Tuesday 3 December 2013

Are you a woman who respects, supports, promotes and wants to hear expertise and analysis from the Red Cross? The feeling's not mutual.

On August 30th 2013 I receive the following very promising email:
From: averynicewoman@redcross.org.uk 
Dear Bidisha, 
Hope you are very well. Just to introduce myself, I work as part of the media and external relations team here at the British Red Cross and am currently managing various projects and activities that will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross Movement. 
We are hosting an event on the evening of the 29th of October entitled: 
From Solferino to Syria - 150 years of Humanitarian Action
An event to mark the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement 
It is taking place on Tuesday the 29th of October 2013 at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LN. The event is due to start at 18.30, with a drinks reception and exhibition to follow a panel style debate and discussion. We will be framing the panel discussion and debate around the importance of neutrality and our emblems,using the current situation in Syria as a context for the discussion. 
We would be delighted if you would consider appearing as part of the panel at the event, having written about the situation in Syria and having a great understanding of the humanitarian consequences of the crisis. 
As well as the panel, we will also have a photography exhibition from Ibrahim Malla, a Syrian now working for the Red Cross, featuring shots he has taken within Syria and the surrounding areas. We are also hoping to get a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer to speak as part of the event, to tell us about first hand the challenges they face on the ground. 
Attached is a more in depth summary of the event for you to read through. 
If you have any questions at all, please don't hesitate to drop me a line. 
Best Wishes,
Very NiceWoman.

Very NiceWoman
PR Manager
Media and External Relations
British Red Cross
[Personal email address and phone number edited out]
44 Moorfields, London , EC2Y 9AL8:
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The document which is attached to that email reads as follows, stressed words made bold by me:
British Red Cross event marking 150 years of the Red Cross movement

Date: 29th October, evening.
Venue: 195 Piccadilly, the BAFTA building 
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and we want to use this occasion as an opportunity here in the UK to engage with key stakeholders and the general public on issues that define both who we are and the work we do.

A high profile event allows us to recognise 150 years of the Red Cross Movement and is a great moment in time to celebrate and demonstrate pride and confidence in our work.  It is also an opportunity to tell our story, develop greater awareness of who we are and position ourselves as unique within the aid sector through our guiding fundamental principles.
The Approach 
Looking to the past year and the current news agenda, Syria has dominated. Often questions around the Movement’s neutrality in this crisis have been posed and we would like to use this event as a means of engaging key stakeholders on this issue. We hope through our panel debate to discuss the importance of neutrality and the emblem, what it means to us and how we can ensure that neutral access is granted so that we can continue to help those in Syria most in need.

This discussion will be framed by the backdrop of the date the event is being held on – the 29th of October, which marks when the first national societies were recognised and the Red Cross was adopted as the emblem.

Audiences/ Invitees
  • Numbers of approx 150 – 175.
  • Other national societies and partner national societies
  • IFRC and ICRC.
  • Relevant media and journalists 
  • Think tanks, partner organisations and relevant external stakeholders. 
  • Major and high value giving donors.
  • Prospective donors.
  • Corporate partners, current and prospective.
  • MPs and relevant government
We are keen to invite our colleagues in Geneva as well as other national societies to share the event with them, as this is a movement wide anniversary and a theme that involves the whole of the Movement’s discussion and input.

In terms of external stakeholders such as think tanks, MPs and Government ministers – we are inviting them to develop a greater understanding of our work and the challenges that we face, with the aim that they can support our need for neutral access and put pressure on those that aren’t granting us this in current and future crisis.

The event provides an opportunity for corporate partners and major donors to engage with us on what we see as key issues and hear more about the work we are doing in Syria.

• It will take place in the evening from 6pm onwards.
• The event will be opened by Sir Nick Young to set the context for the  evening and introduce the thematic discussion, emphasising its relevance to the Movement, our history and our current work and challenges.
• The main event will comprise of an on stage panel debate and discussion
The panel will consist of 4-5 knowledgable, well known and reputable guests.
• Questions from the audience to the panel guests and Sir Nick or other relevant BRC or Movement spokespeople, will be taken at the end of the discussion.
• This will be followed by a drinks reception for guests where the work of the photographer Ibrahim Malla, who has worked with us in Syria, will be showcased.
• There are also private rooms available, should any media interviews need to take place in a quiet space. 

I respond on the same day, August 30th 2013, two months before the event:
Dear Very, 
Hello - I would love to be a part of this panel. Thank you so much for the invite and count me in! 
I will await further orders but am very happy to be asked, 

On September 2nd 2013 I receive a reply:

Hi Bidisha,

That's fantastic - we'd be delighted to have you as part of the panel, thanks so much!

If you can pencil the evening of the 29th October and I'll send through further briefings in the coming weeks.

Many thanks and any questions just let me know,


On October 9th 2013, 20 days before the event and more than five weeks after first being contacted, I receive an email featuring the following advert:

Hi Bidisha, 
Hope you are well. Please see attached the most up to date invite for the event - in case you want to invite anyone as a guest yourself. 
The final panel will consist of Terry Waite, Robert Mardini head of Ops in the Middle East for the ICRC, Simon Jenkins and yourself. 
Dr Hugo Slim will be chairing. I'll send through the panel briefing in the next few days. 
Do also let me know if you need me to book you a car to get you to the event? 
Many thanks! 

The attached, official invite is below:

There is an introduction from Sir Nick Young at 6.45pm. The panel is made up of me and Simon Jenkins, Robert Mardini, Hugo Slim and Terry Waite. Photographic work exhibited as part of the event is by Ibrahim Maila.

Men named on invite: 6 
Men present at event: 5, all white
Women: 1 (that's me, brown, double points)

I reply the same day, October 9th:
Dear Very, 
Hello and many thanks for your email. My main job is actually not with the Huffington Post, it's [I explain my International Reporting Project Fellowship].

The panel looks interesting. One query - if you include Nick Young then in the entire evening the speakers are 5 white men and 1 woman (me). Surely this is not quite right? In your last email to me the banner shows an image of two women looking aggrieved, with the tagline, 'A crisis can happen to anyone'; and your motto is 'Refusing to ignore people in crisis.' We all know, from the work we do, that women and children often bear the brunt of natural disasters, social breakdown, responsibility for all childcare, subjection to judgement and control, militarised violence (and the vast brunt of sexual violence and subsequent stigmatisation) and so on; and we also know that women are the majority of all charity workers, volunteers, fundraisers and aid workers; and indeed this panel event is organised by women.

Your event implies that women can be victims; women can work for free to help 'the cause'; and women can work hard behind the scenes. And we know that the Red Cross does incredible work all over the world, much of it in places where the majority skin colour is not white. Why do you have 5 white men and just 1 woman and 1 person of colour (combined in the same person - me) on this very high profile panel? 
You are implying that women are not worth listening to and that the correct make-up of a celebration of global aid work should be that 5 out of 6 authoritative speakers are white men. I'm sure you know, too, from experience, that the audience will be dominated by brilliant, humanitarian, engaged, experienced and amazing women. 
I am not enjoying writing this email as I so admire the work of the Red Cross and have been both keen on and honoured by this invitation from the very beginning. I have already covered this issue in The Guardian and as regards Amnesty International's television projects and comedy projects - I am shocked are [sic- and] surprised to see the Red Cross, which surely stands for humanity and for seeing all people as equal, is doing this.


On 11th October, after a thoughtful pause which I can sense across London, I receive the following: 

Dear Bidisha, 
Thank you for your email. 
I am sorry to read the below [sic] - I hope you understand there was no intention in anyway to exclude women or have a male bias for this panel, nor was the panel intended to give out any wider messages or implications about inequality of women. Quite the opposite - we have been very much trying to achieve a balanced panel and guests in attendance. 
Sir Nick Young is our Chief Exec - and so for an event like this it is appropriate for him to open. He is not sitting or chairing the panel - merely just welcoming everyone to the event. 
In terms of the panel - we have made every effort to ensure that women from the sector and media were represented. Lyse Doucet from the BBC was very keen to chair the panel - but could not commit in case she had to go overseas for a report. Though if she is able to attend - we will have her as part of the panel, that is something we will only know in the days running up to the event. The same goes for Sarah Montague from the Today Programme. 
We had also been speaking with Kristalina Georgieva, from ECHO to attend and although she very much wanted to - other commitments now means she is unable to join us and so is sending a deputy instead to attend as an audience member. 
We are also liaising with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to hopefully get volunteers over to speak of their experiences. 
I'm sure you understand that the nature of these event often means that guests are confirmed last minute - and we do hope to have a wider ethnic and female representation on the day. 
However, if you feel that you would rather not participate, then please let me know. 
Many thanks,

I reply the same day:
Dear Very NiceWoman [whose name I'm now using in full],

Hello and many thanks for your email. The thing is, I have written many emails like my last, to my enormous regret and disappointment, and the result is always the same: the perpetrator mentions a few amazing women who might almost have been involved but by the caprices of the gods just somehow couldn't make it, or you haven't heard back, or it didn't work out with that one woman, and so on.

The upshot of all your efforts is that you have put together a formal invite headlining 5 white men and 1 woman.

As I mentioned above, the use of female Red Cross volunteers does not change the power dynamic of the event: women's hard labour has always been used up for free, while the authority - the introducing, the panel speaking, the definitive declaiming, the star spot on the bill/invite - is reserved for men.

I am cancelling my attendance at the Red Cross event, I will be publicising my reasons why, and your explanation, and I am enclosing a list of more than thirty-five relevant and brilliant women who would be exactly right for your panel.

This list took me no more than fifteen minutes to make. All the women combine a strong journalistic and speaking pedigree with knowledge and experience of international issues and passion for humanitarian work. If you want 3 speakers to make your panel equal, that would be less than 10% of my list.

London, 11th October 2013, 10.55am

The list of 37 women I sent to the woman from the Red Cross reads as follows:

Chitra Nagarajan, Homa Khaleeli, Alicia Izrahuddin, Soraya Chemaly, Kristin Aune, Lola Okolosie, Hannah Pool, Selma Dabbagh, Rachel Shabi, Michela Wrong, Frances Harrison, Victoria Brittain, Gareth Peirce, Zarghuna Kargar, Shereen El-Feki, Rahila Gupta, Heather McRobie, Rita Chakrabarti, Razia Iqbal, Rana Jawad, Catherine Mayer, Yvonne Roberts, Natasha Walter, Joan Smith, Joy Francis, Farah Nayeri, Caroline Moorehead, Petinah Gappah, Sonya Thomas, Susanna Tarbush, Rosie Garthwaite, Anna Blundy, Dina Matar, Bridget Kendall, Lindsey Hilsum, Helena Kennedy, Gillian Slovo

In the five minutes following me sending that last email to the Red Cross I think of 11 further names:

Helen Bamber, Karma Nabulsi, Mako Fitts Ward, Tazeen Ahmed, Joyce Adjekum, Kiri Kankhwende, Samira Sawlani, Monisha Rajesh, Asiya Islam, Anita Anand, Vera Baird

This brings the total up to 48 brilliant, worldly, humanitarian and knowledgeable women. I do hope that the next time the Red Cross puts on an event discussing its global humanitarian work, much of which is necessitated by the damage wrought by militarised, macho, misogynistic behaviour, it will not do so by headlining five white men and one non-white woman.