Monday, 4 May 2015

Campaign hustings and the hierarchy of equalities


Back in 2001 I stood for parliament in the lovely constituency of Keighley and Ilkley. I didn't win but then not many Conservatives did win that year. During the course of the campaign the candidates were invited to a hustings organised by the two largest mosques in the town. This meeting, held at Victoria Hall, was segregated with women in a separate room adjacent to the main hall which was full of men - plus Anne Cryer the Labour candidate. I recall a slight discomfort at this blatant segregation but, having been involved in Bradford politics, I'd been along to many a meeting where the audience was entirely male. Added to this was a slight annoyance that Mrs Cryer could go and speak directly to the women whereas I was not permitted to do so.

I say this by way of context for talking about the Labour rally in Birmingham and about wider issues relating to campaigns in the UK's Muslim communities. In one respect the audience pictured represents progress - a decade ago it is likely that such a meeting would have had no women present (unless one or more of the candidates addressing the event was female) - but from another perspective it reveals that context is everything in political campaigns. And the context here is that Labour's success in inner city Birmingham depends, to a large extent, on the Muslim vote which means that people who would usually be quick to pounce on misogyny can wave away criticism of gender segregation because of the 'cultural' context.

Imagine what would be the response had one of those Labour candidates, instead of sitting like bored lumps on the platform, had confronted the organiser and insisted that the de facto segregation end, made the point of sitting with those women or invited men to intermingle. It may not be such an issue once the challenge is laid down - I went to the launch of a Conservative campaign in Bradford East where men and women sat intermixed (until it came to eating when they were separate again which I didn't understand).

The unconfronted truth here is that, for all the efforts of some women, too many Muslim men remain deeply uncomfortable with the reality of women's equality. I recall speech after speech from Imran Hussein, Bradford's current Council Deputy Leader, where he shouted that 'we' (by which he mean the Council leadership I guess) take equalities seriously - 'it's not just a tick box exercise' he would exclaim. Yet the truth is that, when Imran speaks of equalities, he has a hierarchy of sensitivity that has race and faith at the top and gender, disability, age and sexual preference lower down the pecking order.

This isn't because Imran is a sexist homophobe - I know him well enough to be sure he isn't - but because the realities of politics in Bradford makes some equalities issues more 'in your face' than others.

When Bradford's Corporate Scrutiny Committee looked at the Council's 'Equalities Action Plan' the most striking thing about the report was that it didn't mention LGBT issues except in the list of protected characteristics under the Equalities Act. Which isn't to say that the Council does nothing about these matters but rather that the dominant equalities issues - the priorities for our Labour politicians - relate to race and faith because this is where they are being challenged (indeed this sense of racial and religious victimhood, and especially the latter, is the absolute essence of George Galloway's pitch to voters).

None of this is to suggest that prejudice against Muslims doesn't exist - I don't know a single Muslim who hasn't experienced such attitudes - but it is to say that, if we believe sexism and homophobia to be a problem, we need to confront these too. And if such attitudes are too common in the Muslim community then it behooves politicians who position themselves as champions of equalities to challenge those prejudices - especially when they have the privilege to be from that community.

The irony here is that three of the world's biggest Muslim countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia - have elected women as leaders, so there is clearly no essential obstacle to female participation. I suspect it just takes a little bit of guts to tell event organisers that there won't be any segregation. This doesn't end deeply rooted sexist views about the role of men and women within a given community - we've had fifty years of women's liberation campaigns in the UK and we still see examples of cringeworthy sexism almost daily - but it does begin to question the acceptance of gender segregation and entrenched homophobia within institutions within those communities.

And the place to start for us politicians is with those things we absolutely control - our own events, meetings and campaigns.


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