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.

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5 Comments on "Strong Women Need Support Not Silence"

  1. Your point is well made – but sometimes women are their own worst enemy.

    Unfortunately, for some women on the left of the political spectrum, the right of all women to participate in political discourse, free from humiliation and harrassment based entirely on their gender, is completely dependent on their holding the ‘correct’ (usually socialist) political view.

    A perfect example is Sarah Palin – some of the most vile criticism of her, based entirely on her gender, came from other women,

    Feminists, both liberal and radical, need to put their own respective ‘houses’ in order before pointing the ‘finger of blame’ at others.

  2. It’s a bit difficult for me to comment here as I’m not a woman, so this is said purely from a guys point of view. What’s changed?

    Think of some of the women who have entered politics in the past, Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle, Mo Mowlam and of course Margaret Thatcher. All of them managed to have political careers and seemed to be able to look after themselves just fine. Say something sexist against Castle and she’d probably punch you in the nose, do the same against Thatcher and your political career would be over!

    Respect is not given, respect is not something that you attain through some magical process, respect has to be EARNED, and if more women in politics realised this then we might see another strong woman in politics.

    Flameproof suit on.

  3. I think abuse just happens to come with the territory when you venture into the political sphere, or indeed even put forward a view that someone takes issue with, whether you are male or female. That is in no way to say that women don’t suffer from discrimination in politics (and many other areas for that matter) but many of the things described cut across gender lines.

    Research done on online abuse and threats has shown that the levels tend to be closely related to how prominent you are rather than your gender. The University of Sheffield analysed 840,000 tweets which showed that male conservative MP’s received the highest amount of abuse in percentage terms with over 4 per cent of mentions being deemed abusive, most of the cabinet are also of course men, so better known to the public. Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and Boris Johnson were the biggest single recipients of abuse.

    It has been well documented that MP’s from all sides and of both genders had a particularly bad time during this election with racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-semitic abuse being rife. Currently in global politics nobody gets more abuse than Donald Trump. His looks are lampooned, the way he speaks, the size of his hands, his ten year old son and pretty much his every action. In British politics, no one has received more death threats than Nigel Farage, who needs security to venture out in public. It may be more productive to look at the demographic make-up of the people posting abuse and death threats, which I am pretty sure would turn out to be male by a large majority, and tackle this sort of behaviour at it’s roots.

  4. I agree with Rob a lot of this abuse comes sadly with the territory and most of us who are on Twitter will experience it and I would imagine from hearing stories a lot of famous men and women have been subjected to on line abuse. In the old days, you would need to write a letter but now using E mail or Social Media it can be instantaneous. I think Rob makes a great point about it depending on how prominent you are.

    Are women abused more than men I am no expert but I suspect some men see them as easier prey. I came across this study which suggests that women are more likely than men to view on line harassment as a major problem. See link http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/14/men-women-experience-and-view-online-harassment-differently/

    I suspect that some of the abuse directed at men may be more personal and emotionally charged as with the case of MP Jess Phillips who received 600 rape and death threats in just one day. I realise men can get death threats too but possibly the emotional angle is different for women who may feel that bit more vulnerable.

    I think everyone irrespective of their gender needs support and not silence and Social Media companies should treat hate crime for what it is and if laws are broken the police should take action. I realise this can be very difficult to police and some will scream freedom of speech. I remember the case of soldier Lee Rigby as a reminder hateful speech can sometimes lead to deadly actions. As Rob says this behaviour needs tackling at it roots.

  5. I agree with Rob a lot of this abuse comes sadly with the territory and most of us who are on Twitter will experience it and I would imagine from hearing stories a lot of famous men and women have been subjected to on line abuse. In the old days, you would need to write a letter but now using E mail or Social Media it can be instantaneous. I think Rob makes a great point about it depending on how prominent you are.
    Are women abused more than men I am no expert but I suspect some men see them as easier prey. I came across this study which suggests that women are more likely than men to view on line harassment as a major problem. See link http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/14/men-women-experience-and-view-online-harassment-differently/
    I suspect that some of the abuse directed at men may be more personal and emotionally charged as with the case of MP Jess Phillips who received 600 rape and death threats in just one day. I realise men can get death threats too but possibly the emotional angle is different for women who may feel that bit more vulnerable.
    I think everyone irrespective of their gender needs support and not silence and Social Media companies should treat hate crime for what it is and if laws are broken the police should take action. I realise this can be very difficult to police and some will scream freedom of speech. I remember the case of soldier Lee Rigby as a reminder hateful speech can sometimes lead to deadly actions. As Rob says this behaviour needs tackling at it roots.

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