Domestic abuse and violence is sadly prevalent in our society. It can affect people from all social classes and in all forms of employment, including those in public life.
Yet, for too long, domestic abuse has been hidden from the public eye, despite having serious health consequences for individuals and our society.
We need to raise awareness to create a society where individuals experiencing domestic abuse feel confident that they will be believed, listened to and treated supportively. That is why I am working with MPs from all parties and calling for a duty of care to be placed on employers and political parties to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are not exposed to further harassment in their roles.
This must recognise that post-separation control and harassment is a form of domestic abuse itself and can occur long after a relationship or marriage is over, with different tactics of abuse employed.
Female political representatives, particularly from ethnic minority backgrounds, face disproportionate barriers and are at greater risk of harassment and abuse – including honour-based abuse.
Indeed, for the duration of my time as a Member of Parliament, I have been subjected to a sustained campaign of misogynistic abuse and harassment. As such, in 2021, just two years after being first elected as the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP – which also coincided with a world pandemic – I had to endure an eight-day trial which brutally forced me to talk about painful and private experiences.
The complaint that led to this was made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law on my being selected to represent the Labour Party in Poplar and Limehouse.
The practice of abusers misusing the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners – a method sometimes called “vexatious” or “abusive” litigation, in other words stalking by way of the courts – is recognised by experts as a form of domestic abuse.
Whilst I was found to be innocent of all charges, I fear the ordeal of this trial, which cost significantly more than the amount I was accused of defrauding, will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The matter of domestic abuse was actually used against me by the prosecution. It was argued that the abuse was a motive for the alleged crimes. As Raj Chada, partner and at Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented me, argues: “Prosecutors and investigators need to better understand and consider how victims of coercive control and domestic abuse behave and how they are treated by the criminal justice system.”
People might think that being vindicated was the end of it, but the smears continue, and my reputation has been damaged. Right now, I am still on a phased return after this June when I had to go to A&E and was subsequently signed off sick because of the ongoing abuse and harassment I am having to endure.
Not only that, whilst I was unwell, a trigger process – the process the Labour Party uses to decide if a sitting MP will remain the candidate in future elections – was conducted.
But here’s the thing. After everything I have been through, I will not be silenced.
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When, in 2020, I identified myself as a survivor of domestic abuse, it took such a long painful time to reach the point where I began to understand things, and I am still having to process the trauma to this day.
Whatever happens, I will not go backwards, and I will not submit. It has been profoundly moving that I have been contacted by women from all over the UK expressing solidarity. I am all too conscious of how survivors struggle against a system that fails them, and I feel duty to them to continue to use the voice that I finally managed to claim.
And ultimately, the reason I use the term “survivor” when I describe my experiences is because I don’t want to be just defined by the abuse.
I want to move on. I want to be free to do the job I was elected to do. And I want the UK to be a country where survivors of domestic abuse and violence can be elected as representatives and not be thwarted by ongoing harassment and abuse.
Apsana Begum is the MP for Poplar and Limehouse and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic abuse and violence
The national domestic abuse helpline can offer support on 0808 2000 247, or you can visit the Women’s Aid website. For those in the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org