In the mid-80s, for my sins, I joined the Labour Party in Nottingham. Several inner-city wards were riven by two competing Kashmiri factions, groups of men who voted as a block depending on what their leader said. These whipped votes were, at times, obeyed by “members” who did not speak English and who had little idea what they were voting for. I say “members” because often their membership was paid for them by their wealthy leaders. Kashmiri women were almost entirely absent. In return, Nottingham Labour parcelled out favours to these “community leaders”. Similar things were going on nationally, not just with Kashmiris, and not just with Labour. Community leaders could get some of what they wanted by packing meetings and delivering the votes come election time.
It was something of a tradition – in certain areas it used to be the Irish, now it was the Kashmiris, Bangladeshis and, in some areas, strictly Orthodox Jews.
In the outside world there were some feminist women from ethnic minorities who were less than keen on these, invariably male, community leaders. After 1989 these women came together as Women Against Fundamentalism. Many had already been in local groups such as Southhall Black Sisters or in distinct ethnic groups, but WAF brought together women of Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, Irish Catholic and other backgrounds who had a history of opposing communalism and religious orthodoxy and could see the similar patterns across different communities.
Women Against Fundamentalism waxed and waned and waxed and waned again. This book marks the end of WAF as a campaigning group, but draws together many of their members’ individual stories and revisits the many campaigns they fought.
The group was sometimes seen as “anti-Muslim”, which was convenient, but a quick look at the individual stories contained here shows how wide the group’s background was and the wide canvas on which members operated.
What marks out the stance of many members is that while many of them did work and campaign within general groups – CND, Israel/Palestine or whatever – they chose to remain within their communities rather than become outsiders. The first choice was often personal, as Sukhwant Dhaliwal puts it “On not becoming a Southall Stepford wife”.
Since the high water mark of WAF some things have changed for the better – the power of the Catholic church in Ireland has been much reduced whereas there really are UK supporters of the Islamic State and, hilariously, some people are currently boycotting the Jewish Chronicle because it is not just not right wing enough.
Just as the current wave of feminism in dominated by young women, it feels (to this male outsider) that we would all benefit for a new wave of women against fundamentalism. This book provides a fascinating and personal history on which to draw.