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I wish to focus on an area in which I have some experience; namely, gender. When I co-founded Women2Win in 2005, we simply had the goal of upping our game on women’s representation from the 17 Conservative MPs we had then, representing only 9% of the parliamentary party. Today, there are 67 Conservative women MPs. which is more than 21%, but four out of five are still male—so this is not good enough. However, we now have six female MPs of ethnic-minority origin, not least the first female Muslim Minister to speak at the Dispatch Box, Nusrat Ghani, who told “Woman’s Hour” last week that her mother is illiterate and even today has to have Nusrat’s words and speeches on television and in Parliament translated for her.
I am proud to support 50:50 Parliament’s cross-party #AskHerToStand campaign, which over the past year has brought forward hundreds of women from all backgrounds and religions to start their journey. Last month, I was honoured to join the board of the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights.
As a team at Women2Win—I include both present and past co-chairs and directors—we have learned a great deal about the barriers facing women from all walks of life, not least class and race. A number of women candidates of Muslim background are currently active in Women2Win and in the Conservative Party. A big learning experience for me has been to listen to some of the challenges faced and fears felt by Muslim women. While resilience is crucial in politics and there will be personal challenges for everyone entering public life, there some issues where we must speak out and say, “This is not good enough”.
It is not good enough that Muslim women can today still feel isolated as a result of their religion, and this makes them question their place in public life. My party has implemented a zero-tolerance policy and a formal complaints system, but some female Muslim candidates have said that they also need support and mentoring in light of some of the unique issues they face. That is why I have encouraged my party to look at creating a sister organisation alongside Women2Win focused on supporting ethnic-minority candidates.
It is not good enough that Amnesty International research has found that women of colour in public life are 84% more likely to get abusive tweets than white women. After the 2017 general election, the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that intimidation of parliamentary candidates was accentuated if they were women, LGBT or from a religious or ethnic minority—clearly, Muslim woman fall into three of these categories. We need to be mindful of the ratcheted-up abuse that Muslim women can face and create an environment where they feel comfortable talking to people within our party who might be able to help.
It is not good enough that Muslim women enter politics with a constant battle raging over what they wear or what type of Muslim they are. No one has a right to tell a woman what she can or cannot wear.
Speaking from a background that many would consider privileged and as someone who is not a Muslim or from an ethnic minority, I cannot of course expect to understand all the nuances. However, I can listen. I do what I can to be a strong ally to Muslim women, to equip Muslim female candidates in the best way possible to combat the barriers to public life and to raise awareness of the issues faced by Muslim women in society more generally.
I wish to highlight three policy areas affecting Muslim women where I am proud that my party in government has taken or supported action. First, for the past decade, more Muslim women than men are going into higher education. However, a new report published this month by the Institute for Public Policy Research highlights that Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women struggle to enter the labour market. White women have an employment rate of 73.3%, while women of Bangladeshi ethnicity have an employment rate of just 32.8%.
I welcome the fact that, last month, Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Women and Equalities, committed to transforming the Government Equalities Office into an equalities hub permanently based in the Cabinet Office alongside the Race Disparity Audit. It will focus more on small businesses, part-time work, women from all parts of the UK, low-paid women, women with multiple barriers to reaching their full potential, older women, financially fragile women and women who are not easy to reach, measure or sometimes even to see.
Secondly, a report by the monitoring group mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, Tell MAMA, found that a record number of anti-Muslim attacks were reported in the UK last year. Anti-Muslim attacks rose by 26% last year, with most occurring face to face rather than on social media. Moreover, women are disproportionately targeted. I acknowledge the work in this area being done by my noble friend Lord Bourne in supporting the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.
Thirdly, efforts to place gender at the heart of policy must include intersectional issues. I am proud to hear of the work undertaken by Akeela Ahmed MBE as chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Women’s Group and I have seen how women such as Nimco Ali and Leyla Hussein have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle FGM. I have seen how a group of Muslim social activists—Amina Lone, Henna Rai, Zehra Zaidi and others—lobbied the Government to include far more of a gendered perspective in counterterrorism policy. Let us support these women who have entered public discourse and those who follow them. Let us listen to their concern that our gendered approach does not always include their and wider intersectional perspectives.
Finally, people often say that we must find what we have in common. That is true, but sometimes we must also see the value in our differences and how we interconnect to make this country great.