By Baroness Shaista Gohir OBE

Earlier this week, I chaired an event at the House of Lords on ‘Women of Colour – Barriers to Participation.’ The event was held in partnership with Muslim Women’s Network UK, Centenary Action Group, Elect Her and 50:50 Parliament. We had 12 speakers, who were diverse in terms of ethnicity, faith, disability and also political party. They included MPs, councillors, former councillors, women who were aspiring to be councillors or parliamentarians. They were: Naz Shah MP, Tulip Siddiq MP, Thangam Debbonaire MP, Councillor Zainab Asunramu, Councillor Shaista Aziz, Councillor Peray Ahmet, Iram Woolley, Hina Bokhari, Rushi Millns, Councillor Mina Parmar, Councillor Shazna Muzzammil and Dr. Sarabjaya Kumar.

“I did wonder whether they could say anything meaningful in only three minutes, but they delivered.”

I had a tricky task of managing such a large number of speakers. I only gave them 3 minutes each. Having a brightly coloured blue sand timer did the trick because they stuck to their time limits which left enough time for discussion and question. I did wonder whether they could say anything meaningful in only three minutes, but they delivered. I didn’t want them to talk about barriers so I asked them to also try and share helpful advice that benefit other women who were already in politics or thinking about getting involved.

Here are some top tips that emerged both from the speakers and also the audience too. These included:

  • Be yourself authentic self
  • Across racial, religious, disability and political diversity provide support to one another
  • We are carrying the baton from women who camebefore us and we must also pass on the baton to other
  • Pay it forward - share opportunities and if you can do it ten-fold
  • Lift up one another when things are not going well, it will help with resilience
  • Don’t just focus on the barriers that limit you, but share what also works
  • Celebrate your own milestones and those of others, especially those who get into leadership positions
  • Ask those who you are supporting, ‘ how can in help?’
  • You can support those who you are supporting even by small but very important gestures like providing food and encouraging rest
  • Take breaks otherwise you will burn out
  • Ask and encourage other women to stand and participate in politics
  • Network, network and network, you don’t know who you will meet or what spark could be ignited through conversations
  • Respect the space of others
  • Have support networks, trusted people who you can offload to and who can uplift you when you need it
  • Find mentors
  • Keep going, you will have to make sacrifices
  • Don’t put up with manels – all male panels, even if the woman is a Chair
  • Support more antiracism work to tackle systemic barriers
  • Don’t forget about disabled women of colour they have different barriers they need to overcome
  • Don’t stereotype which political parties women of colour should be supporting
  • Don’t let others limit you - don’t stay in your lane
  • Being a politician is not the only position of power and influence, consider other options such a political advisor, advocacy / policy positions, being on public boards and through trade unions positions (some MPs have come through the trade union route)
  • Have friends across parties – its ok to disagree, you can still be friends
  • Enjoy the sisterhood!

Many women also have to juggle their politics with caring responsibilities. Given their multi-tasking abilities, their resilience (because they have to overcome more barriers and challenges), I am surprised more women are not in leadership positions. On the other hand, should I be surprised? One of the participants summed up the problem aptly when she said: “I have the will and the skill but overlooked for mediocre men.”

“Once women are elected that does not mean the support should end…… given the online and offline hostility that they have to endure.”

Another issue that came up is the hierarchy of power including within minority ethnic politicians particularly at a local level. For example, it has been well known that for a long time male minority ethnic councillors who were elected showed little support to minority women to also help them become councillors and in some instances actively tried to block them (as highlighted by Muslim Women’s Network UK in 2016). I do feel since then the situation has started to change given the number of minority women including Muslim women that have been elected as councillors since then. Once women are elected that does not mean the support should end. Women at the event raised concerns about the lack of support to retain their seats and also to stay in politics given the online and offline hostility that they have to endure. This can involve limiting a woman’s power and influence and expecting her to ‘stay in her lane.’

The hostility can also be aimed at those minority women who want to represent the Conservative Party. They are sometimes labelled as ‘sell outs’ or ‘traitors.’ These attitudes fail to recognise the diversity of political thought within these communities, especially amongst professionals and high flyers. It is also hard to ignore the optics of the Tories having had several people of colour in the cabinet including in major positions as Home Secretary, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minster, even though they had or have little in common with the ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds.

Labour may have attracted the vast majority of ethnic minority voters, they have taken their vote for granted. Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be much further behind, but there has been an increase in their share of ethnic voters and councillors over the last several years. Given the current political climate those gains of course could be reversed. Politics is unpredictable. So, whatever your politics, be kind, help each other and enjoy the sisterhood!

Muslim Women's Network UK has commissioned the University of Warwick to conduct research to explore the barriers in more in depth that may be preventing women from participating in or remaining in politics.  Please take part in the survey and share it with others, which can be found here.

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