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The Online Abuse Of Diane Abbott Is A Damning Indictment Of Racism And Sexism In Our Democracy

15/09/2017 10:05 BST | Updated 15/09/2017 10:05 BST
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amnesty International's report into Twitter abuse directed at 177 female MPs from January to June this year makes for disturbing reading. Diane Abbott MP, the first Black woman in Parliament and one of the highest ranking members of the shadow cabinet in the Labour party leadership accounts for almost half of the 25,688 abusive tweets sent to women MPs in the period analysed. It increased in the six weeks preceding the general election. Those in the media and in prominent political roles who joined the increasingly frenzied attack on Diane in the general election should take note.

It is a national disgrace that women MPs face this abuse. This report is particularly disturbing when one considers that the shocking murder of Jo Cox at the hands of a far-right sympathiser happened only last year. The abuse analysed by Amnesty consists of racist violence, threats to kill, sexualised violence and the N-word. I was one of those who vocally and prominently defended Diane when a political campaign ratcheted up against her this summer. I was often accused of 'playing the race card'. This report shows what I as a black woman have always known. We are going to be subjected to racist and sexist abuse, whatever our standing is in society. And such is the level of discrimination that we face, that we will even face attacks when we try to call out the everyday sexism and everyday racism that are part and parcel of our identity in Britain. Diane Abbott is an icon for Black women, who challenged the structural barriers and hostility that comes with the double discrimination of racism and sexism in order to reach elected office. The online abuse she faced in the period the report analysed from the first half of this year is larger than the total combined abuse aimed at all women in the Conservative and SNP political parties combined.

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This sends a repulsive signal to young black women who want to step up and make a change by actively engaging in politics and in public life. How are we to be expected to break the glass ceiling if this is the equivalent of sticking our head above the parapet to be knocked down with such aggressive and bullying behaviour?

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I have experienced, at first hand, shocking behaviour as a response to being a voice in the public eye. When I debated the rise of the alt-right in the US on Channel 4, a former BNP member told me to take in a Syrian refugee and said "I hope you don't get raped". The idea that this would be said to a man having the same debate is incomprehensible. Amnesty International are right to call out the abuse that women MPs face. It would be a disservice for this to be brushed over or dismissed. Abuse cannot be part of the furniture that comes with women being in the public eye and in public life.

This report requires a national response; politicians and those in power need to prevent such abuse, not just celebrate how far women have come in the decades since women fought for and won the right to vote. The media must not turn a blind eye to its responsibilities to challenge a climate that makes this abuse acceptable, and social media platforms must take seriously their responsibilities to report death threats and threats of violence to the police, and to systematically ban users who are bullying and intimidating women online. Without these measures in place, public office and a civil society position will not be the invitation to achieve change that it is for others; this report shows that, it is instead an invitation of abuse on women and on African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean women in particular.