Continuing our IWD 2023 series, Tina Bhartwas explains why there are still systemic changes required for women to have spaces in politics
When I sat down to write this blog for our International Women’s Day Blog series the first topic that came to mind was women’s political participation.
Because recently I have been seriously questioning my own political participation.
That is probably not what you were expecting to read in an International Women’s Day Blog post but International Women’s Day is also about acknowledgement of our experiences, self care and acts of resistance. This is my act of resistance.
Many elected politicians would choose not to voice a feeling like that one that I have because it is seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment. But I do not see it as either of those things.
To quote a woman politician I admire, Jacinda Ardern - “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” I refuse to believe by sharing your doubts you are somehow lesser. I refuse to believe that by showing your humanity you are somehow less qualified to hold public office. In fact I see vulnerability like this as a great strength.
It shows something people sometimes forget - that politicians are human, it is more relatable - something that I certainly want from a representative and highlights the reality of public life for many from underrepresented groups.
This year I have seen many councillor colleagues around the country choose to step down or not restand. They all cite similar reasons - toxicity and abuse in public life, difficulties balancing politics and family life and a fundamental lack of cooperation. And from the SNPs Nicola Sturgeon to our New Zealand sister party's leader Jacinda Ardern we have seen women leaders around the world standing down.
This is no accident. And it is no coincidence.
The way our political system is designed deliberately keeps out women and once we fight our way it is made quite clear that we are not welcome.
I entered politics with a scepticism - a feeling that came from childhood of seeing so few politicians on the TV that looked like me - that politics was not for me, that perhaps the change I want to see cannot be achieved. But growing up in poverty, experiencing familial domestic abuse and having been homeless during the pandemic has put a fire in my belly to change things that I cannot ignore.
This year has been the hardest part of my political journey so far. I have faced threats from places I did not expect, experienced endless politically motivated rumours about my personal life - things that would never have been said to a man and had my identity denied repeatedly.
The support system that I expected and hoped would be there did not exist. Instead I was met with blame, unrealistic expectations and the horrible reality that even though it is well documented that women especially those with my characteristics experience disproportionate levels of abuse there is no strategy to deal with it.
And that is not okay.
When people ask me how I keep going I often say some version of “Nothing I could experience could be any worse than the things that have come before”. But this time I experienced a new level of frustration. The level of hurt that comes from experiencing barriers to changing the very things that have put you on this path is a very tough thing to deal with. And I am still processing it.
But if the system will not allow us to take up space, it is the system that needs to change, not us.
So this International Women’s Day I am committing to resistance by speaking up and sharing my story- the good, the bad and the ugly. Even when it is difficult. Even when I know others wouldn’t. And especially when those upholding the current system do not want me to.
Because as Audre Lorde said “Your silence will not protect you”.
Tina Bhartwas is Women’s Officer of the Young Fabians, Feminist Network Co-ordinator for the Young European Socialists and 50:50 Parliament Ambassador. Tina is a Labour and Co-operative County Councillor in Hertfordshire, having been elected as the youngest ever Councillor for that authority at the age of 19 and is currently completing her Politics and International Relations degree at Queen Mary, University of London. Tina tweets @TinaBhartwas.