‘Women in Public Life’ a speech made by Rahila Gupta at a Feminism in London event

Author Rahila Gupta
Author Rahila Gupta

Most people start with thank yous. I have to start with provisos: If one of the defining qualities of a woman in public life is instant name recognition, then all of you would be forgiven for asking Rahila – Who? I had the same reaction – when I was asked to participate in this panel – what  moi? So here I am feeling like the Great Pretender, someone who has always been more comfortable as a backroom girl, pontificating about a space to which I have only a peripheral connection.

Which brings me to my first point  about public life – visibility and our fields of vision.  The moment any one of us sticks our head above the parapet, beyond the confines of our immediate friends and family, we enter that ill-defined space – the public space. But there are spaces within spaces. When I started my journalistic career, as editor of Shakti, a Southall based Asian youth magazine, which was published bi-monthly if we got lucky, and sold perhaps 200 copies, I would have been known to my readership but would that have qualified me as a woman in public life?  When I joined the editorial collective of Outwrite, a feminist and anti-imperialist newspaper, with a much larger readership, ditto – I would have figured in the field of vision of feminists who may not otherwise have come across me as editor of Shakti.  So to qualify for this description as a woman in public life, if we are not to interpret it strictly as public appointment or presence in Parliament or local government, she has to straddle separate and overlapping communities defined by interest, gender, race, sexuality etc. Or she has to be visible in the national conversation which today often means – visible in the media.

But this public space is unfaithful, shifting in its loyalties, finding new voices,  looking for the media savvy, photogenic, queen of the sound-bite, promoting the cult of the new but not anything that is radical enough to challenge the status quo in any fundamental way  – this is the dialectic of the public space and the terms on which it is leased to us. So I think it is less interesting to frame the question in terms of the barriers and ceilings that stop women getting into public life (although inevitably I will talk about that) because it should be less about individuals and more about the ideas they bring. We need to transform the shape of that public space and soften it up for more radical ideas to occupy centre stage. So the question needs to be reframed as: feminists in public life.  There’s enough sellouts occupying and wasting the space they have been given. It’s not primarily about gender but politics. I feel the space needs to be capacious enough to hold the individual and the movement that she embodies. When Mandela was writing his autobiography, it was overseen by ANC colleagues who sensed that the text would be important to the movement. ‘As such, his public utterances were never entirely his own.’  When I was writing Provoked, the story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, the Asian woman who killed her violent husband after 10 years and was released on appeal after a legal and political campaign waged by Southall Black Sisters, all of SBS was involved in the final edit.  BTW, the parallel with Mandela stops there.

Of course this raises the question of representation and its limits. On whose behalf should we/do we speak? When I make a plea for responsibility beyond our individual selves, I am also aware of how the media, in it superficiality, turns individuals into spokespersons for entire communities. But the age of mass production, representation by the very few of the very many and homogenised societies is gone. There are questions of democracy here, which are too complex to go into now but perhaps can be raised in the discussion that follows.

My first attempt to break into the national discourse was on behalf of SBS. I was trying to get publicity for the SBS anthology that I had edited. No national newspaper was prepared to review it. I was surprised. Having shot into public consciousness at the time of the Kiranjit Ahluwalia, I thought the media would be interested in the organisation behind it, its history, its political philosophy. I was wrong. So I found an angle for a comment piece that excited enough interest at the Guardian to get a commission – how the Protection against Harassment act of 1997, originally brought in to protect women against their stalkers, was being used by Huntingdon Life Sciences against animal rights protestors and the implications that it had for all political protest, no less the kind of protest that we ourselves had mounted outside the homes of violent men and their families. At the bottom of the piece, we got a reference to the book – a really tortuous route to publicity but, I guess, more dignified than going via Max Clifford.

After that, most of my proposals for comment pieces were turned down unless they were to do specifically with Asian women but they couldn’t be  too specific either, in case the eyes of the general readership glazed over – so a positive change in the no recourse to public funds immigration rule which affected non-British spouses was considered far too specialist. But neither was I allowed to opine on wider subjects like religion and its links with big business or a critique of the concept of British fairness. Conversely, when they asked if I would like to comment on the Gate Gourmet strike – I was thrilled to be allowed to move beyond violence against women to employment issues.

The point I am trying to make here is that there are limits to what ideas you can drag into the public space. Even in the most liberal spaces, there is  a lingering racism and sexism. When a famous white feminist author dies, black women will not usually be invited to reflect on her life and what she meant to them. We live in a cocoon of honour crimes, forced marriage, and sons with a propensity to terrorism and low achievement in school – what could we possibly know about Andrea Dworkin? When my book, Enslaved, was published which looks at the connections between immigration controls and modern-day slavery, several TV companies approached me about doing a possible documentary on the subject but my solution, open borders went too far for them. Even though the media is always in search of novelty. I argued that  every other aspect of immigration from zero immigration to  managed immigration has been publicly aired – surely open borders, one point on that spectrum, could be, at least, discussed and even rejected. However, self-censorship combined with a fear of ruining their relationships with commissioning editors meant that it went no further. When a discussion of open borders did hit mainstream media, it was as part of the Radio 4 Iconoclasts series, which also included such questions as what’s wrong with having sex with children. Safely tucked away from sight, with other dangerous ideas. When I wrote for Westway, a BBC world drama series based in a multi-cultural medical centre in West London, where we had a surprising amount of leeway to look sympathetically at asylum seekers, for example, there would always be a point beyond which you could not go. And that dead end was  justified on the basis of the rules of drama, of whether the audience would lose interest, of whether the characterisation would not ring true – it was never framed in terms of politics and how far you could or could not go.

I have described the brick walls I have encountered not as a long whine but to provide a basis on which to pose the following questions: To what extent does our narrative of resistance get diluted by the rules of engagement? As a political activist once observed, how can we march meaningfully to protest against the state when we have to ask the police for permission on the route that we can take?  Can we fight power with its consent? To what extent do you compromise?  When we are accommodated by the powers that be, is that a sign that our ideas have lost their radical edge? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Could it indicate that public opinion has shifted in our direction? Should we take that as a sign of our success? Is the idea that we should never get comfortable in the public space, that we are simply squatting, trespassing – a way of thinking that we acquired as young radicals and now to be discarded?

They say that good questions are worth their weight in gold. I look forward to the discussion.

Rahila Gupta, 23 October 2010

This article was acquired for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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Rahila Gupta is a writer and journalist. Her last book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery, explores the role of immigration controls in enslaving people with no formal status here. @RahilaG 


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