Last Thursday I along with two friends attended a 5×15 talk. 5×15 events are literary evenings featuring five speakers each of whom is given 15 minutes to seduce the audience with a compelling story or a ground-breaking idea. That night’s five speakers – Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand, Sandi Toksvig, Catherine Mayer, and Tanya Moodie – spoke to a predominately female audience in a packed Central Hall Westminster about gender equality. The event was a lively one and although we were stuck in the back corner of the balcony where the acoustics were terrible – for the offence of being bang on time as opposed to fifteen minutes early – I found myself laughing out loud the 20% of the time I did manage to hear the jokes. The best line I heard was by my celebrity heroine, the very funny Caitlin Moran, who after talking at length about women’s over-critical inner voices made the proclamation that “we just want to be as dim, fat, deluded, average, happy and secure as men”.
But the evening wasn’t only about telling jokes and sharing stories. The goal was to captivate and electrify the assembly into action for something quite big. The group was there to raise money for the first political party in the UK whose raison d’être is realising the promise of gender equality. The Women’s Equality Party (WE) has six (presumably immediate) objectives. These are equal representation in politics, business, and industry; equal pay; equal parenting and caregiving; equal education; equal media treatment; and an end to violence against women.
Since the enfranchisement of women in the UK in 1918 (partial) and 1928 (full), women have won important civil rights. They have had better access to education and employment opportunities. And they have seen their representation in politics and the workforce grow at a steady rate. Yet, we have not witnessed the kind of revolutionary change that the visionaries of the suffrage movement had spoken of. In the aftermath of suffragettes’ victory, numerous disappointed feminist leaders lamented the reality of not being able to make the world anew. These were some of the more radical activists who were so determined of women’s worth that they attributed all evils to male dominance. Early leaders of the movement, the Pankhurst sisters Christabel and Adela, were after such grand goals as protecting children and ending poverty and war. Yet almost a hundred years later we still have not obtained equal representation in lead political roles or even ordinary political roles let alone bringing an end to poverty or war.
Contemporary scholar Jad Adams who has written a global history of votes for women chronicling a 200-year struggle around the world, goes as far as arguing that once conceded, women’s vote “changed nothing” and that “women would vote as their menfolk did and politics would not change by the addition of them to the electoral register.” To me this argument is quite cynical. In Britain alone, only in the decade following the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918, laws equalizing guardianship of children and granting pensions to widows of workers were passed. In the United States the Prohibition of 1919 came to pass with the support of female campaigners and voters who associated alcohol consumption with intensified violence against women. The achievement of votes for women certainly did not make as colossal an impact as early feminists had hoped but it certainly made an impact.
This is where Women’s Equality Party comes in. It may seem brash to start a political party dedicated to the cause of one group but given the fact that this cause impacts 51% of the population there is tremendous optimism that it will succeed. In the past other political parties have done just that. Labour came onto the political stage by advocating for improving labour conditions. While the Green Party started life as a political party in West Germany around a single cause of opposition to nuclear power in 1979. Green Party has matured into a political party with policies on all facets of government and although in the UK parliament there is only single green seat, in the German Bundestag it is currently holding 63 of the 630. WE’s leader Sophie Walker and co-founder Catherine Mayer say they will stand for the London Assembly and Mayoral elections as well as the Scottish Parliament the first being in three months. Time will tell whether they will be successful in proposing policies that can win votes but as Catherine Mayer said during her speech they will be happy if the mainstream political parties just steal their gender balanced policies!
I was not just inspired by Thursday’s event. I was charged. I was empowered. But two days have gone by and I have had time to reflect and reality has set in. And as much as I hate to end on a bleak note I have to say I am not too optimistic that WE will be successful in winning a meaningful number of votes in the immediate future. It’s true that 51% of the British population are women and it is only logical that they would want a political party dedicated to their plight. However, the issue lies in the public’s perception or rather women’s perception of feminists. In my previous life in Canada I encountered numerous younger women in my Iranian community who thought of feminists as – and I am borrowing somebody’s actual description here – “man-eating dykes”. In the Muslim community too Muslim feminists were in the minority at least back in 2010 and I don’t see why anything would have changed since then. I came across numerous young Muslim women who were eager to dissociate themselves from feminists claiming they do not feel they have to fight for feminist causes as Islam has liberated women 1400 ago already. Indeed Islam for its time was quite progressive in allowing women to manage their own money independently and still demand that their husbands pay for their living expenses. Women were also allowed to inherit property and other worldly possessions – a right that women in the UK did not obtain until the 19th century. However, I have often found myself struggling to argue effectively with the notion that women in Islam do not consider obtaining leadership positions a top priority and can be quite contented with their supporting role as wives and mothers – albeit highly educated and working ones. Several years back when Amina Wadud made headlines for being the first female imam to lead prayers in New York, based on my personal experience it was often the Muslim women who made the most vociferous criticisms in condemning this break with orthodoxy.
So unless we rebrand feminism as Jo Brand suggested on Thursday night I am not sure how this party will win the widespread support it requires in order to truly shake up the political establishment. But I shall happily pay my £50 annual dues, proudly carry my membership card, and contribute to the cause where I can.