Posts Tagged gender-based violence

Rie Debabrata: M.A Social and Economic Development (1998), Ph.D. Sociology (2002)



I would like to thank Ken Plummer for inviting me to share my memories of Essex. I was Ken’s Teaching Assistant in 1998-1999 and 2000-2001, and to say that I was completely blown away by the vitality and incredible lucidity of his lectures – would be such an understatement. Listening to him (SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology) made me wish that I had learned from him as an undergraduate.

Besides Ken, some of the inspiring professors that I had the privilege to study and interact with, both during my Masters, and later PhD, were — Miriam Glucksmann (my PhD supervisor), Ted Benton, Lydia Morris (PhD examiner), Pam Cox, Jane Hindley, to name a few.

I came to Essex in 1997 to pursue a MA in Social and Economic Development (an inter-disciplinary course between the Departments of Sociology and Economics), which I understand is no longer offered. I had graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economic (Honours) from the University of Delhi, India, but had chosen to pursue the inter-disciplinary course at Essex mainly because I had always been fascinated by Sociology (knew very little about it, though). It was also because at the end of my 3-year bachelor’s degree, I could not visualize myself pursuing a career in Economics. I had found it to be very econometric-centred, something that did not sit well with me. I was interested in Development Economics – or as my late-grandfather used to put it – the kind of economics that Amartya Sen (a fellow-Bengali and an acquaintance of my grandfather’s) teaches. The fact that Essex offered a course that combined both Development Economics and Sociology seemed like a win-win.

The academic environment at Essex was so vibrant – there we so many lectures, seminars and colloquiums to attend, constantly expanding one’s intellectual horizons. Up until then, I had mainly studied within the Indian academic system (except for a brief stint at the University of California, Berkeley, where I took a course on Women’s Studies). The Indian educational system places a premium on learning by rote (it still does, although changes are afoot), and I do not recall being encouraged or trained to critique the material in any way. Lectures were often a one-sided affair, with students memorizing the lectures/notes and readings, and there was very little space for genuine debate or reflection. Learning by rote was something that I was quite good at during my school years, but I simply could not sustain that by the time I entered University for my undergraduate degree. So much of what I was studying either did not make sense to me, or seemed at odds with my politics – and yet there was no avenue for expressing that. As a result, I retreated and did not engage with the material or attempt to genuinely learn from it. By the time I had arrived at Essex, therefore, I was craving an interactive and intellectually stimulating environment. And my, did Essex deliver!

Even though I was new to Sociology, I did not feel like an outsider for too long. I encountered a department full of professors, administrators (Brenda Corti, Helen Hannick, Diane Allison, Mary Girling, Sue Aylott) and peers that were unfailingly warm, accommodating and engaging. As a result, I developed some wonderful friendships, some of which continue till today, despite the distance.

Some snapshots from my time at Essex:

–        Introductory conference for new students, followed by a welcome dinner at Wivenhoe’s Tandoori Hut: a first glimpse into a fiercely talented and charmingly quirky community that was going to be home for the next, almost 4 years.

–        Lecture by George Ritzer on ‘McDonaldization’: a very engaging discourse on a fascinating concept, which was followed by Ted Benton’s equally incisive query along the lines of “where/how does class fit into all of this?” It confirmed Ted’s status as one of my intellectual heroes!

–        Fuller Scholarship: I was grinning like a Cheshire cat (for what felt like days) when I received news of having been awarded the scholarship. This ensured that I would stay on at Essex for my PhD. I can still recall Tony Woodiwiss’ (then HOD) warm smile as he informed me of the Department’s decision and congratulated me.

–        Mentorship and guidance: I was never more convinced that I had chosen the right PhD supervisor in Miriam, than when I would receive very pragmatic and consistently supportive messages from her while in the midst of my field research – this was a challenging year spent travelling to remote villages and towns in India. Miriam also did not hold back on her criticism, as she did when she quite bluntly warned me that I would not complete my PhD if I took a break during my third-year to commence a consultancy with the United Nations. While I was initially taken aback (Miriam later gleefully confided that she had overdone it a bit to ensure that I would listen!), it did force me to refocus my priorities and to persuade my future employers to wait until I had submitted my thesis.

–        ‘Ruth Cavendish’: I have always been terribly impressed by the fact that Miriam, as the pseudonymous Ruth Cavendish, wrote “Women on the Assembly Line” – a groundbreaking ethnographic study. I recall having mentioned this several years later to my husband, Bernard (we were newly dating then), and even though he’s a political scientist, he knew of this study – needless to say, he scored big points.

Before arriving at Essex, I had worked with several civil society organisations and NGOs including the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (which provides micro-credit loans to rural women). I grew up within the ‘NGO-world’ in many ways, owing in a large part to my parents’ political and social activism in India.

After leaving Essex, I worked (very briefly) with the Asian Development Bank (posted in Manila, Philippines), and then with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where I have been since 2002. My work with UNDP has taken me to some exciting destinations – I was in Lao PDR for 2.5 years as the Assistant Country Director (I headed a team that worked on poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS prevention, gender empowerment, private sector development, and UNDP’s flagship ‘Human Development Report’). I also worked with UNDP’s regional programme on HIV/AIDS for South and Northeast Asia, specializing in anti-trafficking and migration issues. I have been posted in New York since 2006, where I am currently working as Donor Relations Adviser with UNDP’s External Relations Bureau. My team works on resource mobilization and maintaining partnerships with a variety of actors, including ‘donors’ to UNDP, such as the Nordic countries, Canada, UK, US, Australia, etc. A career with the UN certainly has its ups and downs. While it is hugely satisfying professionally, the pace of work and constant pressure to travel does take a toll on family life. Bernard and I have a young daughter and we find ourselves, as do many others, constantly trying to find that elusive work-life ‘balance’!

Looking back, I can quite confidently say that being at Essex was in so many ways a life-changing experience. I could not have asked for a better intellectual ‘home’. Even though I have not pursued an academic career since completing my PhD, the training that I have received here has held me in good stead!

Dr. Rie Debabrata Tamas

Donor Relations Adviser, Resources Partnerships Cluster, Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy,
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017

Photo: Miriam Glucksmann with Rie Debabrata Tamas (6 months pregnant!) and Bernard Debabrata Tamas in New York, October 2009

Rie and Miriam

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Ana Dellow, BA 2007

Ana in 2009, looking back on her experience of studying sociology at Essex as a mature student, and talking about her work since with Women’s Aid and survivors of domestic violence.



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Daniel Nehring, BA 2002, MA 2003, PhD 2008

Image of Daniel Nehring on the Great Wall of China, 2011

I began my studies in Germany and Mexico and came to Essex in 2000 to finish my BA. I enjoyed my studies at Essex, made many friends, and in the end decided to stay for my MA and PhD as well. My PhD research looked at transformations of intimate life among young middle-class people in Mexico City. It was inspired by a class on gender issues in Latin America I had taken with Diane Elson when I was an undergraduate. This goes to show, I think, that inspirational teaching can have a major and lasting intellectual impact. It’s this kind of experiences at Essex that really made a difference for me.

After leaving the university in 2008, I held a number of appointments in the UK, the USA, and the Caribbean before recently settling down in a permanent position as Research Fellow at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. My current research, on the whole, examines transformations of personal life under conditions of neoliberal globalisation and rapid social change. In addition to my persistent interest in Latin America, I have recently also started research in China. At the moment, I involved in two research projects. One is a comparative study on therapeutic culture and neoliberal discourse in five societies. A respective monograph is due to be published by Palgrave next year. In addition, I have begun a project on transnational dating and marriage among young professionals in urban China, together with colleagues at Beijing Normal University and Middlesex University. Apart from these two projects, I have almost completed work on an edited volume on transformations of intimate life in contemporary Mexico (Ashgate, 2013) and an introductory textbook for undergraduates in sociology (Pearson, 2013).

At the moment, I spend my time mainly in the Americas and in China. I am still in touch with former colleagues at Essex, though, and I remain interested in developments in British academia. One of my ways of staying involved is a blog at SAGE’s Social Science Space (below). Here, I write regularly about issues of interest to postgraduate students and early-career sociologists.

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Alumna of the Year 2012, Aisha Gill

Alumna of the year 2012, Dr Aisha Gill,Alumna of the year 2012, Dr Aisha Gill, celebrating her award, together with fellow former students (immediately adjacent: Oonagh Corrigan and Tabitha Freeman) and staff members Miriam Glucksman (far left) and Lydia Morris (far right)

In 2012 former student Dr. Aisha Gill, who completed her BA, MA and PhD within the department over a period of 10 years (1993-2002), was awarded Alumna of the Year for her academic work and activism in the field of gender-based violence against black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan and India.

Oration by Professor Nigel South

Aisha Gill studied for her BA, MA and PhD degrees here in the Department of Sociology at Essex – and was awarded her doctorate in 2002.

Today Aisha is a senior lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton University and a respected academic and activist in the areas of health and criminal justice responses to violence against black, minority ethnic, and refugee women in the UK.

Her work has been recognised by many awards. In 2011 she was named “Professional of the Year” at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards – which recognise professionals who have become leading practitioners in their chosen field, setting an example to other women and having their contributions recognised by their peers.

She has also received the Hind Rattan Award in the field of education in January 2011; a United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women, Award to enable attendance at an Expert Group Summit on ‘Legislation to Address Harmful Practices’, in Ethiopia in 2009; and Research Council Scholarships and the Fuller Bequest Project prize while a student here at Essex. And, in addition, an award of some significance at the time, from the Home Office Police Research Innovation Scheme in 1997 marked at the end of the project by a meeting with the Home Secretary of the day.

Aisha has served on numerous government working parties on “honour” killings and forced marriage, and written about how the civil and criminal justice systems of the UK, India and Iraqi Kurdistan respond to victims in these cases.

She has been involved in addressing the problem of Violence Against Women at the grassroots level for the past thirteen years. She is a board member of the ‘End Violence Against Women’ Coalition; an elected member of the Women’s National Commission, United Nations Advisory Group; invited advisor to the Independent Police Complaints Commission strategic support group; a member of Liberty’s Project Advisory Group; a member of Kurdish Women’s Rights Watch; a past chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project; and a board member of ROSA, the UK Fund for women and girls.

She has been a frequent provider of expert advice on legal and policy issues related to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage to Government departments including the Ministry of Justice, to Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service and to the voluntary sector, and has challenged politicians to be more inclusive of Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee voices in policy-making on issues of gender-based violence and human rights.

Her current research interests include rights, law and forced marriage; ‘honour’ killings and violence in the South Asian/Kurdish Diaspora and femicide in Iraqi Kurdistan and India. She has published widely in academic journals and books and is often in the news as a commentator or contributor to mainstream popular media.

That I think is the background to the award – but if I may I would like to add a few personal comments as I was Aisha’s academic supervisor throughout her years here at Essex.

In this capacity I was privileged to see a young scholar undertaking a journey through difficult and new areas of research and politics – from tentative but brave steps in an undergraduate dissertation to the pioneering work of her PhD thesis. It is important to recognise that when Aisha started her work on the subject of honour killings and violence it did not attract much serious attention from academics, the media or from policy makers or public services.

Whenever opportunities arose to enter the ‘Lion’s Den’ of sceptics or the unsympathetic – in order to present her findings and make her case – Aisha always rose to the challenge. And though the proverbial Lions might have been fierce beasts – my money was always on Aisha.

And she has continued in this vein – campaigning, challenging and changing – and, in terms of what the Government would like to see social science research doing – she has been making an impact and a difference to the world we live in.

We are proud of her achievements.

Response from Aisha Gill

I arrived at Essex University in 1993 and never looked back.

Growing up in the 1980s in an inner-city area in the East Midlands meant dealing with racism, poverty, social exclusion and various other inequalities on a day-to-day basis. Having five siblings didn’t help. Neither did the fact that I was not expected to do well educationally. When I got suspended from school at age 14 for clowning around in the playground, my father’s belief that I was a hopeless case was cemented.

A few years later, in order to assert my independence I had to leave home. At the time, 17-year-old Asian women did not go against their family’s wishes and make their own choices. But I did… and was subsequently disowned by my immediate family. I had no contact with them for over a decade. This rejection stirred my anger and I channelled all rage into my education.

Living in bedsit-land for 3 years in Bedford, I put myself through evening classes, passed my GCSES and started studying for my A-levels thank to support from charities and my local education authority. When I applied to Essex University, Dr Colin Samson interviewed me and I was offered a place on the condition that I got a C in Sociology. Of course I accepted, but I was determined to get an A – which I did.

I remember my first term being quite scary as I found it hard to settle into such a different lifestyle among so many students from different corners of the world. As the end of the first term approached, I began feeling increasingly anxious as I was one of the very few ‘home’ students who did not have a home to go to at Christmas.

Instead, I made Essex my home. To take my mind off my troubles, I undertook my first stint of charity work that December with a Colchester-based homeless charity. I used this experience as the foundation for my first year research project and got a 1st. Although this mark of success was hugely rewarding, more important was the fact that I’d discovered a passion for something that made a real, practical difference to other people’s lives.

I soon started working in the violence against women sector… and never stopped. I remained at Essex for my MA and then my PhD as I was lucky enough to receive scholarships to get me my through my studies. During this time, I decided to devote my research work to changing society’s responses to violence against women: my mother’s generation never had the support and so had suffered in silence.

By this time my close friends Tabz, Winks and Oonagh had become my surrogate family at Essex. Like a true family, they supported my passion for this work and, in 2002, together we raised £2,000 for a domestic violence charity. This was partly thanks to a generous donation from another friend who, although initially keen to sell his car before he left for Saudi Arabia, was persuaded to give it to me for free to be raffled off at the summer ball ‘in a good cause’.

Essex University gave me a fantastic foundation for a career as an academic, a teacher, and as an activist, together centred on the desire to throw light on difficult social problems in order to nurture change. Since leaving in 2002 and joining the University of Roehampton, I’ve continually challenged misconceptions about violence against women and encouraged politicians to listen to the views of black, minority ethnic and refugee women when developing policy. My research has also helped to expose some of the many ways in which women around the world are victimised through violence, including in the UK, India and Iraqi Kurdistan, where I was involved in a two year project investigating the murder of women in the name of ‘honour’. I have also been instructed as an expert witness in a number of so-called honour killing murder trials in recent years and have contributed to drafting legislation on VAW for the United Nations and the UK government. In September 2011 I was promoted to Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton where I teach a wide range of modules in criminology and supervise undergraduate and graduate dissertations. I remember Essex as a great place to learn. And I pay tribute to some of the intellectual ‘giants’ in the Department of Sociology – Colin Samson, Ken Plummer, Catherine Hall, Miriam Glucksmann and Nigel South. I could not have asked for better academic training, so it is wonderful to be acknowledged in this way. It is an absolute honour to receive this recognition.

For those of you graduating today who are interested in research and want to make a difference in the world, I urge you to remain steadfast. Getting a degree is only the beginning. Enjoy this special day. Celebrate with your loved ones and make the most of the opportunities cultivated here with your friends and lecturers to go for it. Education is power and opens so many doors. You just have to believe in yourself.

So, from the bottom of my heart – the only way is Essex!


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