Shami Chakrabarti at the Festival of Ideas

Fran Newton reviews Shami Chakrabarti’s diverse and widely scoped talk on feminism at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. 

Shami Chakrabarti is the former director of Liberty (a civil liberties advocacy group), Shadow Attorney General, and – at the risk of sounding kinda nerdy – one of my idols. I’ve always admired her work on human rights, so when I heard that she was releasing a book about gender injustice – On Women – well, you can imagine how this keeno editor of a campus feminist magazine reacted. And when I heard she was coming to Bristol to give a talk to promote that book, I took a seat among the rest of the broadly middle-aged, bespectacled, knit-wearing audience (potentially a glimpse into my own future).

The talk began with Shami reading an extract from the introduction of On Women, which addressed and condemned the state of women’s human rights all over the world, even going so far as to call the situation an ‘apartheid’. Shami was then interviewed by Katie Bales, a lecturer in Law at Bristol Uni.

Donald Trump, of course, reared his coiffured head early in the conversation. Frankly, no discussion of the global state of women’s rights in 2018 could start anywhere other than the unbelievability of such an outright misogynist being elected to office. Shami spoke about the racialisation of the 2016 election, particularly acknowledging the fact that stats afterward showed how white women voted for Trump vastly more than black and Latina women. As half the world’s population, women harbour the power for our own liberation – but Shami described how, precisely because of those huge numbers, women ‘don’t band together, because we have conflicting loyalties to families and countries and classes and races and so on.’ It’s important, she suggested, for women to reflect on this, and to consider how they can use their collective power more effectively to help each other. She went on to address the fact that we live in a ‘shrinking world’, and that ‘everything has repercussions everywhere else’, meaning that it’s all the more crucial to avoid being narrow-minded in our conception of gender injustice.

Moving on from this, Shami considered the situations which contribute to gender injustice. Problems like violence against women and sexual harassment, she said, ‘cannot be separated from the socio-economic issues and situations around the world.’ If we really want to change things, women need to be given more authoritative power in spheres like governance and business. ‘In Hollywood – in every other industry – you want a critical mass of women at the board table, looking at the books and where the money is going, and being the boss.’ Importantly, she added, those women have a responsibility to not only look out for each other – they also need to be protecting the women ‘serving at those tables, cleaning those tables, building those tables, all the way through the supply chain’. She repeatedly returned to the need for women to band together and to be prepared to look out for those outside of their own demographic group – particularly, of course, middle-class white women, whose privilege, she noted, has been epitomised in much of the short-sightedness surrounding this year’s suffrage centenary celebrations.

Shami also spoke about the chapter of her book entitled ‘Home’, which deals with the crisis of the lack of housing on an international scale. When asked whether she thought gender impacted access to adequate social housing, she replied, ‘of course it does’: women face particular vulnerabilities in homelessness – ‘whether you’re in Bristol or South Sudan’ – and are more likely to be affected by being trapped in household situations like abusive relationships as a result of having nowhere else to go. On the subject of the commoditization of housing, she advocated for a view of adequate shelter as a human right, rather than as a luxury or bonus. The commoditization of housing in cities was directly linked to the fact that, ‘on a daily basis, you see more and more people on the streets’.

Katie Bales then moved on to the subject of Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, where a number of women detainees have recently been on hunger strike. As director of Liberty, Shami spent years campaigning against detention without charge, which, she acknowledged, is widely condemned everywhere, except for in the context of immigration. Victims of immigration detention, she noted, are often ‘vulnerable women, who are traumatised from their country of origin,’ and who ‘come to Britain, because Britain is meant to be a safe place’. She spoke with frustration about the myopia of certain individuals in the political sphere who will ‘celebrate the Suffragettes, but turn a blind eye to the women in Yarl’s Wood’. At the very least, she said, we need to end the idea of ‘indefinite detention’: as one of the richest countries on the planet, the UK needs to ‘think about our responsibilities to treat people humanely’.


When asked about women’s education – particularly, the lack of women in STEM – Shami put forward the novel idea that it is the responsibility of humanities subjects, too, to change the narrative they tell about female pioneers, citing the film Hidden Figures as a piece of art which challenged assumptions about women – and especially women of colour – in STEM. The conversation then moved on to the gender pay gap, which, Shami asserted, it will be impossible to effectively combat in the UK until some legislation passes that ‘has teeth’. With the current legislation, she reported that ‘a woman, of her own volition, is supposed to find out what everyone else is getting paid, and then, when she realises that she is not being paid the same as her male colleagues for equivalent work, she’s supposed to sue her employer,’ and Katie Bales added that that woman be expected to pay ‘a substantial fee’ to do so. Simply put, this is not a realistic way of combating the issue, and Shami called for more appropriate laws, which would allow the government to audit companies on their gender payment. ‘Transparency is the first step,’ she said.

In the following Q&A section, a number of other subjects were covered, including pornography, anti-Semitism in the Labour party, the self-sustaining nature of the patriarchy, and the reception of On Women – honestly, too much interesting and important stuff to recount here.

My first interactions with Shami’s work came through reading her previous book, On Liberty, in which she discusses her beliefs about, and her experience advocating for, civil liberties. Coming to feminist discourse from this perspective – a legal perspective – gives Shami, as a speaker, a factual understanding of the issues and seriousness of gender injustice, and how and why legislation really makes a difference, which, to be honest, is something that has often been lacking in other feminist speakers I’ve heard. She knows the details about housing, immigration detention, the women working low-paid jobs to support their families – these are the problems that, in the broadly middle-class student-feminist bubble of Bristol Uni, are often overlooked. Shami Chakrabarti is not a pop-culture feminist, and when so much of the feminist discourse I consume takes place on a pop-culture plane, that’s hugely refreshing, and, more than that, reassuring.

Illustration by Maria Paradinas.

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