| Interview with Jess Phillips conducted by Mathilde Charras | Mai 2021 |

 

Jess Phillips: Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley & Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding

 

The recent murder of Sarah Everard in the streets of London has tragically highlighted the persisting violence against women and girls. While women are speaking out and asking for proper measures once again, we gave the floor to a specialist on the topic: Jess Phillips MP. We asked her to tell us about her perspective on this endemic culture, the failing system and about her role as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.

 

Jess Phillips

 

Could you introduce yourself and maybe explain how being a woman has influenced your political career, either positively and/or negatively? 

Being a woman is the entire reason for my political career. It is the driving factor of me becoming a Member of Parliament because I did not think that there were enough women or women with enough knowledge about what I am mainly focused on: violence against women and girls. I wanted to go to Parliament so that those women would have a strong and clear voice.

It has positively impacted my political life in most ways but there are some negatives of being a woman in politics. I am more likely to be harmed, I am more likely to face abuse, threats and harassment, which I do, all the time. I have received many threats throughout my life and I am currently in the middle of about four or five cold cases of people who have threatened to kill me, harass me, or stalk me. Some of my male colleagues suffer from it as well, but not as near as much. There is also the online abuse that women MP face constantly, especially disabled women, Jewish women and women of colour.

 

Since 2020, you have been the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding. Could you tell us a bit more about it and explain what this role’s purpose is? Especially as we do not have a Shadow Cabinet in France.

Yes, it’s a different, is it not? My brother lives in France and my sister-in-law is French and she is really amused by the British system. For instance, when she will be at my house, somebody will ring and talk to me about their beans [children]: she cannot believe that people talk to their MP about their babies! [laughs] So, I understand that it is a different system.

The Queen empowers the second largest party to act in opposition to the government: I am a member of her Majesty’s opposition. It does not mean that you have to disagree with them on everything but it means that there is a check and balance in the Parliamentary democracy. The Shadow Cabinet is there to scrutinize and improve the actions of the government. Otherwise you get the actions of a tyrant! Unfortunately, we often do get the actions of a tyrant…

When you are re in my position, you have to win the minds and hearts of the country, so that the government eventually gives in. My job focuses on the policy of domestic abuse, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, sexual crime and child abuse. All the depressing horrible stuff I am afraid to say! But it is the area in which I am the one of the country’s experts so that is helpful.

There is also an international element to it, so I do quite a lot of work across the world to look at other models of nations and how they deal with domestic violence and sexual abuse. At the moment, there is a huge push in the wake of the murder of a woman on the streets of London, for harassment and sexual harassment laws to be emplaced. And the country in the world that has a street harassment charge is France! So I am looking at the French protocol and how they’ve organised that. But I work across all different countries and models of doing things.

 

Last Monday was the International Women’s Day. What do you think is the most pressing issue for women in the UK today? What do you think should be done about it?

The very reason why women and girls end up being the victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse is our general position in society. Whilst there are many things and policies that I would change and do in order for women to be safer, I am not going to be able to keep them safe until fundamentally we have as much social, economic and financial power as men. And you know, it is very hard to be saying this from the point of view of a country like the UK, because it’s one of the richest and most progressive countries in the world by most metrics. But it is not because some other places are worse that it is fine! People who are using this rhetoric just want to distract us from the real cause of violence. Don’t be distracted. They are idiots.

I would want to see huge changes around pay structures, around the kind of work that we value and how we value it. The care workers are for instance massively devalued. From that, equality would flow and would mean much better safety and security for women. As we leave the pandemic, women’s economic disadvantages are going to grow, pretty much everywhere in the country and around the world and I have not seen any policy focusing on that. We need to be talking about it and we need proper government strategy on it.

 

In your book Everywoman, you write that women who have been harassed have one thing in common: they did not tell anyone, especially not the police. Do you think that the #Metoo movement, which broke out a few months after your book’s publication, changed this reality?

Do I think that if a woman was groped at work, she’d be more likely to speak up? Would a woman feel that the structures are more in place today to help her speak up? That the power dynamic has changed? The answer is no. Not in the UK.

The #Metoo movement has had an amazing impact and breakthrough; I don’t want to undermine it. Some legislatures around the world changed: France, well done, you have a street harassment law! In the UK, we have a brilliant charity, The Rights of Women, which was funded at the time of the #Metoo movement. They raised millions! They provide free legal advice to victims wanting to speak up, because often these women don’t know who to turn to. I really hope that this has a massive effect, especially in the future. But it is still quite new.

Sexual violence statistics are actually on the up. It is the same problem all over again: if women had as much economic and social power as men, they would not be seen as objects. It is crazy to think that we are either a womb, with a sort of halo because motherhood is amazing, or a sexual object. I am very happy to have my children, I really love my mom, but I don’t like this pseudo-religious attitude towards motherhood. It holds women back!

We also need to change the norm about fatherhood. Why is it any more important for me to raise my children than it is for my husband? He is considerably better at it than me! The idea that a woman’s value is not in her labour but in her womb or her breasts is appalling. As long as it remains like this, we are going to be treated poorly and suffer violence.

 

Women daring to speak up, allowing themselves to seek help requires them to be able name what happened to them and to be able to recognize it for what it was: harassment, rape etc. How do you think that politics can support this incentive of using the right word (“egdy men” = criminals), of consider a crime for what it is?

It got better. For instance, we don’t say “child prostitute” anymore but “sexually exploited child”. Yet, in the pandemic, the rhetoric around welfare and big rescue packages for people has become very harmful. When there is a big welfare bill, it is very hard for some people and some politicians – and by some politicians, I mean the majority – not to be calling things the wrong way.

For instance, when we talk about children’s food parcels, I can hear things like: “oh we should not be giving food parcels to these people, because their moms are going sell them to get drugs”. And each time I am thinking: ok, so what you are talking about is really desperately poor people with no access to help and support, and you think they are going to go and sell a bag of apples to buy drugs!?

This rhetoric is very harmful, also for young girls said to be “easy”, said to be pregnant for the sake of to getting council houses. We don’t talk about them as being socially excluded; we don’t realise that they feel like they have no worth expect from their ability to have children. This rhetoric has come back, and it is really bad.

And I am sure that in the discussions about violence against women and girls, brought up by the recent murder, we’ll see this idea of the “edgy man”, of the “he is a bit of a bad boy” emerge again. Well, that is not a bad boy, it’s a criminal! This fascination for dangerous men, I don’t get it. I want women to want men to be kind to them. And I want women to expect men to be kind to them. And I want men to want to be kind to women, and I want women to be kind to themselves. That should not be such a big deal.

 

But this myth of the bad boy is a pervading and omnipresent figure in culture, is it not? 

Absolutely! If you watch rom-coms, which are made for women – don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love rom-coms – the plot of every single romantic comedy you’ve ever seen is built this way: man likes woman, man behaves appallingly badly and does something to break her trust, man wins back woman. It is just like: “oh! Oh.” How can you turn something that bad into something good? I think that the only movie that stands up against it is When Harry Met Sally.

It is sometimes even worse! If you think about the movie You’ve got Mail, the plot is: man who’s got four failed marriages, so is clearly terrible with women, impoverishes woman and takes away her independence, but is quite ok because he is nice to kids! Please! [laughs] And I really love that film, that is the worst! You will not be able to watch rom-coms ever again, that’s it [laughs]! Fairy tales are out too. I don’t know what movies we can watch [laughs]! But I am sure a new generation of female movie makers will soon arise and save us from our dilemma.

 

Any French female idol?

When Ségolène Royal was running, I was really behind her. But otherwise there is nobody who voices female’s experience of pain better than Edith Piaf. Just listen to her voice! It is like a physical pain, and I cannot even understand what she says half the time! You have some pretty good saints as well in France: Joan of Arc for a start!

But there needs to be a new breed of French women in politics, rising up the ranks. It is really good to see the feminist movement growing in a big way in France! My experience of it as a young woman, when I used to go and stay, was not good as regard to sexism. Because everything is so heavily run by the state in France, which I would obviously argue for as a socialist, the same kind of strong civil society action that has taken place in the UK could not happen. We heavily rely on a voluntary sector, which allow us to be more radical because it is external to the government action.

 

Interview conducted by Mathilde Charras

 

 

 

 

Bertrand Buchwalter, Conseiller culturel à l’Ambassade de France et Directeur de l’Institut français du Royaume-Uni

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