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11 March 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 9:32am

Samira Ahmed’s Diary: The struggle for equal pay, no-platforming Selina Todd and sympathy for Priti Patel

I think how much more we could all learn from listening to the experience of older feminists. 

By Samira Ahmed

I always say I don’t “do” International Women’s Day (IWD). Until recently it felt like a date for news editors to dump powerful stories about 50 per cent of the population before getting back to the daily business of “ma(i)nstream” news. But two days before IWD I head with joy to one of my favourite London buildings: the mid-20th-century wood, tile and worker-bee hexagon design of Congress House.

In the early Nineties I spent hours as a young radio reporter waiting for coal miners’ leaders to emerge from pit closure negotiations. I was often the only woman, surrounded by a scrum of burly cameramen and male photographers. The miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC, would deliberately head straight for my microphone to ensure I was close enough to catch everything. I’ve always been grateful for that.

I’m addressing the TUC Women’s Congress about my equal pay tribunal, and my union, the NUJ, shares a table with Equity – the arts corner. The congress is full of remarkable women. I learn about the Cammell Laird shipyard engineer who was supported by her male colleagues in the Seventies. There are so many older women members in their sixties and seventies, and many lesbians too. In the current rows over wokeness and with a consultancy industry making millions out of promising to “empower” women in how to ask for a raise, I think how much more we could all learn from listening to the experience of older feminists and appreciating the sometimes controversial history of trade unions in the fight against discrimination.

Embodied God

A giant lecture hall designed like a green cell at Queen Mary University is the equally impressive setting for Humanists UK’s annual Rosalind Franklin lecture, which I chair every year. This time it’s given with charm and rigour by the Bible scholar and expert in ancient Hebrew texts Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. It’s all about God’s penis. I did not know it cropped up, so to speak, quite so often in the Old Testament. Medieval paintings are a fascinating reminder of how physical God’s presence was in Christian belief – and how often rape is used as a metaphor for God’s punishment.

Custard on the brain

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The old Bird’s Custard factory in Birmingham is the setting for my own lecture for the women’s business organisation West Midlands Voice. I talk about how bias operates in news, and about the cultural influences in my own career, including Wonder Woman and Star Trek’s Lt Uhura. A university friend I haven’t seen for years is in the audience. With my head full of happy memories I head home, dig out the Bird’s custard powder and think about raiding the first rhubarb in my garden to bake a nostalgic crumble. 

Generation feminist 

One of the best things about growing up British Asian in the Seventies was the exoticism of school-dinner puddings. Another was the powerful, fearless campaigning of the Women’s Liberation movement. I head to Oxford with Julie Bindel for the 50th anniversary of the first Women’s Lib conference, held at what is now Exeter College. Dozens of veterans are back. I listen in awe as they challenge the no-platforming of the historian Selina Todd under pressure from a small number of younger activists. There’s an articulate debate and then a vote with a show of hands. Pretty much everyone demands Todd is invited back. All that’s missing, judging by the archive film they screen, is the toddler crèche that was run back in 1970 by a groovy cohort of chain-smoking young men with excellent facial hair.

Someone hands round copies of the leaflet the original protesters gave out at the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant – the subject of the rather delightful new film Misbehaviour. It’s a joyous relic of a simpler age: “The man’s making money out of us. We’re not beautiful or ugly. We’re angry.”

I meet Jo Robinson – one of the original campaigners, played in the film by Jessie Buckley, who still has purple curly hair and a great attitude. I ask if I can buy her Selina Todd’s new book on Shelagh Delaney from the pop-up feminist collective bookshop News from Nowhere as a present. It’s a small gesture to say thank you.

Sympathy for Priti Patel

And so to pondering the media coverage of bullying allegations against the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, for a magazine column. There’s a certain irony in seeing Sir Philip Rutnam, a knighted, male Whitehall mandarin, file an employment tribunal case over her alleged bullying. Is she worse than Dominic Cummings or male ministers promoting controversial policies? Given the torment experienced by hundreds of Windrush-generation black British citizens under the Home Office’s hostile environment policy, revealed when Rutnam was in post, I wonder where sympathy should really lie.

Learning from Star Trek

Coronavirus isn’t panicking me. I still have sacks of rice and red lentils and a collection of tinned fruit (for emergency crumbles out of rhubarb season) that I’ve had stashed since President Macron threatened to veto any changes to an EU withdrawal agreement who-knows-how-long ago. My daughter has told me she hates lentils. I haven’t told her my secret imagined upside of a virus-related lockdown or a crashing-out Brexit: that by the end, she will love them.

She’s recently discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation. We watch the episode “Angel One”,  when they land on a matriarchal planet where Lt Riker (the Kirk substitute) gamely dresses as a sex object in pastel ballet leggings and a nipple-baring sparkly top to be seduced by Mistress Beata. “Is this what the Nineties were like?” my daughter remarks, only half joking. I think back to 1990 when I began my working life and naively believed that I’d always get equal pay for equal work. “Not exactly,” I reply.

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down