Muslim Women in the Labour Party: Inconvenient Voices - Farah Hussain
Farah Hussain introduces her PhD research and the theoretical framework used to inform her work. In this piece, originally published by Renewal, she explains why intersectionality is key to understanding Muslim women’s experiences in the Labour Party and how to improve them.
The discrimination that Muslim women sometimes face from Muslim men in the Labour Party is well known within the party membership and has been highlighted by the media in the past. In February 2016, a group of women spoke to BBC Newsnight about their experiences. Fozia Parveen spoke of a smear campaign against her during a local government selection contest: Muslim men in her local Birmingham Labour Party had turned up to her parents’ home and intimidated her mother to stop Parveen from standing for selection, claiming that she was having an affair with an existing councillor. Shazia Bashir, a party member in Peterborough, spoke of how Muslim men in her local party made her step aside in a local selection process because, despite being 31 years of age, she didn’t have her father’s consent and support to stand.
The Labour Party responded to these women’s stories by issuing a weak statement claiming that its processes are ‘fair, democratic and robust’ and that it was committed to making sure that ‘candidates are representative of the communities they seek to represent'. The party did not acknowledge the women’s specific complaints and experiences. Soon the issue was forgotten, the press moved on, and nothing was done to support Muslim women who face misogynistic discrimination from Muslim men within the Labour Party.
The concept of intersectionality, a theoretical framework that was developed by black feminists in the United States in the 1980s, is key to understanding Muslim women’s experiences and the Labour Party’s (lack of) response to them. An intersectional theoretical approach shows us why Muslim women face discrimination – and why no one has done anything about it.
Intersectionality refuses to treat gender and race as mutually exclusive categories of analysis – that is, it shows that they intersect. It demands that we question the idea of group homogeneity and focus our attention on the least-privileged members of every group. Kimberlé Crenshaw employed the metaphor of a traffic intersection or crossroads to demonstrate how black women, standing where two roads intersect, are most at risk of injury as they face oncoming traffic from all four directions. The same metaphor can be used to describe the experiences of Muslim women in the UK. They stand at the intersection of race, religion, and gender and therefore are at risk from multiple sources of discrimination.
Patricia Hill Collins’s analysis of black organisations in the US, including civil rights organisations, shows that though such organisations claim to speak for all black people, black women have never held leadership positions within them, and much of US black thought has a ‘prominent masculine bias’. In such organisations, not only are women rendered secondary and invisible; when they do begin to question their subjugated position, they face opposition and hostility from male members. This adverse reaction is often characterised by claims that by fighting gender inequality within black spaces, black women are acting in a way that is counter-productive to the wider struggle for black empowerment. Women are forced to stay silent about the oppression they face from within their communities for fear that negative stereotypes might be strengthened, and black men, alongside whom they are fighting in the anti-racist struggle, could then face further racist discrimination. The interests of the community as a whole are interpreted in a way that does not allow black women to talk of domestic violence or patriarchal oppression, within their families or in the wider community.
British Muslim women are similarly placed in a difficult position. Muslim men dominate Muslim organisations and claim to speak for all Muslims. Simultaneously, Muslim men are also the victims of hostility and anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-war-on-terror West. Thus, Muslim women face the double problem of trying to find a way to make their voices heard and speak out against the oppression they face from within the community while somehow not bringing additional negative attention to their male counterparts who are already viewed with suspicion by majority society.
By concentrating attention on the lives of the most marginalised in society, intersectionality shows us that feminist or anti-racist movements that view injustices through a single-axis framework forget those who are ‘multiply-burdened’, and create a distorted analysis of the problems they seek to tackle by erasing the complexity of these issues.
British Muslim women and their lives remain under-researched. While there has been an increased academic focus on Western Muslim communities since the 1970s, until recently, these studies have taken Muslim men as the standard and the Muslim male experience as the normative experience of all Muslims, therefore rendering Muslim women invisible. Applying an intersectional theoretical framework to the case of Muslim women in the Labour Party allows us a richer understanding of the mechanisms of power, exclusion and inclusion that influence political representation, and a more realistic appreciation of how Muslim women navigate democratic processes and institutions and the barriers that they face. Understanding Muslim women’s experiences would allow the Labour Party to truly become the party of equality for all.
A longer version of this piece was originally published by Renewal.
Farah Hussain is a PhD Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and a Councillor for Valentines Ward in the London Borough of Redbridge.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Mile End Institute or Queen Mary University of London.