Somali women have always been engaged in politics in Somalia. In the 1970s Somalia had the largest and strongest military in Africa and a vast number of soldiers and top military officers were women. Somali women held political office, local council office and worked in finance, business and in the media.
In fact even the last Somalia dictator pushed women (though not the different tribes) forward in all areas of society. It was this strong sense of political participation and activism that Somali women brought with them when they come to Britain.
However, once in Britain Somali women found themselves locked out of the political decision-making process and having to learn how to live in a country where they become just another invisible immigrant community, facing all the barriers that new communities encounter daily in Britain.
By the time theses refugee women arrived in Britain in the 1990s there was already an established British Somali community with links to the Labour party. The early Somali community groups were headed by women and most of the new refugee women had their first introduction to British politics at these community gatherings, which on election days pointed them in the direction of the Labour party as the party for ‘people like us to vote for’.
Yet despite this ‘loyalty’ shown by the British Somali community for decades the Labour party simply expected the Somali vote, while not really engaging or understanding the community and its specific needs.
Local Labour MPs with large Somali constituents wrongly assumed that because the community was Muslim they would only have to speak to and deal with Somali men. Even then many Somali men complained that Labour never really connected with them either, simply ignoring their presence.
This was a mistake and oversight on Labour’s side as it was Somali women who were running the family home and so deciding which party the family should vote for and why. Today, there are only two Somali female Labour councillors in Britain, and about five Somali male councillors, and no MP of Somali descent. Though the number of overall Somali councillors In the UK is shockingly low for a community with over 250,000 people in Britain, this small number is great achievement for a community that is largely overlooked by all political parties.
Yet, as a party Labour still need to reach out to Somali women, for if we are to win the 2015 election, an important deciding factor will be the ethnic minority vote. I have spoken to many Labour MPs with large Somali constituents especially in marginal seats, who are slowly coming to the realisation that the Somali vote matters.
Indeed many Somalis living in marginal Tory and Lib Dem seats like Iford North, Battersea and Brent Central have suddenly found the likes of Sarah Teather and Jane Ellison taking an interest in all Somali issues and declaring themselves ‘ friends of Somalia’. Their way into the community? Through the networks built by Somali women.
Where does this leave Labour? Out in the cold it would seem, as the Tories as high up as the home secretary Theresa May begin to campaign on issues like banning of khat and FGM in a desperate attempt to corner the Somali vote.
Somali Friends of Labour was set up to address the unique problems that British Somalis face, while introducing the community to Labour values. It is important that the party reach out to Somali women, engaging with them and encouraging them to become members. As chair of Somali Friends of Labour, this is my main aim. I try to speak at CLPs around the country with Somali constituents, explaining how members, activists and why MPs should engage with the community, particularly women. I know that if we can get more Somali women to join the party, vote for the party, then not only can we win locally and nationally but through this engagement, we as a party will be representing and listening to one of the poorest and vulnerable communities in the country. A community which desperately needs a Labour victory in 2015 so that the harsh cuts introduced by this heartless government can be reversed.
Many of the coalition government’s policies like the benefit cap affect Somali families in large numbers. The majority of Somali homes are headed by women and it is Somali women face the brunt of cuts.
We need to let them know that Labour is on their side and understands their situation and therefore is the party for them.
When I go doorknocking around London spreading the Labour message, I am always met with shock by Somali women who open the door to me. Once I explain that I’m with the Labour party and ask if they have any issues to raise with their local councillor, they step back and say ‘You’re from the Labour party? I didn’t know that they had people like me in the Labour party … I will vote for them now’
Amina Ali is chair of Labour Friends of Somalia. She tweets @AminaAliLabour
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