I was sitting with Lu’Lu (my nine-year-old daughter) a few weeks ago, as she was unwell so had an off from school and she started eavesdropping on a work meeting I attended virtually, which centred around equity and inclusion. As soon as the call ended, her questions started as did my honest answers. Yes, her life will have obstacles purely because of her race. Yes, some will use her religion to hold her back. And yes, even in the 21st century, her gender will present challenges to her.
We spoke about how things are better than they were and how much we still have to do to reach basic equality and equity (which is the theme of International Women’s Day 2023).
It is these chats and moments, where I always remind myself of the role I have to play at home, work and society to close the gap. And why days like International Women’s Day (IWD) are paramount to me. In fact, the whole month of March is dedicated to women and it is called Women’s History Month.
Started as a focal point for women’s rights, IWD has evolved to be an acknowledgement of the fight women have had and a celebration of the successes that are possible now because of past battles. It is necessary that the leaps forward are appreciated while also knowing there is much to do. Why IWD is important to people varies from person to person. For me, it is a day and a month to acknowledge and call out the women in my work, social and personal life for the amazing or even seemingly ordinary things they do. Whether they are a mum or not, have a career or don’t work, married or single - respecting the choices any woman has made for herself is what underpins this day and month for me.
Growing up in South Asian culture within British society, I have too often seen one of two things; firstly, women not having choice or secondly, their decisions not being given the same respect as a man choosing the same option would get. Seeing this blatant unfairness in society made me determined to live my home and professional life in a way which addresses this.
As we are celebrating Women’s Month, it is incumbent on us to rejoice whatever a woman has accomplished by accepting that just by virtue of being a woman; so many things have been gruelling in a way that they would not be for men. Even putting aside building a career to a position of power, just simple things like taking a bus or walking at night present dangers most men cannot even fathom. Male privilege is real and allyship is so crucial in making sure that privilege is used in a way to pull women up rather than keeping them down in a patriarchal manner.
A man can study what he wants, embark on his career without letting being a parent hold him back and make life decisions free from judgement. A woman, especially in South Asian culture, simply cannot. Judged for studying over learning how to run a household, focusing on a career instead of settling down, working instead of mothering, it is relentless. So when I see friends and family who have pushed these boundaries by being an editor of this excellent magazine or starting and excelling in her own fashion brand or moving to a new continent and starting a new life for herself, I feel immense pride and also the compulsion to let them know that I admire their strength in what they have done.
Just communicating appreciation is an invaluable form of allyship and while I endeavour to do it all year round, IWD focusses the mind to do it more on this day and month. So, I reach out to colleagues who have been impactful over a period, ex-bosses who have shaped my view of leadership, family who have taken bold steps and importantly, my wife and mum - does not matter what they have done in that year, they have at the very least been a spouse and a mother and even that should be given its due; too often roles which are taken for granted.
In the West, these things are easier said and done than in societies like Pakistan where control via patriarchy is still dominant. Control is manipulated to be seen as protection but the only thing it is protecting is the role of men in that society. I was in Karachi recently, and had these conversations with people and I have to admit an element of my soul feeling defeated; the women I spoke to see it as a pipedream, not for their lifetime and the men see it as a stumbling block to their own goals.
That is not to say some of the same attitudes are not prevalent in the UK - they are, but our society has more freedom to express resistance to it. I debated with a former colleague about these issues after he said he felt his rights were being taken away and given to women. The essence of this as a feeling may have some justification if we compare to the unchallenged authority men had by just being men in years gone by, but the comeback is quite simple; being an ally is part of a journey to an equitable society and we all benefit from that socially, morally and as much research has shown, economically.
This myriad of issues and conversations combines to truly signify IWD/Women’s Month to me - something to remind myself to recognise, to be a better ally and also to try and convince those who are not on this path to somehow join. To get to equity, it is not to take away opportunities from anyone, it is to give access to opportunities to those who have hurdles ahead of them which most men cannot see or appreciate.
The gestures in allyship to get there do not have to each be significant, the small ones add up. Women tend to apologise when they do not need to; if it happens at work, remind them they have nothing to be sorry for. If there’s a quiet voice in a meeting, create the space for it to be heard. If you see someone talking to a female colleague in a way they would not talk to a male colleague, call them out. Each may be a small gesture but if we can add to someone’s perspective or their own self-belief, we are enabling a move towards equity.
As I was writing this, I spoke to Lu’Lu and Raffi (my six-year-old son) about what I am writing and why. Being upfront about these issues even at their age is empowering them both - my daughter by increasing her awareness and my son by reminding him he has a role to play. I am caught between thinking every day should be IWD and wanting a society where IWD is no longer needed. We probably need the former to get to the latter.
— Naveed Khan is a passionate writer and a lawyer by profession, based in London. He writes regularly on social and gender issues.