Black Women Organising: What we can learn from the rise and fall of OWAAD

In the month of October we will be marking Black History Month by sharing a series of short essays written by four recent graduates of the History Department at the University of Manchester. These students were part of Kerry Pimblott’s third-year seminar on the Black Freedom Movement and were tasked with putting their new historical skills to work by performing original research on the transnational links between movements for racial justice in the US and UK. We would like to extend our thanks to the many archivists and librarians who assisted the students in developing these important profiles in Black British History.

Our second blog post on the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent is from Salma Al-Hassan, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester History Department.

Salma Al-Hassan presenting at the Transatlantic Black Freedom Struggles Symposium at Manchester Central Library in December 2019.

This article will look at the rise and fall of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), exploring why it only had a five year lifespan, the work they did and the important legacy they left.

Despite their highly valuable insight into the Black British experience, focus on Black female participation is often under represented, as explicit and implicit forms of racism tend to obscure Black women from history. Therefore it is crucial that we highlight and use these contributions as critical resources in order to understand how the history of Black women’s participation has shaped UK Black history and social identities for Black British communities today.

Origins

OWAAD began in 1978, and operated as a spearhead for Black women’s national organisation in the UK till its demise in 1983. Despite its short lifespan, their work proved pivotal for the British Black Freedom Struggle, particularly for Black women, who were so often obscured in liberation movements. In ‘The Heart of Race’, OWAAD members, Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, state that the struggles of Black women’s groups, such as the Combahee River Collective in the USA, spoke ‘directly to [their] experience in Britain’ however ‘[did] not speak directly of it’ [1].

The Heart of the Race, book cover, originally published by Virago Press in 1985.

Like their Black sisters in America, Black women in Britain understood that they were a part of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) and the Black Liberation Movement (BLM), but found themselves excluded from main discourse. In their draft constitution, OWAAD highlighted how the mainly white and middle class WLM ‘failed to understand how the added dimension of racism affects the demands and aspirations of Black women’[2]. While the BLM was always ‘male dominated…regard[ing] the Woman Question as either “secondary” or totally irrelevant’ [3].

Therefore, by taking influence from the work of women in the USA, the women of OWAAD knew they needed to organise in order to bring together Black women from different backgrounds and political perspectives to articulate their own experiences of oppression in the British context. They sought to create and promote a national network of Black women to document ‘herstory’ which had so far been ‘documented from every angle except [their] own’ [4].

Race relations in Britain, 1960-1980

The political climate during the 1960s to 1980s was one of particular hostility for minority ethnic groups, despite popular denial of racism in British society.

1968 left the infamously racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell ringing in the British public’s ears, and anxieties around immigration continued into the 1970s with the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act. The ‘grandfather’ clauses placed into legislation enabled the state to control and limit the immigration of non-white Commonwealth citizens without using explicitly racial language [5], as the public increasingly came to view their migration ‘an unwelcome residue of empire’ [6].

Towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the government also began increasing the state sanctioned repression of Black communities through the reintroduction of SUS Laws and the reduction of education and health services [7].

Therefore, by the time OWAAD began formation, Black women knew they had a duty to disrupt the homogenous image of whiteness and maleness which coincided with British values and identity, resulting in the targeting of their communities. As well as the desire to reclaim and redefine their womanhood after being subject to sustained invisibility and misrepresentation [8].

An Umbrella Organisation: Mobilisation

Unlike other Black women’s organisations which existed at the time such as Southall Black Sisters and Brixton Black Women’s group, OWAAD functioned as an umbrella organisation bringing together these diverse groups of women from across the UK.

Such diversity led to the inclusion of South Asian women, whom the founders realised were also subject to racist practices just like women of African and Afro-Caribbean descent. It was this inclusion that resulted in the formation of the group around ‘political blackness’, which did not just define their skin colour but their situation as people of colour in Britain [9]. The women of OWAAD recognised their shared historical experiences of racism, sexism and colonialism between African, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian women [10].

In this way the ‘cross-fertilisation’ [11], facilitated by the umbrella group structure, is regarded as one of the most important elements in the progression of Black women’s organisation. It encouraged locally based groups to mobilise across the country, in order to address issues they were facing, whilst receiving support from a network of Black women.

The decentralised approach taken by OWAAD, which was made up of different groups, individuals, and campaigns, enabled the women to exercise leadership according to the demands of different issues. And this self-determination was unhampered by appointed leaders or spokeswomen, a rejection of male dominated organisational hierarchies [12].

‘Black women had begun to articulate demands as an organised body, with the assurance which could only come from a strong sense of self-knowledge and mutual solidarity’ [13]

OWAAD Pamphlet (1978), Black Cultural Archives. Photo credit: The Black Women’s Movement digital exhibition.

The first National Black Women’s conference in 1979 saw 250-300 women attend to discuss a range of issues surrounding health, education, the law and immigration, and how they affected Black women. This was a major turning point in the organisation of Black women as it was the first time they came together as a group to discuss their own priorities [14].

As the organisation grew, OWAAD realised the need for newsletters to ensure relationships were maintained, and it was here the group launched FOWAAD! in July 1979.

One of the key campaigns which OWAAD was able to call upon its support network for, was to protest the grotesquely inhumane use of virginity tests at Heathrow Airport in 1979. The women successfully lead a sit in protest to object against the violation of South Asian women’s bodies. Although this issue did not necessarily impact all Black women, for OWAAD, it demonstrated the highly racialised and gendered immigration policies which targeted Black families and worked to especially violate Black women [15].

‘There was never this sense of wanting to exclude men, there was never this sense that they were the enemy’ [16].

Contrasting the white dominated WLM, OWAAD positioned itself as specifically against an anti-male rhetoric. The organisation engaged much of its work with a community focus.

OWAAD used its network to help defend those who were arrested after the demonstration against the National Front in Southall, resulting in the death of Blair Peach in 1979, as well as mobilising to protest the racist tactics of police officers in 1981 after state harassment ‘reached a new peak’ [17]. This was because OWAAD’s campaigning was based in the context of racism and imperialism, thus recognising that ‘as Black people [we] have a collective responsibility for each other’ [18].

In this way, OWAAD’s major achievement lay in its ability to bring Black women together as a united front, working towards a common purpose which was ‘unprecedented in the history of the Black struggle in [Britain]’ [19]. They not only sought to bring about racial equality for their communities, but also recognised their crucial role in giving space to issues which particularly concerned Black women, something which was regularly ignored in the WLM and wider BLM.

Demise

However, although OWAAD was a historical turning point in the mobilisation of Black women, it only lasted for four years due to contradictions which became apparent within the organisation. Some issues stemmed from the complexities that arose from political blackness, whilst others centred on the topics of feminism and sexuality. Looking back on its lifespan, women who were part of OWAAD attribute the failure to address these issues as the reason for its demise in 1983.

‘Diversity was both our strength and our Achilles heel’ [20].

The diversity of OWAAD was one of its great strengths, but also caused fractures amongst the women. The multiple perspectives which brought OWAAD together under the umbrella of political blackness began to cause tensions within the group. OWAAD struggled to maintain unity between the different perspectives of Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African women.

Although they had initially united in their collective experiences of racism and sexism, the women did not anticipate how their lived experiences and political situations would impact the direction in which they each wanted the organisation to take. This made it difficult to maintain their primary goal for the Black Freedom movement in the UK and USA, whilst also attending to the struggles of women in Africa and Asia [21]. Thus, the demographic of the group, which was mainly made up of British Afro-Caribbean women, overpowered the voices of African and Asian women, leading to their estrangement and collective fragmentation.

The Dispute over Feminism and Sexuality

A key aspect of OWAAD’s organisation was that the women were specifically not ‘anti-men’, however this led to disagreements over the acceptance of feminism.

Some women outrightly rejected it based upon its relation to the white feminist movement, which they saw to represent a white ideology and a practice which was ‘anti-men’ in Black culture [22]. Although they recognised issues which arose from sexism, they argued that much of their work focused on collective responsibility.

On the other hand, some women wanted to redefine the concept for themselves as ‘Black Feminism’. They saw a need to reclaim it in a way which would not divorce them from the work being done in communities, but would enable the integration of feminist analysis into their practice in order to develop ways forward [23]. This brought criticism from members who did not understand this trajectory and instead saw it as a regressive step [24].

‘Sexual orientation…was a big issue in the Black Women’s Movement, especially towards the end when OWAAD collapsed’ [25].

Alongside this, debate on sexuality increasingly became an issue within the organisation. Looking back on her time in OWAAD, Judith Lockhart notes how sexuality was not discussed openly, and that those women who were lesbian ‘had to keep it quiet’ [26]. Many women also did not want to focus on topics such as sexuality when they believed more ‘pressing’ issues which faced Black women needed to be addressed. After the first conference in 1979 questions were raised on the absence of discussion on sexuality, which founders tried to deflect by repositioning the issue of sexuality ‘out of the realm of sexual activity and into the more politically respectable terrain of gender relations’ [27].

This disagreement culminated at the third conference in 1981 as some members realised that this actually reduced discussion on sexuality to a private topic, despite their argument that ‘all aspects of life were social’ [28]. In this way OWAAD allowed itself to become complicit in their own and their communities homophobia [29] as sexuality caused a division which proved to be irreparable.

‘OWAAD folded under pressures from within to assert heterogenous identities’ [30].

Ultimately, the groups’ focus on identity politics by promoting the political identity of the Black woman had a reductionist impact. Although it appeared to empower, it eventually lead to the standardisation of categories and a lack of acceptance for diversity. There was a failure to acknowledge multi-faceted aspects which made up their identities and experience.

Although they were Black women, they had diverse identities which were not only centred on their race and gender, but their sexuality, culture, class, religion, and politics too. As a result, OWAAD saw the rise of internal struggles rather than challenging the structures around them. The organisation could no longer project itself as a united front or maintain its influence when the women within were so deeply divided [31].

Legacy

From this outline of its lifespan, it is clear that OWAAD had one of the most crucial influences on Black women’s politics in Britain. As the first national network of its kind, OWAAD brought Black women together from across the country.

This can be seen as a watershed moment for Black British female history as Black women were, and unfortunately still are, obscured in the challenges of racial discourse.

However, OWAAD’s work marked a turning point in the mobilisation of a collective Black female voice, enabling them to step out of the shadow of male dominance in order to articulate their own demands. Although the issues being raised by these women were not necessarily new, OWAAD’s originality came from the fact that it gave women across the UK a platform and the confidence to communicate as an organised body.

The legacy left by OWAAD showed that Black women should develop political unity without minimising the differences which exist between them. Instead of viewing differences such as class, sexuality or religion negatively, they should be utilised to their benefit.

It is through this that, despite its downfall, OWAAD was a pivotal moment in Black British female history. It demonstrated that Black British women were more than capable of mobilising on their own terms, around issues which affected them directly, but also their communities. And it showed that contradictions which ultimately brought OWAAD to its knees could be used as vital lessons for future Black women’s groups to continue the Black Freedom struggle against various forms of oppression which seek to divide.


  1. Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race (London: Virago Press, 1995), p.1.
  2. Black Cultural Archives, DADZIE/1/1/2, ‘OWAAD Draft Constitution’, p.3.
  3. Ibid., p.3.
  4. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.1.
  5. Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (London: Two Roads, 2018), p.8.
  6. Rob Berkeley, Omar Khan, Mohan Ambikaipaker, What’s New About New Immigrants in 21st Century Britain?, (London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2005) p.21.
  7. Tracy Fisher, What’s Left of Blackness?: Feminisms, Transracial Solidarities, and the Politics of Belonging in Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.80.
  8. Heidi Mirza, Young, Female and Black (London: Routledge, 1992), p.146.
  9. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.170.
  10. Fisher, What’s Left of Blackness?, p.78.
  11. Ibid., p.79.
  12. Heidi Mirza, Black British Feminism (London: Routledge, 1997), p.43.
  13. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.170.
  14. Ibid., p.166.
  15. Nydia Swaby, ‘Disparate in voice, Sympathetic in Direction: Gendered Political Blackness and the Politics of Solidarity’, Feminist Review 108 (2014), pp.11-25, p.18.
  16. Stella Dadzie discusses OWAAD, Sisterhood and After, British Library, 2-3 June 2001, accessed at [https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/stella-dadzie-] on [21/11/19].
  17. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.172.
  18. Ibid., p.173.
  19. Ibid., p.172.
  20. Stella Dadzie discusses OWAAD, British Library.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.173.
  23. Brixton Black Women’s Group, ‘Black Women Organising’, Feminist Review 17 (1984), pp.84-89, p.85.
  24. Ibid., p.85.
  25. Judith Lockhart Interview conducted by Remembering Olive Morris, Do You Remember Olive Morris, Lambeth Archives, 2 March 2009, p.12.
  26. Ibid., p.12.
  27. Brixton, ‘Black Women Organising’, p.87.
  28. Ibid., p.87.
  29. Ibid., p.87.
  30. Mirza, Black British Feminisms, p.8.
  31. Bryan et al., The Heart of the Race, p.177.

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