Anecdotes from my Grandmother

By Kaammini Chanrai

My whole life I have been told how much I resemble my grandmother. I have been approached at parties by people I don’t know, commenting on the uncanny likeness. Friends and family alike have said that our facial expressions, our mannerisms are the same. I once even received a remark about how we share identical eyebrows. My grandmother and I are, indeed, very similar. However the lives we have lived are, quite literally, oceans apart.

My grandmother, or Nani as I call her, was born in Hyderabad, Sindh in 1929 – at the time where the British imperialists were still based in India. After the Partition of India, Nani, as well as all of my other grandparents, were forced to flee their homes. My grandmother and grandfather married in 1954, then moved to Lagos, Nigeria in 1960, whilst it was still under British rule. They have been based there ever since. For every year since I can remember, my grandparents have had a routine. They spend six months of the year in Nigeria, three months in India and three months in the UK. My mother uses this as an explanation for why we are such nomads ourselves – it is truly in our blood.

I think if my grandmother were born in my era, she would classify herself as a feminist. However, Nani is very much product of her time. We very rarely talk about women’s rights because I fear we will argue. I am, to put it lightly, an opinionated individual. And the apple, in this case, does not fall far from the tree. However, I recently found us in a discussion which I have not been able to shake since.

My Nani, reading the latest version of the Evening Standard the other day, began to shake her head in shock. She started to discuss the article that caused her such disgust, and explained that a recent case of honour killing had occurred in the UK. She bemoaned over this tragic occurrence for a few moments, expressing her sadness that such things still happen today. She reflected, to my surprise, about how all cultures are guilty of poor treatment towards women. Then she began to talk about sati.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, sati is a practice whereby a recently widowed woman burns to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, mostly by force but occasionally voluntarily. This heinous Hindu funeral custom was banned in India in 1861 during the British rule. Although this did not occur during my grandmother’s lifetime, her relatives would tell her stories of this growing up. Her dismay was visible as she spoke.

Nani then began to share her own stories with me. My grandmother’s marriage to my grandfather was arranged, and although they have been married for over sixty years, it is quite clear that it was not always an easy ride for them. She tells me about her in-laws.

“They don’t think they have a new daughter-in-law. They think they have a new slave.” She tells me that, in her case, having a joint family was not easy. Every night, she was forced to massage her in-laws feet. Birthday celebrations for her children were cancelled due to family politics. She was not treated like family, she was a second-class citizen. She repeats the word rhabab over and over again.

“Power”, she replies when I ask her its meaning. “I was the youngest. I could not talk. Who would take my side? Who should I complain to?” She is emotive as she explains the family dynamics of her generation. The behaviour of families towards women was a way of asserting control, emphasising authority. She discusses how this has moulded her into the person she is today – the advocate for women that she might not even realise she is.

“I never interfere”, as she describes her relationship with her daughter-in-law. She reflects that times have changed, that mothers-in-law are different. We briefly discuss dowry and how, with my mother’s encouragement, she refused to accept any gifts during her son’s marriage. This might not seem like an achievement, but in a culture where dowry was the done thing, this was.

Whilst there are still gender discriminations that exists within our family, my grandmother has always subscribed to equality of opportunity. She has always supported me to be ambitious in my career. She has always wanted me to strive for more. Perhaps this is because she was never gifted with these same opportunities. The Partition prevented her education, although her father was always keen for her to study. Circumstance dictated her pathway, as it does with us all.

Nani felt that she was denied a voice in her new family. She felt that she did not have the opportunity to express these dreams, these desires. She felt she was silenced.

I truly hope she knows that we are all listening to her now.

The Gendered Costs of Brexit

By Malene Bratlie

The post-Brexit era which we now find ourselves in has felt like a collective break-up, at least in the Remain camp. First came the shock, then the anger, the grief, and finally the brief moments of hope that somehow ‘the greatest political crisis of our time’ would be resolved with some sense of rationality. What the past six weeks have shown the British public, is that rationality seems to be largely absent in the upper political echelons of this country (sorry, Boris). What has also been absent, not only after the results but also during the Brexit debate, is the discussion of what Brexit means for gender equality.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate what the EU has done for gender equality. There is EU legislation which actively obliges EU states to promote gender equality. For instance, the EU Gender Equality Recast Directive ‘prohibits … discrimination on grounds of sex in relation to pay.’ In the 1970s, the European Court of Justice declared that the UK had not fulfilled its obligations to incorporate the concept of equal pay for work of equal value and the UK amended its Equal Pay Act accordingly. And when the Equal Pay Act did not cover occupational pension schemes for part-time workers who are more likely to be women the European Court of Justice advocated for equal pensions for part-time workers. Protection from pregnancy and maternity discrimination, improved protection from sexual harassment and equal pay for female part-time workers are just a few of the many efforts the ECJ have made for a more gender-equal European Union (for a more detailed description of what EU law has done for gender equality, see full report published by The Trade Union Congress).   

It is uncertain what the gendered costs of Brexit will be. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research showed that post-Brexit welfare cuts would hit low-income households the hardest, and particularly the lone parent families with two children. 90% of lone parents are women. According to the TUC’s findings, Brexit may threaten the EU-guaranteed rights for workers as UK governments can deregulate the labour market and reduce ‘burdens’ on businesses. Thus, without the assurances of EU laws, women are at risk of facing a future in which they cannot expect rights to equal treatment, job security and maternity and parental leave. The UK can also say goodbye to the €6.17 billion the EU allocated to achieve gender equality objectives between 2014 and 2020. Some of these objectives include promotion of female entrepreneurship, gender equality in research and better integration of migrant women in the labour market.

Would 52% of women have voted to leave if all of this had been made clear to them during the debate? An ICM poll for the Fawcett Society found that both campaigns largely failed to address issues that women were concerned about. Deborah Mattinson, founder of Britain Thinks suggested that in order to engage female voters, both sides needed to appeal to how the EU personally affects them. She pointed out that ‘the ‘stay’ arguments are much more effective when related to the personal level – talking about potential job losses rather than impacts on trade and investment.’ However, employment issues along with topics such as ‘social security’ and ‘public services’ received less than 10% of media coverage. On the contrary, TV and newspapers gave most attention to the economy and immigration. While the economic aspect of the debate is rightfully pivotal, the possible impact of austerity on women as a result of Brexit was apparently of little importance to mainstream media. It has already been made clear that austerity policies have disproportionately affected women. Additionally, the ubiquitous presence of white, male politicians and experts in both TV and press coverage reveals the entrenched tendency to undervalue women’s opinions and expertise. With the Leave campaign being so fuelled with lies and empty promises, the absence of female voices is another handful of salt sprinkled in a wound that Britain will need time to heal from.

While there is certainly room for improvement in EU’s gender equality agenda, Brexit means that the UK has placed itself outside any discussion that may further enhance women’s rights. If the UK had stayed in the EU we could, for instance, put pressure upon the rather male-dominated institution that the EU is. We could have sought to minimise the ways in which EU’s austerity measures, like the UK, generate multiple gendered damages. It is not likely that because of Brexit, all gender-equality initiatives ever fought for will be thrown out the window. If we move to EEA membership, the UK would be obligated to follow key gender equality objectives. We would, however, lose access to the European Court of Justice, who has played a crucial role for women’s rights in Britain.
Planning UK’s (isolated) future, we need women at the forefront. Because at the moment, I for one am fed up with the absence of women (among other marginalised groups) in major political debates and that, in this ‘meritocratic’ society we supposedly live, white men still dominate. We need women who understand why you may need protection from workplace sexism, who do not rob essential rights from you if you work part-time in order to take care of your children. We need politicians who understand how fiscal policies can have a skewed effect on women’s economic position, such as cuts in the public sector where women make up 65% of the workforce, or when the employment tribunal fees introduced by the coalition government in 2013 resulted in an 80% decrease of women pursuing sex discrimination claims.

In a Britain that currently feels horrendously divided, women must stand together, putting pressure on the Brexit negotiators to protect women’s rights and not treat gender equality measures as a luxury available only in times of economic prosperity.