and services will also be disproportionately affected. Any guesses what this all means for black women? Black women and black women’s services face a double hit. Vital services are closing and are being bit; these are the very services that save lives – this will have a disproportionate effect on black women’s services who struggle as it is to survive in an environment where they have historically had to fight for funding harder and received less funding that generic services.

We know the cuts will affect the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most.  I want talk specifically about the impact that they will have on young black women. It’s difficult enough when you’re struggling against poverty, racism and sexism; sexism in the world at large, but also in your own family and community; against so-called ‘tradition,’ like forced marriage, the idea of ‘honour’ and practices such as female genital mutilation.  How much more difficult will it be for us when they rip away some of the only support structures that we have and raise even more barriers in their place?  The abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the introduction of ever increasing tuition fees… How can we face some of the most vulnerable women and say that the state cannot help?  How can we call ourselves a democratic society if vulnerable people are denied the opportunity to stand in the same dream as the powerful and privileged?

I want to stress the vital importance of us all taking action. These services; refuges, shelters, immigration and asylum advice centres are our bricks and mortar. They are the very foundation of the feminist movement; the foundation of any hope for equality between women and men. Let us not forget: we’re starting from a very low base here. Even before the cuts were first suggested, we were fighting for more; for a single rape crisis centre in London; for a proper safety net in place to provide advice and services to asylum seekers in Wales; against the shrinking of feminist, anti-racist, secular spaces. Let’s not be under any illusions here. What we had five years ago wasn’t enough; it was barely enough to scratch the surface of what was really needed; and that is going away.

Even what we have, what we had, has taken decades to build. It has been built on and by the needs, fears, sweat and dreams of many thousands of unsung heroes of our movement. There is nothing in place to replace them. The ‘big society’ will not come to the rescue of women experiencing violent abuse, of women fleeing very real threats of persecution trying to find asylum in this country, of women whose identities of race, class and gender intersect and combine in an interlocking web of discrimination and oppression from which there is little way out.


Do we, as a movement, have the energy and the time to build it all back up again? The landscape of the country has changed radically since the birth of the rape crisis and refuge movements. I’m not sure we can do it all again. And why should we have to? This is something that we (or our mothers, aunts, grandmothers) fought for. It should be something that we are willing to protect. Once our services are gone, that is it. They are not coming back. What about the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, the most at risk in our society?  What happens to them? As a movement, we have to care about these women. How can we face some of the most vulnerable women and say that the state cannot help?  As a movement, do we care enough about them to fight; to fight for our services, to fight to retain the bare minimum required that we do have?

David Cameron talks about the big society. We say that this is code for sending us back to the Victorian era.  I want to stay in the 21st century, and I think all of you here do too.  History can frighten us, or history can beckon us.  We owe it to future generations not to be afraid and shackled by history, but to create it.  We are at a historic moment right now. The backlash against feminist progress has been coming for years; it is now upon us. The wave is right over our heads and is about to break. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take action.  The struggle for feminism is the struggle for our human rights. Everything that we enjoy today, that we take for granted, was created by struggle, by people standing up and seeking a better way forward. It is now our turn to do the same and defend what is right.  Our Tradition: Struggle Not Submission.

migration, race, class, gender and the state

I chaired and spoke on this panel put together by Southall Black Sisters (I am on the SBS management committee) on ‘Cohesion, Migration and Religion’ at FEM 11, organised by UK Feminista. Here are my notes written up into a post.

The intersection between migration,  women’s rights and what this means in practice for women has always been an important arena for struggle – for black women and for SBS, which throughout its existence has campaigned for family reunification, in anti-deportation campaign as well as for the meaningful right for women to exit the family.

Immigration law and policy is the cutting edge of black communities’ experience of state racism, by its very nature racist and classist, created to prevent certain types of foreigners entering the country. The government pretends that immigration laws affect all foreigners fairly but we know they do not. Conservative and Labour governments have justified racist and draconian immigration laws as the basis for good race relations, reduced the money, housing and services available to immigrants and asylum seekers (even though immigrants actually pay more tax) and whipped up hysteria by talking of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers.

The immigrant experience has always been made problematic by the state. “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” Enoch Powell, Shadow Defence secretary at the time, quoted a constituent as saying in 1968. ‘Enoch Powell was right’ say the far right today: this is the ‘dystopian’ future of which he imagined – a Britain overrun by immigrants.

Extreme as this rhetoric is, it’s symptomatic of a continuous and ever-present strand running through British politics. Immigration policy is about keeping the wrong people out and letting the right people in; about managing the movements of black people and seeing immigrants as the problem. Debates around capping immigration have raged for decades. Papers released a couple of years ago showed Margaret Thatcher complaining that too many Asian immigrants were being allowed into Britain but that she had less objection to (white) people from Rhodesia, Poland and Hungary since ‘they could more easily be assimilated into British society.’ Could this be because of the colour of their skin by any chance?

The BNP may not have won a parliamentary seat in the 2010 election but their popularity in the years before led to the immigration debate moving sharply rightwards in the first decade of the twenty first century. More recently, David Cameron spoke at Munich, on the same day the EDL were marching, lambasting ‘segregated communities’ living ‘apart from the mainstream’ that behave in ways that run counter to ‘our values.’  [For a post I wrote at the time, see here.] The debate has always displayed distinct inequality, not only in policy but in its very discourse. All race relations policy has been predicated around the management of black communities rather than around human rights, safety and the prevention of violence. Migrants have never had equal footing with the state.

Black women, already problematised through the colour of our skin, have been further ignored and pathologised as women. Policies around multiculturalism and cohesion allow self appointed so-called leaders to speak on the behalf of their communities, including where it comes to women’s rights.

The practice of ‘virginity testing‘ in the 1970s has been well documented. Immigration rules at the time did not require women arriving in the UK to have married their fiancés in order to have visas if the wedding was due to take place within 3 months of arrival. Internal Home Officer papers show the practice of conducting medical examinations to see whether a woman entering the UK under this bracket was a ‘bona fide virgin or fiancée.’ At least 80 ‘virginity tests’ or, to give them their proper name, state sanctioned sexual assaults took place, based on racist and sexist stereotypes that south Asian women are submissive, meek and always virgins before marriage and on the biologically false notion that all women have hymens before having sex. The UK state has still not apologised for this.

So, this was in the 70s, right? Maybe it’s gotten better and we all now live in a paradise of gender migration equality? I’m afraid not. The government is now proposing to introduce reforms to family-related migration to ‘bring immigration back to sustainable levels and to bring a sense of fairness back to our system.’ Although they talk about fairness, the purpose of these proposed reforms is really to reduce migration. The government is planning to put in place an additional series of requirements that people will have to meet in order to join their spouses in the UK. These are likely to lead to highly subjective determinations by immigration officers that rely on stereotypical and discriminatory ideas of what is a genuine marriage. What worries us even more is that the proposals are more or less copied and pasted from those of the anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch which campaigns against the ‘rise’ of immigrant populations and advocates the need to stop family migration altogether, conflating forced, arranged and sham marriages as it does so.

This goes to another trend that we find deeply disturbing: the use of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. The government banned non-EU spouses under 21 from entering the UK in the name of preventing forced marriage. We argued that this policy was disproportionate and discriminatory and that it would, rather than addressing forced marriage, merely drive it underground.  There is no evidence to show that, in the vast majority of cases, forced marriage and gaining entry to the UK are linked and there are more effective ways to address this issue. Luckily, the Supreme Court, in the Quila and Bibi case, agreed that this policy was an unjustifiable, unfair and disproportionate response to the problem of forced marriage. Although forced marriage is a very real problem, it should not be used in a cynical way to justify the government’s immigration agenda.

Another example: the impact on vulnerable women with insecure immigration status. SBS started a legal challenge recently, this time against the Ministry of Justice about the government’s decision to remove the provision of legal aid from non-detention immigration, especially for women subject to domestic or gender related violence. This put the onus on abused migrant women, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, to navigate their way around the law and legal processes, in contravention of race, gender and disability discrimination law and the Human Rights Act. We won before we even went to court, thanks to our legal challenge and the lobbying that we and other organisations, such as Rights of Women, did. The government announced they would table an amendment to cover domestic violence cases. It isn’t enough though. SBS is determined to ensure this covers all vulnerable women, including trafficked women and migrant domestic workers.

A last example: that of women claiming asylum. The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are men. Refugees are imagined by international and national law as male political activists persecuted for their protests against the state. Not only do women’s political activities take different forms but the nature of the persecution faced differs and includes that based on their gender. The law marginalises and depoliticises the persecution women face at home and does not go far enough to reflect the reality of women’s experiences. This is just as much the case when looking at the experiences of women seeking asylum due to persecution on the basis of sexuality. Sexuality is viewed through a very Western lens and assumptions are made that, if you do not fit the modes of homosexuality of some in the cities of the UK, then you are lying. I worked on an anti-deportation campaign recently where the woman in question was told that officials did not believe that she was fleeing persecution on the basis of her sexuality because she didn’t look like a lesbian.

The key point is this: you can’t talk about immigration without talking about race, gender and class. A quote from one of the women who uses the services provided by SBS: ‘I don’t feel like I belong in this country. I feel that the minute that I had my first experience of racism at the age of 18 and now I am 53 – and race is always an issue and yet I am intelligent, educated and can speak English. This proves that the problem is major. So someone who speaks English and is not educated – what the hell must they be going through?

We need to drastically reconfigure our thinking; moving immigration from its inherent racism and sexism and towards reflection of human rights, including those of women. Immigration policy has always been filtered through the male gaze – made mostly by men looking mostly at men. Black women have never been at its heart, or if we are, it’s mostly in ways that use the language of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. All of this has massive implications on the lives of black women, which is only set to intensify in the light of the cuts to services and legal aid that are currently ongoing. Over the years, we have made some gains – far from what is required – but even they are going to disappear.