International Women’s Day: ‘You must speak your own truth’
Eastern Eye spoke to several influential women to mark International Women’s Day on Monday (from clockwise: Dr Nikita Kanani, Dr Farzana Hussain, Naga Munchetty, Bina Mehta)
by LAUREN CODLING
AS THE world celebrates International Women’s Day on Monday (8), it is important to reflect on the progress made during a challenging year for many.
Eastern Eye spoke to several influential women to find out what they have learnt about themselves during the last 12 months and any gender-based challenges they may have faced…
What have you learnt about yourself in the last year?
Dr Nikita Kanani, medical director of primary care at NHS England: The past 12 months have tested my personal resilience, as I am sure they have for many others. I think having worked for so long now in a high-pressure environment, retaining kindness and compassion towards my colleagues, friends and family have been important. I’m very proud of my profession and of all my NHS colleagues for everything they have done for their patients and communities during the pandemic. It has been a truly humbling experience.
Naga Munchetty, journalist and host of BBC Breakfast: I’ve learned that although I enjoy my independence, I thrive when I spend time with my people. I need face-to-face and physical contact. I can’t wait to hug and be roaring with laughter in a group of my loved ones again.
Bina Mehta, acting chair of KPMG UK: Throughout my career, I have always been inspired by people who have faced adversity and kept going. Resilience and determination are what I admire the most, and this year I have found new role models in abundance. From colleagues giving up their own time to support their local community and key workers keeping our country going, through to business leaders supporting their people and families juggling caring responsibilities with work – I have learned that role models really do come in all shapes and sizes.
Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust: One lesson above all has been reiterated to me these last 12 months. From the millions of us who have held families together through lockdown, to vaccine experts such as Prof Sarah Gilbert and heads of government such as (New Zealand’s) Jacinda Ardern, when crisis is upon the world, never underestimate the resilience, selfless dedication and leadership of women. To do so is literally to jeopardise life.
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West and shadow secretary for housing: My friends and family have always been very important to me. But over the last year, I have learned how much we need each other when things get tough. After a year spent mostly in my small corner of Bristol, I’ve also got a much deeper appreciation for my local surroundings. This includes the owners of shops and other essential businesses who have been a fundamental part of the local community over this difficult year.
Lolita Chakrabarti, actress and writer: Two things I’ve learned. The first is about the value of good friends and family. It’s really easy to forget about the importance of having those close relationships when you’re rushing about with your work or looking after your kids, but those relationships make you feel better. The other thing is the importance of speaking up. It has been such a volatile time over the last 12 months – from the Black Lives Matter movement to the goings-on with (former US president) Donald Trump. All these have been seismic shifts in the world when we’re not allowed to get together and discuss them (due to the pandemic). With the divisiveness present in the world, it’s really important that you speak your own truth.
Dr Farzana Hussain, NHS clinical director and GP: Living through the Covid pandemic, being a mum and a GP; and taking on my first national role as a healthcare leader in the past year, it has been both busy and exciting. I have learned that it is possible to achieve our goals by being compassionate and working in collaboration. My role model is (New Zealand prime minister) Jacinda Ardern who has shown the world how to lead and keep the people of her country safe. Providing healthcare and saving lives have never been more important, and I am so privileged to be a GP. I feel that being kind to each other is more important than ever in these times.
Dr Binita Kane, NHS consultant respiratory physician: Having worked on the NHS frontline during the pandemic over the past 12 months, I have learned to focus on self-care and practice gratitude for much that I had taken for granted. Working more from home has given me the opportunity to do small but beautiful things – lunch with my family, an afternoon walk, listening to birdsong. I feel that among the madness and devastation of Covid-19, I have been able to pause and see the beauty around me in a way I never have before.
Preeya Kalidas, actress: I have learned the importance of gratitude and the ability to have the power to control your own mindset. This past year has been testing in a way that none of us have experienced before, but I didn’t know how much strength and resilience I had until now.
Natasha Rattu, barrister and executive director at Karma Nirvana: I have been astounded by my resilience in adapting to this strange new normal. As a mother of two children, it’s been tough to homeschool, manage a heavy workload (that became heavier due to Covid-19), run a household and stay mentally well through it all. I have also honed in on truly appreciating the little things in life and definitely refined my chocolate chip banana bread recipe too!
Neema Shah, author of Kololo Hill: Although the past 12 months has been challenging in many ways, creatively speaking I’ve been able to take solace in writing and have found that I can not only keep going but thrive in my creative endeavours. As an introvert, it’s also interesting to see how much of society is built around extroverts. Lockdown has had its difficulties, but I’ve certainly welcomed a break from endless social events and gatherings. The pandemic has opened my eyes – and many others I’m sure – to how we can build a fairer, more accessible world.
Adeeba Malik CBE, deputy chief executive of QED Foundation: I have learned two things over the last 12 months. First, I am very lucky and grateful to God for all I have – my health, the people in my life, my wonderful career, the wide-ranging experiences and opportunities I have. Second, the personal sacrifices I am prepared to make to protect my beautiful mum who has been shielding for a year. She means everything to me.
Tell us of a time when you have overcome a gender-based challenge?
Prof Aisha K Gill, PhD CBE, professor of criminology at University of Roehampton: Despite receiving death threats from those who think I have brought shame on my community for naming and calling out violence against women, I remain steadfast in my campaigning and securing justice for black and minority ethnic, and refugee women and girls. In June 2020, I set up an emergency Covid-19 fund for survivors of abuse with two friends. This emergency ‘no recourse to public funds’ campaign has to date raised more than £65,000. The economic safety of victims and survivors must be guaranteed, and social support available to them extended through proper access to secure housing and welfare services. The government urgently needs transparent decision-making that fosters equity in the distribution of expenditure, including to ‘by and for’ independent, specialist domestic violence and abuse services.
Bushra Nasir CBE DL, CEO of the Drapers’ Multi-Academy Trust and retired head teacher: I was only one of three women who were heads of science – the other 12 were men in Waltham Forest in the 1980s. It was really difficult for us three to get our voices heard at heads of science meetings as they were male dominated. We decided to plan a way forward together and included one of us being elected as chair after one year. The dynamics and the focus of the meetings changed significantly after that.
Sheree Atcheson, computer scientist and global director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Peakon: In an interview process, I found I was described as “arrogant”, despite just clearly saying I was good at what I do. Despite what we have been taught by a patriarchal society, women’s confidence must not be diminished for anyone. Never give anyone the privilege of telling you to be quiet. Own your successes, understand your growth areas and be your own biggest fan.
Halima Khan, founder and managing director of Opening Boundaries: (I experienced gender-based challenges during) my initial training with the Royal Navy as a reservist. A career with the military has historically been male dominated, coupled with the cultural challenges of being female and coming from a south Asian community. I pushed the limits of “cultural norms” by completing my training and living a life beyond limits. I hope seeing more women and those from diverse communities will encourage others to pursue a career in the armed forces.