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Women’s suffrage: Top Hackney councillors on the fight for equality 100 years on

PUBLISHED: 09:48 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 08:17 07 February 2018

Standing next to the photograph of Hackney's first female mayor, Alderman Mrs F H Du Vergier (1943-44), current councillors from left: Sem Moema, Caroline Selman, Soraya Adejare and Feryal Demirci. Picture: Polly Hancock

Standing next to the photograph of Hackney's first female mayor, Alderman Mrs F H Du Vergier (1943-44), current councillors from left: Sem Moema, Caroline Selman, Soraya Adejare and Feryal Demirci. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

A hundred years after the first women were given the vote, Hackney’s cabinet contains more women than men. But the fight towards equality isn’t just about better representation at the top table – it’s also about issues like housing, transport and crime, top councillors tell the Gazette.

Cllr Feryal Demirci in conversation with reporter Emma Bartholomew. Picture: Polly HancockCllr Feryal Demirci in conversation with reporter Emma Bartholomew. Picture: Polly Hancock

“I can remember walking into a meeting to talk about Crossrail 2 in the early days. I was literally the youngest by about 20 or 30 years, and the only woman, and the only BME person in the room, so when you are the only one of everything it can be slightly intimidating.”

Feryal Dermici was one of the youngest women to ever be elected as a councillor in Hackney, along with Sem Moema.

Things have changed quite drastically since 2006 - in Hackney at least.

Feryal and Sem are two of six women – outnumbering four men - sitting on Mayor Phil Glanville’s cabinet, helping him make key decisions.

While nationally there are 33pc women councillors on average, in Hackney the figure is 42pc. The borough has led the way in equality by adopting a maternity policy for councillors. Former housing chief Karen Alcock is thought to have been the first cabinet member in the country to ever go on maternity leave.

Cllr Sem Moema in conversation with reporter Emma Bartholomew. Picture: Polly HancockCllr Sem Moema in conversation with reporter Emma Bartholomew. Picture: Polly Hancock

“Because that wasn’t something that happened, to have young women of childbearing age - the average age was 70-something across the country,” said Feryal.

“There are more women in Phil’s cabinet than men, and that’s quite unusual – but there was a real commitment to make sure that was the case.”

Hackney’s speaker, Cllr Soraya Adejare, added: “Our cabinet makeup is one of the most diverse in London if not the UK in terms of minority, sexuality and gender. I don’t think I’ve come across one yet that’s as mixed.”

According to crime chief, Caroline Selman, “you really notice it when you go to a conference”.

“There are still far too many meetings where I walk in where I am the only woman in the room,” she said. Cllr Demirci agreed: “Transport is toys for boys. It’s trains and cars.”

"There are more women in Phil’s cabinet than men, and that’s quite unusual – but there was a real commitment to make sure that was the case"

Feryal Dermici

Housing chief Cllr Moema added: “Housing is the same – it’s like: ‘My tower is bigger than your tower.’”

But why is diversity important?

It brings different perspectives to policy areas like transport, where men in “super lycra” might otherwise dictate the approach to cycling infrastructure. It affects housing, where single mothers are most likely to be adversely affected by the impending introduction of universal credit.

“You are potentially more likely to question stuff if you are coming at it from the outside,” said Cllr Selman.

“If you have variety and diversity in the room you are more likely to come up with the right answers to things.”

Alderman Mrs F.H. Du Vergier, J.P. was mayor of Hackney from 1943 to 1944.Alderman Mrs F.H. Du Vergier, J.P. was mayor of Hackney from 1943 to 1944.

In terms of the safety of women in relation to the night-time economy or gender-based violence, the council has adopted a two-sided approach – targeting both women and perpetrators, who are warned their homes, freedom, jobs and reputation are at risk.

“It’s about not having blind spots to some of those things and being more open-minded in terms of how you deal with them,” said Cllr Selman. “It’s not about running a campaign about how women need to get home safely. We will give women the tools to keep themselves safe but also say to men: ‘This is not acceptable and if you commit a sexual assault there are repercussions.’”

But she added: “You can’t just tick the gender box and say we are diverse. If you have one set of women who are from all the same background you have failed in your diversity.

“There’s sometimes a danger in the conversations about equality and feminism that crowds out some of the broader conversation about class and intersectionality.”

Cllr Adejare agrees.

Cllr Lillian Karpin was mayor of Hackney from 1971 to 1972. Picture: Hackney CouncilCllr Lillian Karpin was mayor of Hackney from 1971 to 1972. Picture: Hackney Council

“It’s fair enough having women but, even in feminist debates, class is an important issue,” she said. “The experiences of women on various levels are very, very different, and I think that’s what we as councillors bring to this.

“Some of the issues Caroline was talking about were issues I was brought up with, that I have seen first hand, and it’s about being able to engage with those discussions.

“You need people who have lived through it – not necessarily as victims, but who have an awareness of how society is – so it’s not just academic but street smart. You do need that balance, particularly in a borough like Hackney.”

Just like their MP counterparts female councillors in Hackney are not immune to abuse, which is rife on social media.

Feryal Dermici feels she is on the receiving end more so than anyone in the council – both because of her policies but also because of her gender.

"There’s sometimes a danger in the conversations about equality and feminism that crowds out some of the broader conversation about class and intersectionality."

Caroline Selman

“I don’t think anyone in this council has been called ‘scum’ more than I have,” she said.

“I do a lot of controversial policies so I understandably get a lot of traffic but the tone - whether it’s in meetings or on social media - is, I would say, slightly different.

“Being a woman. Being a small woman. Being an ethnic minority woman - it’s like, ‘How dare you?’

“If you could compare it and contrast it to my other male colleagues across the city, I would say we all get criticism but you can see in the tone directed at me, there is sexism and misogynism. But it doesn’t stop us.”

Sem Moema wants to put out the message that women shouldn’t be dissuaded from entering politics as a result.

Cllr Medlin Lewis was mayor of Hackney from 1988 to 1989. Picture: Hackney CouncilCllr Medlin Lewis was mayor of Hackney from 1988 to 1989. Picture: Hackney Council

“Hackney is a place that has always been very political, and people are learning to use different ways of communicating, and women have been at the receiving end of some of that less savoury activity,” she said.

“Day to day we get a lot. We are able to share that and find ways to deal with that. But we have the 100 years anniversary and I would not want women not to take on roles in society and the community and elected roles for fear of what the comeback might be.”

The women have found that a female presence can take away some of the “toxic masculinity” in the arena.

“When I first started one of my colleagues was a fantastic cabinet member,” said Feryal. “He was just like you see in the House of Commons. I thought that’s what strong is, because he’s loud and he points and he shouts.

“And then actually seeing my female colleagues I thought, ‘No that is strong’. Like the way Karen Alcock used to approach questions. She was able to portray that she empathised with the deputation or the question. Women are really effective being calm and quiet.”

Caroline added: “I know bolshy, loud women but there is context where as a woman you go in and act like a man in terms of that “shouty” thing, that wouldn’t’ get you what you wanted. So you need to think and adapt to get what you want.

“It’s not necessarily that you have a fundamentally different way of responding stuff, but you might have to find one out of necessity.”

Sem find a women’s presence introduces a different way of doing politics.

“One thing that is a bonus is that men who might not feel comfortable growing up with that adversarial mode, can actually just be themselves and think, ‘We can tone this down’,” she said.

“You will be surprised at the number of guys who think, ‘Thank god I don’t have to do this, because I don’t have the stomach for it’.”

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