Intersectionality in UK Politics: Panel Discussion Summary
On the 14th of September, Feminist Foreign Policy hosted a panel discussion on intersectionality in UK politics. This conversation was particularly close to my heart. Those of us with intersecting social identities face denial every day of our lives. It’s exhausting. Exhausting and painful. We are denied status, opportunities, and a voice. And then the denial is denied. It's so entrenched in and fortified by the common consensus, popular culture, and political system, it’s the perfect crime. That’s why we need to talk to each other, share our experiences, find our voice - so we can do something about it, and so we’re not alone with our thoughts and theories. Because I honestly thought I was. What an eye-opener this discussion about intersectionality in UK politics was. It was as if I’d been suffocating all my life and after four decades of gasping, panicking, and suffering, someone had clamped an oxygen mask to my face. A first painful and delicious gulp of breath: I am not alone.
Led by CFFP’s founding director, Marissa Conway, the discussion started with the question: “What does an intersectional policy look like?” Alice Musabende of the University of Cambridge believes intersectional policy should break the mould. She says emotive words like ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ are needed to put across the experiences of people encountering intersecting oppressions. Shaista Aziz, journalist, author, broadcaster, and founder of The Everyday Bigotry Project and Intersectional Feminist Foreign Policy, also stressed the importance of language. She says powerful language is needed in order to frame the issues correctly. Shaista believes Brexit has accelerated a British national identity crisis and discusses the rise of discrimination against those who are deemed the ‘other’. Naturally, those experiencing intersecting forms of oppression are the ones most affected. For example, women of colour are most affected by the public sector pay cap. The gender pay gap also disproportionately discriminates against women of colour, as recently evidenced by the furore around BBC salaries; however this perspective barely emerged in the news coverage. Shaista says we must start by picking this low-hanging fruit.
How do we do this? Lucy Wake of Amnesty International believes participation is key. We can join a political party, support others to rise; women in particular must support other women; and we must encourage each other to be politically active, to become MPs. After years of advocacy work on women’s rights for Amnesty, and previously with Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam, she says it’s disheartening to see the extent to which governments regard people as objects, statistics, and numbers on a page. The people targeted by a specific policy are hardly ever consulted about its potential impact. We need to penetrate political systems built to maintain hierarchies and reinforce power dynamics.
They are creating and sustaining institutional violence, says Shaista. Alice reminds us that it’s not easy, since the fundamental mechanism of foreign policy is unequal. We must remind ourselves who the policymakers are, she says. Lucy adds to this, explaining that our democracy works by excluding people, not by looking around the table and asking who isn’t there.
The panelists, for all their accomplishments, passion, and wisdom, were incredibly humble. There were more questions than answers, perhaps because the serious acknowledgment and discussion of intersectionality in the UK is still quite new. Regardless, questions are a great place to start. They directly challenge what is accepted as the status quo. This event highlighted the importance of challenging what is accepted. For me, this acceptance is taking the path of least resistance because my skin is light brown and I can blend in. This will not suffice anymore - I simply can’t continue to betray myself with self-denial.
The far right is resurging globally. It became apparent during our discussion that the evidence of what we always knew is growing: we are becoming increasingly marginalised and the door of the big boys’ debating room is being slammed in our faces harder than ever. Shaista rounded off the discussion by suggesting that perhaps some viewers missed the memo that comedian Harry Enfield’s “Women know your limits” sketch is actually a parody. We need to understand that we have no limits - that's our secret weapon. We are everywhere and we’re huge in numbers, this is something we must never forget.
Orla O'Donovan is a former BBC and ITV journalist turned PR. British-born and of Guyanese-Irish heritage, Orla has a strong interest in cultural, racial and gender politics.