With International Women’s Day falling this Sunday, several student societies in Oxford organised events with the intention of celebrating women’s achievements, including the UNWomen Oxford Student Society which promoted an event on the 5th of March titled “In Conversation: Amber Rudd”. Given Rudd’s hand in exacerbating racial and class tensions during her tenure as Home Secretary, I thought there must be a mistake in inviting her of all people to discuss her actions in championing women’s rights. As I read through the event description it became clear that the organisers genuinely intend on praising Amber Rudd’s role as a female MP and discussing obstacles she has faced in her career due to her womanhood, all whilst ignoring that her stance on race and immigration policies led to the further marginalisation of some of the most vulnerable communities in Britain.
Amber Rudd’s time as a Conservative MP was characterised by her consistently deleterious actions towards vulnerable communities, chief amongst which was her role in the Windrush scandal. Rudd’s handling of the crisis could, at best, be described as grossly inept, at worst, malicious and bigoted. The victims of her actions are struggling in debt, with eleven deportees having died overseas as a direct result of the government’s hostile environment policy. Not only was the implementation of these measures unjustified, the Windrush Generation played an instrumental role in rebuilding post-war Britain. They settled into the UK after the passage of the 1948 British Nationality Act into law, which provided UK Citizenship to members of British colonies. As Home Secretary, Rudd lied to the British public about immigration targets, leading to the forced deportation of these British citizens who arrived in the UK in the late 1940s and beyond under the protection of the Act. She offensively referred to the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, as a ‘coloured woman’ during a radio interview in 2019. Beyond this, she has consistently voted to cut benefits, supporting the ableist introduction of the bedroom tax and downplaying the fatal impact of universal credit. Although she undeniably championed the cause of tougher penalties on FGM and better sex education in secondary schools, which is what the event on Thursday will be focused on, these positive actions do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they erase the ramifications of her other actions in some kind of flawed moral calculus. The very action of inviting someone with a legacy of furthering racism and lauding them for certain policies is anathema to the concepts of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘diversity’ which mainstream feminist movements have co-opted in order to broaden their appeal. These are not just words to be thrown around performatively to seem inclusive, they must be actively utilised to make feminist activist spaces welcoming for the demographics who face misogyny as well as other overlapping forms of institutional oppression.
My Facebook post criticising Rudd’s invitation to speak at the event was, unsurprisingly, met with a mediocre response from the society who trivialised the issue rather than meaningfully engaging with my concerns. After messaging me, Graham did not respond to my reply, instead messaging the African and Caribbean Society expressing concern about whether they’d boycott. This was a disappointing initial response – rather than replying to me individually they seemed to care more about the organisational clout the ACS could either confer or withhold. Beyond this disrespectful act, the initial response stated that, “All proceeds from the event go towards UN Women’s international campaigns, including Draw A Line Against FGM. All contributions to our society go to this cause, helping thousands of women across the world”. The fundraising aspect of the event will not make up for the sheer disrespect of inviting someone whose actions as an elected representative directly and adversely impacted ethnic minority communities. It instead underplays the damage of domestic racism and seems to exploit international campaigns as a justification for inviting Rudd. A feedback form was also included as the committee claim to want to “hear concerns from more marginalised groups”, yet this is a mediocre response- members of marginalised groups had already voiced their frustrations which the committee decided to deliberately misinterpret or ignore.
The primary response of the UNWomen Oxford Student Society was that the first half of the event will focus on the positive attributes of Rudd’s time as an MP, stating that they’re “not platforming her for her political views. We are rather discussing with Mrs Rudd the issue of Women in Politics; we will be discussing questions such as the difficult of women entering politics in the first place, and the way they are treated differently within parliament”, whilst the second half of the event will be an audience Q&A where we can express our concerns. This response speaks volumes regarding the society’s privilege in being able to pick and choose which aspects of her career to discuss and praise when convenient. This ability to cherry-pick her impacts is not afforded to the marginalised communities who bore the brunt of the policies they choose to overlook. Black students shouldn’t pay £5 to attend and perform the emotional and intellectual labour of debating someone who allowed for the deportation of members of our own communities, especially when the first half of the event will be applauding her policies. If the committee can’t see the paradox in claiming they “don’t stand for racist actions or speech” in their statement when their intention on Thursday is to praise and platform a racist, then I believe they lacked the intention of holding her to account in the first place. Additionally, if they seriously cared about engaging with the topic of inaccessibility of parliament for women or FGM, maybe inviting the same black MPs who Rudd offended would be a better move, or inviting grassroot campaigners whose activism put FGM on the agenda in the first place.
This entire situation has highlighted the disregard towards the voices of Black women, and women of colour in general, in Oxford’s activist circles, a sentiment which is felt by many of my peers. There is an inherent gulf in their understanding of our experiences, manifesting itself in the enactment of decisions such as these where a feminist event becomes inherently inhospitable towards us. This lack of welcome is why many of us don’t attend these events in the first place, instead attending events centring the experiences of women of colour. The UNWomen Society’s claim that they are ‘apolitical’ and are therefore able to invite controversial figures is a weak excuse. Upholding the mediocre achievements of a white politician who has actively harmed vulnerable women is not apolitical at all; this is reinforcing the existing white supremacist and xenophobic power structures which cannot be divorced from any of her positive actions as an MP. Feminist societies throughout the university need to seriously re-evaluate their approach to the valid concerns that women of colour choose to express, as our opinions deserve to be amplified and respected. The process of detailing our frustrations is exhausting enough to begin with, as we state the obvious and are met with confusion or accusations of aggression or misinterpreting the situations. If discussions with your guests are contingent on side-lining a major aspect of their career which was harmful to women of colour, they are not truly inclusive, diverse, intersectional or any of the other words which are cavalierly thrown around without being meaningfully engaged with.
We see the same issue of exclusion permeating society when the women of colour who conceived the #MeToo movement are excluded from the conversation, despite being more likely to experience sexual assault. We see it when a young Black climate change activist is cropped out of a picture with Greta Thunberg and other white activists despite all of them advocating for the same issue. We see it when Amber Rudd spearheads the deportation of Black women and refer to her black female colleague as ‘coloured’ but is still invited to a feminist discussion when there are more notable and less problematic MPs who could discuss the same issues without such a contentious legacy in their wake. We see it also when the opinions of women of colour in Oxford with regards to the insular nature of feminist circles here are trivialised and side-lined rather than engaged with seriously. In the context of the painful lack of diversity in Oxford, and the wider atmosphere of the continued hostile environment, the last thing we need is Amber Rudd being hailed as a feminist advocate in our institution. The socialist and inclusive roots of International Women’s Day deserve to be respected this week rather than arbitrarily tarnished.