When I first saw my election leaflets last week, I wept. These were tears of joy. The odds were stacked against me ever being a prospective parliamentary candidate. It’s not just that I’m only the second Somali to run for Westminster and one of only a handful of young, black, Muslim women to do so. It’s also that I’m here at all.
When I was six, bombs rained down around my family home in Hargeisa. At seven, I survived female genital mutilation, a form of violence against women and girls that liberals too often dismiss as merely a “cultural practice” but which is an organised crime against my gender. At 11, complications from my FGM nearly killed me when my kidneys failed and I was rushed into hospital. As the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, an organisation dedicated to combatting FGM, I became a target for speaking up against FGM. I was attacked on the street and a person I had considered a friend offered a reward for someone to kill me. So you can see why looking at my face on a leaflet seeking a seat in one of the world’s great parliaments made me well up.
Not everyone feels happy about my entrance into the political arena. Since announcing my candidacy I’ve found myself on the receiving end of a lot of—misplaced—anger. Some Labour-supporting men and women are furious that I’m standing for the Women’s Equality Party in Hornsey and Wood Green, a constituency currently held by a female Labour MP. To do so, they tell me, is anti-feminist, even though the party I represent is the only one truly focused on raising women, to the benefit of everyone.
Our manifesto, which will be published this week, is unique as well as radical, full of policies designed to dismantle the structural barriers to women and value our unpaid as well as our paid labour, and to free women by ending the violence against them. You will not find these policies in the other parties’ manifestos though we have repeatedly offered them up for the taking. I have no doubt that the Labour Party has many feminists members, but “we will work towards universal childcare” is not a costed policy priority. Neither is “we will take action on equal pay.”
My critics tell me I shouldn’t run against another woman at all, and particularly not another feminist, as if all women and all feminists were interchangeable. As successful as I have been as a campaigner, black and minority ethnic (BME) women like me are largely invisible: talked about and talked at. Growing up in Cardiff, struggling with FGM and the impact of the civil war on my family and community, there was no one there to speak up for me. I fell through cracks that South Asian and poor working class girls also fell through. In finding feminism and the Women’s Equality Party, which I joined at the very beginning, I have a voice I want to use for those at risk as I was, and for everyone who lives in Hornsey and Wood Green. There has never been a greater need for feminism to join the resistance to racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.
I had to laugh when a woman on Twitter told me that I shouldn’t run against the incumbent MP because of her opposition to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Solidarity is one thing—and I welcome each and every voice within Parliament’s walls that stands with refugees and people seeking asylum in this country. But I am a refugee—and there is no substitute for refugee women speaking to their lived experience. I’ve been campaigning to close Yarl’s Wood for years. I have worked with the government and met with the Prime Minister when she was home secretary to talk about the need to rethink our asylum system. I have consistently lobbied the government to change their policy of detaining pregnant women—an issue a Labour supporter lectured me that I should address, perhaps (I’m being kind) not knowing that I am a trustee of Women for Refugee Women. As an activist and member of a non-partisan political party, I have and will always be able to work across tribal lines to stand up for the rights of women and girls.
I am standing because I care and believe change is needed—not, as Janice Turner in The Times suggested, to avenge the political ghost of Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey and Wood Green. Lynne and I are friends and I have always paid tribute to her vital work as development minister in the coalition government to combat FGM. Because of her and others with whom I worked, a world free of FGM is something we will be able to see in my lifetime. The Coalition oversaw the first-ever prosecutions for FGM in the UK, the largest ever commitment to the issue, and a global summit. I will praise those who do good work, but that does not mean that I am a secret Lib Dem or a secret Tory. None of the traditional parties do enough for women. The current government, in common with every previous administration, continues to do huge damage to women in every corner of the UK. The Tories are pursuing a gender-blind economic strategy that means women suffer disproportionately from cuts. Theresa May is pushing for Brexit, deal or no deal, at whatever the terrible cost to women — and Labour have done far too little to stop this train.
The Women’s Equality Party has been working for collaborative politics and alliances to get progressive candidates elected, yet our critics argue — and it’s the same argument I hear about my own run for office — that we are splitting the progressive vote. The Times piece even complained that I am splitting the black vote in Hornsey and Wood Green. That is deeply offensive. Written by a white woman, it assumes that black people will vote for me just because I look like them — not because I will work for every single vote. Because as a young black woman I will relate to their experiences. These lazy assumptions should wake people up. The idea of a “black vote” is as reductive as the claim that there is only one seat on the bus for a feminist candidate, and that it’s already taken. Political parties have to earn our votes and until Labour understands that, it will continue to lose them.
As for those telling me to stand in another constituency: we need to be realistic about the limitations of the voting system within which we’re operating. Across the world, first past the post is shown to be more likely to exclude women and minority voices. Under this deeply flawed system, parties may win a substantial vote share nationally, but end up with little or no political representation. FPTP means the only way you can win is to stand in places your support is concentrated. The Women’s Equality Party has thousands of members and supporters in Hornsey and Wood Green. Under a proportional system of the kind the Women’s Equality Party supports, Hornsey and Wood Green voters wouldn’t be faced with a binary choice between me and another candidate. Labour, like the Conservatives, want to keep FPTP, as their best way of restricting the growth of smaller parties and diverse views.
I am standing for a party that believes in opening up the political system to more diversity, because different perspectives and experiences make for better policies, and Parliament also needs to draw from the widest pool of talent available. I am standing because my party has the best policies for women and for the whole population. I am standing because I believe I am the best candidate. I am standing so that girls of every race can see themselves in the past, can be themselves in the present and can free themselves in the future.
I am standing because I can win — and I want to make a difference. From the moment my grandfather was dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night for speaking up against a dictator, I knew I could never look away from injustice. My candidacy is about fighting for a good deal for everyone and especially for the people old-fashioned politics and old-fashioned parties too often marginalise and ignore. It is about building a politics where those who are furthest from power come first, so that the system works better for everyone.
I might be the among the first young, black, Muslim Somali women to have the audacity to take up this challenge, but I know I won’t be the last. Young people will see they have a right to stand up and speak up for their beliefs. I was once told taking on an issue like FGM was mad, but there was no other choice. It was the right thing to do. Today, FGM has ended in my family. And now I am taking on the traditional parties and their assumptions that politics belongs to them. It does not. Again, it is the right thing to do.
Nimco Ali is a social activist and the WEP candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green.