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

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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies