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Is suffering part of women’s political journey, becoming a story of inspiration which softens the harsher edges of their trauma? Must their struggles be legitimised, through being forced to share their experiences and relay the pains of their harassment so they can be validated?

The struggles of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women MPs, who are largely underrepresented in our political organisations, places them at the forefront of considerable harassment. We can confront structural racism, by examining the intersections of racism and sexism that affects BAME women in politics. In challenging both the passive and overt discrimination by minority communities, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi in 2016 remarked on the evolution of “respectable racism”. Noting the toxic shifts in the political atmosphere that ran rampant following “divisive” rhetoric of Brexit discussions, the divide and conquer strategies in stereotyping minority groups, informed a narrative of the ‘other’. The “new form of respectable xenophobia…done in political circles, journalism and academia” often takes form of prejudiced and racist scrutiny, which is blanketed and disguised as valid critiques.

In proposing the particular “intersectional discrimination” faced by black women, the treatment of black female MPs carries a violent discourse. This is exemplified in the case of Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott.  The misogyny and racism faced by Abbott as a black female politician, shows the extent of the politicisation of her identity. The stream of abuse faced by Abbott in her political career is unprecedented in its scale. What Abbott considered the “politics of personal destruction” the invasive and personal attacks, are disguised as political.

The misogyny and racism faced by Abbott also shows the tendency to reduce female MP’s struggles. The importance of these issues must not be reduced, as they can significantly hamper accessibility of careers in parliament for women of colour. Support must be given to BAME female MPs. How else will we have a government that represents Britain, if the fear of the violent rhetoric against BAME female MPs hinders future women to pursue political careers? In a 2017 incident, Deputy Chairman of the South Ribble Conservative Association, sharing a tweet originally posted by a self-proclaimed ‘skinhead’ and UKIP supporter, of a caricaturised portrayal of Diane Abbott as an ape, wearing lipstick, commenting “Nice lips kid. But a shade too much rouge”. While an investigation emerged, this is only a slither of the abused faced by Abbott in her career. In seeking to bring women’s voices to government, what happens to the women within the heart of parliament, who aren’t heard either?

Amnesty International UK undertook a study in 2017 analysing tweets which referred to 177 female MP’s who were active on Twitter. The mass of abusive tweets, 900 223 tweets from January 1st and June 8th, excluding suspended, deleted accounts or tweets, is evidence of the accessibility of social media platform as tools of violent abuse against women. The Amnesty study found that though the online abuse was found across all UK political parties, the majority of abusive tweets targeted the SNP and the Labour party, with the tweets against the 20 BAME female MP’s accounting for 41% of the abusive tweets, showing the particular set of harassment BAME female politicians face in comparison to white female MPs. Most striking is that the majority of the abusive tweets were disproportionality targeting Diane Abbott, with 32% of the abusive tweets  aimed at her. Figure 1 shows the extent of the abusive tweets targeted at female MPs. An “average of 51 abusive tweets per day over the 158 day study” directed at Abbott shows the particular ‘intersectional discrimination’ she faces as a black female politician.

Figure 1. Number of Abusive Tweets Received by Women MPs Categorized by Race

Source: Azmina Dhrodia, “Unsocial Media: Tracking Twitter Abuse against Women MPs”, Amnesty International (2017)

The accessibility of the violent rhetoric directed at female MPs, lies in the lack of consequences of anonymous tweets. With the vast amount of abusive language targeted against BAME female MPs, with often little consequence, the unadulterated attacks show the threats of platforms such as Twitter. The particular attack on Diane Abbott however, point to a particular scale of abuse that she receives as one of the first black female MPs. These are not legitimate political debates, but hostile and threatening comments that have significant physical, emotional and psychological consequences.

For politicians to maintain contact with their constituents; to understand any grievances, to communicate, to be held accountable; they have to struggle to use social media platforms when faced with barricades of abuse. Former SNP MP of Ochil and South Perthshire, Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, shared in the Commons Chamber the scale of harassment facilitated by online abuse. Her personal experience of online harassment was also extended to her family and staff aided by the widening forms of communications platforms. Citing “handwritten letters that contained sexual slurs, phone calls to my office threatening violence towards me or my staff, and racist emails stating what people want to do to people like me who are Muslim” the new ways in which politicians are accessible leaves them vulnerable to new scales of trauma. In enabling divisive discourse through social media platforms, BAME female MPs have to reckon with racist and sexist discourse in their public roles. The burdensome toll of abuse is a hindrance in ensuring both personal safety of our BAME female MPs.

In a 2015 survey under The House of Common and its Administration Committee, the study found that “perceptions of the culture in parliaments deterred women from standing as parliamentary candidate” and created a challenging culture that hindered the “wellbeing” of minority peoples. A culture of safety needs to surround MPs from minority backgrounds. In promoting a gendered balance, a greater space of representation could reduce the level of scrutiny that women MP’s, and in particular WOC MPs face as a select minority. With only 52 BAME MPs out of 650, it is clear that representation is low and further action needs to be taken to encourage an inclusive representative government.

The violently charged language directed at BAME women MPs shows the continued monster of fear at women’s political presence in the public sphere. The misogynistic dispositions of male dominated political organisations have created a battleground of identity for BAME women. Gender must account for the intersections of race, sexuality, faith, disability and age, in the formation of women’s political identity. In tackling the fight for gender equality, we must consider the BAME women who bear the brunt of criticism.

Author’s Note: for the sake of clarity BAME has been used as Black Asian and Minority Ethnic, but recognise it does not capture the clear inclusivity and distinct experiences of ethnic minority peoples, in grouping them as ‘non-white’.

Amal Malik is currently undertaking a week’s work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.