OPINION - How is it that Dubai is safer for women than London? I'm ashamed

 (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)
(Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)

You would be stunned at how many women in this city fear being raped or being seriously sexually assaulted. That’s because, in my experience, so many women have either actually been sexually assaulted or know somebody who has. This fear impacts every aspect of our lives and I can tell you personally that the mental gymnastics you have do on a daily basis to feel safe are exhausting. And to be honest, we all know that there is nothing we can do to feel safe because it’s not us who are at fault but the men who seek to do us harm.

Sexual assault is something that is too common in this city and something I now fear not just for myself but my niece who will be moving back to London later this year from Dubai. That’s a city where I have seen her have a freedom that I know she will not find in London.

I am not saying that women and girls in Dubai do not face issues of sexual harassment or violence, but what I am saying is that I have walked by myself and with my niece around Dubai and it has felt so much safer than London could ever be. And now as she moves back I fear for her more than ever after this week’s shenanigans in SW1.

We have sunk so low in this country that I will now have to consider who in Westminster is a rapist and will have to think twice about the people I engage with in the work I do to protect women and girls from female genital mutilation.

Let me explain.

This week when I heard the Labour MP Jess Phillips speak in Parliament, in a debate about whether MPs who have been arrested for rape should be banned from Parliament, the anger in her voice was something I could wholeheartedly agree with.

The House of Commons Commission initially suggested conducting a risk assessment to determine if an MP should be prohibited from entering the House if arrested for a violent or sexual offences. However, the proposal was amended to set the threshold for a ban at the point of charge, significantly raising the bar for excluding an MP from the premises.

Labour MP Jess Phillips speaking in the Commons in a debate about whether MPs who have been arrested for rape should be banned from Parliament
Labour MP Jess Phillips speaking in the Commons in a debate about whether MPs who have been arrested for rape should be banned from Parliament

It is honestly surreal that this debate had to take place but it did and during it Jess spoke about victims she had spoken to saying: “Just today… I’ve spoken to two women who were raped by members of this Parliament.” That’s two women who, if these proposals had failed, would have had to see their abusers daily in their place of work.

A place which is also where the laws of the land are made. A place where those who work there should be held to a higher standard of responsibility, not a lower one. I know our parliament is somewhat medieval sometimes with its odd traditions, but the idea that an MP arrested or known to have raped someone can walk around the House of Commons is beyond weird.

I have walked by myself round Dubai and it has felt safer than London ever could

Thankfully the proposal from Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain to revert the threshold for a ban from Parliament to an MP being arrested was approved. Even then you have to ask yourself: is that good enough? We know how few people are able to or do report their rapes and how in a place like Westminster where the power dynamics are so skewed it is even harder for a woman or man who is sexually assaulted to come forward. So is the threshold of arrest too high? I say yes. We need a better system to hold those in power accountable and also ease the burden on victims in Westminster and beyond.

Again I can’t believe I am writing this but this is where we are and if our parliamentary committees can’t come up with ways to keep women and girls safe, it’s time we pushed harder for political parties to do better vetting of their candidates. They should seriously consider removing the whip from MPs who have had sexual assault or harassment complaints made about them.

And I say complaints rather than arrested or charged with the crime because change starts with believing victims. People rarely lie about sexual assault — that is something propagated by abusers. It takes incredible courage to come forward about sexual assault.

So when the women Jess spoke to came forward to name their abusers, they should have been the priority and they should have been protected by having their abusers sacked rather than having to deal with a debate seeking to give them more protection.

Nimco Ali is an activist and Evening Standard columnist