This is what women in the European Parliament think of Brexit and the future of feminism

After delivering my speech at the European Parliament's conference for International Women's Day, a Lithuanian journalist asked me how I can use the word 'feminism' in my articles without provoking deluges of abuse. Another woman asked how I stopped abuse for being a female journalist from affecting my mental health 

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Almost as soon as I set foot in the European Parliament, I saw Nigel Farage. Like one of the four horseman of the Brexit apocalypse, he appeared as I turned the corner, chatting amiably with two male colleagues, looking every bit the Brussels bureaucrat. 

Farage was a big part of the reason I was nervous to be there in the first place; as one of only two UK press delegates to the International Women’s Day conference in Brussels, I was prepared to be instantly unpopular. Farage’s nemesis, Gina Miller, meanwhile, was one of the reasons I was there: she was speaking on the impact of Brexit on ordinary women, and it felt strange to see both members of 2016’s most hyperbolic British news stories in such close proximity to each other.

The European Parliament is a huge, cavernous place and the room that we – a group of mainly female journalists from across the EU – took our seats in seemed, at first, intimidatingly large. The list of delegates was comprehensive: Latvian TV, the Times of Malta, Radio Romania, the Slovak Spectator, Berlin Business, Hungarian ELLE. “We have an interpreter for every language,” the moderator announced proudly, pointing to a slew of shadowy figures behind red neon signs proclaiming “GERMAN”, “LITHUANIAN”, “CZECH”, “FRENCH”, “ENGLISH” and so on. Each visitor is supplied with a set of headphones which connects to those surrounding interpreters, who are ensconced behind black soundproof glass with microphones, translating in real time as panellists speak.

Some speakers were more popular than others (a direct descendant of that famous Eastern European immigrant Marie Curie talking about her own work in nuclear physics drew a sudden admiring gaggle of schoolchildren who filed out once she was done), but none more so than Gina Miller. She is a woman with undeniable presence, who was spirited in and then spirited away as soon as she’d finished her panel, and unsurprisingly she expressed a strong feminist concern about women’s rights after Brexit.

What was surprising, however, was her passionate plea not to resort to women-only networks as a solution to sexism in the workplace, something which many had voiced support for throughout the conference: same sex networks can’t solve the problem of sexism in a society where most men are in the top positions, she said. “I always say: get the men to mentor the women,” she added. “That way, both will learn …We shouldn’t forget that women and girls need male role models as well as female ones.”

Miller is particularly concerned about “nuanced sexism”, she said, which can, in many ways, be more damaging than the overt sexism we used to find acceptable. When an attendee asked her to elaborate, she told a story about a young, newly qualified barrister who had arranged to meet with her. 

“Her male colleagues said to her, ‘What a shame you didn’t go last week when you’d just got your hair done,’” she said. “I would never have judged her for the way she looked. But that planted seeds. It suggested women won’t treat other women with respect. And it suggested that what a professional woman looks like has everything to do with her grooming.”

Theresa May puts down Jeremy Corbyn on International Women's Day

How do you legislate for gender equality at EU level when a quarter of member states don’t even have any formal laws on maternity leave? The question of cultural relativism reared its head repeatedly throughout the debates. After I delivered my own speech, a Lithuanian journalist asked me how I can use the word “feminism” in my articles without provoking deluges of abuse (I still get the abuse, by the way, but not to the extent that she described the reaction in her own country.) “I get Facebook messages to my personal account calling me frigid,” she said. Another woman, from the Czech Republic, came to ask me at the end how I stopped abuse for being a female journalist from affecting my mental health. “I get insults, speculation about my sex life,” she said. “I refused to sign up for Twitter despite pressure from my bosses because I was afraid it would accelerate the abuse. After I showed them what I get on Facebook, they backed off because they said they could see what I meant.”

It’s a very different story in Iceland, where we heard that Icelandic culture is essentially feminist, and that, impressively, it became that way within a generation. Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, Icelandic chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and also the chair of the Executive Board of Women in Parliament, commented that when she was born there was one woman in the Icelandic parliament, and by the time her first daughter was born, 50 per cent of the parliament was female. “Change can happen, and it can happen quickly,” she said – which makes one feel a little ashamed of the stagnation in British politics, especially within the left-wing parties which supposedly stand for gender equality. This woman, after all, came from a self-described “centre-right” conservative party in her own country.

But how did change happen so quickly? Largely because of the introduction of laws surrounding parental leave from work after a child is born, apparently. In Iceland, paternity leave operates on a “use it or lose it” basis: three months are given to the woman, three months are given to the man, and three months are intended for the parents to take together. No parental leave is transferrable, so if a man doesn’t use his share, it’s gone forever. 

“Socially, it’s unacceptable for a father not to take his paternity leave in Iceland,” said Kristjansdottir. “People would judge a man very harshly if he chose not to take it – they’d ask, ‘What’s wrong with you? Do you not want to be with your family?’” Crucially, the government supplies 80 per cent of the person’s usual salary while they’re on parental leave, in order to incentivise men to take it even when they are the main breadwinners.

What about that 50 per cent female parliament – surely that happened because of positive discrimination and strict quotas, something many feel uncomfortable about advocating? Not so, according to Kristjansdottir, who said that there are no quotas in the Icelandic parliament. Some parties have their own quota system (hers doesn’t), “but no party would ever go out to the ballot box with less than 50 per cent women. Culturally people would find that very odd. No one, male or female, would vote for a party that was 80 per cent male.”

Such words make it feel like Iceland is a million miles – and a good few decades – away from Poland, whose MEP Janusz Ryszard Korwin-Mikke stood up last week in the very same place and stated that the gender pay gap wasn’t just acceptable, it was preferable: “Of course women must earn less than men,” he said. “Because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent, they must earn less.” Is it any wonder it sometimes takes months to get very simple things done in these cavernous rooms?

As I made my way back to the Eurostar terminal, the skies opened and the streets were suddenly awash with torrential rain. Sheltering under the eaves surrounding Brussels Midi Station were dozens of apprehensive people crouched on mattresses, in blankets or sleeping bags, arranged in neat little colourful rows, a community of the destitute far bigger than I’ve ever seen in Britain.

A woman was curled up under a clearly homemade blanket half-asleep, and as I went past a child emerged from beside her and pointed and laughed at me struggling in the rain with my loud suitcase. He was only two or three years old, and clearly homeless.

Women’s situations across the EU are undoubtedly diverse. But some stories of poverty, of immigration and of prejudice are playing out much closer than we would like to admit. Brussels, just two hours on the train away from the UK, has a landscape scarred by terrorism: army trucks positioned outside the stations, police officers in bulletproof vests surrounding the tourist attractions, a man in army fatigues clutching an AK47 outside the European Parliament. In this sort of environment, it is so easy to let prejudice fester. And if we don’t work actively against it, then women – as always – will be the first victims.

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