From a youth filled with feelings of isolation within her own skin, to a life dedicated to advocating for equal rights for the most marginalised in society. Founding member of Women against Fundamentalism and director of Southall Black Sisters. Listed in The Guardian’s top 100 Women: Activists and Campaigners. This is Pragna Patel.
Pragna was born in Kenya to a Hindu family and moved to the UK in the 1960’s with her mother and younger sisters when she was 5 years old. Her parents and family struggled against racism in many ways and experienced not only direct racism on the streets, but also in the workplace and when trying to get housing.
“I am a child of a community that was socially conservative in relation to women’s issues, that mapped out destinies for women that ended in marriage and that was it, there was no notion that women could live independent lives, have agency, have careers.”
At the age of 17 her family decided to take her to Gujarat to be married off to a boy. Though she returned to the UK ‘engaged’, she eventually exhausted her mother through continual objection. This hard-fought persistence proved not only that she could have a say over her own life, but also demonstrated how difficult life could be for those without power, particularly women who suffer at the hands of outdated traditions steeped in misogyny.
“I faced a lot of racism in school, (mainly in the playground but also indirectly from the staff.) I was desperately looking for role models – people from my own background – because I wanted to be confident and proud in my own skin.”
Whilst at college, the feeling of being an outsider continued. With only one other person being a person of colour, she became acutely aware that she had no real way of developing a sense of identity. She began feeling that she was missing out of something.
It was around this time that she encountered, in Southall, a group of young Asian women who were the first incarnation of Southall Black Sisters, primarily a campaigning group.
“I’d seen some young Asian women, handing out these journals they’d written. It was all about racism and women’s issues, and they were the first left, progressive, Asian people that I’d come across, and I was wowed by it all. Because I didn’t know there was another way of being, and there they were.”
When she joined Southall Black Sisters (SBS) in 1982, the organisation had all but disappeared. Pragna founded the advocacy centre to meet the material needs of women and re-ignited the Southall Black Sisters.
“[I was] looking for a political home, as a way of trying to make sense of those individualised experiences … and so, I was also rebelling against that kind of socially conservative structure of family and community. So, for me, Southall Black Sisters was a natural political home.”
For forty years Pragna has been centrally involved in some of SBS’s most important cases and campaigns involving domestic violence, immigration, and religious fundamentalism.
From 1982 Pragna worked as a coordinator and senior caseworker, working with women who were coming to them with very specific problems, problems of homelessness, poverty, destitution, and racism, all in the face of gender-based violence, and in the face of harsh and Draconian immigration laws and nationality laws.
In 1993, realising the importance of knowledge of and access to legal aid, she left to train as a solicitor and returned as director for Southall Black Sisters.
“From the very inception, Southall Black Sisters was both a child of anti-racism and feminism, but also a dissenter because we dissented against the kind of anti-racist orthodoxies that didn’t recognise gender as a fault line in our communities and in society; and we challenged the orthodoxies of the white feminist movement that didn’t recognise race as a fault line in our communities and in our movements.”
Pragna is also a member of Feminist Dissent and has written extensively on race, gender, and religion.
In 2011, Pragna was included in The Guardian’s top 100 Women feature, highlighting the importance of her work and the work of Southall Black Sisters in the history of black and Asian feminism.
In 2015, she was a co-recipient of the inaugural Bob Hepple Equality Award.
Southall Black Sisters
Southall Black Sisters are a frontline organisation that support women who have no other alternatives. Their work for the rights of migrant women stems from the way in which migrant women are one of the most vulnerable groups in British society – women who have come to the country on a visa and end up trapped in abusive relationships because their visa status comes with a condition that inhibits them from independence from that abusive relationship through welfare support. Their visa states; “no recourse to public funds”.
The normal routes of safety and protection that are available to abused women in society – for example, refuge shelters, accommodation, access to benefits and so on – are not available to migrant women in these situations.
“If you asked me to sum it up, I would say that what really defines us is the idea of a politics of resistance – of simultaneous resistance – against race, against patriarchal control and subjugation, against classism, against other forms of discrimination and inequality; and that politics of simultaneous resistance rests on the view that we cannot create hierarchies of struggle, that these are all interrelated and that we have to resist all forms of regressive politics and discriminatory ideas at one and the same time.”
In 2010 SBS was awarded Secularist of the Year by the National Secular Society, in recognition of their support of black and Asian women’s human rights.