The Sexism of Brexit

The white men who orchestrated Brexit got their wish — and it’s women and people of color who will be forced to shoulder the consequences.

A quick recap: last Thursday, the United Kingdom voted on whether or not to stay within the European Union. Under the Orwellian slogan of  “Vote Leave, Take Control,” the Leave campaign — largely led by Nigel Farage, who serves as the head of the ultra-nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London — made racist arguments that immigrants were depressing wages for native-born UK workers and perpetrating sexual violence. If the UK left the EU, they argued, the country would be able to secure its borders, fund the NHS, and be rid of burdensome EU regulations.

In a disappointing win for blatant xenophobia, the Leave campaign prevailed. While Brexit is a disaster for many communities in the UK, it’s a particularly crushing blow for inclusion and gender equality.

While pro-Brexit actors dismiss the EU as an ossified bureaucracy, advocates for gender equality have pushed the UK to adopt higher standards by appealing to EU treaties and regulations. For example, as Caroline Criado-Perez points out, EU minimum requirements on paid leave compelled a change in UK policy to include fathers and part-time workers; under the previous policy, the only individuals who were eligible for maternity leave were women who had worked full-time on the job for two years. This effectively left out thousands of women and men.

But because of Brexit, if the Conservative government decides to continue its disastrous austerity regime and cut these benefits, it will be incredibly difficult to stop them within the UK’s parliamentary system.

Another casualty of Brexit could be protections against sex discrimination in the workplace. The current European Union directive on equal treatment expressly prohibits caps on compensation for individuals who successfully sue after experiencing workplace discrimination based on sex. This ensures that businesses need to take discrimination seriously, rather than paying minor fines as a cost of doing business. Unfortunately, as the Trade Union Congress notes, the Conservative government has chosen to impose very low caps on compensation in areas where domestic law holds sway. This suggests that, if Brexit occurs, they will carry over these caps on compensation to areas previously governed by EU law.

In addition, survivors of domestic violence may see their rights curbed. Survivors from EU member states can currently access a European Protection Order, which allows them to receive a restraining order in one state, move to another member country, and have that country protect them in the manner that they would have been protected in the state that issued the order. Survivors have also benefited from the European Victims Directive, which required states to offer compensation to individuals who are victims of crime in another member state.

But most terrifying is the fact that the xenophobic rhetoric around Brexit has been accompanied by a spike in reports of hate crimes perpetrated against immigrants, the majority of whom are women, and other marginalized communities. One German woman was terrified to leave her house after someone threw dog excrement at her house and told her to “go back home.” Young Polish girls were found crying in school for fear of being deported. And yesterday in Manchester, young white people verbally assaulted a person of color in Manchester yesterday and told him to “go back to Africa.” These behaviors are a natural outgrowth of political rhetoric that demonizes immigrants. And if this anti-immigrant behavior is solidified as national policy, the consequences will be terrible: millions of refugees fleeing violence in their home countries — the majority of whom are women and children — will face further barriers to safety.

Thankfully, not every politician in the UK has resigned themselves to Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish National Party (SNP) and serves as First Minister of Scotland, stood up against xenophobia after 62% of Scottish voters chose to remain. In her statement following the Brexit vote, she said, “I am proud of Scotland and how we voted yesterday. We proved that we are a modern, outward looking, open and inclusive country.” Sturgeon also called for another referendum on Scottish independence, which, after failing in 2014, could prevail given how the situation in the UK has changed.

This gives Sturgeon significant power over what will happen next. Due to devolution, which accorded significant governing authority to parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Scotland has the power to withhold consent to measures that would eliminate the application of EU laws under the 1998 Scotland Act. Legal experts believe that in order to initiate the Brexit, the UK’s parliament in Westminster would need to terminate this devolution authority, which could hasten Scotland’s exit from the UK.

The men at the center of Brexit would face a choice: leave the EU or lose Scotland and potentially Northern Ireland. Gender equality hangs in the balance.

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Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

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