The shine has been taken off a by-election victory which promised – and has since delivered – so much for the city’s women
Behind the outrage surrounding George Galloway’s ignorant comments on rape is an unfolding tragedy that will eat away at the heart of local democracy in the years to come. Galloway has done his electoral constituency a great disservice because women, especially Muslim women, were key to delivering his Bradford West by-election victory by a margin of over 10,000 votes. When Galloway promised them a programme of political renewal and an era of citizen engagement they believed him and voted for change.
His promise was a big deal because minority women had been abandoned by mainstream politicians, who saw them primarily as an adjunct to their fathers, husbands and brothers. This assumption, predominantly from the local Labour party, was that if they could secure the male vote then they pretty much had the elections in the bag. This appeal to the ‘biraderi’ system of the clan vote relied on patriarchal connections between members of extended families. Any politician who may be minded to say “I told you so”, need only look at the composition of Cameron’s cabinet and the lack of minority women in their own ranks before criticizing Galloway for breaking the ‘contract’ with his female voters.
Whatever your view of Galloway – at least until his recent outburst in support of the controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange –
Muslim women have been enticed back into local politics at a neighbourhood level. They have been organising weekly policy meetings to discuss ways in which to improve the lives of the district’s poor and marginalised groups; plans are afoot for an all-female convoy to Gaza and everywhere in many of the events organized by Respect, women stand alongside men as the public face of the Respect party.
Equally the new breed of Respect councilors that have come to the fore on the back of Galloway’s victory – many of them community workers deeply committed to regenerating Bradford – have breathed new life into local democracy. This had a profound impact on the political culture of the city: where in the past executive decisions were made with little accountability to the electorate, there has been a palpable shift towards greater transparency and scrutiny. Race is no longer a dirty word as there is an acknowledgement that despite the Coalition’s attempts to kick the issue into the long grass, the fact that the city’s migrant, Muslim and Bangladeshi communities continue to have among the worst life outcomes, requires politicians to grasp this policy nettle. In that sense Galloway has made a difference to how minority communities feel about themselves and the confidence with which they articulate their issues.
As director of an organisation intimately involved with racial and social justice, I have long been concerned over the manner in which executive and political decisions have run roughshod over the needs of minority women. The stereotyping of Pakistani women as a group that refuses to integrate to the ‘norms’ of British life; the tendency to portray them a victims of forced marriages and honour killings are part of the disrespectful way in which minority women are discussed within the ‘political’ life of Bradford.
The marginalisation of minority women is also particularly evident in the manner in which the knife of austerity has been wielded in relation to service cuts. The closure of swimming pools in some of the most deprived districts that specially cater to the needs of Muslim and migrant women; the targeting of BME domestic violence services that are putting the lives of minority women at enormous risk; the decimation of BME voluntary and community sector organisations in the name of mainstreaming (and on the back of spurious equality impact assessments) – have all had a devastating impact on the lives of minority women. Any previous attempts by JUST West Yorkshire to have a meaningful discussion on these critical issues have been sadly sidelined.
So the election of the five Respect councillors in the recent local elections has been a breath of fresh air. While probably still in the early flush of their political victory, they have been prepared to listen and advocate on issues affecting minority women. The resulting change in political culture is evident: increasingly politicians who would only turn up on their constituents door steps before the elections are increasingly coming down their rarefied poles and connecting with their female electorate.
Sadly Galloway’s ‘foot in mouth’ gaffe threatens to reverse these positive developments. Perhaps we ought not to have been surprised at the turn of events because it was inevitable that he would, as most politicians do, disappoint his voters in the end. As a politician who sees the world as either black or white, it was unlikely that he could appreciate the shades of grey that a consideration on the matter of rape requires. While Galloway is not alone in refracting his world through this dialectic prism, the tragedy is that his failure to understand the lived realities of many women who suffer the ignominy of rape – whether in or out of marriage – is an affront to those women in his constituency who put faith in him by voting for him.
The incident has clearly shone a negative light on Galloway and he has been exposed in his true colours. The tragedy is that his conduct over the last few days will undoubtedly return cynicism back into politics. There is likely to be a deep political chasm that will widen in the days to come and it is unlikely that any of the mainstream parties will be able to fill that breach. In that sense Bradford has reached a political crossroads in which the metaphorical clock of political engagement is likely to be turned a long way back.
Ratna Lachman is director of JUST West Yorkshire which promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights in the north of England.