Pin It
Life as a young female politician

‘We have big voices’: young female politicians on fighting sexist bullying

Four newly-elected women reflect on the abuse they face, how Boris Johnson’s premiership legitimises toxic behaviour, and showing solidarity

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“The general election campaign was kind of a baptism of fire,” says 26-year-old Zarah Sultana, Coventry South’s newly-elected Labour MP. “It’s been quite intense. The levels of activity in my Twitter mentions have definitely increased.” Though, she later expands, not in a good way.

Before it even kicked off, 2019’s election was embroiled in scandal following the resignation of 18 female MPs. Culture secretary Nicky Morgan announced she wouldn’t be standing, citing “the abuse for doing the job of a modern MP” as one of her reasons, while the Lib Dems’ Heidi Allen stood down because of the “nastiness and intimidation” she endured as a politician.

This isn’t the first time female MPs have raised concerns about persistent abuse. Labour MP Diane Abbott – who was the most abused politician during the 2017 election campaign – previously urged Twitter to take action against attacks, while Luciana Berger said abuse made her “physically ill”. The latter even had to liaise with police and hire security to ensure her safety.

Despite the UK electing a record number of female MPs last year, it seems nothing has changed for the newly-recruited. “It has been quite horrendous,” reveals 29-year-old Apsana Begum, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, “and it’s been quite personalised in terms of attacks. Before being elected, you see other MPs go through that but you don’t necessarily appreciate the impact it can have on someone as an individual. But it does – we’re all human beings.”

According to a 2018 study, almost half of women in global politics have faced abuse or violence, with many reporting psychological attacks – like those found on social media – as more prevalent than physical ones.

For newly-elected young politicians, this is an especially intimidating environment to enter. “My very existence as a young 24-year-old woman in politics is personal and insulting to them,” Cara Hunter, SDLP MLA and Derry’s deputy mayor, explains of her abusers. Since being elected in May last year, Hunter has been subjected to near-constant “sexual and violent messages and threatening voicemails”. These range from “mild” name-calling to actual threats, Hunter tells Dazed, adding: “I’ve had men insinuate if I do not visit their home address to fix their concern I will be blasted and humiliated online. I had a man leave a long voicemail saying I better take down my ‘Miss World mug shots’ – my campaign posters – and warned me to ‘stay the fuck away from my town’.”

Unlike attacks levelled at men, those faced by women often contain sexist undertones – or are just plain sexist. The way a woman looks or dresses is a common source of complaint, most recently exemplified by the abuse hurled at Labour’s Tracy Brabin after she dared to expose a shoulder in parliament. A lot of the derision aimed at Hunter follows this suit. “Often these abusive messages are from men riddled with chauvinistic beliefs – they see women through one rigid, objectifying lens. My male colleagues will never have to experience how wearing the ‘wrong’ length of dress can land you in an onslaught of cruel and crude comments.” For 27-year-old Amy Callaghan, the SNP MP for East Dunbartonshire, this type of sexism exposes itself in questions about family and childcare. “I don’t have children,” she tells Dazed, “but people have asked me when I intend on having children, and if that will be possible. Men don’t get asked these things.”

“Often these abusive messages are from men riddled with chauvinistic beliefs. My male colleagues will never have to experience how wearing the ‘wrong’ length of dress can land you in an onslaught of cruel and crude comments” – Cara Hunter, Derry deputy mayor

Politicians and MPs have always faced criticisms from disgruntled constituents and opposition parties, but the rise of social media has enabled around-the-clock abuse, with most aimed at women, people of colour, and especially women of colour. “I’ve been called an extremist, I’ve been told to go to Syria or Iraq,” Sultana tells Dazed. “I’m not from Syria or Iraq, but it’s linked to being Muslim I guess, where it’s like, ‘if you’re not happy here, go to another random Muslim country in the Middle East’.” 

These types of attacks don’t just come from social media. “What I’ve found is that some of the targeting is actually coming from people who are generally well-respected,” explains Sultana, “and the recurring theme I’ve identified is that they’re generally older white men.” The MP says these trolls are very into “the concept of dogpiling”, where someone with a big following tweets something provocative – “completely unprovoked,” she adds – with the objective of sending abuse Sultana’s way.

Shortly after being elected, Sultana’s maiden speech – in which she spoke for a generation who have “only ever faced a future of rising rents, frozen wages, and diminishing opportunities” – went viral, inviting criticism not only from Twitter trolls, but right-wing figureheads. “Even now I still find myself at the centre of articles and opinion pieces in mainstream outlets,” asserts Sultana. “Most recently, an article (was published on The Guardian) calling me ungrateful and telling me I should be really happy that I got here, and by challenging this status quo I’m stepping out of line. It’s actually incredibly racialised because there’s a phenomenon of women of colour being told, ‘we’re happy to have you here for diversity but don’t have opinions because that’s too much’.” 

Institutional racism in the media has recently been epitomised by publications’ inability to differentiate one female MP of colour from another. After the BBC mistook Labour MP Marsha de Cordova for her colleague Dawn Butler, the Evening Standard reported on the story and included a photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy instead of de Cordova. “It’s quite shocking that in 2020 we’re being mistaken for one another,” Begum says.

“The level of trolling and online abuse are being legitimised by the prime minister himself, because he’s gotten away with making lots of misogynistic, racist, and homophobic comments” – Apsana Begum, Poplar and Limehouse

With a prime minister who previously called Muslim women “letter boxes”, and said black people were “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, it’s unsurprising that racism is still prevalent in parliament and beyond. Just yesterday (February 17), a survey revealed that the majority of black, asian, and minority ethnic MPs have experienced racism or racial profiling at Westminster. “The level of trolling and online abuse are being legitimised by the prime minister himself,” states Begum, “because he’s gotten away with making lots of misogynistic, racist, and homophobic comments.” When asked if she thinks it’s got worse since Boris Johnson’s election, Begum answers: “Absolutely.” But that doesn’t deter Begum. “We’re minorities and we have big voices,” she adds. “We stand up for what we believe in and what we’re here to represent.”

Though it’s easy to urge politicians not to be phased by abuse, the reality of being on the receiving end is very different, especially when online harassment can lead to real-world violence. “It makes me deeply sad,” Hunter reveals. “The anonymous voicemails in particular have been deeply concerning for my safety as they could be left by anyone I come into contact with – they may know me, but I don’t know them. The uncertainty is terrifying and I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t impact me.” Sultana also says the constant trolling has an impact on her mental health. “You have moments where you question your self-worth,” she admits. “I can find myself upset and hurt – I’ve definitely cried sometimes.”

Hunter says although she doesn’t “feel like a victim”, the abuse has forced her to reassess her openness online: “Before I would say how excited I am to be at a future event, and what time I’ll be there, but now I don’t specify and try to park as close to the venue as possible.” Callaghan is also beginning to rethink her attitude to social platforms. “I’m trying not to let (the trolls) have much of an impact,” she tells Dazed, “but I’m pretty sure it’s going to wear me down eventually. From talking to colleagues, I know you can put these things to the back of your mind for a while, but when people are constantly getting at you on social media, you sometimes need to take a break.” The Scottish MP adds that it would be a shame to have to restrict what she posts online, as her constituents are well updated on what she’s doing and her “social media is constantly buzzing”.

Though there’s solidarity between women in parliament – Begum says Abbott has been a great support since the election – it seems there aren’t enough measures in place to actually tackle abuse and protect female politicians. “I think parliament is aware of the portrayal it has outside of parliament,” Sultana explains, “so you have things like the ‘valuing everyone’ training, which is great but it just talks about sexual harassment. What I’ve found is that there isn’t really a conversation happening around race, gender racism, or other forms of discrimination.”

She continues: “I know how hard it is for young women and people from other backgrounds to get to this stage, so (it’s sad) when you encounter bullying and harassment. This is a matter that has been used time and time again to push people out of the public space and make them feel like they don’t belong, so I feel like I have an obligation to speak up for myself and show that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and will not be unchallenged.” 

Begum, Callaghan, and Hunter are similarly determined. “I’ve always stood up for marginalised groups in society,” Callaghan tells Dazed, “and, unfortunately, women are marginalised in politics, so this is something I’ll never stop championing.”

“We’re not going away,” concludes Begum, “and we’ll raise our voices louder than they do. We’ve got a year’s take of MPs more diverse than ever before – outspoken, proud, and here to represent. I think we’re going to change things.”