My experience of working in the foreign policy world, exposed me to a sector which is still problematic in promoting a single story narrative because it lacks diversity and inclusivity around thought leadership. As expressed by Supreme Court Judge Lady Hale, representation within the highest institutions in the UK matters, because we have a diverse population. Hence, I decided to submit evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, earlier this year in order to have my voice heard on the future of UK-India relations.
My personal experience revealed to me that if we fail to challenge the lack of diversity of thought within institutions, then we should expect to see more of, endless conferences filled with “manels” and round table discussions which serve as echo chambers for the same sorts of views to be amplified; with very little critical debates. Needless to say, that this is dangerous for future policy making in this area.
Demoralised and frustrated with the lack of diversity and inclusion on variety crucial foreign policy matters. I was encouraged to critique the largely white framing UK-India relations. To do this, I added my voice to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's Global Britain and India Inquiry. As someone who had been exposed to an education system that lacked diversity in senior leadership, I decided to dedicate my work in investigating this. My evidence calls for members of the South Asian diaspora community to be consulted as part of the UK's Global Britain strategy.
So what can women of colour do about this?
Earlier this year, I took the initiative to organise an important round table discussion on the potential role that the South Asian, Nigerian and American diaspora communities can play in shaping UK foreign policy and submitted my evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee. This opportunity was the first time that I was able to freely express my views on a subject area that I am passionate about. As much as I do feel that UK foreign policy should be ‘forward looking and pragmatic’ I also think that, it can at times appear to be marked by an undertone of empire amnesia. A prime example of this amnesia, was when Ann Widdecombe MEP compared Brexit with the resistance of “slaves against their owners” and “colonies against empires”. Examples of offensive, sentiments such as these, are precisely why we need to have open and critical debates about the people who will shape Britain’s foreign policy and the lack of representation of women within these circles.
Hence, my evidence was centred on the 70th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I wanted to acknowledge the significance of this event; as it served as a catalyst for the establishment of the Non-Cooperation movement in India which served as the major stepping stones to India’s freedom from the British rule. I like many other third generation South Asians, had yet to wait until I had left secondary school education in order to be taught about these atrocities. I was keen to stress that Indian women’s economic empowerment should be a key priority for the UK, Based on my experience of working within this sector so far, I felt that my views would be discounted. Therefore, I was pleased that my evidence was cited by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee as part of their Building Bridges Re awakening UK India ties report. The government’s response to the report was disappointing in that a formal apology was not issued regarding the massacre, none the less I still feel there is value in engaging with institutions that are open to listen to your views.
The road to building bridges
A core theme that my published evidence piece focused on was that of migration. Ultimately migration and empire have shaped Britain and our relationship with the world. Earlier this year, the Runnymede Trust presented their report ‘teaching migration, belonging and empire in secondary schools’. Yet the Department for Education said it fundamentally disagreed with “the narrow scope” of the report. “A lack of understanding of migration and empire has consequences for contemporary Britain. Kimberly McIntosh, Runnymede’s senior policy officer and one of the report’s authors, said: “The influence of migration and empire both to our history and to the richness of British culture is unmistakable. Yet whether students get taught this vital part of our national story is a lottery. Furthermore, one of the other implications of the non compulsory teaching of empire and migration are still viewed as “marginal events”, when in fact, they are “central to our national story”.
For these very reasons, and my own experience in witnessing a lack of diverse voices as part of my professional career; my written evidence explored how domestic issues around inter-generational identity impact foreign policy making. Hence, I would encourage other women to opt for a similar approach; to produce work that isn’t tone deaf to real concerns at both the national and international levels. In the context of Brexit, and the many failures of it as an idea and reality, we should seek to bridge the gaps between national and international conversations for real meaningful policy reform at both levels.
How to get your voice heard
I would be disingenuous if I claimed that the experience wasn’t overwhelming at times. I relied heavily on advice from my mentors, who are academics, to develop a coherent plan for my writing.
At the planning stage of my research, I consulted with Historians and Sociologists to explore how I could shape my work to be critical of the role that the UK has played in India. Secondly, I evaluated previous efforts made by the government to develop closer links between the UK and India. To do this, I assessed other evidence which had previously been submitted to the UK-India inquiry, to ensure my work wouldn’t overlap heavily with points made by previous authors. I also noticed the chronic lack of representation of women of colour, which further motivated me to write my piece.
Finally, I balanced criticism I had around the government’s shortcomings in engaging with the South Asian diaspora in the UK with a series of recommendations that could help build bridges effectively between the diaspora communities in the UK and the UK and India. I then asked one of my mentors to look over my evidence, to provide their critical feedback after three drafts, I submitted my work to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Such an approach allowed me to develop my ideas freely through conversations with individuals who, like me, genuinely cared about representation of women of colour’s voices in foreign policy making.
Overall, the experience for writing for the committee was not completely ambiguous - there is support available from the committee’s clerks to assist writers with their work. My advice to anyone who is considering writing to select committees, is to be open about engaging in dialogue with experts in your network i.e from your university.
Imposter syndrome and the danger of the single story
I initially struggled with imposter syndrome both working within foreign policy and around submitting my evidence, however I was determined to counter the single story narrative. I strongly feel that women of colour should feel just as entitled and empowered to have a seat at the decision making table as their white counterparts. One of the most powerful ways in which you can have your voice heard, is through your writing which could lead to real tangible policy reform in the future.
I would like to stress that, my views expressed in the evidence that I submitted, cannot and do not speak for all women of colour who have an opinion on the UK’s future relationship with India. The South Asian diaspora is not homogeneous, therefore I do not seek to promote a monolithic view point of our collective, differing perspectives on UK engagement with India. This is precisely why I would like to encourage more women of colour to utilise Parliamentary institutions to have their voices heard on foreign policy issues.
The inspiring award winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, perfectly encapsulates why we need to abandon the single story narrative and I hope I have been able to highlight how we can do this through the step I that I took to write to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story
Nadia Khan is a Aziz Foundation Scholar studying an MSc in Space, Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. She has a BA in International Relations from Queen Mary, University of London. She is the Co-founder of the award winning, The Delicate Mind C.I.C. She is passionate about enhancing social mobility and was recently shortlisted for a Public Service Award at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2019. Nadia an advocate for social justice and inclusion of women in international affairs. Nadia is the UK Chapter coordinator at the ECOSOC Civil Society Network NGO the World Youth Alliance, where she organises international training projects for young people and youth workers to enhance their public speaking and advocacy skills.