The Women of the World (WOW) festival played host to a highly anticipated discussion titled ‘What does Brexit mean for women?’ It wasn’t very good at answering its question, but it did boil many emotions into (and evaporate confidence in) the nature of political discourse itself.
Like misbehaving children at a playground gathered to testify to their disciplinarian, MP Stella Creasy (Labour), Baroness Jenny Jones (Green Party), MP Suella Fernandes (Conservative) and Joanna Maycock(secretary general of the European Women’s Lobby) all gave their statements revolving around the hovering uncertainty of the Brexit deal and how it would affect women.
Except that wasn’t really what happened.
The Green Party’s Jenny Jones bravely admitted she had voted Brexit against her party’s position. Soon after the result of the referendum was revealed, she realised the darker side of her choice like many other Brexit voters, including some of those from ethnic minority backgrounds. This caused Jones to align with her party’s ‘Remain’ position. She declared that Britain had always been a driver for gender equality and a bastion of civil liberties and civil rights, but “the EU has done something for us” by helping to raise working conditions for mothers and pregnant women. She also noted that women were not well represented on either side of the debate. She closed her statement by mentioning how this split in opinion has wounded Britain though wounds can heal.
A more robust picture of the contributions of the EU was illustrated by Joanna Maycock from the Europeans Women’s Lobby. She highlighted the EU’s efforts to include women in its parliament and provide rights to part-time workers. A certainty in the fog became clear to the audience – that we don’t actually know what will happen to such progressive rights, but it is important to understand where we are now so we can campaign to ensure that benefits will not be altered. Maycock was courageous enough to stress that Brexit will be most disadvantageous to women and children, hitting them the hardest. Her final remarks about the importance of uniting feminists and other members of the community against the divide that Brexit has caused was militantly disavowed by Tory MP Suella Fernandes.
I was angered that MP Fernandes began her speech by saying that Britain was a place where “if you work hard you can get anywhere” and the audience reacted in a similar way. The statement was oblivious to the systemic injustices many face in Britain, especially ethnic minorities and the disabled. Even more astonishing was Fernandes’ commemoration of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were famously damaging to the poor and underprivileged. It was a bad move, and the audience grumbled loudly as if they were in the House of Commons.
Nonetheless, Fernandes ploughed on, heating the room by calling it a fallacy that women’s rights have greatly improved due to EU membership, soliciting some kind of proof in stating that women had maternity leave before joining the EU. She further went on to state that the EU had failed the UK, making it more undemocratic, bureaucratic and expensive. Exactly how, she did not say. Perhaps most importantly, and most disparagingly, was her belief that immigration was out of control – a control, it seems, which should belong to Britain and no one else. This highlighted, to me, the crux of the issue behind Brexit.
Juxtaposed for maximum dramatic effect, but a welcome return to common sense, was Labour MP Stella Creasy’s speech. It raised my spirits to hear the list of benefits that the EU pursued for women, but I felt sad that such benefits were even up for debate. These include protection from maternal discrimination at work, blunting the blades of FGM, and putting women firmly on the agenda. MP Creasy also fired up an answer to the original question (finally!) by logically noting that goods with tariffs will cost more and hit women harder, as women are the victims of the gender pay gap and the traditional consumers of such goods. It was refreshing to hear her calling for pragmatic action, providing suggestions for everyday women in how to deal with the current uncertainty. These include the demand for clarity so that one knows what they are dealing with, demand that Britain leads not follows (as is a possibility with the new Trump administration), and not to allow Brexit to be an excuse for rising inequality. She closed with the summative statement: “Europe, you don’t have it, you will miss it.”
It was disappointing to note that there was no mention by any of the panellists about women with disabilities and the impact Brexit will have on them. Nor was there humility shown by the Brexit-voting side to better understand the deep concern and anxiety many people in the country face regarding the febrile economy that took so long to recover from the crash in 2008. These financial worries are not baseless when many government-funded programs will no longer be supported due to endless orders for cuts to budgets. Lambeth Council recently reported budget changes amounting to a £183 million reduction. The council also expects to magically lose a further £55 million for undisclosed purposes.
The debate was certainly polarising. Nevertheless, it was both shocking and appalling that members of parliament from two distinct parties were interrupting each other, talking over each other and, most importantly, not listening to each other. This added more embarrassment beyond what Brexit has already made acutely apparent.
Abhorrently, MP Fernandes’ lies and unsubstantiated statements shed light on the negotiation of the Brexit deal, and indeed, to the lack of integrity in the whole of political discourse. Her language represented skewed and dangerous ideas, particularly those pertaining to immigration control.
The recent controversial cover of the Daily Mail, assessing the legs of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, is an exasperating reminder of the great volume of work still needed to truly vanquish the trivialisation of women and gendered discrimination, as well as sexual objectification in political discourse.
This event took place on 10th March 2017. You can view a clip from the discussion below.