Chakrabarti is speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 26th NovemberWikiCommons/Southbank Centre

In her new book, Of Women, Shami Chakrabarti tells a story about a girl called Akhona, who has grown up in a township in Cape Town, South Africa.

Like a lot of the girls in her class, Akhona misses school when she has her period because she cannot afford sanitary products. If she has a test at school, she has to use a sock.

Of Women, is a comprehensive analysis of global gender inequality. For Chakrabarti, Akhona’s story shows you cannot separate the struggle for women’s education from reproductive rights and economic liberation.

“Every year a woman spends in education for her and her children it adds something like 15% to her lifetime wealth, she has better health and fewer children and those children are better educated and healthier. And that makes sense to me.”

“Like I say in the book, my mother taught me to read before I went to school and how could she have done that if she hadn’t been educated herself. So it really is the gift that keeps on giving.”

She grew up in suburban north London, the daughter of working-class Bengali immigrants. She went on to study law at the London School of Economics before becoming an in-house lawyer at the Home Office in her 20s. She was just 34 when she took charge of the human rights organisation Liberty before leaving 14 years later to become the Shadow Attorney General for the Labour Party.

Once dubbed ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’ by The Sun for her fierce advocacy for human rights and civil liberties, it is perhaps no surprise Chakrabarti has a taken a different angle to gender inequality than mainstream, liberal feminists.

A consistent criticism of the feminist movement is that it focuses solely on the concerns of white, middle class women in the West. Chakrabarti’s book is an antidote to this problem.

“For western women, even with all our considerable struggles in the UK, if you focus only on the UK, people will quite rightly say: ‘That’s all very well, but what are you doing about the women in Saudi Arabia, and girls in the townships of South Africa who can’t go to school because of the lack of sanitary products. Do you not know how lucky you are?’”

“You can look like you’re narrow and bourgeois and self-interested by not showing your solidarity with your sisters all over the world. That is a real danger. But conversely, if you and me, as relatively privileged women… if we don’t talk about what’s happening under our noses or in our back yard in Britain, and we deign just to talk about Saudi Arabia and South Sudan, then it’s kind of ‘Who the hell are we?’”

“We’re pretending we’re superior and ignoring the profound sexism and misogyny in the Palace of Westminster and we’re pontificating about the rest of the world.”

“This is self-evidently a radical moment in politics”

In a world which is increasingly shutting its borders, confining its refugees to detention centres, and witnessing a resurgence of the far right, Chakrabarti’s insistence on a global, radical feminism is refreshing.

She says: “Well, it’s an anti-Trump statement in a way. I don’t want to say this is just an anti-Trump statement because Trump isn’t just Trump, Trump represents a whole way of thinking, and we have our own Trumps in our own backyard."

"I do think it was interesting that one of the responses to his election was the worldwide demonstrations of women. I went on the demonstration in London. And, yes, for the most part it was a women’s demonstration. But there were banners in support of Mexicans, and not building walls, and banners in support of refugees and all the people that Trump would condemn. I think these things are obviously interconnected.”

The urgency for Chakrabarti to write this book came, in part, out of recognition that “this is self-evidently a radical moment in politics”. This radical moment, however, could go one way or another: “To put it bluntly, it’s a Trump moment or it’s a Corbyn moment and I know which side I’m on.”

“But, that said, it’s incredibly important to me that the cause of gender justice and women’s equality does not get left out of the radical thinking and the progressive movement. It cannot become sidelined or niche or a single issue, because I don’t see it that way.”

“I see the woman’s cause as something that cannot possibly be separated from your whole worldview or foreign policy, home policy, health policy, and, in particular, economic policy.”

"Women are at the bottom of the pile economically."

Chakrabati’s book is “a powerful, urgent and timely polemic on why women still need equality”Penguin Books

For Chakrabarti, on account of the pivotal nature of this moment in politics,  it is necessary to pick a political side in the fight.

The solutions that Of Women offers are political ones: a reassessment of the value of women’s labour; redistribution of wealth; and investment in public services. Chakrabarti’s feminism is unapologetically partisan:

“To put it bluntly, we’re having this interview on Budget Day, so to give you just one of many examples of this argument, austerity is a feminist issue.”

“Women are at the bottom of the pile economically. Women need those public services more and women work in those public services more. We now live in the sixth wealthiest country in the world with nurses – working nurses, professionally trained people – and they’re going to food banks.”

“Now, I don’t think we can address that without addressing austerity, which is obviously a party political issue. It’s certainly a cut/spend, traditionally left/right issue.  This is at the heart of what we think of as conventional politics,which is: who do you tax? How much do you tax them? And what do you do with that money?”

“I don’t think you can have gender budgeting and lift women not just out of poverty but into equal pay, affirmative action and universal childcare and all the things I think are vital to the lot of women worldwide and in the UK without being, I’m afraid, quite partisan.”

Exactingly researched and well-furnished with statistics, Of Women is a defiant statement of evidence in a post-truth age. This is another rejection of a ‘Trump ideology’.  

“I don’t believe in post-fact. I know there are lots of things that are matters of opinion but I do think there’s nothing like hard evidence for making an argument.”

“I did originally train as a lawyer and you know there’s nothing like a beautiful argument and a beautiful pleading. But there’s also nothing like evidence and I think when you put some of those startling statistics about inequality before people – and also the consequences of inequality in terms of women’s health and so on – I challenge anybody not to sit up and notice, if not be positively moved by it.”

"Your generation of feminists is already putting us to shame"


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Yet despite this unfaltering faith in statistics, the political is inevitably inspired by the personal. Chakrabarti identifies as some of her motivation coming from her own life: “I’m in my late forties, I lost my mother about six years ago now, and it causes a moment of reflection – the middle aged moment to put it bluntly – being at the top of the escalator when you’re mum’s not around anymore.”

“These are moments of reflection and in particular I think about her generation and her struggles and think about my generation and wonder if we’ve done enough. I think we haven’t, my generation of feminists.”

“Your generation of feminists is already putting us to shame and you start thinking that way when you are, I’m afraid, middle aged.”

From the global to the personal, this is an issue that Shami Chakrabarti refuses to leave alone

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