MDX Professor in Professional Practice and award-winning columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has been interviewed at a Women in Journalism event about her new book, Ladies Who Punch (published by Biteback).
In the book, Yasmin picks from modern history and contemporary British life fifty “plucky, indomitable, daring, fearless women and girls [who] have done what they felt they had to and, intentionally or otherwise, upended the social order and common values”.
The book spans such diverse figures as journalists Carole Cadwalladr, Kathy Lette and Reni Eddo-Lodge; comedian Shazia Mirza; Princess Diana; the Met Police’s first Asian Muslim Detective Superintendent, Shabnam Chaudhri; businesswoman Michelle Dewberry and Margaret Thatcher.
In the wake of controversy about some of her choices from both Left and Right, Yasmin says that “in a way, I like it that people are objecting to different characters for different reasons. Each in their own way said to the world, ‘I'm not going to be what you tell me to be’”. The book jacket carries endorsements from BBC Today programme presenter Mishal Husain and from LBC host and Biteback Publishing founder Iain Dale.
She’s consciously included women of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds as well as outlook to emphasise female togetherness. “We’re fighting racism and sexism,” she says. “We are stronger where we find ways to weave into each other’s lives”. She thinks it’s important that at the same time “we older women don’t lose a connection with younger feminists” and that the young “understand the history of female resistance – often they are unaware of the women that came before them”. There are so many mould-breaking women she admires, she had enough material for ten books, she says.
At the event, she discussed some of her choices including Bush Theatre Artistic Director Lynette Linton and Teresa (Tree) Waller-Bridge, writer Phoebe's mother, her admiration for young women journalists and her parallel careers in writing books and writing for newspapers. Of the many trolls she faces on social media, she says she "if I allow these bastards to keep me in my place, I'm not worth the label of feminist or anti-racist".
Yasmin sits on the committee of Women in Journalism which produced a report earlier this month highlighting the lack of diversity in British media. Over the course of a week in July, the research found only one in four out of 174 front-page bylines in national newspapers was attributed to a woman and not a single one to a black African or African-Caribbean reporter; just 16% of people quoted in front-page stories were female – and only one of them a black woman – and under a third of expert guests on prime-time TV news and radio were women.
Discussing the report’s findings on Woman’s Hour on 17th September, Yasmin described how her 18 year stint on the Independent as the first regular columnist of colour in a national newspaper expanded the readership, as she became a voice for the migrant, Muslim and female experience in a way that had never happened before. “It breaks my heart to see how little is changing,” she said.
While acknowledging the challenges of the media landscape, Yasmin reassures new journalism students that they will find themselves in an “ocean full of stories” if they “put their antennae out”. She also says that with the democratisation of information in today’s world, they have an unprecedented “independence and freedom to create their own platforms, personas and stories”. To monetise it she encourages students “to think very laterally: lockdown recipes using tinned tomatoes. How do you fall in love when you can't kiss? Think about really interesting ways of using stories and opinion clips”.
It’s not necessarily the pushiest people who make the best journalists, says Yasmin – “there's room for all personalities in the game”. Among last year’s graduates who “truly astonished” her and Professor of Journalism (Practice) Kurt Barling were a number who “quietly, passionately and intensely” explored a subject for their final project. “They were following an urge they had, and surprising us with what they delivered in the end”. But all journalism students need to get fully at ease with interviewing people, she thinks – an added challenge this year as most interviews will need to be done over the phone or on video conferencing Apps. “We can't just use social media, text and emails” says Yasmin, urging students to learn the art of befriending and getting what you need out of an interview subject. “There's no journalism job you can have that doesn't require you to speak to other human brings - using your voice, eyes and real human conversation”.