Gender inequality is our ‘apartheid’, human rights campaigner tells Manchester

A shocked Manchester University audience were told last week that gender inequality ‘is apartheid’, as human rights figurehead Shami Chakrabarti branded it ‘the greatest and most entrenched’ human rights issue facing the world today.

Chakrabarti was speaking at the inaugural Pankhurst Lecture at Whitworth Hall, which commemorates the university’s first female law alumna, Christabel Pankhurst, a key player in the Suffragette movement.

Back in 1906 when Pankhurst received a first class degree in law, she was unable to go on to practice because she was a woman, but she used her legal knowledge to help the Suffragette movement alongside her mother Emmeline and sister Sylvia.

Chakrabarti, who directs the human rights activism group Liberty and has previously been described by the Sun as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ had the honour of being the first guest speaker.

She was introduced by Professor Margot Brazier OBE who spoke of the need to celebrate Pankhurst, a ‘notorious criminal’ who ‘paved the way’ for women across the world, continuing the great ‘Mancunian tradition’ of activism. 

Speaking passionately throughout her 40 minute speech on modern feminism about how far the movement has come and how far we still have to go, Chakrabarti addressed issues surrounding women and the law; whether through injustice perpetrated by the justice system or by underrepresentation in the field of law.

Referencing Labour’s infamous recent Woman to Woman bus campaign, she received a smattering of appreciative laughter from the audience when adding ‘we’ve taken our foot off the pedal of the bus’ and suggesting that their bus should instead be painted purple, the colour famously associated with the Suffragette movement.

In a Q&A session after her speech, Chakrabarti addressed the debate and the contention between the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

When asked where the line is, she said she believes there are problems but suggested perhaps too much was being made of it, advising the audience that a lot of problems could be overcome by simple ‘good sense and kindness’.

Saying she had been ‘mugged by reality’, Chakrabarti admitted that she had changed her mind on the matter of positive discrimination, citing a successful time-constrained policy implemented by Liberty as the reasons behind her change in attitude.

Her final topic was on lone women ushered into roles, describing the women who have been given a ‘token’ role on TV panels as ‘not so much a token as a beacon’ – a phrase praised by the audience afterwards, calling her choice of words ‘bold’ and ‘brave’. 

Speaking to MM after her speech, Chakrabarti said that in Westminster, ‘greedy and scared’ politicians are leaving gender equality to ‘go to hell in a handcart’, but was quick to praise the people of Manchester for giving her a warm welcome, saying it was encouraging to travel and speak to engaged listeners who are willing to work together.

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