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International Women’s Day II: The Eye of the Storm

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Last week’s article entitled ‘Weathering Storms’ spoke about how women have borne the burden during the past year of Covid. This week is about the eye of the storm and the conditions that create the perfect storm where women are systematically shut up, shut down and failed and what we might do to overcome that.

In February and March 2020, which seems lifetime ago, I was invited to take part in two very different Women’s Day panels one if which also involved conducting a focused break-out session prior to the plenary and Q&A. My specialist area was Gender, Colour and the Criminal Justice System. Little did I know that that the Summer of the incredible Black Lives Matter movement was soon to take place, engendering a global awakening to the issues of race and racism in the 21st century.

In the session we discussed the inherent bias in the system and society; furthermore, how women and people of colour (I do not like that phrase, but I loathe the term ‘non-white’ too) are disproportionately represented throughout the criminal justice system. I also added that women and people of colour are much more likely to be in the mental health system and oftentimes women who needed mental health care, instead found themselves incarcerated in institutions or prisons, where over medication was rife. If the woman happened to be black this chance was amplified.

The men, women and students who partook in the session were genuinely shocked, never having considered the fact that people were locked up not due to crime and misdemeanour, but their gender or skin. That some people, or groups of people had been handled or punished unfairly simply because of the colour of their skin and that still happened in this day and age seemed unfathomable. By June last year and the horrendous murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor everyone was aware of the bigotry meted out and prejudice experienced by so many. By then we had all heard the phrase systemic racism.

Overt racism and sexism is easier to spot and perhaps tackle. Insidious racism is more pervasive and harder to call-out. Everyday micro-aggressions towards women and those of us with darker skin tones are rife and wear people down. On the eve of Women’s Day an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, was aired in the US watched by 17 million. In the UK 12 million tuned in on the evening of March 8th, Women’s Day itself. I watched the entire interview in context, as opposed to the snippets and sound bites of new reports which skewed the answers to fit their particular narrative.

The revelations of racism and mental health issues exposed by the interview were termed incendiary, divisive hand grenades, and so on. However, for many women, people from so-dubbed ethnic minorities, those battling with mental health and women who are patently not heard, this was not revelatory, it was simply (and sadly) daily existence.

People asked: How can a strong, independent, financially secure well-known person with a voice and celebrity platform be silent or silenced? That is so easy to answer as it has been in evidence since time immemorial. In fact, as I mentioned in last week’s column, it is often powerful or outspoken women who are muzzled in this way and prevented from shining a light on an issue or speaking their truth – a metaphorical scold’s bridle. Speaking one’s truth has become a well used phrase and can simply be perceived as a version of events; it can also be something fundamentally deeper that resonates universally.

To many women and particularly those who are black, brown, yellow, red and every wonderful mix and hue in between Meghan Markle’s truth may have echoed their own. The fallout from the interview: that she had intentionally attacked the monarchy, was perhaps predictable and deflected from her very real cry for help. A person who did not see herself as a victim, is in fact an advocate for the rights of women and girls, being put in that position seemed unthinkable, yet it was all too evident. Harry’s mother, Diana was said to have hurled explosives at the British monarchy and was castigated for giving her version of events and struggling mental health in an interview in her own words. History appeared to be repeating itself in certain aspects.

The following morning I watched an interview with a wonderful barrister who happened to be black and a woman, saying that she did not find the revelations at all surprising. She experienced racism daily even from other barrister colleagues – out of the 17,000 or so barristers in the UK only 479 are black and just under 1500 are Asian or mixed (an interesting non-differentiation) . She felt she had to put on her armour every day. This is on the heels of Alexandra Wilson, another black female barrister, who stated in August last year that she was accused of being a defendant on grounds of race.

 I was part of that world once and recall the shocked look on faces of students I have spoken to about bias and stereotypes, when I said that as a newly qualified in my early 20s and part of a legal team on a 4-month case in the High Court in London, I was asked if I was the solicitor, probation officer, clerk or witness on different occasions. Only when I put on my wig and gown (the uniform of a British barrister) were people then suddenly falling over themselves to carry my bag and tidy my papers. I refused. I was the same girl regardless of their prejudice and my fancy dress.

It was no coincidence that Meghan chose to conduct her interview with Oprah, who herself has overcome huge and inherent prejudice to become the leading female media mogul on the planet and reportedly the richest black woman in the world.  As a billionaire she is in the minority, but as a woman of colour in the context of the world she is not. With 4.5 billion of the world’s population residing in Asia the idea of the white majority is a myth. Similarly the ratio of men to women is roughly 50:50. So-called minority issues affect far more than we think and by extension over half the world is judged and treated badly and unfairly on the basis of race and gender. If Meghan Markle’s interview drew attention to that alone and made certain people sit up and think then, however self-focused, it served a purpose and further ensured that people understand that the issues of race and gender and mental health are not going away any time soon. Women, quite rightly, refuse to be placated, sidelined or silenced.

Many others were voicing their truths their wishes and challenges on Women’s Day. My dear friend and ‘sister’ Kamal Bodhanker Head of International Development for an organisation working to support and champion children and young people with and learning differences is an example. In the Choose to Challenge initiative a theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, she chose to challenge inequities in education seeking ‘to improve the aspirations and outcomes for children and using people with special educational needs and disabilities around the world’. Wonderful, necessary, compassionate work.

Launching in collaboration with Mangolimag (which is after all set up by exceptional ex-pat women) is a series of interviews with women with whom I have worked, who are friends, women I admire and who have influenced my journey. The first is the former head of UN Women India whom I first met over a dozen years ago in South America.  Her fascinating, trailblazing story spans an incredible career over different continents. The series ‘ Formidable Women: Tales from Trailblazers’ starts soon.

My wish for Women’s Day is that we stand up for what we believe in and recognize the incredible role models for our children regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental differences who choose to stand up and speak out against injustice pertaining to race, gender, sexual orientation and physical or mental differences, so that everyone is seen and everyone is heard. That we are able to encourage and advocate for those who feel powerless to speak up for themselves, and support those who put their heads above the parapet, so that ultimately we are able as collective communities to listen and learn without prejudice.

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