When formal Brexit talks began last month, a telling photograph was published of the UK and EU negotiating teams: a dozen or so diplomats are sitting around a table; only two are women. Women’s voices have not been at the fore of Brexit discussions – during the referendum campaign or after the vote.
A recent flurry of creative writing and films challenges this dynamic. A special issue of the journal Poem was launched 20 June – a collection of poetry and prose on the theme of Women on Brexit, co-edited by Fiona Sampson, Mona Arshi and Aisha K. Gill. That same week, a collaboration between the Guardian and Headlong Theatre released nine films, Brexit shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation, five of which were written by women.
What’s most refreshing about the Women on Brexit collection is its diversity of voices – not simply a token Black or Asian voice burdened by the unacknowledged responsibility of having to represent the whole community. It is also an elegy for Remainers laced with a yearning to be part of a more inclusive polity that I have not personally witnessed since growing up as a child in post-partition India.A message from Gina Miller – who took the government to court to ensure it had Parliament’s support to trigger Article 50 – was read out at the collection’s launch event. It called the referendum campaign “overwhelmingly blokey until some of the final debates” and referenced a Loughborough University study that found just 18% of those quoted in the media were women. “Not surprisingly,” Miller said, “the impact on women of leaving or remaining in Europe was little discussed”.
Readings and speeches at the event also reflected how Black and minority ethnic (BME) women have struggled with one of Brexit’s paradoxes: the ‘Leave’ argument was largely powered by anti-immigrant feelings, and its victory unleashed a wave of racism – yet a sizeable number of BME people themselves voted to leave.
Nazneen Ahmed’s prose poem, 1 of every 2, is drenched with fear of racism as she describes a Muslim woman’s discomfort in public spaces after the vote, struggling to hold on to the fact that almost half of people voted to remain, and the strangers she meets might not belong to the side that wants her out.
Several of the collection’s writers plunge into nightmare memories of a racist past. In her essay, ‘Race traitor’, Yasmin Gunaratnam recalls “the precariousness of the streets of South London in the 70s”. Childhood memories of being called a ‘Paki’ are awakened by racist posts on social media in Aisha Gill’s essay, ‘“Go Home!” The Aftermath of Brexit’.
Gill’s essay also describes members of her own family who voted to leave and their disturbingly racist views. She quotes one second-generation Asian man as saying: “Fact – why don’t you see what percentage of eastern Europeans have committed crimes in this country since coming here 10-15 years [ago] – then compare [it to] when our fathers came here. And you still want them in?”
This paradox is neatly evoked, and resolved, in the multi-layered film Just a T-shirt – one of the Guardian/Headlong shorts, written and performed by Meera Syal.
In the film, an Asian woman named Priti is giving her statement to police following a xenophobic attack on Pavel, her Polish neighbour. Priti herself rants about Polish immigrants taking jobs and school and hospital places “when we were here first”.
But, she says, the man who assaulted Pavel first spat on her and called her a “Paki bitch”. Priti understands – as we do, with her – why she must make common cause with Poles and never forget that our skin colour will always ‘other’ us, “here first” or not.
Some of the other Guardian/Headlong films also complicate the idea that the Leave argument was entirely motivated by racism. In ‘Go Home’, writer Charlene Johnson makes this point through her protagonist, a Black man from northern England, recently settled in London with a new girlfriend who voted to remain while his father voted to leave.
He’s upset by his partner’s condemnation of Leavers as “scum” when many of them, like his father, struggled in dead end jobs and wanted to change things as the referendum promised. He says passionately that “52% of the country can’t be all scum. They can’t all be idiots, racists, xenophobes” – before revealing that he, too, had voted to leave.
Other films look at what Leave will mean to the dispossessed of Scotland and Ireland in ‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit’ by Stacey Gregg and ‘Permanent Sunshine’by AL Kennedy, which also makes the interesting point that poverty turns people into refugees, and that losing your home, possessions, and sense of safety as a poor person is to feel like a refugee.
On the way to the Women on Brexit launch event, I reflected on my own views on Europe. I would have failed the so-called ‘Tebbit test’, named after the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit who in the 1990s controversially accused minorities who supported their ‘home teams’ in cricket matches against England of being insufficiently integrated and lacking loyalty to the UK.
While I appreciate what Britain gains from being part of the European Union, my status as the descendant of an ex-colonial subject makes me despair at how the EU uses its muscle as the largest trading bloc in the world to sign deals with developing countries which impoverish them. The UK is not so progressive on this front either, but it is unlikely to be in a strong enough position on its own to swing the same kind of concessions the EU does.
The anti-colonial perspective also surfaces in Radhika Kapur’s essay, ‘The Battle of Plassey was in 1757’, referring to the battle which marked the annexation of India. When Brexiteers chant “Make Britain Great Again,” she wonders, “which Great Britain were they talking about … the Britain that had colonized large parts of Asia and Africa?” She concludes: “Modern Britain is built on colonial wealth. And, now, 52% don’t want to share it”.
Some of the writers in the Women on Brexit collection have multiple histories of migration and exclusion (from India to East Africa to Britain) for whom Brexit represents yet another cleavage unsettling any, perhaps newly-discovered, sense of belonging.
There are also poems and stories by white women, sometimes in mixed relationships, bewildered by racist sentiments of family and friends.
In her essay ‘I am an immigrant,’ Australian Gina Heathcote talks about the privilege of whiteness which invisibilises her migrant status. In her poem, ‘Since the Ballots Were Counted’, Allison Funk bemoans: “There is no room / inside for the homeless spirits that teem / at our borders, the victims of our dread”.
Writers and human rights activists are the canaries in the coal mine, says Mona Arshi in the introduction to Women on Brexit. “They are often the first to notice the poison in the air”.
But there is also hope in this refreshingly diverse collection of women’s voices. Seni Seneviratne’s poem ‘The Habit of Hope’ ends: “even when there’s no cure in sight, when the pain has invaded / your bones and your legs can’t press the clutch, you don’t give up, / you swap your manual gears for automatic and keep on driving”.