We're yearning for anti-racist, feminist leadership in the UK

The CEO of a major UK women’s charity previously spoke at a far right party event. We’ve had enough. Our leaders must change, or step aside.

Huda Jawad
15 March 2019, 8.28am
Women’s march in London, UK 2019.
Photo credit: Elainea Emmott

Amid the never-ending political farce in British politics that is Brexit, you will be forgiven for missing a quiet but significant departure that took place within the UK women’s sector last month. The incident is indicative of the threats facing activists who work with survivors of male violence.

The recruitment and muted departure of Katie Ghose from her position as CEO of Women’s Aid England, arguably the country’s leading charity working to end domestic abuse, implies that the UK women’s movement is in danger of being taken over by careerists who lack the necessary feminist ‘fire in their bellies’.

Ghose and Women’s Aid parted ways, by mutual agreement with the charity’s board, on 6 February, after Black and Asian feminist activists revealed videos on the internet of Ghose (in her former role as CEO of the Electoral Reform Society) speaking at the UKIP party conference in 2015.

For those not familiar with the ins and outs of British politics – UKIP (the UK Independence Party) is a far right populist party which campaigned for Brexit through a particular focus on the supposed threat of immigration.

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This was exemplified through their campaign poster depicting crowds of refugees and non-white migrants queuing at a border crossing, with the headline 'Breaking Point, the EU has failed us all', which was reported to the police for inciting racism.

In her 2015 speech at their conference, Ghose had praised UKIP’s MP Douglas Carswell as “outstanding” and lauded the party’s leader Nigel Farage as a “champion”, while saying that UKIP should increase their representation in parliament, if only the UK electoral system were to be reformed.

She also chaired a fringe meeting at the 2015 conference, where one of the speakers was Katie Hopkins, notorious for her openly hostile and inflammatory views on refugees, race and Islam. Hopkins stated she “wouldn’t mind if the House of Lords was gassed”, and Ghose didn’t challenge her

Ghose’s own speech from this event has rightfully caused outrage from the UK women’s movement and beyond. However, for many of us this case speaks to a deeper issue around how the corporatisation of parts of the women’s sector has led to a disconnection from grassroots activism.

In turn, this has deepened painful ruptures in the UK women’s movement around issues such as race and class.

This has deepened painful ruptures in the UK women’s movement around issues such as race and class

Many within the women’s sector have focused on Ghose specifically, as an individual and exceptional case -- which misses an important movement of clarity. This creates a scapegoat and assumes that her departure solves the problems of unequal power, influence, funding and workload between Black and ‘minority ethnic’ (BME) women.

Because this incident stands as a clear signal of how far the women’s sector has been forced away from its mission, and it reminds us that for ordinary BME feminists, racism has always been part of our experience in this movement.

Million women rise march in London, UK 2019.
Photo: SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

We work in a context where the marginalisation of BME specialist services is routine. Research published in 2018 by Imkaan highlights the erosion of specialist BME organisation that work on ending violence against women and girls.

We are doing this work in a climate where politicians, commentators, and public figures as well as far right activists often seek to contribute to the intensification of racism, misogyny, ableism and transphobia in society.

They defend the violence of their words and actions in various ways, including by bemoaning the decline of ‘free speech’, choice and democracy.

These values are somehow presented in opposition to feminists struggling for equality and the dismantling of hierarchies that have, throughout history, served to maintain structures of privilege. Worryingly, some of these discriminatory positions are deeply embedded in powerful pockets of the UK women’s sector.

Worryingly, some of these discriminatory positions are deeply embedded in powerful pockets of the UK women’s sector

As activists, workers and leaders we feel demoralised and let down by a sector whose practices limit its ability to be a refuge from the emotional, spiritual, mental and physical impacts of discrimination and inequality.

Time’s Up, #MeToo and the Women’s March movement have clearly shown that activists and organisers across the globe are yearning for nurturing spaces to articulate how everyday experiences of oppression and inequality malign, devalue and harm us.

But we need a root and branch change of the structures that enable privilege, discrimination and marginalisation in the women’s sector -- and if the power-holders are not willing to join us on this journey, they should move aside and let others lead.

Asking for new figureheads is not enough, however. Right now, in this time, we need a leadership that takes care of the workers that have dedicated their lives to this work. Now more than ever, we need to reconnect to grassroots feminist activism. We need to reclaim and rebuild our movement.

As a sector, we deserve leadership that roots out inequality wherever it plants a seed, and which will rigorously hold our sector to account.

We have no desire to replicate the corporate structures that were not built by or for us, that marginalise us and do not serve us. We come to our work each day in pursuit of healing and justice for our sisters and ourselves, not for our balance sheets or how much power an individual woman’s organisation can yield over its sector.

We know that a different world is possible, but we set ourselves up to fail in this transformation without leaders we can trust.

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