Shami Chakrabarti: Gender Injustice Is "An Apartheid" For Men And Women

Photo: Roddy Paine
The conversation about the sexual harassment and toxic misogyny at the heart of British politics has already quietened down since the scandal erupted back in October. Theresa May's plans to tackle it were criticised as toothless and, now that Brexit's firmly back on the agenda, sexual harassment policies in Westminster are probably not at the top of her to-do list. There's a risk the whole thing will simply fade from public consciousness. So what can be done to ensure the scandal doesn't become a flash in the pan?
Shami Chakrabarti has a few ideas. The Labour politician and shadow attorney general's new book about gender inequality, Of Women In The 21st Century, just so happened to be released as the scandal broke. Chakrabarti, a barrister and former head of human rights organisation Liberty for 13 years, takes a global view of gender inequality and makes a strong case for gender injustice being the most severe human rights abuse happening right now.
Chakrabarti has always divided opinion – The Sun once called her “the most dangerous woman in Britain”, while Loaded labelled her an “anarchist in a wig” – but the last few years have been particularly difficult. She came under scrutiny after being awarded a peerage in 2016 shortly after the publication of her report on anti-Semitism and racism in the Labour party, and has been criticised for sending her son to private school. Left-wing publications have dedicated features to her "fall from grace", yet the message in Of Women will undoubtedly chime with a lot of liberals. Refinery29 spoke to Chakrabarti about the sexual harassment scandal, the pep talk she'd give her younger self and how Labour might soon finally be led by a woman.
How important do you think language is when we speak about gender inequality? You refer to it as a human rights issue rather than a "women's issue". Do you think more people should be speaking about it in those terms?
Whatever works. Language is there to be used creatively and persuasively and you speak to people in whatever language they speak and understand. I’m not afraid of calling myself a feminist but I understand that it puts some people off. The important thing for me was to produce evidence. In terms of numbers at least, gender injustice is the biggest human rights abuse on the planet, not just for women who make up half the population, but for men too. I call it an apartheid – and I know that’s strong language but I’ve chosen it carefully because I think I can justify it – in terms of structural segregation and inequality, and men are affected too. Young men, in particular, suffer from the depression that goes with the construct of masculinity, with high rates of substance abuse and suicide.
Do you think some of the negative press coverage you’ve received, like Diane Abbott, might be because you're a woman of colour?
It might be. To be honest, it’s easier to reflect on other people than on yourself and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s easier to be dispassionate about other people than about yourself and I didn’t write this book from a position of victimhood and it’s not a memoir. I do reflect on some personal experiences but it’s mostly not a memoir, it’s an attempt at something bigger and broader. I’ve always wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I don’t feel particularly unfortunate, I’m an extraordinarily fortunate person if you look at the state of the planet. But the trick is to do something with that good fortune and hopefully do something for all of us.
The sexual harassment scandal, in parliament and beyond, is ongoing; have you experienced sexual harassment yourself?
Of course I have, haven’t you?
Have you ever experienced it here [in parliament]?
I haven’t been here for that long and I’ve been coming here for years as a civil servant, but I haven’t really experienced sexual harassment here, but I’ve certainly heard the stories. There’s sexual harassment and there’s just the bullying, and there are aspects of the whip system that are almost institutionalised [bullying].
How much of the bullying is sexist?
It’s all mixed up, isn’t it? Abuses of power are often complex and they are primarily about power even more than they are about sex. It’s age over youth, seniority over inferiority and class, [as well as] the sexism stuff. It’s not really surprising – just a few months before the election, a very senior conservative MP in the House of Commons made “woof woof” noises when a young woman MP got up to speak. He then said he was just showing his appreciation or whatever, but in the chamber of the House of Commons. Now, that’s on the public record, so if that’s happening in plain view, what do you think is going to be happening in little corners and crevices?

The dam has burst, but it needs to be beyond celebrities – we’ve had Hollywood, we’ve had Westminster, but there’s got to be more than a “metoo” hashtag.

How can we ensure that these issues – sexual harassment and abuse – stay in the spotlight?
Well the dam has burst, but it needs to be beyond celebrities – we’ve had Hollywood, we’ve had Westminster, but there’s got to be more than a “MeToo” hashtag. For a campaign for justice of any kind to work well, and I remember it with race equality and gay equality movements, what you need is a combination of the high-profile news stories and celebrities, but also the conversations in people’s living rooms, the demonstrations on the streets, the action in terms of politics and legislation and the storylines in soap operas. In any serious campaign for justice, you have to come at it from a number of different angles and everybody can play their part.
It has to be in the living room, in the newsroom, in parliamentary chambers, on the shop floor, you want everybody talking about this stuff and reflecting a little bit on their relationships. I want people to think ‘This could be my daughter’, ‘This has happened to me but I don’t want it to happen to my daughter’. I have a 15-year-old son and no daughters, but if I had a daughter of that age, what would I be saying to her? I wouldn't want to be looking a teenage girl in the eye and training them to be guarded in the workplace. I want them to be confident and bold. If there’s socialising after work, they should think, ‘Yeah that’s great, I love my work, I want to be part of the continued conversation’. They shouldn’t have to be worried about what’s going to happen in the taxi on the way home. So it’s got to be at every level of the national conversation.
What role, then, do boys and men play in all this? How have you spoken to your son about it? I read that he called Of Women your “crappy feminist book”...
I’ve been told off for saying that because it’s probably a bit unfair on him [laughs]. It was a sort of joke. So far, so good in terms of that, but it’s a work in progress and as I say, it’s as hard for young men as it is for young women because it’s not easy to be put in that cage of masculinity. One minute it’s fine to be a sensitive little boy who plays with little girls and cries, and the next minute you’re supposed to be a cool tough guy and these things run really deep. All you can really do is keep the conversation going.
Are there any specific things we should say to young boys in terms of how they treat women?
Yeah, they should think about how they'd want their mother and sister to be treated, and be reminded that other girls are someone else’s sister or mother. There’s that weird thing about ‘Don’t diss my mum’, and in a sense human rights are always about that. Treating other people as you would treat someone you really value in your own life. Really, that’s what you want all men to think about. If they thought that way, I think they would instinctively behave so much better.
One of your suggestions for combatting sexist abuse on social media is policing the internet. How would this work in practice?
The first proposition is that what’s a crime in the real world, is a crime online, it’s just not getting policed and enforced because there aren’t sufficient resources, skills or both for law enforcement to keep pace with this stuff. There needs to be more investment, it’s as simple as that, so they can police this. Imagine you were given this territory to police, and you were given Greater London and told, ‘Here’s your budget, you have to police this’, but now there’s a whole other massive online space that you have to police, too. And [if the trolls are] abroad? There needs to be international cooperation as we have with terrorism and organised crime. So that’s the first thing, we need to invest in, resource and skill up existing law enforcement for things that are a crime.
Secondly, there are things that aren't necessarily a crime but are very unpleasant for women and risk chasing them away from these spaces. If some horrible bloke came up to us now and started being a nuisance – not necessarily what you’d think of as criminal behaviour – in any sort of self-respecting establishment, there’s going to be a point where someone may come over and ask this guy to leave. That’s what happens in pubs, clubs, restaurants and shops up and down the land. That’s not criminal enforcement, but that is saying, ‘This is not a public street, this is an establishment that we’re inviting people into and we’re going to have some rules that are a bit higher than criminal law’. The Facebooks and Twitters say they do that but they could do better and if they don’t, then there will come a point when consumers, as we all are, should be thinking about what our response is.

Jeremy’s legacy of bright, young, bold women within the party will be extensive and from that legacy will come the first Labour woman prime minister and it’s about time, too.

We spoke about Labour and its progress with women, but why has the party still never had a woman leader? And what difference do you think it would make if it were to happen?
I think it’s necessary but not sufficient. Having a woman leader, by itself, is not enough for any progressive movement. It’s perfectly possible to have one woman sitting there, imposing austerity and not investing in childcare or in basic income or in all the things that women desperately need. It’s 2017 and nurses are going to food banks and at my local supermarket, the meat cupboard is locked. Now think about that. A homeless person is not going to steal a chicken breast because they can’t cook it, and an organised criminal is not going to a little supermarket to steal meat to repackage because it’s just not worth it. So who is stealing little polystyrene trays with clingfilm and a chicken breast? That’s somebody who wants to take it home to their family and cook it. To me, that is deeply shocking. This isn’t going to be solved by having a woman instead of a man in Number 10.
However, if you have the right policies and a woman leader, you have a double whammy because you have the right policies and the right role model and inspiration [for other women and girls]. I think the next leader of the Labour party – and that won’t be for a while, and hopefully it’ll be after a period in government – should be a woman. I’ve said this many times and no one has slapped me down. My boss [Jeremy Corbyn] hasn’t slapped me down.
Two things on that: One, do you think the right candidates are there? Two, do you think there’s an appetite among the members to vote for a woman?
Yes and yes. And Jeremy is a very feminist man. I get the insight and privilege of watching how he conducts himself when he’s chairing shadow cabinet and when he’s encouraging young women in particular, and there are a lot of candidates now, from different generations. You’ve got your senior women, your Emily Thornberry-type generation, but you’ve also got the next generation down who are in their 30s. Jeremy’s legacy of bright, young, bold women within the party will be extensive and from that legacy will come the next leader of the party and the first Labour woman prime minister and it’s about time, too.
Thinking about your own life and everything you've learned from writing the book, what advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in your career?
I would encourage my younger self to be more confident. My motto now, and it took me many years to arrive at this, is that everyone’s equal, no one’s superior. That’s the sentiment I would want to get across to my younger self but also to you, everyone of your age and younger. That self-deprecation needs to go.
I read that part of your inspiration for the book was your mum, a university-educated Bengali immigrant who was forced out of a career due to lack of affordable childcare. What exactly was it about her that inspired you?
I’ve spent time reflecting on her life. I’m in my late 40s now and my mother died six years ago quite suddenly. A sudden death in the family is better for the person who died as they don’t have a long, horrible, lingering death, but it’s quite a shock for the people left behind. A shock like that takes a bit of time to process, and maybe I still am, but I started thinking about my mother’s life, her limited life chances compared to mine and what she tried to do for me.
Do you think your mum’s lack of opportunities motivated you in your own career?
I do. I certainly had opportunities that she never had and she encouraged me. Even though my parents were Indians of that generation and even though my mother was not encouraged by her parents in the way I was, there was never any doubt that they would encourage me to be whatever I wanted to be. They never limited my expectations on the basis of being a girl. They never said, ‘You must go and do your A-levels but then you must go and get married’. They didn’t differentiate between my younger brother and me in that way. Of course, there was pink and blue and all of that, but that was just coming with the culture. Their approach to parenting a daughter was actually quite a feminist approach.
How can we, as women, support the younger generation of feminists? And how can older women help younger women to stand up for themselves in the workplace?
That’s a huge responsibility and you have to do it in the moment. That means recruiting them, promoting them, encouraging them, dealing with them when they come to you with their concerns and problems and not covering them up as may have happened with these recent [sexual harassment] scandals.
I hope I’ve always been an encourager of younger women, not just in campaigning terms but in the workplace. It’s a huge responsibility – it’s in the workplace, it’s in the family, it’s in the community and I think we should all take it very seriously. Take up the opportunity to speak in schools, mentor someone or be a referee, even though sometimes it’s a bit hard on top of everything else, it’s worth doing.
Of Women: In The 21st Century by Shami Chakrabarti is out now.

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series