Pragna Patel: a politics of hope and not hate

"At the heart of my work is the idea that human beings are to be intrinsically valued, that we can all co-exist through mutual respect and rights."  - Pragna Patel

Rahila Gupta
21 July 2015

Pragna Patel after receiving the award. Photo: Equal Rights Trust (all rights reserved)Pragna Patel has won the inaugural Bob Hepple Equality Award, announced last week.  In 1982 Praga almost single-handedly revived the semi-defunct Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a campaigning and advocacy group for BAME women. Pragna was recognised for her ‘outstanding achievement’ and was joint winner with Mauro Cabral, Co-Director of Global Action for Trans Equality. With typical modesty, Pragna attributed the success of SBS to all the women who have been involved in its work. Apart from Pragna’s sheer hard work, long hours, dedication and commitment to the cause, in which she was ably supported by the two stalwarts, Hannana Siddiqui and Meena Patel, it was her political nous and innovative thinking that has kept SBS at the forefront of black women’s struggles in Britain.

Pragna arrived in Britain from Kenya at the age of five, with her mother and younger sisters in 1965, to join her penniless father who had hitchhiked his way to London a year earlier. Looking back, the moment when Pragna’s feminist politics were awakened was at 17 when she was nearly forced into a marriage, an incident which Pragna describes with equal amounts of humour and pathos. She was taken to a village in Gujarat, India on ‘holiday’ by her mother and introduced to a boy with whom she was left alone in a room for 15 minutes while the rest of her aunts gathered in another room. She remembers sitting on a stool, weeping copiously as she is harangued by a group of women for saying no ‘without any good reason’, bringing shame on the family, setting a bad example to her four younger sisters and undoing all the hard work that her mother had put in to bringing them up alongside her long hours of factory work. Although Pragna was not particularly religious, in her naivety, she thought the local church would come to her rescue. She locates the priest, ‘a rotund, roly-poly’ man, taking his afternoon nap in the church courtyard – a perfect image of apathy. Annoyed by a young woman disturbing his sleep with complaints about being married off, the natural destiny of all women, he tells her ‘not to worry. Leave it up to God, my child’.

She returns to England, engaged. After a year of ‘civil disobedience’ during which she often finds herself clutching Portrait of an Artist as Young Man to her chest, sobbing and repeating the refrain of its hero, Stephen Daedulus, ‘I will not submit’, her mother caves in, exhausted. And that is one of the key lessons Pragna brings to her work and success in later life: bloodymindedness or, more politely, persistence.

It was sheer persistence, in fact 20 years of it, which led to eventual concessions to the One Year Rule immigration rule and No Recourse to Public Funds which trapped non-British women in violent marriages. For Pragna, this campaign is her personal favourite of them all. And there were many: the first march against domestic violence in Southall when Krishna Sharma was driven to suicide by a violent husband and in-laws; the Kiranjit Ahluwalia campaign which brought SBS to national attention and led to a change in the interpretation of provocation so that it became more accessible to women who killed their abusive partners; the Zoora Shah campaign; the introduction  of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007; the precedent setting challenge to Ealing Council’s attempt to withdraw funding from specialist services like SBS on the grounds of equality and cohesion; and the more recent victories against the UUK’s guidance on segregation of university students and the Law Society’s withdrawal of guidance on drawing up discriminatory sharia-compliant wills, to name only some of the bigger campaigns.

Highlighting the specific problems for migrant women with insecure immigration status facing domestic violence was an early example of SBS’s intersectional approach to its campaigns – before there was even a word to describe it. It is the impossibility of wringing any concessions in immigration rules in a hostile anti-immigration climate that makes even these small victories such a major achievement for Pragna, “When you’re prepared to let people die crossing the sea then there is something morally wrong at the heart of Europe. How do you climb this mountain? The very tools we have - legal aid – are being taken away. If legal aid goes, we might as well shut up shop.” The Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDV) has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of women even though the government has tried to counterbalance it with harsh family rules which include the introduction of a five year probationary period for marriages to non-British spouses, a huge increase on the original one year rule.

The law has been an important arena for SBS where many of their battles have been waged although the importance of a wider mobilisation has been central to SBS campaign strategies.  Buoyed by the success of the Ahluwalia case, believing it was time for a change and wanting to get more educational qualifications, Pragna left SBS in 1992 to study law. But ‘by end of my training, the writing was already on the wall regarding the end of legal aid especially in immigration. And that was one area I flourished in – it was adversarial between the state and the victim where the state was the clear enemy; family law had more grey areas and I was also uncomfortable with having to represent men in contexts of domestic violence.’ Her growing awareness of the law’s blind spots on gender, race and class also brought her back to SBS.

I asked if the rights culture had been detrimental to feminist politics: for example ‘the right to a family life’ which provides the individual with some grounds to fight immigration law has also been used by men wanting access to children in whom they had shown no interest previously. While everything can be open to abuse and Fathers for Justice may have benefitted, the important thing was to analyse the abuse and propose refinements to the law. Pragna felt that the Human Rights Act, which is now under threat, has been ‘hugely important for women’. Feminist struggles have contributed to the evolution of human rights (HR) – domestic violence is now seen as gender discrimination and no longer considered a private act but something in which the state has a responsibility to intervene and protect women. “What’s the alternative? We haven’t been able to come up with one. HR discourse is the only language we have left, socialism has been discredited whether we like it or not. We used the framework of HR to counter the detrimental impact of multiculturalism because it fundamentally violated women’s rights.’

Mauro Cabral (L) and Pragna Patel (R), joint award winners, with Dr Petrova of the Equal Rights Trust. Photo (c) ERT The Bob Hepple award was given for progressing the cause of equality. Was that how Pragna saw her life’s work or was there more to it? ‘Equality is a critical part of it. I aspire to socialism, not the socialisms that have existed around the world but one infused with humanity, decency, justice, empathy and compassion. At the heart of it, is the idea that human beings are to be intrinsically valued, that we can all co-exist through mutual respect and rights. A politics of hope and not hate: if we have hope, we can dream about the possibilities. One of Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes that has really stayed with me is “I want the winds of all cultures to blow freely about my house”. I like the image of a house with open windows.’ 


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