Generation iChange

[Sofa L-R Chayya Syal & Nasim Ahmed, Middle East Monitor] (c) William Barylo, Peace Cafe London

 Yesterday (April 20) I had the immense privilege of being on a panel discussion about “Media, Peace and Social Justice.” The event was held by the Peace Café, which organises monthly discussions, at Collaboration House in London.

It was an invigorating dicussion which saw members of the audience get involved with myself and my fellow panelist, Nasim Ahmed, from Middle East Monitor. The topics ranged from examples of media bias, why and how social stereotypes are maintained to how to go about finding reliable, trustworthy sources and more. At the very core of these topics, we discussed the need for alternative voices that would balance out the surge of information that we are confronted with on a daily basis.

On my way home I was reflecting on my experience, mainly on how my work as an entrepreneur and a journalist impacts those around me. As an entrepreneur, I focus on creating solutions so that companies and publications can reach their audiences/consumers more effectively through better communication. I also ensure that my work always has a social/giving back element to it; I do a lot of work with schools and actively encourage literacy in a digital age.

However, as a journalist, I am painfully aware that many people have lost faith in the mainstream media and loosely fall into two camps. One batch simply does not believe anything that the media has to say. And who can blame them? This mistrust comes following a series of scandals (such as phone hacking) which shocked the population; an institution which was previously deemed as trustworthy and inherently good had suddenly been exposed as being the very opposite. Since the phone hacking scandal, people do not trust journalists or journalism, in the same way that they do not trust bankers or politicians.

The second batch decide to believe every single thing that is presented to them without consulting other sources or reading up on history. The latter is a very dangerous combination, which many of us partake in, and leads to divisions between communities. The biggest example is our current rhetoric surrounding immigrants, migrants and people of colour in the West.

People do not trust journalists or journalism, in the same way that they do not trust bankers or politicians.

Some of the best ways to create a platform for alternative voices to be heard and recognised starts by utilising technology and the Internet. This does not just extend to communications and writing, but to most areas of life. Five years ago, no one would have thought that entrepreneurship would be a viable way of working. We are beginning to question ways of thinking, rethink our definitions of success, health, beauty, education and happiness. Granted, it’s happening on a small scale, but it nevertheless is a sign of progress.

Similarly, we wouldn’t have realised how powerful technology can be when confronted with social injustice. The biggest examples of this are hash tags like #ReclaimTheBindi #NotYourAsianSidekick #BringOurGirlsBack which went on to gain a significant following in a matter of days. Naturally, these hash tags came under a lot of scrutiny and were met with much cynicism: “How can a hash tag save school girls in Nigeria?” It might not have directly saved their lives, or continue to be reported a year on, but it captured the world’s attention and sustained it long enough to focus on what was happening.

I fully believe (despite its obvious flaws and issues of malpractice) that technology can be used as a force for good, in ensuring that alternative voices are heard. Perhaps I’m being a bit too idealistic – who knows? There is a very good reason why entrepreneurs, bloggers and blogs now have a significant level of influence. They have a way of connecting with people, building up networks, readers and other bloggers as well as dispelling stereotypes. This all happens in a fast-moving environment that political institutions and mainstream media have simply been unable to catch up with.

We all know (or have a vague idea) of the problems currently facing our world which appear to be getting worse .But something worth remembering is that there is always more good in our world than bad – we just don’t hear enough about it.

 

 

“I’m not racist but…”

 

Yesterday I went along to a lecture/seminar discussion, held by Dr Ben Gidley, at the University of East London, with a couple of my friends. It was an illuminating lecture which discussed the current political climate and negative rhetoric surrounding migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and people of colour.  The seminar opened up many channels of thought which were both insightful and left me feeling reflective.

On my way home, I couldn’t help but think about two main points which had been brought up:

1. That being called a racist is worse than actually saying and committing racist statements/actions. Dr Gidley spoke about how being labelled a racist makes people feel like a moral failure and this makes racist people reluctant to admit that they are racist.

2. That prejudice is not an individual failing but a wider structural problem in our society which many are in denial about.

I focused more on the first point and I recalled an incident that happened to me last summer. I was on an internship when one of my work colleagues came over to me to talk about a ‘dodgy Indian on LinkedIn who wanted a job.’ Those were his exact words; I kid you not. To this day, I’m still not too sure why he felt the need to share this with me. It wasn’t like I would sit there, slap my knee and roar with laughter saying: “Oh my god! I know right? They’re all so dodgy!” Why would I participate, when my physical appearance and full name ties to me that region?

“I’m not a racist person, it was just a bit of banter.”

I remember feeling shocked and outraged: I didn’t expect someone as well spoken, senior and seemingly educated to come out with such statements. Thankfully I followed my gut instinct and told him that although I had the same accent as him, as an Indian woman, I found his statement  inappropriate in a work environment and racist. Moments later, he turned up at my desk scared and sheepishly apologised by saying: “I’m not a racist person, it was just a bit of banter.”

It led me to consider a point made during the lecture; many believe that such attitudes and behaviour are exclusive to white working class people. Granted, that’s a nasty stereotype, but whenever we think about racist people who hate foreigners, we usually conjure up an image of someone wearing trackies and who has dropped out of school. Our language changes if the same attitude comes from a man (or woman) who’s smartly dressed and is successful; they’re called bigots.

Prejudice goes across the board and is not exclusive to a particular segment of British society or ethnic group. This is where the second point comes in: it’s a structural issue. The reason why I felt shocked by my work colleague’s comments was because I didn’t expect it from someone like him: white, middle class, educated, self employed and brought up in London.

Thanks to various (and hyperbolic) images of racism we think of rowdy, unemployed people who are angry at everything and everyone. Many of us, including myself, tend to associate aspiration, wealth and levels of education with higher rates of tolerance, liberal thinking as well as greater acceptance of other cultures and lifestyles. While this holds some truth, it’s not as straight forward as we would like to think.

Why would I participate, when my physical appearance and full name ties to me that region?

 

In our society’s quest to find some sort of balance, we’ve flitted to an era of political correctness which currently borders on being ridiculous. Instead of providing a safety net for those who are more susceptible to prejudice and discrimination, we’ve ended up creating a massive smoke screen, which has only exacerbated the issues at hand.

That day I was offended by my colleague’s words, but another work colleague might have laughed and joined in with the ‘banter.’ Another is the whole issue surrounding culture appropriation; I detest festival goers who wear the bindi as a fashion accessory without understanding the turbulent context attached to it.

It results in the following: “What counts as being racist?” and “How do we go about defining what attitudes, actions and thoughts are deemed to be racist in a climate where nobody wants to be labelled a racist without being vilified?”

 

 

 

My Choice

Last week, Vogue India released a video about female empowerment, entitled “My Choice.” The video starred Bollywood actress, Deepika Padukone and various Bollywood female entertainers, who spoke about various choices of womanhood and sexuality that many women are not in control of.

Since the video’s release, it has gone to divide millions in India and around the world, because of its stance on sex outside of marriage. Firstly, I’m amazed that this video has created such a furore, but given the current global context I’m not 100% surprised either. And secondly let’s be honest: it’s a fashion video campaign by Vogue. I don’t think that the masses were expecting featured quotes from Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem or Germaine Greer.

From a digital perspective it’s great PR for Vogue India; once again it’s proved that when social media flexes its biceps, you’d better run for the hills. In addition, it has opened up a can of worms and an opportunity for many to engage in discussions about aspects of women’s sexuality. This opportunity to create a discussion has been driven by the mere presence of this video. Even to all those who vehemently object to it, condemn it and hate it – including other high profile Bollywood actors – they are still driving the conversation by talking about it. So in a way, it’s all been very cleverly crafted.

On one hand, I credit Deepika Padukone for starring in this video and for being vocal about issues (such as depression and mental health) which often fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, I wish that a wider range of women had been used in the video as it felt constrained at times and that the current selection of actors contradicted the overall message of women’s empowerment being available to all. It also felt elitist and a bit plastic; I couldn’t help but think who was watching this video. People like me, who own a smartphone, can understand English well or have access to the Internet. This message wasn’t going out to the thousands of women and girls living in rural areas with very little access to power and basic supplies let alone a smartphone and a command of English.

I felt that the video was a start and not the final message.

According to an essay by Silverstein and Sayre (Harvard Business Review, The Female Economy, September 2009) women, as a global market, control $20 trillion in consumer spending. It’s an astounding statistic and many wouldn’t have guessed that the number would be so high. This is a really good – and short – essay by Harvard Business Review and is worth a Google as I only have it in paperback copy.

This monetary control occurs in an environment where women are paid less than men, as well as being in spaces where women’s bodies and sexualities are pitted against them in exchange for money to buy products that will ‘make the problem disappear.’ It’s a concept that we are all aware of and fall for. There’s been instances where I have bought a concealer that promises to hide my under eye circles, but actually exacerbates the problem in my head, and proves to be a waste of my time and my money.

While many argue that women’s empowerment is more than what we choose to wear, do with our bodies and live our lives, in today’s world, this sexualisation needs to be confronted when it comes to discussing empowerment. If we are going to be surrounded by hyper-sexualised imagery of women’s bodies, but have images of women breast feeding, menstruating or experiencing menopause banned, than that counts as part of the problem. We have a right to address these images, take back ownership of our stories and our bodies.

“My Choice” was a half decent attempt to usher in a discussion about women, their bodies and who really does control them. After all, this is something that many diasporic communities and the West are also starting to talk about. Who controls who and what is considered to be beautiful? Who decides on ideas of femininity and masculinity? Technically, that power belongs to individuals, but we are increasingly realising that we don’t actually possess that control. As more and more people, globally, are pushing for gender equality to be made universal in all arenas of life, I felt that the video was a start and not the final message.

Women’s empowerment is not a prescribed pill that will immediately solve all our problems at once. It begins within ourselves, it involves bringing men on board, it is about having the right to an education, to live in a safe environment, to enjoy childhood, to access water, electricity and basic infrastructure as well as having the right to be ourselves.