International Women’s Day with Dr Suriyah Bi & Eleanor Luxton
‘It’s not a glass ceiling – it’s concrete. If it was a glass ceiling, I’d be happy with it.’
First published on the School of Geography and the Environment website.
Suriyah describes herself as a ‘woman of the margins’, due to the intersection of her working-class background, ethnicity, gender, and religion. As a result, for International Women’s Day 2023, she is well equipped to talk about the challenges women face in the workplace and beyond.
‘I have a very strong vision’, Suriyah said, describing the Equality Act Review’s efforts to include more protected characteristics (such as religion) in the Equality Act (2010). Her campaign stemmed from personal experience - whilst working in a school to fund her PhD in human geography, Suriyah was unfairly dismissed in an act of victimisation and discrimination. ‘I guess I have a history of being told “no”, but making it work anyway’, Suriyah stated, referring to how her case against the school continues, some eight years on.
But her work also highlights the ‘archaic’ way the Equality Act treats women. Contrary to its name, the legislation ignores menopause and menstruation, forcing women to either work in extreme pain and discomfort, or risk losing their jobs. And, as Suriyah notes, the effects of this pervasive sexism are only amplified for women of colour.
When Suriyah was given an interview to study Human Sciences at Magdalen College in 2010, the only tool she had was a scrapbook filled with printed-off news articles. ‘I know it sounds so stupid.’ She laughed. ‘But I typed “population” into the Guardian and read what came up.’ The burden of being told by teachers that she would never go to university, and community norms which favoured marriage over pursuing higher education, weighed heavily on her. ‘In my community, it is often the case that men are celebrated for doing much less than what we do as women, and have garlands put around their necks’. This is why Suriyah sees her success, and survival, as an act of resistance.
Later, Suriyah came ‘full circle’ by returning to Oxford as a lecturer in Cultural Geography. Citing the problems of work-life balance, lack of funding, patronising and dehumanising behaviour, and institutional structures, Suriyah describes being a woman of colour in academia as ‘another Everest to tackle’. ‘The engrained patriarchy of academic institutions is not simply a problem of ‘men oppressing women,’ she said. Women of colour cannot shatter their barriers to well-paying, stable employment with a fist, when ‘what they see is my skin colour and the 2-yard piece of cloth around my head.’
This is why Suriyah says it is vital for women to hold space for other women. ‘The more we hold space, the more we push against patriarchy.’ Suriyah has opened up new spaces to me. A few months ago, we were invited to the launch of the Equality Act Review’s Index of Islamophobia report in Parliament. Suriyah made sure that I was seated at the head of the committee room table, reassuring me of my presence as a young, state-educated woman in the grand corridors of Westminster.
‘What is empowerment?’ said Suriyah: ‘I feel empowered by believing in my own ideas, and pursuing them even if no one else will’. It is this unwavering strength and confidence that we, as women in institutions historically hostile to us, must adopt if we are to succeed.
After describing a slew of obstacles to entering and remaining in academia, I ask Suriyah how she copes. ‘One thing I have to say is that spirituality has been really important to me’, she says. ‘I pray a lot’. Our respective faiths are key to our determination in academia, whilst so ignored by the disciplines we’re a part of. Suriyah finds peace in Urdu-language poetry and art too, as well as in her support of Mansfield students. This attentiveness distinguishes Suriyah, as she strives to support geographers regardless of their gender, race, or class.
‘I wish that someone held space for me.’ Suriyah turned a notebook towards me, the heading titled “book ideas”. She thinks that these potential publications could make a real difference to the social sciences, and I have to agree. But, being rejected hasn’t stopped Suriyah so far, and I doubt it ever will.
Islamophobia: Discourse, Debates, and Future Directions, 15 March 2023, 5pm – 7pm
Speakers: Dr. Suriyah Bi, Lecturer, Cultural Geography, University of Oxford; Lord Wajid Khan Shadow Spokesperson for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, House of Lords; and Professor Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics, and Public Policy, University of Bristol
In honour of the first ever United Nations Day to Combat Islamophobia, Dr Suriyah Bi will be taking part in a panel discussion to highlight Islamophobia at both local and global geographies, and discuss the phenomenon within a political, presentational, and prosecution frameworks. Book your place.
Dr Suriyah Bi completed her PhD at University College London in July 2019, having been a VAR fellow at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology. Since then, she has taught at SOAS University of London and the University of Edinburgh, before joining Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment last year. Suriyah’s work looks at Muslim masculinities, intersectionality, migration and the British legal system. She established the Equality Act Review in 2018 to create a more just, fair and equal society for all.
Eleanor Luxton is an undergraduate geographer at Mansfield College and student journalist. She has written for publications including Routes – the journal for student geographers and the Cherwell. Eleanor’s research interests include feminist geographies, colonialism, and children’s geographies, and she’s currently writing a dissertation on Afghan women’s experiences of gender.