This blog post by Talat Yaqoob (Women 50:50) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Talat Yaqoob is the co-founder and Chair of the Women 50:50 campaign, which is fighting for legislated candidate quotas in local council and Scottish Parliament election and works to ensure the diversity of women is truly represented across politics.
The past few months have been a turbulent time for politics across the UK, not in the usual sense of infighting and constitutional nightmares, but instead some temporary focus managed to be on women and their experiences.
In October of this year, Holyrood and Westminster were rocked by sexual harassment claims, but women who have been working in political parties, in parliaments or in councils were not “rocked” by this news, most nodded knowingly, having experienced the casual sexism and in many cases the direct harassment that has come to light. Our parliament or councils do not exist in isolation from the rest of society, where there is patriarchy preventing social justice for women; there too are forces of patriarchy in our democracy. The inequality is clearest in who is represented; only 35% of MSPs are women (down from 40% in 2007), there are only 29% women councillors and there are 103 wards with no representation from women whatsoever.
A very specific point needs to be made, and loudly, about the intersection of race and gender in our democracy; since the day of devolution there has never been a black or minority ethnic (BME) woman in the Scottish Parliament and across the councils in the 2017 local elections, we went from 4 BME woman councillors to 3. This is despite a focus on gender equality and outreach from political parties, which should lead us to ask; which women are they targeting their outreach too? Aside from it clearly not having enough impact overall, it would seem what little is being done is targeted at those who are easiest to find and are already closest to participation.
Inside the Scottish Parliament, its Corporate Body has 1 woman and 5 men and its Business Bureau is all male. Combined, these groups govern over the programme of parliamentary business, HR, equality and diversity and staff/MSP conduct – until last month, both of these groups were all male, however a resignation led to one of the male members of the corporate body resigning and recommending a woman take his place. That was certainly a welcome move, but the fact that these groups were all male, should have bothered those in the parliament long before these sexual harassment cases came to be known.
Why am I talking about representation during the 16 days of activism on violence against women? Because political under-representation is part of the continuum of inequality that allows violence against women to persist in our society. Women missing from decision making means poorer, less well informed decisions are made, often hurting women the most. Women missing from our politics and leadership feeds the perceptions that they are less capable of or less well suited to these roles and drives deeper the stereotypes that inhibit women’s ambitions and opportunities.
It is a Westminster parliament, with only 29% women MSPs, that passed universal credit, the family cap, the rape clause and austerity measures which disproportionality impact women (and women of colour, refugee women and disabled women the most). Yes, there is a woman Prime Minister leading the charge on these decisions, I do not expect that every woman elected will be a feminist or should be the voice for all women, but I do firmly believe that institutions which have (and have always had) a majority of men making decisions, create systems which benefit those like them. This has been proved in every avenue of society. More women around the decision making table, with diverse lived experience, from across political thinking makes for better systems and better outcomes.
The continuum of inequality, of which under-representation is just one part, can be vividly seen in how our women parliamentarians are treated. Once women have got through the sexism they face within their parties, have earned their stripes and run for selection, have managed to deal with the questions asked of their capabilities, their “work/life balance” (which we simply do not ask of men), make it on to the ballot paper in a winnable seat and make it into council or parliament, what awaits them is unacceptable.
The way women are represented in traditional media needs to be challenged and overcome. We have seen the First Minister photo-shopped onto a bikini wearing Miley Cyrus and more recently, the Daily Mail went with a front page headline “Never Mind Brexit, who won legs-it?” commenting on Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s bodies. Forget that they were meeting to discuss the most critical issue in the UK today, how did their legs look? Such commentary and imagery only feeds the idea that women are there to be objectified and even as leaders, are not to be taken seriously.
But it is not restricted to our papers. The way they are treated by the public on social media is horrifying, Amnesty UK conducted research on the treatment of women MPs on social media platforms such as Twitter and found that women were more likely to be subjected to abuse and whilst all MPs suffer unacceptable abuse online, women experienced specifically gendered, misogynistic abuse. Of the tweets they investigated, 41% of abuse was targeted at BME women representative despite there being eight times as many white MPs (Diane Abbot taking the brunt of these attacks, with almost a third of the abuse directed solely at her.). This is violence and it must be tackled. We need to work on the structural barriers within political parties which exclude women’s participation through quota mechanisms and equally, we need to genuinely challenge misogynistic attitudes and make such views socially unacceptable to all, not just those of us working in equality and diversity.
All of the above is part of that continuum of inequality, where we silently condone one aspect, we normalise the next, and the next, until violence against women becomes the epidemic it is today. The Women 50:50 campaign is working on one aspect of women’s inequality, but we recognise the multiple and layered inequality women face. That is why we are proud to work with and champion women’s organisations across Scotland who work on policy making, the labour market, BME women’s participation and violence against women.
Scotland needs to take bold action on every aspect of this continuum and at the same time, from women’s political participation to their experiences of sexual or domestic violence – because no woman’s life exists in silos.