It has been 100 years since women achieved the same voting rights as men, over 40 years since the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts were passed, and 37 years since we had our first female Prime Minister. However, while we have made significant progress in this space, persistent gender inequalities remain, with women from ethnic minority backgrounds being under-represented in Parliament and among local authority councillors.
I am firmly of the belief that the only way to cause change to happen, is by being on the inside. That is the reason I decided to launch the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, to encourage more British Afghans to engage with British politics and for Parliament to start to look more like the country it serves. The best way to make change, is by thinking about what it is we want and then fighting for it – through the democratic process. When people engage with politics and convey their needs and those of their community, change can occur – without active participation, people’s needs are significantly less likely to be addressed.
I have worked for an organisation called Afghanistan & Central Asian Association (an organisation that supports people from refugee and asylum seeker background to integrate in to British society) for almost 10 years now and have seen first-hand the obstacles ethnic minority communities face in adapting to their lives in the UK, understanding the system and British way of life.
Most recently, as well as admiring the hard work of the organisation, I had the chance to sit down with women from diverse ethnic backgrounds during a weekly Women’s Tea Corner session at a local community centre in Hounslow, to answer some questions about the British political system, current political issues and voting. During the question and answers section of the session, a participant named Zohra said: “I don’t vote, because I don’t understand it all.”
I explained to her that her voice mattered, and it would be a great shame if she didn’t vote, because then other people would effectively vote on her behalf, and she might not agree with them.
This is a clear example of the grave disconnect between British politics and ethnic minority communities in the UK. Zohra is not just one case. There are many more Zohra’s across the UK that struggle to understand what it means to vote, how their voices matter, and how politics is relevant to their lives. But with the right approach, change is possible.
To achieve it, political parties must first begin to understand the different drivers of voting and political behaviours of different BAME groups – it is simply not the case that British Afghans are motivated by the same campaigns and policies as British Black African Caribbean community. The development of new policies, should be based on the understanding that there is not one single BAME block of voters, but many different communities with diverse histories, attitudes and expectations.
Second, the parties should consider its tone and language of engagement, opting always for an inclusive manner and a message that emphasises values and experience shared.
Third, parliamentary candidates and representatives must engage ethnic minority communities at all times – not merely at religious festivals or during the run up to elections.
On many occasions, I tend to be the only or one of the few women in many political meetings. And sometimes, I am the only woman from an ethnic background in the room. However, I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be the only woman amongst hundreds of male MPs, as Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor must have been. In 1919, she was the first woman to take her seat as an MP in the House of Commons.
The battle to get the vote for women and then to allow them to stand was hard fought and involved death, hunger strikes, arrests and broken families. Unfortunately, we can sometimes be rather blasé about democracy. I am sure that ethnic minority communities don’t mean to take their ability to vote for granted but it is worth reminding people that democracy and fair voting are precious things which many others around the world cannot take for granted.
We all need to acknowledge that there is an urgent need to address the under-representation of women and ethnic minority groups in Parliament. This is not political correctness. It is political common sense and politics would be the better for it. Women’s representation and diversity are not optional extras but are rather essential features of any institution claiming to represent the people of this country.
And as we have a woman at the head of our country’s government, a century after women were first given the right to vote, our mission should be clear – to build that better future for all our people, a country that works for everyone, and a democracy in which every voice is heard.