It can be very difficult to discuss these issues of ‘community’ and cherished beliefs, ‘offense’ and rights, fundamentalism and fuzzy language, without prompting impassioned if inarticulate yells about Robespierre and stigmatization and the like. It can also be very difficult to get a clear statment of why that is – but the thought bubbling away at the bottom appears to be that all this kind of thing is merely more or less covert racism. So it is heartening to read the letter to the Guardian from Pragna Patel, one of the founders of Southall Black Sisters.

As Asian women of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, we have been struggling for many years against attempts to silence our voices in relation to violence against women…We oppose the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred because it would lend to and encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions. We have no doubt that it would be used as a weapon to suppress dissent within our communities, particularly those who are more vulnerable and powerless. Until we see greater equality and increased accountability from within, we can no more rely on religious leaders than we can on the state that often appeases them in the name of multiculturalism. It is not just the freedom of expression that is at stake. As in the Rushdie affair, we support the right to dissent because of the ramifications for women in minority communities.

There it is. The benevolent people who urge ‘respect’ for the ‘cherished beliefs’ of ‘communities’ think they are siding with the oppressed and stigmatized, when in fact they are siding with the powerful within those communities against the ‘more vulnerable and powerless.’

Pragna Patel goes into the subject in much more depth in this article on ‘The Impact of Fundamentalism.

In the UK, Hindu revivalism has been quietly gathering strength — a result
of the multicultural politics, a largely de-politicising and
anti-democratic, homogenising process with the effect of co)opting certain
layers of the community, usually business and religious institutions and
individuals into the state apparatus by giving them a voice as ‘authentic’
representatives of their communities. In this way, more radical progressive
voices within the asian communities are isolated…The politics of multi-culturalism with its
tendency to construct Asians as religiously monolithic entities, have also
entrenched and perpetuated class and caste divisions, benefiting
fundamentalist projects in Asian communtities. Muti-culturalism has
therefore successfully avoided a challenge to the divisions of class, caste
and power.

Exactly. We saw that tendency only last week in the coverage of the protest against Behzti: the reports kept referring to the ‘Sikh community’ when they meant that segment of the Sikh community that was protesting against Behzti. Why should Sikhs (or Hindus or Muslims) be monolithic? Why are they so readily presumed to have exactly the same opinions on matters of controversy? Why do so few reporters even think to ask? Why is the coverage so formulaic and mindless?

In India
the impact of Hindu fundamentalism has been particularly devastating for
women, for example the revival of sati practices and the attempt to
universalise the Hindu personal laws are perceived to be integral to the
new Hindu identity. The VHP has been very vociferous in demanding that the
Hindu personal code should be applicable to all…The law in
Britain, in relation to marriage, divorce and child custody matters, has
become a particularly fertile ground for fundamentalists of all hues. Much
of the day to day casework of Southall Black Sisters and other Asian
women’s groups bears witness to these developments – where the law and the
welfare system have become effective arenas in which fundamentalists and
orthodox leaders attempt to assert the precedence of religious and
traditional customs over rights and remedies laid down in civil family law.

Patel is a lawyer, she does this casework herself, so she knows what she’s talking about. Good ‘community’ stuff – which so often boils down to men maintaining their control of women. So ten cheers for the Southall Black Sisters; let’s hope their work goes well and soon becomes unneeded.

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