Like every year I’m in the spirit of celebrating international women’s day. I have two daughters and it’s very important to me that I shine a light on powerful women and women power, especially today.
I’m on my way to BBC Radio Live 5 to do an interview on Leaders and Babies on the Emma Barnett show. Last year I was invited by Verena Hefti CEO of social enterprise Leaders Plus, to give my personal views on the challenges faced by people with young children to balance career and parenting. After the interview I will be joining the Leaders Plus fellowship who are meeting at the House of Commons for a conversation on this issue, which primarily disadvantages women, I am super excited about this event, as the Leaders will be bringing their babies into work this morning. I can’t wait for lots of cuddles!
A couple of days ago I was at Buckingham Palace for the Investiture of the honour of receiving an OBE. I thought it was personally symbolic that this event was so close to International women’s day.
I had the most amazing day at the Palace with my family. Every last detail had been considered and having a few moments to continue a conversation with HRH Prince William on mental health was really special. In fact I was so completely in the moment with him that I forgot what I was supposed to do once (the cue) he held his hand out to shake. I think I slightly stumbled and rushed out of the grand room blushing!
The investiture experience was made extra special for me by two women who I’d like to give a shout out to this morning.
The first is the woman who created the gorgeous saree you can see on the images above. I really wanted to wear something special. Something that represented my country of birth. So a couple of weeks ago, I made contact with Bibi Russell on Instagram. I asked her, if she had any Jamdani saree’s, a handloom cotton weave only made in Bangladesh. She got back to me straight away and we began swapping images and ideas.
And then – it gets even better! – she offered to deliver the saree to me in person, right here in London – all the way from Dhaka! She was flying over to take part in London fashion week and the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, which was hosted at Buckingham palace by the duchess of Cambridge.
BiBi is a former model and world-renowned designer, whose ethos is ‘fashion for development’. She employs more than 30k local artisans from every corner of Bangladesh. Her aim is to preserve her cultural heritage, empower women and help eradicate poverty.
When we met for the first time at the V&A, Bibi gave me a huge hug of congratulations and handed over this beauty. So thank you Bibi Russell for creating such a stunning saree for me to drape.
The second woman that played a significant part in the saree journey is my friend and colleague Monira Rahman.
Monira founded the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh in 1999,This is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and preventing acid attacks. She created a social movement which resulted in 75% reduction of acid attack’s by the year 2010. Monira won the Amnesty International Human Rights Defenders Award and is currently the CEO of Mental Health First Aid Bangladesh.
Monira insisted that this saree designed by Bibi was a gift from her, as she could not be here in person, she wanted me to feel that the Bangladeshi work family were here in spirit. Thank you Monira for such a thoughtful gift.
I’ve been fascinated by my inner dialogue and the conversations I have been having triggered by the honour of the OBE. My family and friends are so proud, it’s been a truly humbling experience. We’ve had lots of Obi-Wan jokes, lots of curtsy practising and I’ve really enjoyed fuelling my inner megalomaniac by regularly ordering ‘off with their heads’ in my best Queen of Hearts voice!
However there has also been deeper more thoughtful reflections that I’d like to share today. Last week – while stuck indoors by the stunning but disruptive snow – I spoke with someone from the British Bangladeshi Power and Inspiration. They called to invite me to an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Altab Ali a 26-year-old man who was murdered in a racist attack in Brick Lane on the 4th May 1978. Altab Ali’s murder was a turning point for the British Bangladeshi community. It brought us together and forced us to stand up and make our presence known. To demand the right to be a respected and protected part of the society we lived in.
The impact of all this on my family was typical. Over the past 40 years I’ve seen my family shift from living out of a metaphorical suitcase – to settling and laying down roots in this county. My dad ran restaurants and dealt with racism pretty much every day of his working life.
He would say to me: “This is not your home. We are not here to build a life, we’re just visitors working away from home”. And as a child I remember thinking, “but I don’t know any other home”. It’s difficult to describe how it felt growing up as a ‘visitor’, not a citizen.
But the benefit of seeing the world through tourist eyes was curiosity – I was interested in everything – and in search of my place in the world. So when I was approached about the OBE, I was a bit conflicted. George Santayana, wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It took me a bit of time and many conversations with friends to reach my decision to accept the honour.
The most excellent Order of the British Empire – of which I am now an officer. I guess I, and many others, don’t necessarily agree that the Empire was wholly excellent. But I do know that I would not be here today representing Bangladeshis, women, and mental health had it not been for the East India Company and the merchant navy, which recruited my grandad and I’m incredibly proud of my British Bangladeshi identity.
The OBE is for my service to mental health and I take only part credit for that recognition. The entire Mental Health First Aid community has played a significant role in making that bit happen.
What I do take full credit for is consistently remaining curious, and always wanting to make sure my children felt home was home. I wanted to be a role model and encourage others to believe that anything is possible.
I was born in a house made of mud and straw with no electricity or running water. A couple days ago I was at the palace. This morning I will be with powerful young leaders in the House of Commons.
I guess I took Dad’s words as a challenge to see if I could build, and not just visit. I took Santayana’s words to remember the past, and take pride in representing difference today. I honour the memory of Altab Ali, and feel I am part of his legacy.
I am a proud British Bangladeshi woman and I’m committed to celebrating today and every day all the compassionate women in the world and the men that stand beside us as our equals.
Have a wonderful International Women’s day everyone!