Saleyha Ahsan

100 years of the vote and what next ?

Posted by Dr Saleyha Ahsan on 6 February 2018 | 0 Comments

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100 years today since some women over 30 in the UK won the right to vote for the first time on the passing of the Representation of the People Act. It initiated the change to bring votes to all women, regardless of age, marital staus and wealth. A moment to reflect and ponder. 

Who would be our Emmeline Pankhurst today? I’m not sure. Have we done enough to carry forward the baton that Pankhurst and the Woman’s Social and Political Union passed on? Again I’m not sure. Do we have that same spirit of sisterhood? Put it another way, would we today be able to achieve the same monumental achievement for women equivalent to what Emmeline Pankhurst and her sisters did for women then and for generations afterwards? In all honesty, the way things stand, I’m not so sure.

Yes we have a female Prime Minister but women are still lacking within the House she heads. Women are still paid less then men for doing the same jobs. The idea of earning less money based on your gender seems so out of sync with the here and now. And yet the BBC has become the story instead of telling the stories, on this matter. Then there’s the price of fame and Harvey Weinstein. Women coming forward with claims of sexual harassment and harnessing social media to spread the word through #metoo. We are still so far away from where we need to be. 

We can collectively blame all sorts of things - we can blame even men. But if we are to be fair and serious about moving forward we need to reflect on our own solidarity with each other as women. I know I'm not alone in saying this but I have sometimes found women to be a pretty hostile bunch, competitive against other members of their own sex and even obstructive. I remember arriving back in the Officers Mess after a long tour away in Bosnia and a new female officer had moved in since I’d been away. She was overtly hostile, belittling and clearly demonstrating her disquiet that another woman was present on what she clearly perceived as ‘her turf’. She was no longer the sole focus of the male conversation. It was a pity to observe but there it was. I have worked with other women in more recent times, who have quite boldly and with such audacity benefited from what I could do to help them, with little in return. Not even an answer to a WhatsApp message. And you only hear from them when they want something. It normally starts with a faux how are you and moves swiftly onto by the way I need….. They are often not able to penetrate male networks in the same way and look for their female prey, manipulating the trust and cooperation that exists sister to sister. I have spoken to many other women with similar experiences to share. Women will not always support other women in the way men will support other men. Women compete to climb higher, sometimes quite ruthlessly against other women, particualy to rise in a male dominated sector.

This is not the spirit of the movement that shook the establishment, bringing votes for women. And I believe it’s the lack of this spirit that holds us back now. Have we as a wider community become more selfish, more driven by our own personal gains? Maybe so. But I am hopeful and believe that we are seeing a turn in times. There is a sense of change. I hope it stays. It comes from women speaking out again. Thank goodness, for example, that the idea Grid Girls for Formula 1 no longer appears fitting for our times. I’d rather see a girl behind the wheel of a car on the race track instead of holding an umbrella up for a driver in her glamorous sponsor emblazoned outfit. The women’s marches in the US were breathtaking to witness and I’m going to find a way to march with them, next time. Be it there in the US or one held here in solidarity. Maybe a global women’s march for the purpose of uniting and taking forward the struggle for equality, for freedom and for demanding our rights. No more FGM, no more enforced modern day slavery, no more opportunities for men to behave like sex starved  beasts at their all male gatherings with hired female staff to grab at, caught on camera most recently in London.

I still believe in the sisterhood and indeed I belong to one called the Sandhurst Sisterhood. It exists on Facebook like most things that connect human beings, but its cohesive and supportive. And if it exists in the social media ether, it can exist in real life. My entire career has real moments of considerable support and encouragement from senior women who have acted as the most generous mentors. They are the modern day equivalents of the women that brought us change 100 years ago, selflessly working to help other women rise.

I wish I could have spent one day in the presence of the women, leading up to 1918, that fought so hard for the rest of us to enjoy the vote. From them, I’d get enough inspiration to last a lifetime. Their mobilisation demanded action not words. And they achieved what was deemed impossible. So in remembrance of their spirit and sacrifice, today think of your own impossible and then make it happen.

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