International Women’s Day 2021 Q & A – Simran Chawla

For International Women’s Day 2021, we hosted an incredibly well-attended Zoom event, themed around “Women in leadership”

The panel for this event consisted of our friends Wupya Nandap, Monica Tuohy and Simran Chawla, and was hosted by our CEO, Benaifer. The event featured the premiere of our video with staff discussing the question “What does a good life look like to you?“, and also featured great stories from each of our panelists.

Unfortunately, a planned Q& A section of the event had to be cancelled, due to time constraints. However, we felt it would be a shame for these questions to go unanswered, so we asked our panelists to answer the questions in writing. So, please read on for insights and entertainment aplenty.

The second panelist to answer these questions is Simran Chawla, who is an expert on the topic of gender-based violence, and a chair of trustees for Hopscotch.

Q- How to lead as a minoritized woman?

Gosh- so many thoughts but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say it is done through three things: through connection, through empathy and through becoming comfortable with discomfort.

Connection, because it is what we as human beings are hard-wired for. In 15 years of working with women and girls who have been brutalised body and soul, I have never seen anything so transformative as the solidarity and sisterhood between women who understand and truly see each other.

That capacity for empathy is equally crucial. As the amazing Tarana Burke said, “Even if I didn’t experience exactly what you experienced; I can connect with the FEELING that it left you with”. Grief, loss, powerlessness. I’ve been where you are right now. I’ve felt that, even if was through a different route.

Something about cultivating this empathy and this connection is so crucial, because as minoritized women, we can systemically lift each other up in the very same way that the system has tried to break us down, but then we also find the collective strength and energy to challenge the system itself.

However, it is also not my job to make sure that my behaviour lends itself to other people’s comfort. Sometimes, this has meant making myself, and even those closest to me, uncomfortable by calling out behaviour that is sexist, racist and unjust, and unless we get comfortable with discomfort, things won’t shift. The very fact of being minoritized means that we are talking about systems and actions that have actively oppressed some groups rather than others and that’s what needs to be challenged and undone.

This is even more critical for those of us who have the privilege of doing this because for millions of women, it’s just not an option. It can and routinely does cost them their lives, their children, their world.

Q- How do you represent your community through your work?

For me this is such an interesting but also a challenging question because of the shifting notions of ‘community’. It can mean so many things-  Londoners, South Asians, dog lovers….people who think white chocolate is a crime against humanity.…

Sometimes they are the communities I have chosen, rather than the communities I was given, or born into, but for me, representing my community has also meant supporting and amplifying certain voices while equally challenging those same communities by calling out deep seated beliefs and oppressive traditions that constantly marginalise certain voices and certain groups.

It has meant going into temples, gurudwaras and mosques to talk to those community leaders about domestic violence and mental health, often to have doors slammed in our faces because we were ‘home breakers’ for supporting women who wanted to leave abusive relationships and homes. My role as a public health professional has meant challenging GPs and other frontline professionals who have told women they had no right to leave a husband who was abusive, as “it doesn’t matter, he’s your husband after all”

Sometimes it’s been something as personal as choosing not to have children and ‘normalising that as a choice for women to make without the judgement, stigma and endlessly patronising conversations that it involves. Other women who have chosen to walk this path are a part of my community too.

Ultimately, my journey has taught me the importance of questioning. I read this quote which has always stayed with me- “Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes.”  Tradition can be powerful but it can also be oppressive and undoing some of that is work that we need to do within our very own homes and communities.

Q- How has Covid widened Inequalities?

Like many people, when I think about this question, I am filled with so much anger and despair.

In my mind, the pre-Covid world was one of huge swathes of land that had deep and long fault lines running through them already. The pandemic was like a giant meteor that crashed through those fault lines and made them unbearable.

I fear that what little we know already about this impact is only the tip of the iceberg.

We know how badly it has rolled back the bits of progress we’d made on addressing gender inequality. We know women have borne the vast brunt of the pandemic in every sense- job losses, child rearing, domestic violence, ill health, access to mental health support.

Even though women make up a majority of frontline roles, they are completely underrepresented in national and global policy spheres, and even more so in Covid-19 policy spaces.

For every one hour of uninterrupted paid work done by mothers, fathers are doing three hours- the only time the unpaid work is being shared equally is when the father has been furloughed and the mother is still continuing to do her paid job. Read that again and let that sink in. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-reduce-your-motherhood-penalty-in-the-pandemic-0lb5wqcjj)

This is even before we consider the impact of the trauma that black communities the world over saw this year, which lent a whole new urgency to the BLM movement. This is before we look at the horrific statistics around disabled people, but women in particular, and how desperately they have been let down. This is even before we look at those from the LGBTQ+ communities who, like many others, have been trapped in living situations that have been wholly unsafe and damaging for them.

Then, there is the very obvious, very visible and much talked about disproportionate impact that Covid has had on communities of colour, very significantly driven by pre-existing inequalities here.

Like I said, I fear the iceberg is yet to come, but the theme for this year’s IWD is Leadership and I think a key element of it will be in those who lead us out of this whilst carrying the most marginalised with them. I guess there’s something here for us as individuals but also as Hopscotch, about the role that we can play in what comes next.

If you would like to read the first of these posts, in which the questions were posed to Wupya Nandap, please click here

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