Politics

Shami Chakrabarti: Women have not done enough about gender injustice

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, 45, on her "earnest" teenage years, gender injustice - and the moment that changed her life

When I was in sixth form I was already quite interested in the things I’m interested in now. I cared about the world and wanted to make a difference. I was a bit on the earnest side, maybe a bit grim and worthy – I probably took everything, including myself, a bit too seriously. A bit like the way some people perceive me now. But it’s not true now – I’m much more fun these days. This interview finds me at the right moment in my life. I have a lighter attitude, I know who I am and I know my time is short so I make the most of it. I walk in the sun more than I used to.

When I was about 12 I remember watching the news about the Yorkshire Ripper and saying something to my dad about what I hoped they would do to that monster when they caught him. He said – you can’t possibly believe in the death penalty. He said that no justice system in the world can be perfect. If only one person in 100 is wrongly convicted of a terrible crime, imagine that person is you. You’ve been through every appeal and failed. Even your family doesn’t believe you anymore. You’re on your way to the electric chair but you didn’t do this thing. You might call out to God but no one is listening. And something clicked inside me and that was when I began my journey.

My dad and I were talking about the Yorkshire Ripper and the death penalty. Something clicked inside me and that was when I began my journey

Growing up in England in the 1970s, I was well aware of racism and the National Front. I was aware of economic injustice. But I didn’t think much about gender injustice. It’s not a competition of injustices but now I think of all the injustices on the planet, gender injustice is the deepest, the most entrenched and perhaps the one that my generation of women have not done enough about. I think if a Pankhurst met a Chakrabarti she wouldn’t be desperately impressed with her achievements.

If I met my younger self now I think I’d find her quite precocious, quite argumentative. My motto these days is: everyone’s equal, no one’s superior. I’m going to get Google to translate it into Latin so everyone takes it seriously. And I’d tell that to my younger self – come on, you can be confident without being arrogant. Be angry but don’t be chippy. And I might tell my younger self to be more of a risk-taker. Maybe I would become a screenwriter instead of a lawyer – that was a dream of mine in those days. Hey, I wasn’t always the most dangerous woman in Britain, as The Sun called me. I mean, I had actual mates. I still see some of them today.

I hope the teenage me would be pleasantly surprised that at 45 I can still learn new things and make new friends and still change my mind on things. I don’t think I’m too set in my ways. If I told her she’d be head of Liberty, that would be her dream job. If I didn’t work for Liberty now I’d be sitting in the pub every night complaining about threats to our rights. So what a privilege I have. But that 19-year-old law student would not believe that decades in the future she would have to make an argument against torture and in favour of keeping the Human Rights Act in a great old democracy like Britain. That would truly shock her.

If I could go back in time I’d have a long, last conversation with my mum. I would just ask her questions and try to hear more of the stories about her youth in India, what her aspirations and hopes and regrets were. And what she wanted for me. But there you go, that’s the difference between what you can do in your imagination and what you can’t do in real life.

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