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Marai Larasi


Today it is my great honour to welcome Marai Larasi to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

“If we are to end violence against women and girls, we need to create seismic shifts across our social norms”. So says Marai Larasi, effectively calling for a revolution in feelings and beliefs, practices and politics.

Her entire career has been dedicated to seeing though such a revolution. She has a long history of working with women in BME communities, including, for example, helping provide sheltered accommodation for refugee women in Camden and Hackney who had experienced violence. She worked with London Women’s Aid (now, Solace), Hackney Women’s Aid, “End Violence Against Women Coalition” (where she was co-chair), and in EU/UN initiatives to end violence against women in the western Balkans and Turkey. Also involved in #LifeInLeggings, a Caribbean-wide movement to fight violence against women. #LifeInLeggings was coined to dispel the myth that only certain types of woman are harassed and are deserving of their assault/abuse because of the way they are dressed (that is, in leggings). Crucially, until May last year, she was the Executive Director of Imkaan, a women’s organization dedicated to preventing and responding to violence against back and ethnic girls and women. Larasi is passionate about gender justice and how gender is racialized. One of her slogans could be: gender work cannot be done without racial justice work.

Marai Larasi’s parents came from Jamaica in the 1950s. Her mother was a midwife. She was born in Bethnal Green Hospital and went to infant school here. When she was six, she was taken to Jamaica and educated at Clarendon College High School on their beautiful campus in Chapelton. This was a period when she started being interested in Jamaican politics and questions about how to do politics in a post-colonial context. Larasi returned to the UK when she was 17 to take her A-levels at the City of East London College. This was followed by a stint at Howard University where she studied psychology, and then she joined us at Birkbeck to do the MA in Culture, Diaspora, and Ethnicity. She was awarded a Distinction. She speaks highly of BBK and that MA programme as being ideal for a queer woman of colour. Her dissertation was on medical representations of child sexual exploitation, including questions such as how the narrative of Asian grooming gangs captured the public attention, how it relied on Oriental tropes, and how it fed a particular kind of imagination about who does what to whom, particularly the racist notion that men of colour are predators. This academic work – which is one of the bedrocks of her activism – has seen her contributing to scholarship and knowledge as well, including writing chapters in edited volumes and giving lectures all over the world.

She was a voracious reader from a young age, devouring classics like the Communist Manifesto and Angela Davis’ classic 1981 book Women, Race, and Class. It is a Marxist-feminist analysis of slavery, suffrage movement, and the women’s liberation movement, including some pointed critiques of white middle class feminism of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Davis’ book pulled together different aspects of herself: race, gender, class, and sexuality. It made Larasi feel understood for the first time.

Crucial to Larasi’s thinking is the concept of intersectionality. The Combahee River Collective, an American black lesbian feminist group, is often credited with the first intersectionality critiques, but the concept was developed and expanded upon by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw warns against “marginaliz[ing] those who are multiply-burdened”. It is not enough to simply add Black women to “an already established analytical structure”. This is because “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”. In other words, attention must be paid not simply to sex discrimination or racial prejudices, but the compounding effects of race and gender. As Larasi puts it, black and lesbian women are not simply “add-ons” to a version of feminism premised on white, middle-class, cis-gender women. As Larasi observes, “young BME women being harassed on the streets of London are harassed as BME women – they’re not black today and then women tomorrow”. Their experiences of abuse are often not understood by service providers, who often retain racially stereotypical ways of dealing with survivors of violence, thus deterring girls and women from seeking help. Furthermore, Larasi is adamant that minoritized women must speak for themselves: her aim is providing and sustaining “life-saving services that are led by BME women for BME women”. She quotes Angela Davis’ saying: “build from the margins, not from the centre”.

There is no easy way to summarise just how influential Larasi has been. Her position as one of the great leaders of our times has been marked by her ranking in the World Pride Power List. In 2019, she was one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy. Put bluntly, she is one of the most influential LGBTQ people in the worlds of politics and activism. She has also been awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for her work.

She is also a “rock star” of feminism. A number of us (including me) look on in awe as, during the 75th Golden Globe Awards in 2018, she walked up the red carpet as the guest of Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame). The event was to draw attention to the #TimesUp campaign against sexual harassment, and Larasi did it in true rock star style, dressed in black tuxedo and boots. 

And who is the person? Larasi identifies as a lesbian. She is a mother to one daughter and one son but, I am told, she is also “a mother to many”. She is an amazing cook and vegan (although giving up cheese was a struggle). Music is a passion, for which she has eclectic tastes including hiphop, 90s soul, and jazz. If you start her talking about Afrofuturist literature, “ol’ skool” reggae, or the works of Alice Walker, I guarantee that you will be entranced for hours. Her tipple is a gin and tonic, preferably near a dance floor. She loves mountain climbing, although regretfully has too little time to indulge.  Her friends call her a lioness, a African-Caribbean feminist warrior. She is wise, gentle, and approachable. Working in a field where there are often difficult and distressing things to address, she is grounded, knows how to “flip the question”, inclusive, and makes people feel that they belong. She is one of the most important British feminists. 

How can I sum her up? She is animated by Solidarity. Like her grandmother and mother before her, she is a rule breaker. The urge to resist is “in her blood”. Of course, it is challenging living one’s life as an activist. But, Larasi contends that “we dare to dream that we could have a just, safe and equal world, and we were crazy and courageous enough to create it together, and this moment represented something huge in that process”. 

Marai Larasi has been student at Birkbeck. She is one of our most respected and loved alumni, and she takes her role seriously in being an ambassador for the College. We are deeply honoured that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.