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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:46 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 1:46 pm, 5th March 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I would like to start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Jim Fitzpatrick, for his hard work and for the longevity of his public service. Jim was a firefighter before he was elected to Parliament and such is his legacy that, when I arrived at Westminster, one of the Clerks here mentioned to me that he had lent his expertise in fire safety to this House’s restoration and renewal plans. I suppose you could say, “Once a firefighter, always a firefighter”. I wish him well in his retirement.

My other east end predecessors include Labour party giants such as George Lansbury. As we debate International Women’s Day, the origins of which are rooted in working-class history—it honours the 1908 garment workers’ strike in America—I want to pay tribute to the rich history of women’s struggles for social justice in my constituency, Poplar and Limehouse. Given that George Lansbury resigned to stand for re-election on a “Votes for Women” platform, I like to think he would have approved.

I hail from the great east end, where there is a proud working class tradition and history of standing up for our rights; where low-paid women workers have so often been at the forefront of developing trade unionism; and where Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes were explicit in their socialism, advocating a self-organised movement and demanding much more than just charity: they demanded political rights. This is summed up in the first issue of the East London Federation of Suffragettes newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, published on International Women’s Day in 1914, which stated:

“Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote. Such people have forgotten their history.”

But we are not such people in Poplar and Limehouse. We remember women such as Minnie Lansbury, who was elected to Poplar Council in 1921 and was jailed, along with five other women, for refusing to charge full rates for her poorest constituents. We remember the role of women in the battle of Cable Street, where the local Jewish community, along with so many others, stood up to Oswald Mosley and his fascists. And we honour the women who took command during the second world war air raids, sending for the fire and rescue services and seeing about people being clothed and fed.

From the late 1960s onwards, racism was so prevalent locally that Asian and black people were frequently attacked and women were often unable to walk the streets for fear of their safety. Alliances between different communities and anti-racist organisations were built in resistance. By the 1980s, there were at least two Bengali women’s groups in Tower Hamlets, offering women social, religious and cultural activities that were instrumental in encouraging Bangladeshi women to take an active role in the area.

After a British National party councillor was elected on the Isle of Dogs, a coalition of women from diverse backgrounds formed a group, Women Unite Against Racism, as part of the wider anti-racist and anti-fascist campaign that drove the BNP out of Tower Hamlets in the 1990s. In the words of another of my predecessors, Mildred Gordon:

“Eastenders are proud people;
they are fighters. They fought Mosley in Cable Street. They knew how to unite—community side by side with community—against the people who were attacking them. They stood firm during the war and they will stand firm against attacks on their way of life today.”

It is in this tradition of socialism, community solidarity and action that I address the Chamber today, having been the first British Bangladeshi woman elected as secretary of the Tower Hamlets Labour party and now the first hijab-wearing Member of Parliament.

Like many of my colleagues in Parliament, my personal journey has not been easy, but I am proud of my party’s record on progressing women’s rights and fighting for equality, and I look forward to being a part of taking this even further. The truth is that there is so much more to be done.

Poplar and Limehouse has a high percentage of people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and we know better than most that we must never again embark on illegal wars and imperialism, but should instead adopt a progressive, outward-looking global view driven by social justice, solidarity and human rights.

As someone who has first-hand experience of the rise of Islamophobia over the past decades, it is alarming that racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism in particular are growing. While the Government continue to use divisive politics, which has culminated in the hostile environment for migrants that led to the Windrush scandal, we know that the fight for justice and change is not over. I will always stand with my constituency— diverse, dynamic, multicultural, multiracial and with people of different faiths and none, and from all around the world—against intolerance, violence and division. This includes campaigning for migrant rights, including the rights of EU citizens, in Poplar and Limehouse and beyond.

I wish my father—parent to five daughters, and a forward-thinking community organiser himself—was still here to see me today, but I carry his encouragement, guidance and inspiration with me in everything that I do. Likewise, the support I have received from the people of Poplar and Limehouse, where I am proud to have been born and raised, and the trust they have put in me to be their MP, is truly humbling. I feel the weight of responsibility and duty on my shoulders, and I will fight with all my breath and energy to carry on the legacy of those who have gone before me, opposing at every step of the way the broken, failed economics that have served only to enrich the few at the expense of the many, and which far too often have left so many constituents to bear the brunt of the brutality of austerity.

While Poplar and Limehouse is an amazing place to live, it is on the frontline of the Conservative austerity attack. Local government and the vital public services they provide have been undermined by these cuts that have hit the poorest hardest, leading to the loss of key services. I am angry that we have one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country while being on the doorstep of one of the largest financial centres in the world. It is simply unacceptable that the diverse needs of our children are not being met. I am angry that around a fifth of the residents in my constituency are paid less than the living wage. I am angry that we struggle with a housing crisis and the near-impossible situation of having soaring monthly rents, which all too often mean people, particularly those on low incomes, are faced with an increased risk of homelessness.

The leadership of my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn has achieved so much in shifting the debate on austerity and public ownership towards a vision of a fairer and more equal society. It is, however, heartbreaking that we are now faced with five more years of hardship, which will be devastating for my constituents. But so many new Labour MPs are, like me, working-class, women and from ethnic minority backgrounds, with lived experiences of the reality of people’s day-to-day lives.

The east end has always been a bedrock of diversity, resilience and resistance. It is in this spirit that I will seek to hold this Government to account over the next five years.