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Why politics is not a man's world any more

Opinions | Published:

Wolverhampton’s youngest city councillor Beverley Momenabadi speaks to women including high-profile MP Jess Phillips about being a female politician.

Jess Phillips has become a strong representative for female politicians

Labour MP Jess Phillips sent the internet into a frenzy after an interview in which she talked about being an MP who is “a normal person”.

She faced abuse from others in her party for criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and from the right of the political spectrum for dressing in a £538 jacket for the accompanying photo shoot.

It raises questions over how differently women and men in the political sphere are treated by the public.

“I grew up in Birmingham with three older brothers, there was always lots of people coming in and out of my home,” she tells me of her early life in Birmingham.

“It was like growing up in Piccadilly Circus. My parents would take people in, people who were getting divorced and needed somewhere to stay, people who were going through domestic violence.”

Thick skin

Jess is known for her thick skin, often giving as good as she gets on Twitter.

“I’ve had death threats, rape threats, mutilated pictures of myself,” she says. “When people say I’m fat and I’m ugly, that doesn’t really hurt me.

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"The things I see and hear from my constituents hurt me, it feels like daggers in my skin and I feel so hurt by not being able to do something about it. Personally, it hurts me when people lie about me.”

She says that as a woman in politics, if you have a credible voice, the first thing that the opposition will do is try and do is undermine that.

“So, if you talk about women, they will try and find a way to make out that you don’t really care about women,” Jess says.

“Or race, they will say you’re a racist. And people desperately try and make things up about me to try and make it out like I don’t care about women, which is really stupid because it’s so provably untrue.

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“I had a magazine ring up my old work at Women’s Aid one time, and ask them if I was lying about the the work that I used to do there. Women’s Aid were shocked.

"That hurts, because they care more about knocking me off my perch than they care about what my voice does to help women.

"They are willing to let those people (women) not have an advocate anymore for the sake of toppling me. And that is just horrendous.”

The gender imbalance remains in parliament, she adds.

“Parliament is massively patriarchal and old fashioned,” adds Jess. “It’s got people in there that are obsessed with old traditions, they think that any progression is to lose tradition, men hold a massive balance of power in there and until recently, lots of those men weren’t very progressive.”

Youngest female councillor

I can relate to this. At 27, I’m the youngest female councillor in Wolverhampton and the thinly-disguised misogyny that is part of local politics is something that I’m faced with regularly.

Whether it is heckling from male opposition politicians in the chamber or the fact I now carry a rape alarm when out on council duties, the misogyny isn’t always disguised.

One rumour was circulated that I had been parachuted into my role by a male senior – because of course it would be impossible for a young woman to make it on her own.

Obaida Ahmed is her city’s first female Muslim councillor

Obaida Ahmed is Wolverhampton’s first female Muslim councillor, adding to her roles of being a wife, a mother, and a pharmacist.

Growing up as a Pakistani-British Muslim girl wasn’t easy. She never thought she would be in such a privileged position as a local politician and was surprised that she was head-hunted to be interviewed.

“I had the most amazing parents growing up, but I was brought up to believe that you are a good girl if you sit quietly and don’t speak up,” she says.

“I am a Muslim and I live as a Muslim. I dress modestly and cover my hair but one of the decisions I had to make once I was elected was whether I was going to shake hands with men.

“Islam teaches that normally we (women) would not have any physical contact with men, so I had to decide whether I was going to shake hands when greeting men in my new-found profession. It did play on my mind that I am going to be in the public eye and people will be watching everything I do. I made the decision to shake hands as I think it’s professional to do so.”

Men have a role to play in fighting for feminism, she believes.

“They can’t expect every job to be mine,” she says.

“So, if they think that there aren’t enough women at political meetings, that’s not just my job to go out there and engage women in politics. It’s their job as men to make it easier for the women in their lives to get involved.”

By Beverley Momenabadi

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