Domestic Abuse and Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 22 November 2022.

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Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 4:00, 22 November 2022

I completely agree with the hon. Member; she is absolutely correct. It is so important to be able to give others the hope and courage to come forward. Those of us in public life, I am sure, feel a duty to encourage others to come forward, and feel quite lucky to be in a position to do so.

I want to make it clear that I do not view myself as a victim as such, nor am I seeking to play the “victim card”. In fact, I would argue that such accusations reflect not my weakness, but the weakness of those who make them. The truth is that it is extremely difficult for survivors to come forward. The stigma and the structural and systemic bias is always against us. The use of the courts and the law to threaten and silence us, never mind the trauma of the abuse itself, all too often seems insurmountable.

When I put myself forward to represent my local area, it was with hope for the future. Perhaps stupidly, I thought I could move on. Little did I know then that, a few years later, I would be in court facing a possible jail sentence and, just this June, I would have to present myself to A&E and subsequently be signed off sick. Just as I manage to survive one onslaught, another is coming up ahead—it goes on and on. The wall of institutional gaslighting is chilling.

I have a choice: to submit, to be crushed and then to be swept under the carpet as an unsightly problem, or to speak out. But I know this is not just about me. My experiences have shown that, despite steps forward, including the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there is still insufficient understanding and awareness. I am very conscious of how survivors struggle against a system that fails them. Today is for them, and I am moved to see campaigners and local women watching this debate.

When I was studying at university, I lived at home, helping care for my father through an extended period of dementia up to his death. I got to know an older man, who had already been married twice, and ended up marrying him and moving in with him. As the relationship progressed, it became more and more volatile and abusive. By the end, I was sleeping in the living room with the sofa pushed up against the door so that he could not get in. I had to wait until he had an appointment in another city before I could plan my escape.

It is commonly assumed that a woman should just leave and her problems will be over, but that is far from the reality for so many. At its core, post-separation abuse is about power: attempting to control and punish in almost any way possible, whether through physical means such as violence, intimidation, threats or stalking, or via remote monitoring, emotional abuse and manipulation. I raised my ex-husband’s behaviour, including the abuse, stalking, harassment and intimidation, with the police on several occasions. Police records regarding him include his being issued with a warning for harassment.

Gradually, I began to rebuild my life, which involved becoming engaged in politics locally, but he continued to make things difficult, including by behaving threateningly and aggressively towards me in public. As soon as I started to indicate that I was going to put myself forward to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate in the general election, it all intensified even further, because of course I was just meant to stay in my lane and be little Apsana Begum. He told people that he was angry that I had not asked his permission to stand for selection.

Smears and rumours were spread about me, and there were threats that he would expose me for who I “really was” in front of the community. I was aware that he had pictures of me without my hijab on; if someone threatens to use something like that against someone now in this country, it is considered an act of intimate image abuse. He was privy to private information: my medical records, my previous mental ill health, and the fact that I had a secret abortion during the early stages of our relationship, which at the time was unknown to anyone, including my family.

This honour-based harassment was about maliciously destroying me in front of elder members of my community. He called campaign team members, making threats that he had been contacted by the media, who had offered to buy stories about me, and telling people that they should make me stand down or else. It all got even worse after I was elected to Parliament. How dare I not listen? How dare I not do what I was told? There were calls to local people who supported me when he was drunk, saying that evidence was being collected for the council to take me to court. He was a sitting councillor at that time.

As such, just two years after being elected as the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP, I had to endure an eight-day trial, which brutally forced me to talk about painful private experiences. While I was found innocent of all charges, I fear that the ordeal of that trial, which cost the council significantly more than the amount I was accused of defrauding it of in the first place, will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The practice of abusers misusing the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners, a method sometimes called vexatious or abusive litigation—in other words, stalking by way of the court—is recognised by experts as a form of domestic abuse. I want to explain why I believe this case to have been vexatious and why I want something like it never to happen again.

I first heard of the complaint that led to the case through threats, rumours and the press a month before even being informed officially that an investigation was under way. An article published in The Sun newspaper during the general election even showed a picture of the building where I lived, which was extremely frightening given the risk that this placed me under. I have since found out that the complaint that led to the investigation was made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law, Syed Nahid Uddin, to coincide with the deadline for final nomination papers to be submitted.

During the trial, my barrister, Helen Law, brought out, through cross-examination of the fraud investigator from the council’s fraud team, a series of conflicts of interest, including that my ex-husband was a member of the council’s audit committee in the same year of the fraud investigation. That committee had governance and oversight over the work of the fraud team. The matter of domestic abuse was actually used against me by the prosecution. It was argued that the abuse was a motive for the alleged crimes. Raj Chada, the criminal defence partner at Hodge Jones & Allen who represented me, argues:

“Prosecutors and investigators need to better understand and consider how victims of coercive control and domestic abuse behave and how they are treated by the criminal justice system.”

At around the same time that I was going through the ordeal of the court case, a group of people who were close to my ex-husband took over the local Labour party, and despite my being vindicated the smears have continued and accountability has been thwarted. Motions in support of me were passed by the local party, but only after they were blocked from even being discussed for months on end. Meanwhile, people who supported me or spoke up for me continued to be targeted, including some who were contacted by my ex-husband himself. I believe that to be an example of what is often called indirect abuse, whereby threats are made against third parties or they are intimidated or manipulated into engaging in behaviours desired by the perpetrator. Those behaviours involve the use of proxies to humiliate and discipline, and ultimately to maintain power and control.

Most recently, while I was unwell, a trigger process —a process that my party uses to decide whether a sitting MP will remain the candidate at future elections— was conducted. Again, I am aware of my ex-husband’s involvement: there are even witnesses who saw him among the reportedly 50 men who stood outside one meeting in a way that many felt was intimidating. In my mind, it is no coincidence that the process was overseen by his associates. To explain and provide further evidence of that conflict of interest, I will give some examples. The procedure secretary who oversees the whole trigger process is close to my ex-husband, and has publicly credited him as one of the reasons why they were elected to their role. One of the local executive observers for two out of the four in-person meetings, who was secretary for another meeting, is a close friend of my ex-husband and has been pictured with him only recently on social media. Another has been the subject of a complaint after he sent an email to all branch members containing a copy of a letter repeating allegations of which I had been cleared and revealing my home address, putting me at risk.

Another close associate of my ex-husband was the secretary overseeing one of the meetings. He had previously been warned by the police to stop harassing me after I reported him for continuing to contact me; I had to ask him to stop unwanted contact after he posted a letter to me through my family member’s letterbox. The chair of one of the meetings was a long-time associate of my ex-husband, who had even approached me in 2018 and asked me to meet him, advocating on my ex-husband’s behalf that I should go back into a relationship with him. I also understand that comments were made in meetings about the fact that I speak too much about domestic abuse, and that the process was about teaching me a lesson. Even the delegated national executive observer has connections to my ex-husband.

Of course, it is up to individuals who they wish to associate with. My point is that such people cannot also oversee a process about my future, because not only can domestic abuse be indirect, but it can involve the use of public status and societal power. That is before one even considers that the trigger process was conducted while I was unwell, and that a litany of complaints have been submitted containing allegations of harassment and misogyny, particularly from local women. I am still in a situation where I have to risk-assess local events, and am unable to participate if the risk is too high or cannot be mitigated. I believe that there must be a duty to ensure inclusive, democratic and safe environments and it deeply saddens me that I continue to be placed in a position where, for safeguarding reasons, I am being prevented from participating fully in public life.

As I have said, my experiences are far from unique. I have been contacted by women and survivors from all over the country and I feel a tremendous duty towards them. Domestic abuse has been hidden for far too long, despite it having serious health consequences for individuals and our society, but after everything I have been through and whatever the future holds, I am determined to raise awareness and campaign for a society where individuals experiencing domestic abuse feel confident that they will be believed, listened to, and given the support they need. Ultimately, I want the UK to be a country where survivors are not thwarted by ongoing harassment and abuse.