Shreya Atrey Profile

Shreya Atrey (India & Magdalen 2011) is currently pursuing DPhil in Law at the University of Oxford. Her research interests revolve around feminist theory, disability law and human rights. She has worked at, amongst other places, the UNDP in New York.  Shreya holds a BCL from the University of Oxford, and a B.A. LL.B (Hons) from NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad.

Rhodes Project: What is your favourite film genre?

Shreya Atrey: I really don’t watch films, at all. I don’t remember the last one I watched, in fact. I prefer books - I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah yesterday. It was as good as her last three novels, or actually, two novels and one book of short stories. She’s as good as it gets.

Rhodes Project: If you could meet one female historical figure, who would it be and why?

Shreya Atrey: I work a lot on black literature and black feminism, so perhaps I’d choose Alice Walker for that reason. She inspired this area of writing which I’m currently reading. She’s not historic at all but I’d love to meet her and, if at all possible, ask what she was thinking when she heralded this movement for black women.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite experience you’ve had while you’ve been at Oxford?

Shreya Atrey: I think a lot about the things that have happened in and around Rhodes House. Some events there make you realise you’re part of something special. One of the talks I attended in Trinity 2013 was with Dame Stephanie Shirley and there was something about her and the fact that it was a hall full of just women (well, almost). She was asked if there was any question that hadn’t been asked that she would want answered, and she said she’d probably want to answer what she wants to do with the next ten years of her life. Steve is eighty now, and has had a relentless and remarkable life and career. I think that response, indicating a drive to keep serving ceaselessly, was a very, very inspiring moment for us.

Rhodes Project: What is an average work day like for you?

Shreya Atrey: I head to the Law Bod.  I didn’t like it much at first, I have to say, but I’ve come to really like the space reserved for research students. So I head to the Law Bod and stick around there for a couple of hours then head out to Alternative Tuck Shop or Olives, get a sandwich, come back, continue research and probably towards the end of the day I go back and cook something nice, a vegetarian Ottolenghi recipe from Plenty perhaps. If I have at least eight hours of work in that and I’ve not just been chatting up everyone in the library then that’s a successful average work day.

Rhodes Project: What motivates you?

Shreya Atrey: A lot of my motivation is drawn from my work, which now basically involves reading what other people have written. I’ve spent a lot of the last year reading feminist works – I’ve not only enjoyed it but have been immensely inspired by it. In the last year that’s been the driving force behind what I’ve done and what I’ve liked. So also, in a big way I think, a lot of the conversations we have amongst the Rhodes community and friends here and also family back home, end up pushing me forward to get up the next morning and go back to work.

Rhodes Project: What is the main obstacle, in your opinion, to the enjoyment of human rights for persons with disabilities?

Shreya Atrey: I’d say the Magna Carta for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs) is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and that only came into force in 2008. It was adopted in 2006 and it took a couple of years for it to get signatures and ratifications.  It has taken longer to build the basis of rights for PWDs.  In a way the rights language for PWDs, the whole narrative behind it, the story of why rights for them are a bit different and why a different approach is required compared to other minorities, was pretty much lacking before. It’s crucial to popularise and mainstream the whole story of why the UNCRPD has a different tenor within human rights discourse. This theoretical basis is evolving but we have a long way to go. Think of it this way: over a billion people are disabled and comprise the largest minority in the world.  Their absence from the ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ everyday life around us clearly indicates the way we think about their fundamental freedoms and human dignity.

Rhodes Project: How do you think rights discourse can best respond to multiple or intersecting identities?

Shreya Atrey: Intersectionality [the idea that people do not have just one identity such as “woman” or “black” or “Christian” but combine all their disparate identities] has become commonplace in political theory and feminist discourse. But when you come to law there’s this utter absence of mainstreaming intersectionality.  Intersectionality is really the domain of discrimination law and having done discrimination law quite in depth in my BCL year, it was clear that there was a glaring absence of understanding the nature of discrimination experienced by people who identified themselves as something more than just one sort of identity of race, gender, religion etc.  It’s a huge thing to say I’m going to solve this in discrimination law but I’m proposing this very small framework of Venn diagrams as a way to think about identities as intersecting circles and analysing the intersections. This mathematical/graphic representation helps move beyond the territory of legal semantics in human rights law (of dignity, individuality, groups, grounds) for understanding identities as unique and shared, both.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors?

Shreya Atrey: I have absolute clarity on this answer actually. My first and everstanding mentor has to be my professor from law school in India. I went to NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad and my Professor Dr. Amita Dhanda has had an incomparable impact on my life. She is a disability rights expert and also teaches administrative law, jurisprudence, and law and poverty, and she’s an absolutely fantastic woman who has inspired the way I look at literally everything in law. Having moved to Oxford I have to say that my supervisor has not only given me a rich perspective on what I work on but I’ve learnt a great deal by our association itself. That’s Professor Sandra Fredman, South Africa Rhodes 1979. I love the University basically, and Law School more specifically. So I am very lucky to have found two people, one in law school back in India and one in Oxford, who play a very major role in my life and career.

Rhodes Project: What would readers on our site be surprised to learn about you?

Shreya Atrey: I can’t think of anything that people who are close to me wouldn’t know already. I’m very predictable. I have an obsession with emails, an obsession with news, I’m an absolute news junkie, but everything is out there and known. I’m also addicted to Bollywood music and pretend to sing, I think they would know that though as well!

Rhodes Project: If you could have one super-power, what would it be and why?

Shreya Atrey: Well, I like travelling but since I have an Indian passport, it’s a huge impediment. If there were any super-power that allowed me to travel without a passport or visas, like a bird or something, I would absolutely love it.

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