Diane Abbott faces torrent of racist and sexist abuse.
Following the parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50 – the clause, if you’ve been under a rock since last June, which will start the process of leaving the European Union – Labour MP Diane Abbott faced sexist harassment from Conservative colleague David Davis. Reportedly, Davis, who is also the Secretary of State for Brexit, mockingly congratulated pro-EU Abbott for voting along with her party to trigger the clause, and appeared to lean in to kiss her. The next day’s headlines avoided reporting on his intimidation, however: her reaction – a stern ‘fuck off’ – dominated the news. Because, of course: how dare a woman stand up to harassment?
Abbott, if you didn’t know already, is a history-making politician. She was the first ever black woman to be elected as an MP, and has retained her seat in east London for three decades – currently with a majority of almost 50%. In the thirty years that have elapsed, Abbott has been a recurrent target of abuse, from colleagues and the public alike. A search of her name on Twitter returns mean images and punchlines at her expense. If, as a constituent, you dislike Abbott’s policy, there are ways to deal with that. This abuse is not about her politics; it’s about her – Abbott, the black woman.
Writing for The Guardian [link for permalink at end], she describes the horrendous abuse she has received: such abuse is often of a racist and sexist nature. Misogynoir, a term used to refer to sexism explicitly towards black women, is rampant online, and Abbott comments that her abusers seek to ‘dehumanise her’; that ‘[people] talk about black politicians in a different way’. Bullying exists even within her benches – including from other women. After missing a vote due to claimed illness, an unnamed MP circulated an email amongst colleagues that ‘[they wanted] to get #PrayForDiane trending on Twitter’. The possibility that female MPs – who experience politics’ sexism – could be complicit in such a cruel joke proves that misogynoir is a separate experience from general sexism.
In December, a Conservative councillor posted a photo depicting Abbott as an ape wearing lipstick; a post for which led to his suspension. Abbott’s intentions when first running for parliament were admirable – she said she got involved ‘to create space for women and other groups who have historically been treated unfairly’. During her first election campaign, the windows of her office were bricked; today, abuse continues in all forms, whether that by day in Westminster, or by night on Twitter.
It’s not just Abbott, either. Days before Kissgate, SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was ‘woofed’ at as she spoke in the House of Commons. Conservative peer Baroness Wheatcroft revealed recently how she was called a ‘whore’ while campaigning prior to the EU referendum. Google Image searches for ‘Theresa May’ return with suggestions including ‘weight loss’, ‘fashion’, and ‘shoes’- and somehow ‘One Direction’ is option number four for David Cameron. With Brexit looming, the continued destruction of public services, and an increasingly cosy relationship with Donald Trump, there is plenty more to criticise Theresa May for than her kitten heels.
In January, results were released from Radio 5 Live’s anonymous survey into the experiences of female MPs. Over a third of the sitting female MPs took part, with over a half of respondents reporting death and murder threats; one particular MP was threatened with murder in person by a constituent. The murder of Jo Cox in June 2016 proved the intent of these death threats: a female politician died at work, at the hands of a killer who, in court, named himself as ‘Death to Traitors’. Women are expected to play nicely; to keep quiet; to obey. Politics is the opposite of such behaviour, and perhaps explains – but must not condone – such fervent sexist abuse.
There are plenty of reasons why we should criticise all politicians, and the current 195 women MPs are no exception. Holding politicians to account is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. It’s holding their politics, however, to account, that is the most important thing. There is no excuse for scrutiny of a politicians’ appearance, race, gender, family status, nor sexuality.