What does a Radical Look Like? An Exhibition on the ‘Strikers in Saris’

A new exhibition in the Library at Willesden Green commemorates 40 years since the Grunwick strike, a momentous mass movement that began when a group of predominantly female South Asian workers walked out of the Grunwick photo processing factory in protest of poor working condition. The exhibition is entitled We are the Lions, showcasing the words that strike leader Jayaben Desai is famously said to have said to her manager when walking out:

‘What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager’.

The quote is nearly never missing from news stories about the event.

These words, along with the iconic images of the women at the picket lines, or Desai with a speaker and placard, captured the national imagination and many tens of thousands joined them in their protest. As a result of the strikers’ actions, trade unions began to take Black and Asian communities seriously for the first time. The women, dubbed the ‘strikers in saris’, are seen to have shattered stereotypes. In documentaries and news stories, their size and dress are constantly highlighted. Photos of them on the front lines, many less than five foot tall, clad in coats and saris, are seen again and again as an inspiration. At the exhibition, many of the ex-strikers were present, and guests spoke with passion about how the strikers inspired and moved them. There appears, however, something neat and convenient about this image, and also a discontinuity between the strikers’ first-hand accounts of their experience and representations of the dispute. This raises questions regarding how the mainstream media conceptualises acts of resistance, and about whether this story may be more complex than it first seems.

Jayaben Desai was indeed a remarkable, formidable woman who chose to fight injustice. But is it actually remarkable that she is also small and sari-clad? She herself, of course, would not have felt this apparent contradiction, which can only come from a patronising gaze. Furthermore, her iconic lion quote never occurred. In an interview in the Warwick University online archives, Desai clearly attributes the quote to her son. Her description of her son’s personality, along with further clarifications to a possibly flummoxed interviewer, supports the idea that this isn’t just a mis-remembering.

Of course the strikers showed fierce resistance and radicalism. But some kinds of radicalisms are more easily processed and packaged than others. The seemingly incongruous ‘striker in sari’ image was seized upon, and continues to be ogled over by many on the left, partly because a small woman in a sari is not supposed to be radical in her own right. But in fact, acts of resistance take place everyday in immigrant communities that the mainstream refuses to recognise as such. For example, the practice of a minoritised religion and the maintenance of an ‘other’ tradition in a white-supremacist world can be an act of resistance, and the refusal to assimilate through dress or language is potentially radical. These are everyday underminings of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, but are not seen as such. Mainstream culture cannot understand, digest, represent, even see acts of resistance that do not conform to what it has defined as an act of resistance. It needs the ‘striker in the sari’ image to support its definition of resistance - someone traditional (subtext: backward, weak) rises up and proves that they are much more. The truth is, there was nothing to prove in the first place. And maybe we will gain true strength and empowerment when we recognise and value our own complexities and everyday resistances.

That the small woman in the sari gains a certain kind of validation when she picks up a placard or raises a speaker is not as much a breaking of stereotypes as an indication of that racist stereotype itself.

A grunwick striker pointing to an image of herself from the strike.

A grunwick striker pointing to an image of herself from the strike.

After the strikers walked out and approached the unions, they were fired from the factory, and lived off strike pay. They expected the matter to be resolved quickly, but the strike ended up lasting two years. The tens of thousands that came to the picket line created a remarkable moment of working class and trade union solidarity. Black and Asian history is constantly being erased and it is important that the pivotal Grunwick strike be remembered. However, it should also be interrogated and examined, especially if we want to further resistance struggles. For instance, it should not be relegated to a footnote that in fact the strikers were eventually let down. The labour government distanced itself from the struggle, and the trade unions withdrew their support. There is a photo on display at the exhibit from the end of the strike after all the allies have dispersed. In desperation, Jayaben Desai, disappointed and disillusioned with the unions, goes on hunger strike with some colleagues outside the TUC. Their inspiration is Gandhi. A TUC representative, appalled by the hunger strike, asked Desai at the time, ‘who told you to do this?’ It is an awfully strange and patronising question to someone who was presented as having led the strike for two years prior.

Three days later, the strike was called to an end. None of the protestors were reinstated. Many went on to stay at home, work from home, or find other jobs. Certainly, a sense of confidence must have been built up from the incident, but I wonder whether there were many draw-backs to the alliance – whether, after being let down by the unions, the strikers felt as if they had made a deal with the devil. Was there a moment when agency was passed on to the unions, where the power that was once held by the white managers of the factory was now in the hands of white trade union leaders? Leading striker Kalaben Patel says in an interview: 

‘on the picket line what we used to do and inside what we used to do, not much of a difference’

In order to understand this further, we need non-condescending interviews of the remaining strikers, in their first language. Who we are telling the story to is important, and a far more nuanced, deep understanding is necessary, and can only come from looking inwards. The closest I have found to this is a lovely interview on BBC radio conducted by a striker’s niece. However, when faced with the idea that the interviewed ex-striker doesn’t appear invested in the events at Grunwick, the interviewer/niece turns to a liberal leftist activist, who offers (in part) a patronising explanation of Gujaratis valuing capitalist progress over resistance.

I spoke to some of the strikers at the exhibition’s launch. Of course, there wasn’t room on the day for much analysis, but a striker was telling me of how he didn’t even know what unions were when they first walked out of the factory. As we decided to head to the refreshments area, he turned to me and said that he never used to drink before the movement started. ‘That’s another thing I learned from them,’ he said.