I am every woman

As we mark 100 years of International Women’s Day, Natasha Walter argues that British feminism is sh

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a café in Camden Town, lost for words. I was with Saron, a woman who arrived in the UK seeking asylum some years ago. When she spoke of her youth in her home country, you could catch a spark of the woman she had once been - ambitious, talented and fearless. When she talked of her life now, it was as if a cloud had blocked out the sun.

Afraid, hopeless and with no sense of self-worth, Saron spoke dully about the feeling she had that she was living a life - at the age of 33 - that had come to an end. What silenced me was the way she summed up how she had reached the end of the road. "It wasn't what happened to me at home that broke my spirit. It was what happened to me here."

When she said this, it was shame that stopped my voice. Yes, many men who flee their countries are also treated badly. In the current political climate, we cannot offer a home to everyone who crosses our borders. But the manner in which women are treated when they journey to the west in search of safety shames us all. If you believe that women deserve a voice, you have to listen to their stories. If you believe that they should be entitled to human rights, you must act in response to these stories.

To understand what I mean, listen a little more to Saron's story. She lived a free life in Ethiopia until her early twenties, when, as a young journalist, she went out to report on a student demonstration. Police attacked the protesters, leaving many dead. "Horrible to see," she says succinctly. Because she reported the facts in a newspaper, she was sent to prison. She was naive. "I thought that problems of that kind wouldn't happen to me," she says, explaining why she spoke out.

She got through one episode of imprisonment but, the second time she was jailed, she was raped violently by a police officer. When she was released, her family decided that enough was enough and paid for an escort to get her out of the country. She didn't know where she was going. At first, there was a long journey on foot through the hot, forbidding desert to Sudan; then an aeroplane ride to a cold, forbidding airport in England. She claimed asylum on arrival but was refused.

Saron is articulate about her experiences, yet even now she finds it hard to speak about what happened next. She has, however, been working with a London-based project called Write to Life, run by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which has helped her to express herself again through writing.

Her accounts of her life as a refused asylum-seeker in the UK make for chilling reading. Without the right to work, earn money or claim benefits, she was forced for a long time to sleep rough on the streets around King's Cross train station, where, she says: "Men offer you a safe place and then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison."

When she came back into the asylum process for another attempt to secure leave to remain in the country, she was imprisoned, on three separate occasions, in Yarl's Wood, the huge detention centre in Bedfordshire where hundreds of women like Saron are locked up. "I felt nobody was safe in that place," she says. "I thought I'd rather die there than fight. I felt that they had all the power."

During one episode of detention, she stopped eating until she was taken to the hospital. During the third episode, she was placed on suicide watch for a few days before being bundled into a van and driven to the airport. She would be in an Ethiopian jail right now, she tells me, had her lawyer not managed to get her a last-minute reprieve as the van was waiting on the tarmac at Heathrow.

As I walked away from our meeting, what made my heart feel heaviest was not just the thought that this young woman had lived through so much injustice, both in this country and Ethiopia, but also my growing understanding that Saron was not alone. The sad truth is that there are many other Sarons enduring the kind of persecution she suffered as a woman in her own country and the ordeal she went through in the UK when she tried to find refuge here. There are hundreds, even thousands, of other Sarons.

Yet we rarely hear about them, let alone from them. It is as though we edit out the plight of refugee women whenever we talk about equality for women or our desire to help women resist violence. They become the unheard, the voiceless, living among us but invisible. I wonder about the women - perhaps I was one of them - who walked past Saron when she was sleeping rough at King's Cross.

Histories of violence

Many experts are now speaking out about what is happening to women refugees. One of the foremost organisations working for the rights of these women, Asylum Aid, published a telling report in January entitled Unsustainable: the Quality of Initial Decision-Making in Women's Asylum Claims.

The document is not an easy read, but some of the conclusions jump off the page. Many of the decisions that the Home Office makes every day on whether or not to grant women asylum in the UK are badly thought through: "The research found that women were too often refused asylum on grounds that were arbitrary [and] subjective, and demonstrated limited awareness of the UK's legal obligations under the Refugee Convention" - in other words, one could argue that they were illegal.

There is something quite calm and forensic about this sort of language. It's when you meet a woman such as Saron, however, that you
understand what these arbitrary, subjective decisions of dubious legality mean for the women seeking refuge.

“We all know that awful things happen in Africa," Saron says to me. "Nobody claims otherwise. But then you come to a country where there are supposed to be human rights and you find out that they do not apply to you. That is so hard. That's when you realise that you will never be safe. You feel so alone."

The two books I have written, The New Feminism and Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, have mapped women's experiences of a certain kind - the inequalities that western women come up against every day, from assumptions about our appearance to pressures on our working lives. These things matter; I wouldn't choose to write about them if I didn't care that I, and all women in the west, live in a world that still stifles meaningful equality. But my recent work has brought me up against issues that overshadow many of those experiences.

Five years ago, I co-founded the charity Women for Refugee Women, which works in partnership with other organisations to increase awareness of the experiences of women seeking asylum in the UK. We work with women who are seeking asylum for any reason, but we have discovered that sexual violence is the thread that runs through their stories.

They have been raped or threatened with rape to punish them for speaking out. They have been raped or threatened with rape for being born into the wrong ethnic group or for worshipping the wrong god. Many of them have fled from other experiences that are very specific to women, such as honour crimes, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Women around the world are suffering such abuses. Most of them have no option but to stay within their own communities. A very few manage to cross over to the west, hoping that the commitments that western Europe, the United States and Canada have made to human rights extend to them, too.

Another woman who talked to Women for Refugee Women recently is Alicia. She lived in a society in Cameroon where it was customary for a widow to be married off to the brother of her dead husband. Most women in that situation consent but Alicia refused to do so. She was raped and beaten by her brother-in-law every day while the community stood aside, until a friend took pity on her, took her out of the house and brought her on a plane to the UK.

Once here, she learned that her uncle, in an act of retribution, had killed one of the sons she left behind. "I know that this is the tradition of my country - that a woman must become the wife of her dead husband's brother. But this is
a bad tradition," she says.

Like Saron, Alicia was refused asylum. Like Saron, she was repeatedly imprisoned in Yarl's Wood, and even taken to the airport for attempted deportation.

Tipping points

Even though I have worked in this field for years, I am still shocked by how casually women are refused asylum here. In its report, Asylum Aid noted that Home Office decision-makers often doubted the credibility of applicants' accounts for no good reason.

Indeed, one of the reasons Saron was given for refusal was that, if she had already been imprisoned for so long and had been treated so badly in Ethiopia but had refused to give the police any information, she would no longer be of interest to the government even if she returned, as they would have given up on her. Alicia, meanwhile, was told that her asylum request had been refused because the Home Office believed that her young children would stop their uncle from attacking her.

By using such spurious grounds to refuse these women's applications, the Home Office is trivialising their experiences. It often compounds a women's trauma to have her asylum claim refused. As in Saron's case, refugee women can become destitute, leaving them open to further abuse and exploitation. Many are detained for long periods, as Saron and Alicia were, and this arbitrary loss of liberty can drive them to despair.

We can't call ourselves feminists or supporters of women's rights unless we listen to these women and learn from them. In many ways,
it does not feel like the right time to try to speak up for migrant women - the cuts and the recession have made it harder to shift people's attention away from the problems that we are all dealing with in protecting our jobs and public services.

And yet, in one important way, this is the right moment to bring the experiences of refu­gee women into the foreground. On 8 March, supporters of women's rights and equality between the sexes will be celebrating 100 years of International Women's Day. Film screenings, festivals, marches and parties will take place across the UK. In these celebrations, links will be made between the interests of women in the west and those of women all other parts of the world. Equals - the coalition celebrating Women's Day - includes both organisations that work in the UK, such as the Fawcett Society and UK Feminista, and those that work internationally, such as Women for Women and the White Ribbon Alliance.

In all its campaign messages, the Equals coalition is drawing connections between the experiences of women in the UK and those of women elsewhere. "Why do women feel forced into having sex?" asks its brochure, backing the question up with statistics drawn from life in the UK. But then it asks, "Is being a woman in a warzone more risky than being a soldier?" - referring to statistics from international surveys. One of the coalition's leaders, Annie Lennox, notes: "From India to Illinois, women face violence just for being female."

Only connect

As a feminist, I am excited to see these links being made so clearly. It is essential to raise our eyes from our own experiences from time to time to see what is happening among our neighbours. We cannot talk about the ways in which women who experience violence are disbelieved in our criminal justice system without also listening to the experiences of the women fleeing violence who are being disbelieved in our asylum system.

We cannot talk about how we want equality in our families unless we listen to those who have been forced to flee their own families. And we cannot talk about the need for economic equality without acknowledging the women who are sleeping on the streets of our capital cities, lacking the papers they need to work or claim benefits.

We cannot talk with a superior air about how women are being oppressed in other countries such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo unless we can understand that, even after women have fled from those places to seek refuge in our countries, they may be treated brutally.
If we want a feminism that rests on true solidarity between women of west and east, north and south, the voices of refugee women must play their part. These women are not just victims: many have an important role in increasing our understanding of what women are experiencing throughout the world.

Female refugees can teach us so much. I would not have any notion of how governments all over the planet use sexual violence against women as a tool of ethnic, religious and political persecution if I had not been working, over the past few years, alongside women from countries where this has become a common experience. I would not know about the ways in which women who resist the norms of femininity are punished so violently in some parts of the world if I had not worked with women who had dared to take this path. Nor would I understand how, despite suffering so much in political or domestic conflicts, women who survive these abuses can come to our shores with the desire to rebuild their lives, learn and contribute. Despite the shocking stories they tell, I count myself lucky to have met these survivors of the international wars waged against women, who are determined to move on from their experiences and walk tall.

If you are talking about rights this International Women's Day, you may be talking about what still needs to be done in the UK. Or you may be talking about what needs to be done in far-flung places across the globe. But please understand that these are not separate issues. We are connected.

Saron lives among us, as do thousands like her. No woman is an island. Only when we recognise this will we be able to build a movement that can ensure safety for women such as Saron and others like her.

Some of the interviews were carried out by Sheila Hayman and Melanie McFadyean. Names have been changed “Journeys", readings by women refused asylum in the UK, will be at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, during the Women of the World Festival on 13 March. For more details visit: refugeewomen.com.

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, @4refugeewomen

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle