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After 100 years of resistance, where have we come? We can take some pride and recognition, but not equality, for granted—there are miles to go. On every national and international platform, men continue to assert and define rights—rights to legislate and lead—while women continue to share responsibilities and bear sanctions without options on the division of their labour. The 2017 theme, Be Bold for Change, is a call for action for gender equality. Since January this year, we have seen the emergence of a new, bold resistance.
Yesterday, women across the world again demonstrated that they are prepared to challenge the status quo, stand in solidarity and oppose division and hate. New hope for activism has emerged in the guise of the movement to resist the new agenda of rising nationalism. Women are organising from every corner of the globe, standing shoulder to shoulder, knowing that changes may yet take more time but none the less prepared for the long battle ahead for sanity and justice. Those of us who marched against the attack on Iraq were plagued with a sense of defeat at not being able to stop our Government on their onward march to destroying world peace.
If there were any such doubts about the validity and impact before the women’s march began on
Despite the many barriers mentioned by my noble friend Lady Howells and the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, there are changes afloat across the world in many countries. I was truly inspired by the many women leaders I met this year, particularly in Morocco, UAE, Turkey, Sudan and the US, where remarkable women are visible and active, leading government departments, universities, businesses and NGOs in their country, just as many women are doing in the UK. Many among them are dealing with the current global refugee crisis.
Having previously visited a small refugee camp in Athens with a group of parliamentary colleagues, I cannot comprehend the condition of Syrian women and their families fleeing their war-torn conflict zone. Women and girls make up 50% of the refugee population. They face insurmountable challenges, particularly if they are fleeing alone with their children, or if they are pregnant, disabled or elderly, and many human rights defenders have become anonymous in the face of humanitarian catastrophe.
Although my family and I have experienced war, it is not possible for me to comprehend the level of desolation of modern warfare, so we will have to remain resolute. Alongside providing security, shelter and basic needs, we have to remain vigilant and continue to ensure that services are available to protect women against rape, early marriage, violence and abuse.
In regard to this work I would like to pay tribute to two organisations: the women-led organisation Global One, which works in Lebanon, and Islamic Relief, for its persistence in so many dangerous zones and in particular for supporting vulnerable women in refugee camps. I also pay tribute to Dr Shaikha Al Maskari, a much respected UAE businesswoman whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know and who has dedicated her time, energy and personal funding to numerous refugee camps. I salute them all.
Bringing matters home, women NGOs have suffered massively from government cuts this last year. Among the casualties were two iconic women’s organisations in Tower Hamlets. They have been closed down, I believe, as a direct result of male leadership and local authorities not valuing or understanding the needs of BME women—discarded with disdain for women’s empowerment. I also wish to reiterate that women’s organisations in the vanguard, including Southall Black Sisters and the Newham Asian Women’s Project, among many other women’s empowerment projects, have seen drastic cuts in their programmes, rendering vulnerable women hopeless and helpless.
That brings me to my final few points. Muslim women have become a symbol of many of the ills of our society, including the inability to prevent radicalisation. Sadly, this is an oversimplification, if not a deliberate confusion of Islamic traditions within the constraints of a patriarchal society’s proscription and practice. Discriminating against women is as evident among Muslim families as anywhere else in Britain and the world. Unfortunately, the triple whammy is that women often have to negotiate choices between emancipation and Islamophobia. I will resist detailing the teachings of Islam, for we know how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I commend the ongoing scholarly work of the honourable Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah in contextualising women’s rights within Islam. He reminds us that Islam forbids injustice and makes an explicit distinction between Islamic teachings and societal traditions and practices.
Yet again, discussions around the lives of Muslim women have been mounted on the usual parody of forced marriages and sharia councils, with repressed, hapless women intellectually bankrupt of self-dignity. This happens at the hands of a small number of vociferous voices both within this Mother of Parliaments and outside in general, with two government inquiries into the impact of sharia councils not paying the required attention to a wide range of economic and educational concerns, in addition to the impact of Islamophobia. I would indeed welcome some attention being paid to equality of opportunity for the 49% of people in higher education and the dismal level of female BME representation in public office and on company boards.
Added to this onslaught, the Casey report piled on a timely attack, coming on the back of divisions and fear post Brexit—this was a case in point—offering the usual junket of references directly out of the pages of the previous misguided Cantle hyperbole on communities. It is as though the authors themselves are living in their blessed cocoons of a new nationalism based on veiled vitriol and lack any solutions for or comprehension of the danger of generalisation, portraying all women as living in repressive parallel alien community structures and whipped-up hysteria. It begs the question of whether the way the report portrayed Muslim women should bear any responsibility for the corresponding rise in hate crimes against Muslims, particularly women—or is it being suggested that the victims themselves should bear the responsibility for being attacked for living in an overprotected patriarchy? These generalisations reinforce division. They are dangerous and simply wrong. They keep Muslim women out of power and out of office. If the Casey report is to be implemented, I would ask the Minister what kind of programme is being proposed and what the Government are doing to involve Muslim women leaders in the delivery mechanism—not only those on its own list of approved mouthpieces but those with credibility on the ground.
Does the Minister accept that the Maria Miller report on employment needs more serious consideration by the Government? Surely, economic engagement is likely to lead to the greater empowerment of women. A staggering 30% of Muslim women are out of the economy, albeit that I quote the figure with caution because I do not accept that a full and credible assessment has been made of the true figure of BME women who are either out of or on the periphery of employment. What are the Government doing to utilise the Miller findings to help economic and employment integration?
Finally, I understand the frustrations of women around the world whose place in society is defined and judged—ill judged—not by their contribution to Britain, not by their intellectual capacity and skills, but by their clothing, culture and faith. To address these inequalities as lawmakers, we have to demonstrate that we are prepared to be bold in order to create the necessary change.