Introducing Dr Shreya Atrey

Dr Shreya Atrey joins the Department as an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law, coming to us from the University of Bristol where she was a lecturer in the law school. Before that, she worked at the European University Institute in Florence and the New York University School of Law.

This is is not her first time in Oxford, however. She took her Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) and her DPhil at Magdalen College. ‘It’s a little bit of a detour but I’m back home,’ she says.

Dr Atrey teaches on our Master’s in International Human Rights Law, a part-time programme delivered by a combination of distance learning and summer residencies.

Intersectionality: centring the perspective of minorities in human rights

Dr Atrey’s research is on ‘intersectionality’ in discrimination law. Last year she published a book, Intersectional Discrimination, examining the category of intersectional discrimination in law, and comparing the law in different countries such as the UK, the US, India, Canada and South Africa.

The term intersectionality was coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw 30 years ago, to describe ‘how people placed at the intersection of several different disadvantages at once experienced discrimination.’ The discrimination faced by a black disabled woman, for example, might be very different from that faced by someone who has only one of those characteristics. Dr Atrey is interested in how discrimination laws ‘respond to claims based on more than one ground.’

As an example, she cites the case of Miriam O’Reilly, the television presenter who sued the BBC for age discrimination after being sacked from Countryfile. Dr Atrey points out that when an older woman is sacked from television, it can be hard to argue that the reason was sexism, because she might be replaced by a younger woman, but it’s also hard to make a case for ageism, when older men continue to be hired. ‘So you fall through the cracks of both age discrimination and sex discrimination,’ she says. ‘What do you argue?’

Although the UK’s Equality Act (2010) included a clause on combination discrimination, allowing people to bring claims on more than one ground, the Conservative government that succeeded the Labour government that introduced the legislation never brought it into force. It’s a battle that remains to be won.

Dr Atrey’s expertise in intersectional discrimination informs her teaching. Her aim is to ‘centre minorities’ perspectives in our understanding of human rights,’ and ‘to make intersectionality front and centre.’ One way to do that is to ‘keep reminding ourselves that if we’re not asking the intersectional question we’re not doing human rights law.’

It’s good for students to be aware of perspectives that aren’t mainstream, she argues, ‘and finding that the reason they’re not mainstream is the reason we might be getting human rights wrong.’ It is, she says, ‘a challenge – but it has to be done.’

Human rights in theory and practice

The Master’s in International Human Rights Law is about ‘what it means to develop human rights practice across our careers, not just when we’re undergraduates, or as graduate students, but across long human rights careers –  what human rights in theory and practice should look like.’

Dr Atrey’s first term has been a very happy experience of getting to know the students who are ‘extremely dedicated to both aspects of human rights law and lifelong learning.’

Because the course is taught remotely, students come from all over the globe – it’s very rare for two students to come from the same jurisdiction. In terms of the course matter, that is a real advantage: ‘We work with that comparative context and bring that to our understanding of human rights law.’ Each cohort, about 30 students with an average age of 38, is ‘centred around the idea that human rights practitioners who have been in the field for quite a long time could take two years part-time to reflect on their practice in an academic way,’ says Dr Atrey.

Much of the course focuses on the United Nations (UN) law on human rights, and having such a diverse group of students ‘enriches the conversation,’ she says. ‘Human rights treaties at the UN level don’t just self-execute. There are people on the ground in different countries who work with them. So it helps to have both the local and international conversation at the same time.’

At the same time, she says, it’s important never to lose sight of the fact that this is a ‘common project that is meant to be solved together. This is exactly what we should be doing: getting people from different places, contextualising our understanding but then arriving at a point where we see our challenges are shared, whether it’s populism or anti-Semitism or refugee crisis or climate change.’

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Published 6 February 2020