Rowena Arshad discusses the women's movement and the state



Rowena Arshad talks about the changing nature of the relationship between the women’s movement and the state in Scotland, and the impact of the Scottish National Party.

Do you think that there is a common women’s experience that can transcend racial and national differences? Can you give an example?

Rowena Arshad says that a right-wing government that explicitly refuses to address issues of race and gender is easier to deal with than a liberal government that believes itself to be inclusive when it is not. What do you think?



I was wondering what you think those white women’s priorities were, because I suppose in Scotland what has been very important off the back of the Women’s Movement has been the struggle for greater equality within local government and then around campaigns for all women’s equal representation in Scottish Parliament.

I think so. I think mainstreaming equality has been their mantra, and is a good one, I have to say. They have also particularly been focusing on how, in scrutinising budgets, how public spending has incorporated women’s perspectives and issues. And I think all the strategies, I mean, it’s bright, it’s logical, it’s strategic, a lot of the strategies they use up here. I suspect it’s also heavily Labour, in terms of politics, party political lines. So, the loss of Labour in 2007 in the Scottish Elections I think did change the power base of many of those white women activists, because their power base was their political party, and the political roots into being able to talk to MSPs and senior civil servants, because some of these women were the MSPs, or friends of Labour women MSPs. And that grouping of people disappeared in 2007. So I think probably, the Women’s Movement in Scotland has taken a slight setback, because they’ve had to relearn the new picture and the new terrain of the Scottish Nationalists, and to say, well, which one of these people within the Scottish, SNP, the nationalist party, are people that would be sympathetic to what we’re saying? And I think they’ve had to relearn, re-engage and review that kind of landscape. And I’m not sure that that reviewing has completed yet, because the Women’s Movement are now facing the same dilemma in a way that black people have faced for several decades now in Scotland, in politics, well, decade really, post-devolution, because the Labour Party were very keen to broaden out, to have more black people at every level, and were prepared to talk to black communities about challenging racism. Because after all, they were the party that brought in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and spearheaded those kinds of things. The Scottish Nationalists are lesser so, they speak to particular brands of black minority ethnic groups, namely I have to say, Asian businessmen, who seem to own restaurants, that’s by the by. And I don’t understand that. So there’s an Asians for Independence group that has been formed in Scotland, which the SNP court actually, and they’re mainly all men. So, where does that place black women in the scheme of things? I don’t think very far up the agenda, to be honest. The women in the nationalist party, quite a few of them don’t speak feminist language or anti-sexist language; they speak a nationalist language, so their priority is about getting Scotland more rights, more independence, more whatever, rather than these other politics and political and ‘ism’ issues. So they’ve not really been as forthcoming with these.

So I think women who are campaigning are probably finding it quite tough at the moment to get inroads into civil servants or committees or groups to talk about gender issues. And people like myself are finding it very difficult to talk about race issues. And I would suspect, quite a few people would say we’ve gone back twenty, thirty years. Because at least with a Conservative government and Thatcher/Major government, it was stark, you knew, they were making no bones about it, they were not interested in the issues, and, like, go away. The ideological position was very clear about things like race and gender. Whereas this lot speak a socialist language and actually will talk actually quite inclusive and participatory talk, but I think has an element of controlled stories about them. So there are certain stories that they will want to tell, because Scotland is ‘the best small nation in the world’, and ‘we have to punch above our weight’. Things like sexism, heavy domestic violence, rape being on the increase and very little conviction, everyday forms of racism, well they’re not good news stories, let’s just bury those ever so slightly. When the Government came in, the Scottish Nationalists came in as a minority party, 2007, they had something called the concordat with local government, many of whom are men making the decisions, and with that concordat, what they said was, we are devolving the budgets and the decision making closer to local people, local democracy, by giving local authorities more control. Well, that’s all fine, but I wonder how many rape crisis centres were closed in that period? I think in 2007 the EOC looked across the thirty-two unitary authorities, and we could only identify four where very clearly in that budget spend there was actually money given to agencies like Rape Crisis, we could not find evidence in the other twenty-eight. Previously, we could. So, that’s what happens when you devolve money down the way into groups where the thinking hasn’t been developed about budget spends and gender mainstreaming at local level. All the things that I have to say that Scottish white feminists had been fighting for for quite a long time. So I would say that it’s taken a huge back step.

Rowena Arshad discusses the women's movement and the state
15 - 16 June 2011
Sound recording
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
© British Library
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