I have been speaking and writing about misogyny in Tower Hamlets for a long time – now feels like the right time to put something more comprehensive on the record. There is an outside chance that people might be open to thinking about experiences other than their own, and realise that action is needed.
There are some qualifications to make before getting into the substance of this.
Being a Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets has been hugely rewarding. I would encourage anyone, women or men, to do it.
Some of what I have experienced is because I don’t duck conflict. I stand up for what I believe, and I stand up to bullies. I have held leadership positions. You can be a great local councillor and hold positions in the council without being quite such a visible target.
Still, though, Labour women from all backgrounds – different ethnicities and class backgrounds, tell a very similar story when we sit down to discuss it. We are undermined and our contributions trivialised. We are held to account for what our partners do. We are sexually harassed. Many of us have experienced smears based on a fabricated private life. There are routine attempts made to intimidate us, shut us down. This is often worse for BAME women, who have racism and cultural expectations to deal with too.
This matters, for two reasons. One, we are the party of equality, and if we expect voters to take us seriously, we need to act with integrity ourselves. Two, we are wasting talent.
I am writing this because I want action to be taken by our political leaders, and because there is a chance that setting out some of my own experience in black and white will help engender enough empathy to encourage action.
I am going to try to list the different types of intimidation and harassment, and give an example for each one. There are far far more examples than I am prepared to spend the time writing up – this is a start.
Clothes. One of my first experiences of this was in my ward, when I was leafleting a school gate during my by election. I was wearing a knee length black and pink Monsoon dress, and boots – pretty standard professional outfit. The school was opposite a piece of grass, the other side of which, about 200 yards away, was the entrance to a mosque. A man came over to me and starting talking to me in a language I did not understand. He then started pointing at my legs, and when I still did not understand, he pulled at my skirt, grabbed and shook my knees, and shouted “no, no no!”. I moved away from him and asked someone to translate. It turned out he thought my dress was not modest, and I had offended him as he left his prayers. Being the ultra liberal I am, I went and discussed with friends what I could wear that would not offend people, whilst still looking like myself. That was ten years go – now I would probably report him for assault.
I have used clothes as a way to build bridges. The next time I stood outside the mosque I covered my head, whilst caused outrage amongst some who called me a feminist sell out and fraud, but was appreciated as a gesture by others. I enjoy dressing up in shalwar chemise for weddings and cultural events, because it is beautiful and super comfortable, and polite to my hosts. I have only worn a sari once, for the same reason I never wear high heels – I only wear clothes I can walk in.
I have had a LOT of unsolicited advice on what I should wear to fit in in different cultural contexts. I have also been asked to tell other women what to wear – which I will not do. The constant monitoring of how women look can become wearing.
How you look isn’t just your clothes. I have never been thin, and local government is not a healthy lifestyle. I have stood in lifts whilst men poked me and asked if I was pregnant, why wasn’t I pregnant, did I cook properly for my family, why not, why did I eat too much? Men have texted around fat jokes about me as a way of gaining ground in an AGM.
Some men in the Labour Party think women’s bodies are there for their use, regardless of what the woman wants. I have pulled men out of a crowded meeting room where I saw them groping a young woman who could not get away.. I have had to hit, pummel and scream to get a car stopped when a member giving me a lift home tried to take me somewhere else. I have sat in a pub with Labour men chatting about prostitutes they have used.
Then there is the straightforward intimidation. Phone calls after a Labour Group meeting to let me know someone would be round to “finish me” if I didn’t stop asking questions. A man who wanted to come off a committee when I was chief whip, called my mobile absolutely constantly for days, screamed threats at me in person. Got people to follow me home and put notes in my pocket with the addresses of my family members. Told me it was not just my own safety I needed to worry about. Another man who tried to make me feel responsible for the lies and rumours he spread about my friends – if I stopped challenging him, he would stop smearing them. Smears about me, trying to stoke up anti semitism against me based on my Hebrew first name, claims I had strings of lesbian lovers, lies about financial probity, lies about lies about lies.
Then the stuff every woman has to deal with, all the time. Being ignored or treated like an infant in meetings, your ideas implemented once they have been lifted by others. Ignored if you are too quiet, demonised if you are too loud.
This is why there are fewer women in leadership positions than men, why more women stand down, earlier than men, why we have to scrabble to meet Labour’s ⅓ quota. Many women I know have had it much worse than me.
It is possible to get it sorted. Some of the worst offenders are well known. Senior leaders in the Labour Party can stand up to them, not pander to them. There is some personal support offered by informal networks within the party, which is positive – but we will only see change we we support one another to call it out, not just cope with it. We need to stop offering training and support to women, and start tackling the hate filled men who are poisoning our politics.
There are lots of reasons why this is not taken seriously.
One is that it is much easier to make deals with bullies than to stand up to them. The downfall of Lutfur Rahman is an opportunity to do things differently. I hope we take it.
Another, is that some men who have had their own battles to deal with, dislike being asked to support women’s equality. Their own lives, the injustices they have suffered, matter more. More women may mean less space for people like them. Very many men have deep rooted issues with women who have something to say for themselves, who don’t do what they are told. They need to get over it.