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29 April 2015

Where are the ethnic minority women in politics?

Ethnic minority women are rarely seen or heard in politics - that has to change.

By June Eric-Udorie

Fatin, 17, is currently studying for her A-Levels in Bristol. When asked about whether she felt ‘left out’ of politics, she said, “Politicians do not represent me. I’m black, working class, young and a woman. I rarely see my identity reflected in those running as parliamentary candidates. The issues that affect black and minority ethnic (BME) women in particular are rarely discussed except as a vote winning scheme”.

With the General Election less than two weeks away there has been a concerted effort to get women, especially young women to vote. 9.1 million women did not vote in the last election and only 39 per cent of young women aged 18-25 voted in comparison to 50 per cent of young men. But the conversation has on the most part ignored black and minority women. We know the turnout gap for this group is worse – black women are eight percent less likely to vote than black men.

When multiple identities combine to increase oppression, race, gender, class etc. feminists refer to this as the theory of intersectionality. A black woman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the theory in 1976. But for black women and other ethnic minority women, it is just our daily lives. There is nothing academic about it – it has always been our reality. Often with mainstream feminism we are forced to pick one of our oppressions, often gender, and to leave race behind. It is why some black women choose to call themselves ‘womanists’, a term coined by another black woman, novelist Alice Walker that focuses on the unique experiences of black women.

It matters that ethnic minority women participate and are included in politics? Why? Because the decisions made at the table will affect us all. As Fatin says, “Where are the black women? The black gay women? The black trans women?” The non-Oxbridge educated women? The disabled women? So many minority groups are underrepresented, women within those groups especially. It leads to policies being put forward that are not in our interest. Another young woman who lives in Leicester but prefers to remain anonymous shares similar views with Fatin. “To politicians, women are just white women. Disabled children are white disabled children. People who identify as queer are white cis gay men. Black and minority ethnic women don’t matter because we don’t exist”.

To many, politics is a “boy’s club” with “straight white male elitism”, as Keya, 20, from Portsmouth puts it. The Emily Tree is an outreach organization that works with teenage girls in London, mostly from minority ethnic backgrounds to get them involved in politics. 16-year-old Antonia said she wants to be an MP because she wants to show girls like her that they “deserve for their voices to be heard”. Munira who is also 16 said, “If you want change, you shouldn’t wait for it to happen. I will endeavor to make a difference myself and represent those not heard”. As I chat with Antonia, she touches on the fact that it is widely accepted that BME voters are apathetic, when really they are frustrated with the system. In some constituencies the so-called “black vote” could swing it, but we do we see any similar pink bus initiatives deployed by the parties?

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The last parliament had 26 MPs that were from black and minority ethnic groups. It should be a national disgrace that black and ethnic minorities make up only 4% of Parliament. It should be a national disgrace, that there are so few women of colour in Parliament. If Parliament was really representative, there would be 50-60 BME MPs. Can you imagine in the next Parliament on 8 May, having 50-60 BME MPs? Now, can you imagine if half of them were women?

The vast majority of young women I spoke to wanted to be involved in politics in some way or another. They were happy, intelligent and ready to work hard to change the world. But when asked how long they thought it would take before the UK had a black woman or another ethnic minority as Prime Minister, they were not optimistic. Some said 20 years, others said 50 and a few said 100 years. What shocked me, was Fardwosa, a 16 year old girl that works with The Emily Tree who said in a very matter of fact way, “I don’t think this will ever happen”.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t see a black woman picking up the keys to Downing Street anytime soon. We need to ask why, and we need to change the institutions quickly by voting and fighting for our voices to be heard. We all know black girls rock – but we just need to see more of them showing their greatness in the corridors of power.

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