We, the undersigned, add our names to this letter to highlight our anger and sense of betrayal at the 2015 judging panel for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: a panel which includes Grace Dent and Cathy Newman, two prominent journalists who have both recently contributed to the creeping rise of Islamophobic vitriol in mainstream news and the normalisation of bigotry against a a group of people increasingly vilified as unenlightened and unwelcome neighbours.
If anyone is unaware of these incidents, then please let us remind you. Grace Dent’s scathing Independent article ‘If teenage girls want to join ISIS they should leave and never return’ was bitter and horrifyingly unfeeling about the loss of three 15 year old British girls, groomed and enticed away from their homes and their families by those who played their adolescent desires to a terrible outcome. Her sneering article reeked of an attitude towards British Muslims that is becomingly increasingly commonplace: distrustful of motives and of true allegiances, and a call for those who don’t share Cameron’s ideas on ‘true British values’ to get out and stay out.
Leaving aside the refusal to see these girls as children but ‘cool headed’ sophisticates, her article can be boiled down to simply this: think like us, be like us, or go and live elsewhere like the savages you are. There is no attempt to investigate causality, which is instead dismissed as blamemongering. One only needs to see the reports made to Tell MAMA UK to see why some British Muslim adolescents might feel disconnected, alienated and even hostile to the very country they have been born into.
Cathy Newman recently found herself caught out by her own disingenuous allegations which further fed the prevailing image of UK Muslims as backwards, insular and aggressive. Although she claimed to have been ushered out of a mosque during an open day despite her modest dress and sincere longing for respectful engagement, the subsequent CCTV footage told otherwise. Her claims, denied at first, caused a mosque in Streatham, London to receive death threats and find itself the target for hate crimes., something the Editor of Channel 4 News has now apologized for.
There was scant reporting on the CCTV revelations aside from on Twitter, and she has now returned to the media stage following a short sabbatical whilst the heat died down.
The Bailey’s press release highlights this prize as being open to ‘any woman writing in English – whatever her nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter’. This prize has traditionally valued and encouraged women writers of colour and brought them international acclaim. Think of Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche or Zadie Smith, and then think of what it means for women of colour to see themselves represented thus on such a prestigious platform.
How, then, can this prize so deliberately and hurtfully snub a significant section of its readership by so resolutely refusing to engage with legitimate questions about the appointment of these two journalists to the judging panel? How can this prize claim to represent all women when it is so clear that all women are far from being heard?
If this prize, and others like it, continue to ignore and alienate women of colour and refuse to engage with valid critical analysis around issues of race and identity, then its relevance as an arbiter of contemporary fiction is in serious doubt. It will diminish until it becomes a shell of conservative, socially disengaged thinking by failing to listen to a core section of its demographic. With the literary weight it has and its previous unflagging support of women writers in a publishing world that is still predominantly white, and male, the lack of discourse on this topic further isolates and silences a group whose voices are in dire need of amplification.
How can we know that given the overtly Islamaphobic incidents that Grace Dent and Cathy Newman were involved in, that they will be able to approach the judging with a completely unbiased approach in reviewing any books, themes or narratives that touch on Islam?
There is an argument that the judging panel had already been agreed far in advance of the incidents mentioned above. There is also the inclusion of Shami Chakrabarti as the panel Chair and many will say this adequately covers the inclusion of diverse voices. However, it feels tokenistic considering the lack of response from the committee to recent criticisms.
Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: we ask you to listen to us, to engage with us, to hear us.
Please add your name in the comments if you would like to sign the letter. We will move it in to the body of the piece and will be hand delivering it to the Baileys Prize organisers.
Samantha Asumadu, Director, Media Diversified
Joy Goh Mah
Dr Aisha K. Gill, Criminologist, University of Roehampton
Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Lynn Schreiber, Jump! Mag
Zita Holbourne, Co Chair BARAC
Yvonne Ridley. Vice President of the European Muslim League
Adunni Adams, Black Feminists UK
Malia Bouattia, NUS Black Students’ Officer and co-founder of Black Women’s Forum UK
Rose Anna Bleasdale
Amna Germanotta Riaz
Ratna Lachman, Director JUST West Yorkshire
Heather Mendick, Reader in Education, Brunel University
Lee Jasper, Co Chair BARAC
Rakshi Rath, Researcher, British Council, New Delhi
Dr. Kim Allen, Manchester Metropolitan University
Professor Heidi Mirza
Sophie Alal, writer, Kampala.
Stuart F Taylor
Dr. Catherine Andrew
Naomi Anderson Whittaker
Elisabet Yr Atladottir