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. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.