My story ‘Outspoken Muslim women are an endangered species’, published this week has had a great reaction from all parts of the world, from the UK to South Africa, Singapore, Israel and beyond. So many women have got in touch to share their own stories, some deeply personal and never before shared and some already in the public domain.
It made me realise that actually, it’s not just outspoken Muslim women that come under fire. In fact, any woman that speaks up, or stands up for something that she believes, is seen as a legitimate target. It is not just a Muslim women’s issue it seems. It’s universal.
How did we get to this stage? As a teen, I believed that women had never had it so good. We could work, go to universities, speak out and even plan our families to suit our life goals. But nearly a quarter of a century on, we still have serious issues such as gender pay gaps, bullying, sexual harassment, child rape, sex discrimination, lack of access to justice and so on but a seemingly lack of voices to speak out about them. Those women, who do dare to speak out, are vilified, ostracized and then hung out to dry.
Jess Phillips, the British MP for Birmingham Yardley, spoke about the abuse she gets online from those who object about her speaking out about sexism in politics. She has received 600 rape and death threats in a single day. Speaking to The Times, Ms Phillips said “men telling me I didn’t understand sexism, that I deserved it, that I was fat, ugly, that I was probably on my period”. Shocking? Yes. Surprising? No. If you don’t agree with a woman or can’t defeat her in a debate fair and square, it is easier to resort to cheap insults about looks, menstrual cycle to humiliate or degrade her.
Just in recent weeks, we have seen Sarah Champion resigning from the UK Shadow Cabinet as Equalities Minister after she wrote an outspoken piece about grooming and Pakistani gangs. Even though many came to her defence following her resignation, the damage had been done and she was instructed to fall upon her sword. The debate that she had tried to ignite, that British Pakistani men were abusing white girls, became overshadowed by the fallout from her resignation, thus depriving the victims of such crimes even further of their right to expose their abusers.
Gina Miller, the prominent anti-Brexit campaigner, regularly describes the multitude of threats and abuse she gets ever since she forced the government to consult parliament over Brexit. One of her online abusers, Rhodri Philipps, who offered £5,000 to anyone willing to kill her, was jailed for only 12 weeks in July. He is one of many thousands who have targeted Ms Miller, and was only caught because he used his own social media profile rather than a fake one as so many trolls do.
Some of her abusers see Ms Miller as a confident, successful woman who needs to be brought down a peg or two, but she has fought back, now adding demanding heftier sentences for those convicted of online trolling to her many campaigns.
Elaina Cohen, a parliamentary aide working at the House of Commons has faced years of victimisation for speaking out about issues that are close to her heart, such as a lack of BME representation in Parliament and abuse of public funds.
Mandy Blumenthal, a well-known UK based campaigner has decided to move to Israel because of the abuse she gets for speaking out against anti-Semitism. She told me ‘Jew hate has entered the political mainstream’ and no longer feels safe here. The more Ms Blumenthal speaks out, the more she is targeted. ‘It is a never-ending cycle’
Across the pond, an aide to a US Assemblyman was sacked after she complained about sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of her boss. Charmian Neary filed a complaint against Mark Alan Siegel but her complaint was dismissed and she was instead accused of creating a ‘hostile environment’ in Mr Siegel’s office. At the time, Ms. Neary said Mr. Siegel often used lewd language in her presence and asked her to have an affair with him. ‘He talked about what pleasure we could give each other if I would give up my foolish and anachronistic belief about exclusive relationships,’ she said.
Ms Neary faced years of character assassination campaigns and eventually left politics altogether after her bruising experiences. How many young women do we know have had such similar experiences, whether in politics or otherwise? Those in positions of power, using said positions to take advantage of those lower down the pecking order, and then using their very positions to protect themselves with? Is it any wonder women don’t like to come forward to report anything that’s happened to them?
Anna Rowe, though not a public figure nor involved in the world of politics, has found herself in the media spotlight after she tried to expose a serial conman who targeted vulnerable women online. She lost her job as an assistant at Ethelbert Road Primary School because the school did not like the sexual content of her campaign and the mention of the dating app ‘Tinder’. ‘Going pubic was my way of protecting others from being hurt in this way (catfishing) The school’s conduct was hypocritical- I was reprimanded for speaking out even though we are always telling our children that we need to stand up for ourselves and for others’.
It would be wonderful to live in a society where us women didn’t need to speak out against abuse, or challenge misogyny, or shut down online trolls. Until then, we should be supporting those who are choosing to stand up and fight our battles for us. Not all of us can hold that heavy torch while marching into the battlefield, but we can all help to fire it up.