Shaista Aziz is a campaigner, journalist, comedian and writer, who has sat as an independent councillor for Oxford City Council since her resignation from the Labour Party. She is a director of the ‘Three Hijabs’, working with organisations including the Premier League, Football Association (FA), England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and the government, to tackle racism in football and sport. She is also a broadcast journalist, producer, opinion writer and broadcaster for the BBC, Al Jazeera, and the Guardian. She has been interviewed by all the news channels over the situation in Gaza and presented a critically acclaimed 90-minute documentary exploring racism, Islamophobia, belonging, and what it means to be young, French and Muslim, following the terrorist atrocities in 2015.

Shaista agreed to an interview with Marilyn Tyzack for the International Women’s Day edition of the Sunday Socialist to talk about her views on feminism in the 21st Century and discuss the reasons behind her decision to resign from the Labour Party over Starmer’s stance on Gaza.

The value of International Women’s Day

Shaista said that, of course, International Women’s Day was important but that the issues raised should be prioritised every day of the year.

She did though raise a note of caution by saying, “Women needed to interrogate themselves about their beliefs and values and ask who they are aiming their feminism at…  Who is included and who is excluded”?

 Shaista was certain that it was not for the women of Gaza. “There had been a 300 per cent rise in miscarriages, women who are unable to breastfeed their babies, mass amputations, a catastrophic loss of their babies and children. Women, as the main caregivers, will have to carry the burden for decades to come, caring for the broken minds and bodies of the children and partners who survive.  And yet, the women’s movement has been silent on the onslaught.” She contrasted this with the outcry over the fact that Margot Robbie, the actor who played Barbie, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

In her view this was an example of “light touch feminism, cartoonish in its understanding of key issues, which glosses over the politics of oppression. The real issues that are holding people down across the world.”  She felt what she called ‘global white feminism’ “made no attempt to analyse, to understand the root causes of the types of oppression that were denying women everywhere their basic human rights.”

Major barriers to success

On being asked what she thought the major barriers to success were, Shaista replied that “the components of gender, disability, race, social class and age intersected and could not be separated.” She highlighted Audre Lorde, the American writer, professor, philosopher poet and civil rights activist, along with Angela Davis, the American Marxist and feminist, as being pioneers of the theory known as intersectionality. They both provided a foundation for the understanding of how many factors intersect and could not be subsumed into one category of ‘woman’.  In her memoir, Angela Davis described how, as a woman of colour, she felt isolated and questioned her place within the women’s movement because of the pressure of being included in only one category – that of a ‘white woman’.  For Shaista, the baseline was still race, and she felt that some feminists failed to understand this.

Following on from this point she felt it was essential to recognise the importance of social class as a key determinant in discrimination and outcomes. She said, “In the UK, but particularly England, there is a disingenuous discourse around class. There is a dishonesty from the left as well. For too long the definition has only been allowed to apply to white working-class men and boys. Brexit was a deep betrayal – a real rupture for people of colour, who were forced to recognise that their allies were not there for them when needed.”

She went on to say, “This discussion about values and discrimination couldn’t take place without acknowledging the bigotry that exists within some elements of the ‘women’s movement’ towards trans women.” She described this as both “dangerous and depressing in that it reduced their experiences to that of the bathroom…… These views espoused by very vocal and occasionally famous women achieved nothing but reinforce a mainstream hatred against women”. She summed up her views on this as “It is as though we live in a world where there is a scarcity of human rights and human dignity, and the only way to manage this is to gather as many of these rights for ourselves and exclude others.”

Is there any room for optimism for the girls/teenagers and young women of today?

Asked whether she felt any optimism about the future for young women and girls today, Shaista replied that she thought they had very little to look forward to. In the medium to long term the climate emergency and the lack of any real progress by world leaders to prevent the looming catastrophe was deeply troubling. In the short term, with Trump and Boris Johnson there had been a mainstreaming of deep misogyny which had caused havoc with any progress that had been made. “There was a lot on young girls’ shoulders.”  She also contrasted the attitudes of women in the West with women in the Majority World. She felt that women in the West struggle with patriarchy in a different way from women in the rest of the world. “In the Majority World there is a strong concept of sisterhood and support.  Sisterhood is taught very early on by mothers and grandmothers. In Western countries girls are taught competitiveness, not sisterhood as the dominant value.”

However, there are signs of hope. “Young women today are not putting up with the treatment meted out to previous generations of women. They know what their red lines and boundaries are and are ready to challenge and will not compromise. There is also a greater understanding of intersectionality and gender – young women are not so constrained by gender stereotypes and gender is now recognised as fluid, as it has been all around the world.  It was only when countries were colonised that gender fluidity was stamped down on.” 

Shaista accepted that women today have slightly more role models in terms of women and girls in positions of power. Many also understand and reject ‘bubble-gum feminism’ which is all about celebrating the individual who has made it through a deeply divided and unequal system. “We cannot keep celebrating exceptions. We must create change so that every person, regardless of their talents, is granted access to a life of dignity where their human rights are respected. “

Personal experience of discrimination

Asked whether she had experienced discrimination during her working life, Shaista responded without hesitation that she had. She said she had spent her life working with white liberals in the media and could never understand why she hadn’t progressed. She had managed to break into the world despite class, race, faith, and gender differences but then was constantly blocked from progressing further. She said she just didn’t understand it and had evaluated whether she was to blame. She said that these “negative processes went on for too many years. It was a very painful experience.”

As she got older, she recognised that she was battling a system. This was highlighted by the tragic murder of George Floyd. She was then able to acknowledge that the failure to progress on merit was nothing to do with any inherent failings on her part but was the result of a system deeply embedded with inequality and discrimination.

She saw the real problem, though, as how to effect real change. “How to bring people with us. Screaming matches don’t work – calling people racists, colonialists or misogynistic only drives the problem underground. There had to be a different way for lasting and positive change to take place.”

Resignation from the Labour Party

Shaista resigned from the Labour Party two days after Keir Starmer’s interview on LBC when he said that Israel had the right to deprive the citizens of Gaza with food and water.

She was expecting to be subjected to mass hatred after her very public resignation, but she was pleasantly surprised.”  Walking around her city of Oxford, 95% of people who approached her thanked her for her stance and said they supported her decision. Interestingly, the majority racialised as white. “There was such kindness.”

Some called her brave. She didn’t accept that she was brave.  There was no other option. “I was disgusted – I wanted to believe that it was misspeaking, then Emily Thornberry repeated the line the next day.”

Whilst she had enjoyed public support, this was not the case from within the Labour Party. She said it was reported that someone had said that her resignations and the resignations of other councillors was like “shaking off the fleas.’  No one has been able to say who that person was. Shaista wrote to the Labour Party, and the Leader’s Office categorically denied it. However, she was later told by someone in a TV studio that it had been said, but they wouldn’t name the person responsible. She felt the current climate was “horrific, with unheard of levels of vitriol and hatred.”   

She was adamant that Starmer hadn’t managed to rectify the damage caused by that statement. It was too late. “He lacks conviction. He is a political coward.” She used the example of Palestinian activists who had lost family in Gaza being thrown out from Labour meetings by the police. She described this as “disgusting.”

The reality was, of course, “if Starmer can misspeak and be so cavalier as Leader of the Opposition what is he going to be like as Prime Minister? “His role should be one of being on the side of justice and truth.  He should be bringing people together.”

Shaista’s views on Angela Rayner were, if anything, even more harsh. She described her as “the epitome of white feminism”. Referring to an interview when she responded to the carnage in Gaza by saying “I am a mother”, Shaista described this as an extreme form of gaslighting – “being a mother doesn’t give you the right not to be scrutinised over your and your party’s attitude towards the suffering of the people in Gaza.”  

Asked about the press reporting that the Labour Party had lost the support of Muslim communities, she agreed that this was the case. But it wasn’t just the Muslim communities who had lost faith with Labour over its stance on Gaza. They were once again being singled out “as always happens when we swim against the tide.  The vote of young people has also gone down the swanny.  They are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, they cannot afford to get to college, there has been an increase in poor mental health, homelessness, concerns about the failure to act on the green agenda and climate change. They are a generation that has been disproportionally harmed and is not seeing Labour as offering any hope.”

She said the reality is “Muslims are British people who disproportionately donate to charities, who disproportionately work in our communities, and who disproportionately supported Labour (not anymore)”. She felt there was a worrying trend of homogenising racialised groups. We don’t all have the same views. There are, though, a significant number of British Muslims who are marching on the streets, who are speaking truth to power, and it is important to recognise this because it is harder for them to do so because they come under such scrutiny and face such consequences.“

However, she ended on a note of optimism. “I hope from this carnage that a braver, bolder more compassionate UK emerges because now it is not there.” She said though that she was “proud of the activism and the push back from many groups, including the artists, musicians and the grass root communities who have been coming together to express their outrage at their political leaders’ weaknesses.” There are, she said, “more of us than we know. Change has always taken place. Change is going to happen.” She warned though, “We must all work to ensure that it is the right sort of change that will benefit everyone, not just a very small elite.”

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