Westminster and Ethiopia’s Parliament: a contrasting look as we celebrate #vote100

#vote100, suffrage, people's representation act, centenary

Words by Emma Crewe. 

Over the last hundred years women globally have won the right to vote and seats in Parliaments within democracies. And yet gender inequality persists, both within those parliaments and in wider society.

I was working with three other researchers to find out what is like to be an MP in Ethiopia. Our identities were mixed: middle aged white British woman, middle-aged black Ethiopian man, young white British man, young black Ethiopian woman. We had been discussing how important it is to include women in any research encounter when gender is relevant – and it is hard to find a political situation where gender is unimportant – but my colleagues were doubtful. So we tried an experiment.

We held group interviews with women MPs. The woman chairing this discussion, a whip, was one of the most ferocious people I have ever met. She had been a fighter in the bush, kicking out Mengistu’s military regime, and then sitting in Parliament for almost 15 years. As we talked, these women told us about the terrific achievements of their government, occasionally looking nervously at the Ethiopian man. He had taught three of the younger women MPs at Addis Ababa university.

After an hour, by prior arrangement, the two male researchers left the room. The whip said: “so Dr Crewe, are you going to tell us how we must copy Westminster? Tell us about the position of women there?” I thought to myself, “I’m in a post-colonial encounter here – even though we never colonised Ethiopia – I need to let them know I’m not here to teach them anything.” So I replied, “The House of Commons is a place of intense competition and misogyny. Women in the UK struggle.”

The Ethiopian women began to speak about their own struggles; gradually stories poured forth about how some men were allies, but most berated them for raising anything to do with women’s concerns. They’d say things like, “stop crying about women all the time, you are diluting the national interest. We are thinking about the whole country. There are serious security questions – stopping talking about trivia.”

I asked, “so how is it different to be a male and female MP?” The whip answered: “when a woman MP gets up to speak in the chamber, she trembles. She doesn’t know whether she can do it well. A man never worries.” I doubted this was true; surely men worry about public speaking too? But perhaps men constrain both women and other men in speaking about anxiety. Is this true everywhere?

This question influenced me to compare the situation of women politicians in the two UK Houses of Parliaments that I have studied. Some feminists assume that gender inequality is the same in any organisation but my ethnographies of the House of Commons and House of Lords doesn’t bear this out.

In the late 1990s I spent two years in the House of Lords. I thought this place would be weighed down by pompous, misogynistic men. It was once. In 1957 Earl Ferrers argued against women being allowed to join the House:

“It is generally accepted, for better or worse, that a man’s judgment is generally more logical and less tempestuous than that of a woman. Why then should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into positions of trust and responsibility which previously men have held? If we allow women in this House, where will this emancipation end?”

But 60 years later women thrive in the Lords. They are disproportionately represented on the frontbench, women are more likely to attend, and they are generally seen as outperforming men. The average age of peers is 69, and most are no longer ambitious, but also this House of Parliament has far less power than the House of Commons where most of the government Ministers sit. So unsurprisingly the only evidence of gender inequality I could find was in explanations of failure. When white male peers fail, their identity is irrelevant; when women or black peers don’t perform well, in the eyes of their peers, their gender or race comes into the explanation.

So what happens in the Commons? Inequalities in wider society are brought into the House and the pressures on women are ferocious:

  • Many women hate the gladiatorial style of question time debates
  • They report that although they have a voice in many party meetings, they are not listened to with the same attention as men
  • Women excel at the constituency meetings when people visit surgeries and share their problems, often failures of the state, but this is invisible and doesn’t help with trying to get promotion that you can enhance your influence and position of power
  • Both the public via social media and journalists disparage women in especially demeaning ways and although male MPs are subjected to threats, it is women politicians who face the threat and actual violence on a more terrifying scale

This doesn’t mean there are no generalisations. It seems evident from my research in the UK, and that of my colleagues in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, that those women who gain influence are the ones who don’t try to find their battles only as individuals. They work collectively with others in their party and with organisations outside.

This relationship between politicians and people in society is the theme of a new SOAS project: Deepening Democracy (funded by the AHRC/Global Challenges Research Fund). We are offering grants to scholars and artists in Myanmar and Ethiopia to study representation and exclusion in democracy. After all, it is time that scholars from Africa and Asia were better represented in the study of their regions, so this decolonising research has become urgent.


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