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Traversing Gender, Race, Class and Religion

South Asian Feminisms in Britain

A distinctive South Asian feminist voice emerged in Britain out of the existing forms of self-organisation and resistance within minority communities, located at the intersection of gender, race and class. An outline is presented here of the nature and effects of four decades of activism, policy interventions, and practice by South Asian feminist groups in Britain. This activism is located within the context of government policy and statutory practice that has shifted from multiculturalism to multi-faithism, and highlights the implications for women’s and girls’ rights, and the costs to secular feminist provision, particularly in relation to combatting violence against women and girls. How the recent neo-liberal policies of austerity and shrinking welfare provision pose key ideological challenges for South Asian feminist organising is analysed.

In the United Kingdom (UK), “South Asian” is the commonly utilised term for people who originate from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. This is both on account of commonalities in sociocultural contexts and a shared colonial and anti-colonial past, as well as the complex histories of migration that shape these diasporic communities, some of which predate decolonisation. However, while this term emphasises commonality—in response to the common othering of people of South Asian origin in dominant discourses on race through the racist and derogatory term “Paki,” as well as to more recent attempts by Hindus and Sikhs to distance themselves from Muslims in the UK and reproduce communal identities—it is also important to recognise the heterogeneous nature of the South Asian diaspora in Britain.

Though the South Asian presence in the UK can be traced back to the beginning of the 17th century (Visram 2002), our focus is on the significant phase of South Asian migration that began in the 1950s. Jat Sikhs came to dominate the Indian migration stream to the UK in the 1950s (Singh and Tatla 2006), though Punjabi migrants also included a sizeable minority of middle- and low-ranking castes. British passport-holders of Indian origin—a majority of whom can trace their origins to current-day Gujarat—settled in countries in East Africa (Twaddle 1990: 160) faced declining economic opportunities and insecurity upon the adoption of “Africanisation” policies by the newly independent countries in the 1960s. Many made the choice or were forced to migrate to the UK as entire family units. The primary phase of Pakistani migration to the UK was from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and was predominantly from Mirpur and Punjab, while Bangladeshi migration began in the early 1970s from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh as people fled from the civil unrest in their homeland. Civil unrest also created the context for Tamil Sri Lankan migration from the 1980s onwards. Similar to all migrants and irrespective of their caste and previous occupational status, South Asian migrants found work in the lowest rungs of the employment hierarchy in unskilled manual jobs. During the 1960s anti-immigration sentiments mobilised by racist groups and Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) such as Cyril Osborne and Enoch Powell informed successive legislation, restricting the entry and settlement rights of Commonwealth citizens between 1962 and 1971 (Brah 1996: 23).

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Updated On : 30th Apr, 2019

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