Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist, writer, and activist. She has been a longstanding member of Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a group that has campaigned for and supported black women escaping violence. She is chair of The Nihal Armstrong Trust, which provides grants to children with cerebral palsy, for securing essential equipment and need-based services. Her poems and short stories have been published in several anthologies. Her books include: From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters, a collection of essays; Provoked, the story of a battered woman who killed her violent husband (Gupta also co-wrote the screenplay of the feature film based on the book); and Enslaved. Her play – Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong – ran in London, Edinburgh, New York, and four cities in India between 2012-14, and was nominated for a number of awards. It was republished in November 2019. Her articles have been published in The Guardian, New Humanist, New Internationalist, and Open Democracy, among other magazines, journals and websites. She and Beatrix Campbell are currently collaborating on a book, ‘Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?‘ She visited Rojava, Northern Syria, in March 2016 as part of research for the book. Her epic poem Rubáiyát of Rojava was performed at the Prima Donna Festival 2019. She has edited and contributed to Turning the Page (2019), an anthology of writings by the Southall Black Sisters support group.
You have been working long with Southall Black Sisters, which also represents Asian women in the United Kingdom. It has now turned 40. It has given voice to Asian women in an alien and overwhelming world. What kind of change do you find in the Asian women who have been living in the UK, both, those who have been living in UK for years, and others who have migrated?
I think the biggest change that I have noted in the 30 years that I have been with SBS is that some of the stigma attached to domestic violence has reduced, although by no means eliminated. The majority of women we support are those who are newly arrived from the sub-continent. Not only do they have language issues, but they are also isolated, often deliberately by their in-laws, they do not know their rights, are living in a racist society, and are on a spousal visa which means that their right to remain in this country is dependent on their British husband. Their passports are sometimes kept by the in-laws, so, they are virtual prisoners. After five years of marriage, women can apply for Indefinite Leave to remain, at which point they can work or access benefits. The qualifying period used to be one year, then two years and now five. Any of these periods are far too long if you are facing violence.
From the 1990s onwards, SBS recognised the trap that migrant women found themselves in — domestic violence or deportation. We campaigned to change the rules. As a result of our persistence, concessions were granted to women who could provide evidence of the violence they faced. They no longer faced deportation but then they were still not eligible for benefits thus creating a new trap: domestic violence or destitution.
Many Yazidi women migrated to Germany after escaping ISIS although hundreds still languish in the camps in Iraq and Syria. It was the mobilisation by the Kurdish community that led to the nomination of Nadia Murad for the Nobel Prize for Peace which she won in 2018 along with Denis Mukwege for her campaign around the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
We campaigned again and succeeded in getting them access to refuges and benefits but each success was overshadowed by the extension of the probationary period in which they had to remain married before acquiring rights in their own name.
Women cannot or do not want to return to the subcontinent because of the shame attached to a breakdown of marriage and the prospect that all the blame will be laid at the woman’s door. Women who have been brought up in this country are less likely to come to us, although we do see a few, because they know their way around the system.
While we may be the longest surviving black and Asian women’s organisation, there are others and we would not like to claim the mantle of ‘representing’ Asian women here.
What are the reasons for gender-based violence in the South Asian community? Are the reasons different from the ones that you find within the white community?
The reasons for gender-based violence in the South Asian community are no different from those in the white community: patriarchy, a system that is maintained by violence or the threat of violence, control women’s freedoms. But the excuses are different. In our communities, women are the receptacles of family ‘honour’, a commodity so fragile that the wrong shade of lipstick might destroy it. An entire family might be involved in the violence – the in-laws, as well as the husband, or the woman’s ‘birth family’; whereas, in white communities, the ‘excuse’ for killing or violence against women might be jealousy and often only the male partner/husband is implicated.
The lack of job prospects for women who have little confidence, low levels of education, little knowledge of English, discrimination in the job market, no right to work because of their insecure immigration status, means they are unable to leave the violent relationship – many of these factors do not apply to white women.
How has the revivalism in Islam and Hinduism impacted the South Asian sisters?
This has impacted our work greatly. In 1989, when a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie by Iran and the Bradford Council of Mosques led demonstrations and book burnings, we realised we needed to speak up. We had noticed that more and more women, who came to our Centre, were being constrained not just by cultural factors but that these were increasingly embedded within religious justifications.
We set up Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF), a multi-racial group of women, including Israeli women, Irish women, Middle-Eastern women and of course South Asian women, who came together to challenge religious fundamentalism in our communities, whether it was Zionism, Christian evangelicalism, Sikh, Hindu or Muslim fundamentalism. This was partly tactical because we wanted to head off any accusations of ‘Islamaphobia’ by pointing to the regressive aspects of all forms of religious fundamentalism. This has become increasingly problematic since 9/11 when western states have launched a war on terror primarily focussed on Muslims.
Many of our fellow activists in the anti-racist movement — who do not support our struggles because they see the Muslim communities as under siege — will come out in demonstrations against Narendra Modi and Hindu fundamentalism. They are not prepared to concede that links exist between some very extreme and powerful Islamist organisations like the Jamaat-i-Islami and the management committees of various mosques in Britain. Nor are they prepared to accept the ways in which women, children and the LGBT community are oppressed by these religious leaders and their attempts to introduce sharia law by the back door into British institutions.
In our communities, women are the receptacles of family ‘honour’, a commodity so fragile that the wrong shade of lipstick might destroy it. An entire family might be involved in the violence – the in-laws, as well as the husband.
We understand that the space in which we can campaign against Islamism is squeezed by the anti-Muslim racism of the State and white community but we try and face down both this racism and the fundamentalist traits in our communities.
When Babri Masjid was burned down on December 6, 1992, the Hindu community in Britain was sending gold bricks to the VHP in India to enable it to be rebuilt as the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. At that point, we organised a meeting in the heart of the Gujarati community in Wembley, London, to condemn such provocative acts and were subjected to abuse from a predominantly Hindu audience.
Religious fundamentalism relies on the control of women’s bodies and minds. Women are seen as the purveyors of culture and religious values to the next generation. What you call revivalism has set back the fight for women’s rights extensively. We have resisted these developments through WAF, organising public meetings, producing journals and demonstrating. WAF is no longer in existence but through our alliance with One Law for All and the Centre for Secular Spaces we have campaigned successfully and made policy submissions to the government on a number of issues.
In 2013, universities across UK issued new guidance, according to which sex segregation could be practiced in universities at the request of guest speakers representing religious groups. We campaigned against this open door to sex segregation until universities withdrew their guidance. In 2014, the Law Society withdrew its controversial guidance on sharia-compliant wills, under which women stood to lose an equal share of their inheritance, after pressure from us. These are just a couple of examples.
You have been to Kurd-controlled Kobane Rojave and you have documented the remarkable implementation of Abdullah Ocalan’s philosophy that believes in the political and military empowerment of women in one of the most hostile geographies in the world — Syria. Please share your views on that. How do women change when they are trained to fight for the self, the collective and their rights?
I didn’t go to Kobane because it was still dangerous in March 2016 when I visited North Syria – totally damaged by the siege and the US bombardment of ISIS. I did visit the Eastern parts of Rojava which were deemed to be safer – Qamishlo and Amude. Who would have thought that behind the dust and destruction of the civil war in Syria, a women’s revolution was going on? It is the best place in the Middle East to be a woman and I would argue the most progressive place in the world for women’s rights, although admittedly the starting point is lower – what I mean is that they had a lot more ground to cover in a conservative, rural area with low levels of education. I have written extensively about what I found. For instance:
“Their society is modeled on a form of direct democracy called Democratic Confederalism. In this ‘stateless’ bottom-up structure, neighbourhoods form communes and elect their representatives to the next level on the co-presidentship principle of one man and one woman sharing power. This is facilitated by a multi-party organisation Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society. The same principle applies all the way up to the district, city and ‘national’ levels, including the running of cooperatives, schools, the army, the police force – in fact, any institution you care to name…
The reasons for gender-based violence in the South Asian community are no different from those in the white community: patriarchy, a system that is maintained by violence or the threat of violence, control women’s freedoms.
“As if that was not amazing enough, Kongreya Star, the women’s umbrella organisation, runs a women-only, autonomous structure parallel to Tev-Dem, to ensure that a feminist perspective is brought to bear on all issues. In fact, they have the power of veto. The structure very clearly emphasises the fact that a level playing field can only be created by tilting power in the direction of women. At every level, from the commune to the city level, there are committees to deal with health, education, economics, utilities and conflict resolution, which includes domestic violence and self-defense. If they are unable to resolve the matter, the case is referred to the women-only police officers who deal with issues of domestic and sexual violence. If the courts rule that the perpetrator must be imprisoned, he is taken away, given gender equality training and returned to the home only if the woman wants him back and he appears to have reformed himself. The situation is then monitored by the conflict resolution committee…
“There has been an extensive legislative assault on patriarchal practices: child marriage, forced marriage, dowry, and polygamy have been banned. They go further, in fact, and introduce a clause that countries like India could consider — any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will is a criminal act; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised. Women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15, a woman’s testimony is equal to a man’s, a woman has a right to equal inheritance, marriage contracts are issued in civil courts. Impressive work when you consider that the women’s ministry was set up only in January 2014. Sharia courts, which were Bashar Assad’s favoured means of dealing with personal laws, have been disbanded but they continue to thrive in other parts of Syria which were under the control of Syrian rebels, and, of course, in ISIS-held territory. The greatest irony being that we, in Britain, have sharia councils but in Rojava they have got rid of them…”
Do you think Ocalan’s view can be implemented in a western society?
Not fully. According to Ocalan, feminism can never be totally successful in a capitalist system, that class and race equality in a secular democratic system should be part of the struggle for women’s liberation. I think that is absolutely right. It explains the tensions we see in feminist struggles around the world. However, the Kurdish diaspora in Europe runs its various organisations along the lines of democratic confederalism so that the community is fully signed up to the principles of equality. However, these organisations have mainly a cultural and welfare remit as all other services are provided by the governments of the European countries where they live. It is certainly something the political activists in Europe can do, to build their democratic muscle as it were.
Great Britain is in a mess since a referendum backed Brexit. How does it impact South Asians if a hard Brexit takes place?
One of the reasons why the vote to leave won was the general perception that ‘foreigners’ had come in large numbers and taken all the spare capacity in housing, education, health services, etc. As the European Union (EU) guarantees free movement within its borders, the Brexiteers were keen to leave Europe to regain control of their own borders. The real reason for people not being able to access services was the huge and damaging austerity program that was initiated by the coalition government (Tories and LibDems) and continued under the Tories which led to swingeing cuts in services. Many people reported a rise in racist attacks after the Brexit vote because those who had voted to leave felt empowered by their victory. In that sense, South Asians have been impacted.
In Kurd, liberated areas, child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy have been banned; they go further, and introduce a clause that countries like India could consider — any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will is a criminal act; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised.
Plus, like all British residents, they will lose the benefits of being in Europe and all the trade advantages and what that means for jobs. Plus, the membership of EU has been good for workers in terms of the positive impact on workers’ rights, anti-discrimination laws, health and safety. The irony is, of course, that much of the racism is directed at those who are visibly (like skin colour) different. However since the Brexit vote, mainly white Europeans have left in droves and as the need to fill jobs in the National Health Service (NHS), agriculture and other areas is pressing, they have been replaced by people from South Asia.
Yazidi women have gone through untold suffering at the hands of the ISIS in Syria. Has your organisation or others reached out to them?
The Kurdish women’s organisations in the UK and other parts of the diaspora have reached out to them. Many Yazidi women migrated to Germany after escaping ISIS although hundreds still languish in the camps in Iraq and Syria. It was the mobilisation by the Kurdish community that led to the nomination of Nadia Murad for the Nobel Prize for Peace which she eventually won in 2018 along with Denis Mukwege for her campaign and work around the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
SBS’s remit is very narrow. We are funded to support women escaping domestic violence in West London. It is because we have taken up cutting edge cases from across the country, shaped new legislations and policies affecting migrant women that our profile is so enormous. I have forged political links between SBS and the Kurdish women’s movement, so we play a supportive role in their UK-based campaigns. Hence, for example, we have supported the Yazidi women’s call for an International Day of Action against Femicide on August 3.
In a world where war and its ancillary industries are big business, especially during the time of recession, serious economic slowdown and mass unemployment, how do you visualise the social and political solidarity of women’s collectives, and women and men together, to stop the war machine which impacts women and children the most?
I support but am not directly involved in campaigns against the arms trade. It is a vital part of the Kurdish struggle because Turkey imports British armaments which are then used against the Kurdish people in Turkey and currently in North and East Syria. The irony, though, for Britain is that it is the second-largest exporter of arms in the world so it is one of its few manufacturing success stories and probably contributes to prosperity and employment here rather than acting to slow down the British economy. That is why Jeremy Corbyn, principled man of his word, was accused of doing a U-turn on Trident, the British nuclear deterrent because unions brought pressure in terms of the jobs. However, in the current election campaign, there is uncertainty about his position as he refuses to state whether Trident will be abolished or renewed.
In the UK, the economic slowdown is attributed to the economic recession of 2008. Whilst billions were poured into saving the banks, ordinary people faced a savage regime of cuts. Austerity was promoted by the Tories as a necessary route out of recession. It was Labour, under Corbyn, who showed that austerity was a choice and swung the national debate around so much that Boris Johnson is now proposing to loosen the belt.
Women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15, a woman’s testimony is equal to a man’s, a woman has a right to equal inheritance, marriage contracts are issued in civil courts.
What are you working on as a project of empowerment in the current phase? What are your future plans?
I am co-writing a book with Beatrix Campbell, a well-known British journalist, provisionally entitled, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die? We are hoping to explore why every political system, be it democracy, theocracy, communism, or capitalism, is reliant on patriarchy to a lesser or greater degree for its own power. It is an ambitious project which will take a few years to bring to fruition. My trip to Rojava was part of the research for that book. I am hoping to go to Russia next.
Are you working on a project involving cinema and literature these days? What are your plans in the days to come?
I have written a film treatment and am looking for funding for that. It is a feel-good family comedy-drama about disabled Asian youngsters in a multi-cultural sports center in London who are training to join the Paralympics squad to play Boccia. The protagonist is being forced into a marriage with an unsuspecting bride from India from whom his mother has hidden his disability.