It's time for women to be able to see themselves on the walls. Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images
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Westminster’s “white” and “male” art reflects its inhabitants

Time for female MPs to be able to see themselves on the walls: the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament condemns “off-putting” Westminster art.

In Westminster rows and rows of white men in suits clutch papers and survey their peers. Above them, lining the walls, are more. The parliamentary art collection is made up of more than 2,000 works and yet only a pitiful number depict women. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament has released a report that states the art in Westminster is too “white and male” and therefore “off-putting” to female speakers and visitors. Although the intimidation caused by the very place – its name synonymous with oak panels, neo-gothic architecture and men shouting over each other – goes beyond the art and into the culture surrounding it, taking issue with the featured art for being overwhelmingly white and male is valid.

Of the ten-person Committee for Parliamentary Art only two are women. Of the works highlighted on their website (in case you get your kicks by scrolling through black and white sketches of Rt. Hons) only 16 per cent  feature a woman. Even this statistic is skewed by the number of statues of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, which gives me flashbacks to the hellish arguments made by trolls to activist Caroline Criado-Perez last year when she complained about the Royal Bank of England’s plans to replace the figure of Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note with Winston Churchill. When trolls across the land yelled “but the queen is a woman! And she’s on every note!” they conveniently ignored the fact that she didn’t have to be elected, and she would have been on her legal tender regardless of her gender or achievements. From last year’s public outcry at the Bank of England, to these statements about the intimidating environment of Westminster, the damning message is still clear: women are not considered to have done anything of enough importance to appear in the hallowed symbols of finance or politics.

It’s not just the paintings but the architecture which is designed to intimidate those who are not familiar with working in an environment of carved stone and freshly polished marble. Those who have not been to older universities who boast these same accolades – namely the Oxbridge colleges who continue to anger their Access Officers by maintaining their wine cellars, chandeliers and gowns – are inevitably going to feel out of place when speaking in the prestigious hall. One of the fundamental jobs of politicians is to stand for their constituents, not matter what their gender or social standing, and half of the population deserve to be able to see themselves and their interests represented in parliament. To further social mobility and to come anywhere closer to reaching an equal number of female and male MPs, Westminster needs to recognise that it does not exist in vacuum devoid of context (although an argument in favour of this writes itself) .

Diane Abbott, Margaret Thatcher and Emmeline Pankhurst are all so varied they shouldn’t be grouped together by their one unifying achievement of having a drawing of them hung up somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Or, as outlined last week in the New Statesman, the fact that they are all far more likely than their male counterparts to be attacked in the press. The news today that the Tories are launching female only MP shortlists bringing to mind Yvette Cooper’s remark that in regards to the Prime Minister’s “real blind spot” over female candidates this is “too little, too late” (of the total of female seats from 1918-2013, 60.7 per cent of the female positions were with Labour, showing that this “blindspot” is not unfounded)  That quotas need to exist highlights the drastic nature of the steps that need to be made in parliament in order to ensure there are more female seats from the current 147 female out of 650 MPs (23 per cent of the total). The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament statement calling for a “gender audit” of art and sculpture is a call for the future instead of being stuck in the white, patriarchal dominated government past and present.

To people who ask “why are female MPs across parties complaining about the furnishings of Westminster, don’t they have better things to do with their time?”, here’s my response. Parliament is not a hallowed place which needs to preserve the outdated ideas of the past. We have museums and galleries aplenty which are filled with images of white men but parliament is a working building and as a symbol of UK politics as a whole it has a duty to reflect the attitudes and concerns of society as whole. Women are people, half of society moreover, and they need to be represented in parliament. To look at a wall in Westminster and not see a single painting of a woman is a clear message: you don’t belong here. If we change these faces on the walls then we’re one step from changing the faces in the seats too. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue