Gender issues, feminist values and the Bradford West by-election, 2012.

“He made us feel important” summed up the impact of George Galloway on the Muslim women of Bradford West, who in 2012 were galvanised to hit the streets, the school gates and people’s living rooms, to plead his case as their next MP, and achieve a wipe-out victory over all other candidates in a safe Labour Party seat.

They called round when the husbands were likely to be out at work, recognising the importance of speaking directly to the women, without the supervision of their partners, or the potentially inhibiting effect of their partners’ presence. To break out from the pattern of those established, normative power relations, the women had to “go behind their backs”, to secure their own confidence to act against their husbands’ wishes, albeit secretly: “Our husbands and dads are telling us not to (vote for George), but they are not going to be with us when we put that paper in the ballot box”.

So the women acknowledged these domestic and social, gendered power relations. But while critically noting the established complicity between Labour Party activists and their life partners or other male family members  (who all assumed the status quo of their subordination and routine deference), they would probably not themselves name these as specifically gender power relations, rooted in heterosexual norms and sexual inequality, and therefore ‘feminist issues’.

In contrast, not just to Labour Party activists, but also to their husbands and dads, George made them feel important. So they chose to swop one set of men for a better (heterosexual) model, whose rhetoric suggested he was handing them the possibility of political power and self determination as women. How seductive (and unusual) was that?

It had features of the conventional, western, heterosexual, romantic ‘rescue narrative’: the ‘stranger’ crosses the threshold and seduces the ‘tethered’ woman in her domestic confinement, by addressing that confinement (the suppressed lack: the inchoate desire to understand and exert agency) directly, persuasively and successfully.

How often have women (as a constituency) been actively wooed for their political involvement and votes? As opposed to being ignored, marginalised, patronised or overtly derided? However, for feminists, ‘rescue’, seduction or ambush are not the (political) relationships we seek. After all, over many years, locally and nationally, we have ourselves sought and worked for equal social and political status and power, including within the Labour Party and the Green Party, regarding agenda setting and policy making.

So, could a white woman (with feminist values) have done as much on this occasion as this white man (with a beard)? If not, why not? Discuss.

Women as political sisters.
It is interesting to note that the Muslim women of Bradford West appeared to know little about Galloway as a man, and they professed no interest in his personal life, past or present, as a high profile and controversial heterosexual male, previously embroiled in accusations of financial corruption.

“As long as he keeps his personal and political life separate, I don’t mind”, remarked one Muslim woman on her second marriage. But this position quickly became difficult to sustain in the light of Galloway’s subsequent public behaviour.[i]

And what exactly does this Muslim woman’s comment mean in 2012? It assumes a separation that is long gone in the UK, not least in the wake of recent scandals in the public domain, but also as ethics and politics become both ever more on a collision course and pushed towards a putative, some would say essential, working partnership.

For feminists in particular, the entwined relation between the personal and political, and the challenge to the conventional white western binary of the public versus the private, has long been a basic insight, impacting many areas of knowledge production, policy making and politics. Other equality and human rights campaigns, against, for example, racism, homophobia, ageism and disableism  have also contributed to this ongoing epistemological and political transformation: ‘the personal is political’.

There has also been increasing recognition in the workplace of the link between personal/social identity and professional practice,[ii] not least for those areas of life and work that involve working with and for other people (such as healthcare, education, therapeutic services, politics), as well as business and industry, if we consider health and safety, and ethical practices important. Power relations in the workplace can now be understood as both personal and organisational issues. For example, any kind of bullying has to be tackled as both personal and organisational in terms of responsibility and change, and calls into question the culture of any organisation or institution.[iii]

Women’s political influence and power
Galloway’s ability to put in place those public ’symbols’ of ‘equality and non-discrimination’, which spoke directly to Bradford’s Muslim women (organising and training them for canvassing on the doorstep, installing a Muslim woman as Head of RESPECT, appointing another as ‘Women’s Involvement Strategy Head’ at their first encounter) could be lauded as progressive, racism-aware, gender-aware strategy, and/or as opportunistic moves to secure his personal ambitions.[iv]

His approach to both women and politics could be characterised as conventional, as about ‘conquest’, in both senses: winning over (seduction) or beating down (annihilation of opposition): the kind of behaviour that, if it were not in the political arena, would count as old-style, out-of-order bullying.[v] As women who were politically inexperienced and without access to gender analysis, they came across as (understandably) grateful to be offered the opportunity to exert influence beyond the home. And what a triumph they achieved! The Muslim Labour Party candidate chose not to draw on his special connection to his own community, by enlisting Muslim women in these ways to support his candidacy.

What happened in Bradford West both demonstrates women’s potential collective political power (all women take note), while simultaneously perpetuating patriarchal male dominance and Muslim women’s apparent separateness from feminist values and campaigns in Bradford. If, for example, they had had previous involvement with feminist action around DVA (Domestic Violence and Abuse), VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), honour killings, welfare and benefits, the impact of the cuts on public sector workers (overwhelmingly women), etc., would these have been viewed as the province of European women, of non Muslim women, rather than as shared feminist issues?[vi]

Galloway’s speech to the assembled Muslim community in 2012 overtly targeted both Muslim women and men. The women saw him take on their men on their behalf.   While it was not a message rooted in feminist sensibility, values or goals, you have to admit its power of address: a conventional, élite, white heterosexual male (embarking on his fourth wife that weekend), instructing a crowd of non élite, heterosexual Muslim males.

This speech, his exhortation, can hardly be construed as part of a discourse about supporting women’s influence or emancipation because it is the right thing to do (i.e. as a social justice issue), or because Galloway understands that feminist ethics sits at the heart of any re-visioning of our society as fair and just.[vii]

It can be identified as patriarchal (even colonialist) male bonding, across social class, ethnicity, religion (Galloway is a Catholic) . . .  a white male Christian exhorting Muslim men to place value on their women, make best use of them, in order to exert greater influence themselves: “Women,” he told them, “are half of your power”. (Emphasis added.)

The Labour Party’s failure.
I take the defeat of the Labour Party in Bradford West as in part a mark of the historical failure of Labour Party women, feminists and feminist-inspired men to sufficiently challenge sexism and misogyny within the Labour Party and the trade unions, and to help transform both Party culture and its electoral priorities.

Feminist, anti-racist, gender-aware: the social, cultural and political priorities that flow from these values, transforming gender power relations nationally and locally, have been stymied by the unwillingness of too many (mainly older) Labour Party men and women to take personal/political and organisational responsibility for the problem and for change.[viii]

Unlike racism, ageism, homophobia and disableism, for example, social class prejudice and intransigency in the Labour Party and the unions, and internalised and institutional misogyny, cannot be bureaucratised and tinkered with at a ‘safe’ distance, minimising  ‘discomfort’ for conventional heterosexual men (working-class or other). Change in these areas requires older men, for example, to change their own, long established behaviour, attitudes and values.[ix]

Yes, it does involve an erosion of the historical authority and the power of men on the Left to determine women’s lives, opportunities and life chances. Reflecting on this feminist problematic, black American feminist, bell hooks, observes:

‘Individual heterosexual women came to the movement from relationships where men were cruel, unkind, violent, unfaithful. Many of these men were radical thinkers who participated in movements for social justice, speaking out on behalf of the workers, the poor, speaking out on behalf of racial justice. However, when it came to the issue of gender they were as sexist as their conservative cohorts.’[x]

Lip service, making a few linguistic changes (reluctantly) hardly gets you to first base regarding imagining and building a society in which relations between women and heterosexual men are not rooted in and designed to perpetuate, misogynist power, social and sexual dominance and injury, and the normalisation of women’s ‘victim’ status as sexual objects, service providers and servants.[xi]

Racist assumptions about, for example, Muslim women, which reinforce a stereotype of domestic and political subordination and deference in the Muslim home, are one outcome of a social and cultural divide that the Labour Party failed to  understand or address in Bradford in 2012. I suggest that it is the entrenched non-feminist and anti-feminist culture of sections of the Labour Party and unions that has contributed to this situation, where race issues, social class issues and gender issues have been allotted separate cognitive boxes: on the margins, and of unequal and uncertain political status.[xii] Meanwhile:

‘As the movement progressed, as feminist thinking advanced, enlightened feminist activists saw that men were not the problem, that the problem was patriarchy, sexism, and male domination.’[xiii]

And the misogyny these embody.

Next steps.
Feminist activism and sustained political campaigning by diverse women in the UK over many years have demonstrated (shown and told political representatives, in particular heterosexual men) that women’s lives and circumstances, and feminist values and issues, are central to political change and social and economic recovery. Collectively and individually, feminists have braved misogyny, heterosexism, lesbophobia and racism, to secure changes and services that have saved women’s lives, improved women’s life chances and our ability to contribute to society and our local communities.

Women are not adjuncts to the main business of society. And the sooner the Labour Party and the unions acknowledge that in their hearts, and take effective steps to embrace feminist values and priorities across the board, they will not just continue to fail Muslim women, but all women, as well as feminist-aware sons, male friends, partners and comrades. And this change of heart and direction would once and for all make clear the difference between the Labour Party and all other political parties. No more fudging. This would be a worthy, ambitious and overdue USP: guiding, informing and underpinning every policy and practice.

The Bradford West by-election in 2012 was a wake up call: having to repeatedly go head to head with Labour Party members and trade unionists to get feminist / social justice / equality and environmental issues accepted as fundamental to any decent political agenda can now be seen as lethal, strategic incompetence, rather than just gender-based territorial self defence and power play. Or voluntary immolation.

val walsh / 07 04 2012 / 04 05 2012

Footnote, 10 10 2013.
In the 18 months since this article was first drafted and set aside while I wrote two longer essays,[xiv] UK society and politics have exploded almost beyond recognition: a seething but hopefully productive turmoil, in the wake of the ConDem government’s vicious attack on the public sector, social security, people with disabilities, working-class people generally, and women in particular, a concerted class war from the top down;[xv] the Saville revelations and their unfolding aftermath, igniting both widespread horror and new acknowledgement of the problem of heterosexual gender power relations and abuse;[xvi] the burgeoning of local and national feminist campaigns and websites, e.g. everydaysexism, no more page 3, etc.; the 2013 Edinburgh Festival in August awash with women’s creativity, notably numerous, highly rated stand-ups, with Bridget Christie winning the Perrier Award; and the Labour Party, after three years under Ed Miliband’s leadership, notably confronting media power, sleeze, corruption, big business (NB energy companies)  and international power politics (Syria), for example.

Afterword, 01 11 2013.
The abyss being created by the ConDems, and the rising levels of disillusion, despair, disbelief and anger felt by their swathes of innocent victims across society (after all, none of us voted for any of this incompetence and cruelty: the disruption, damage and demolition), may yet trigger a mass movement capable of removing those posing as government, and including the elimination of the LibDems and UKIP as viable political parties. There are stirrings beyond Parliament.

If the Labour Party is to be part of this movement, it has to re-instate itself as the Party of both 1945 and 2015, starting with the EU elections in 2014, by removing the BNP’s Nick Griffin in the North West and generally increasing the number of Labour MEPs. [xvii]

This uprising and reaching out will depend on the Labour Party articulating, embodying and enacting a new ethic that combines and balances (social) care and (social) justice at its heart; that draws on the values of 1945, and builds on the values of the liberatory politics, identity politics and movements for social justice and environmental sustainability that have together changed the UK for the better since.

In addition, the Labour Party must align itself with and recognise the wealth of social, cultural, political, economic and experiential expertise on the Left beyond Parliament (e.g. in academia, business, the public sector, the unions, the voluntary sector, the arts, local communities, and local and national campaign groups). Values, policies and practices must be forged by and through this powerful and creative interdisciplinary conjunction, which in itself embodies the emergent new democracy our society so needs.

The Tories and the Lib Dems are busy rolling back as much of the social and political legacy of the postwar period and beyond, as quickly as possible; creating conditions for division, demise and defeat amongst people, and isolation as a society. With so much at stake, a progressive democratic movement must be seen to be creative rather than destructive; building on what has already been achieved, and bold and confident that we can together, as a socially just and multicultural society, do this and sustain our existence, well being and livelihoods.[xviii] We must create a vision of society, then the society itself, that does not require us to compete to ‘win’, and/or tear each other to pieces in pursuit of advantage and status.

[i] See description of “the anti-feminist male” in Walsh (10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the poblem?’ essays. Also Sam Jones & Josh Halliday (22 08 2012) ‘Galloway condemned by party over rape views.’ The Guardian. Salma Yaqoob resigned as leader. See Ben Quinn (12 09 2012) ‘Respect leader resigns from party.’ The Guardian.

[ii] See Val Walsh (2005) ‘Into the sunlight’: gender, narrative, (mental) health. Resources for a missing conversation. Version of paper presented at BSA Auto/Biography Study Group Conference. London, British Museum.

[iii] Professor Lesley Yellowlees, MBE, in her  ‘Women in Science’ lecture (08 10 2013) as part of the Universty of Liverpool’s Science & Society lecture series, described her campaign to put in place measures designed to change the culture of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) university departments, starting with her own at Edinburgh University. She highlighted the problem of a male dominated culture, particularly in the university sector, which was producing the startling statistic of 73% of women STEM graduates leaving STEM after university and going to work in other fields.

[iv] Galloway has always looked like part of the problem to me, not part of the solution. A would-be alpha male, he has come across as dominant, aggressive, ego-driven, manifesting sexual and political vanity, and keen on being in the public eye: revelling in public attention, whatever the ‘costume’ (as ‘hero’, political maverick or cat).

[v] Men who manifest these qualities are often deemed ‘charismatic’, which is another old problem.

[vi] Yet Liverpool Women’s Network, as part of its research process in 2012/13, developing a stand-alone policy for VAWG, for adoption and implementation by Liverpool City Council, consulted the excellent document, Bradford Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls: An Integrated Strategy for the Bradford District, 2010-2013.  The Bradford Domestic Abuse Partnership.  The LWN cited it as an example of best practice. In addition, Bradford University was a forerunner and leading exponent of Women’s Studies as a discrete subject discipline in the university sector from the 1970s.

[vii] See for example, Debra Shogan (1993) A Reader in Feminist Ethics. Toronto, Canadian Scholars Press. also, Gisela Bock & Susan James (eds) (1992) Beyond Equality and Difference:  Citizenship, Feminist Politics, Female Subjectivity. London & New York, Routledge.

[viii] In 2013 there are at last some signs that a gender-aware shift is taking place. For example, the ‘simple’ matter of no more all white, all male speakers line-ups at public meetings may be under way, nationally and locally. The issue was raised at Labour Party conference  in Brighton (21-25 09 2013), and the recent People’s Assembly at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool (date 09 2013) drew 800 people to an event with a diverse platform of speakers, at which the Chair, Sheila Coleman, signalled an emphasis on social justice at the centre of any radical alternative.  As Steve Higginson, UNITE Branch Secretary of the CASA Community Branch, noted in his report after the meeting: “Concentrating minds on the issue of social justice can be an energising mobiliser, as the desire for  social justice is made up of diverse composite parts: all of which  reach out to multiple identities. Can conventional Left politics, in all its myriad and exclusionary forms of process and language, enter and engage with new ‘spaces’ being created by the People’s Assembly?” And the CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) conference at TUC Congress house in London (02 11 2013) advertised itself with the faces of four women and one man. What a great signal!

[ix] See poems in ‘Motivational Drive’, ‘Good Weather, Bad Weather’.

[x] bell hooks (2006) The Will to Change: Men, Mascuinity, and Love. Washingron Square Press: 109.

[xi] See poems in ‘Breathless’, ‘Mistaken Identity’ and ‘Public Domain’.

[xii] See Val Walsh (14 10 2012) ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’.

[xiii] bell hooks (2006) ibid..

[xiv] See endnote xi above. Also (10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and Activism: What’s the problem?’

[xv] See home page: ‘Why set up a blog now?’ and ‘Democracy in turmoil: lies, exploitation, corruption, damage, division, conflict, abuse. . .  Is that all there is?’ (With a nod to singer Peggy Lee.)

[xvi] See ‘International Women’s Day, Liverpool 2013. Women as creative agents for change.’

[xvii] Breaking news (27 10 2013): “All five councillors from George Galloway’s Respect party in Bradford have quit the party, accusing the MP of defamation and a lack of transparency.” See Helen Pidd (26 10 2013) Bradford spring turns wintry as city’s Respect councillors quit. The Guardian.


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