Exclusive: Meet first woman of colour to lead a department at Cambridge University

Manali Desai Cambridge Interview

Manali Desai is a self made woman. A single mother to twins, she fought the notion ‘women aren’t good enough’ and resisted those who said she wasn’t equal to the white males in her department. Meet the first woman of colour to lead a department at Cambridge University. “This is in a sense the history of women in education,” said Manali Desai in an exclusive interview with SheThePeople when asked about this appointment.”

Desai speaks to SheThePeople founder Shaili Chopra on why India must consider a law against marital rape, why women should recognise violence beyond its physical aspect and just how can young girls prevail in an environment that tells them their views aren’t valued.

Q. Congratulations. What does this position mean to you given you are the first woman of colour to hold this, in the 811 year history of the University?

Ans. The fact that it’s taken even longer for women of colour to be recognised as equals to other women. White women have made a lot more gains than other women have made. That just shows the importance of thinking intersectionally about how the gains for women have not translated for all women. So it feels momentous and I think I am honoured to be in this position and I want to be able to use this moment to talk about all these questions, about all kinds of women and women of marginal backgrounds who find it difficult to enter these institutions let alone being able to be recognised as equal.

Q. You are also the first Indian-origin woman to lead a department at Cambridge, how does that feel as a woman of the diaspora?

Ans. Women find it very hard, there is a glass ceiling that exists everywhere. Women of colour have particular barriers and they arrive very early on whether you are encouraged to pursue academic pursuits, teachers give you advise in that direction, whether you have access to educational networks and institutions that help you advance your career. The more role models there are, the more that people like myself, mobilise and lobby for opening access to women of colour. I struggled as a graduate student to have my views and ideas being equal to that of the white males in my department. We have come a long way from that.

Q. You are currently working on a large project on gendered violence and India is central to that. Where have you reached on that effort and what is your goal with that project?

Ans. It’s a very large project. We have been given 1.5 million pounds to investigate gender violence over the next three years. Our focus is on Delhi and Johannesburg. We are undertaking a very thorough investigation of what is going on, how are women undergoing urban transformation, where do they encounter violence, how much of it is happening at home, where do they face this violence and how do communities around them perceive this violence.

Q. In the context of India, let’s talk about your views on marital rape. In India, this isn’t a law yet and that’s problematic.

Ans. Exactly. That symbolises pretty much what we are interested in. The most intimate of relationships is being seen as outside of the purview of this sort of understanding. It’s assumed that once a woman is married, she belongs to him.

I think that is at the core of a lot of the problems for women, which is that marriage is seen as a young girl’s ultimate destination.

So women are forced into marriages. The whole idea that ‘an unmarried woman is a problem in society that needs to be solved’ is also at the core of this.

Q. I would like to take you back to the time you were growing up. Going through some form of sexual harassment is considered normal by Indian women. So much so we often think it’s part of ‘growing up’. So what was your reason, or inspiration to take up this subject and land up at Cambridge and investigate gendered violence?

Ans. I do think that the 2012 gangrape incident, it affected me deeply. It could have happened to anyone I know. It could have happened to me. It was not too far from where my parents lived at that time. It was unspeakable. I think we know that in India women have faced an unprecedented amount of violence and continue to do so. I wanted to do something around that, and create a piece of work that raised some questions.

Q. Why is it important for young women to have ‘real women’ as role models?

Ans. One of the things about having role models who are real, more down to earth, perhaps, is that it makes it feel more attainable. If I see someone on the cover of a magazine, it’s something to admire, but we may not relate to it in a day-to-day sense. I actually have regular contact with students every day and I try to be very interactive. They come for advice or ideas. This makes them see, in front of them, in flesh and blood, that you can do something. I didn’t have many role models myself, it’s a shame. Women need to see something that’s real to them, something that’s achievable.

Q. How was your career journey like? Did you have a support system that helped follow your dreams?

Ans. My parents have been very supportive. I am self made. I happen to be a single mother to twins. It’s incredible. I have never felt the need to have a man help me along. I have become very used to doing this myself.

Q. Your advise to a young woman out there, following incredible women like yourself for inspiration?

Ans. I think women need to learn to be fearless. Especially when you are young it’s so easy to hold yourself back because you are not getting the encouragement. We need to develop an inner voice that ignores the negative and pick up the positive. One of the things about patriarchy is that what women say is not valued. From very early on we are taught we are not good enough. It’s not of value. That can cast a long effect on your mind. Even if you don’t have a support system, then look for ways to ignore the negative voices and prevail.