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Feminists call for a rational debate on gender and the law

At a packed meeting of A Woman’s Place UK, feminists made clear the importance of sex-specific laws and research and the danger posed by muddled reforms, report LYNNE WALSH and ROS SITWELL

“WE are living in dangerous times,” feminist activist Ruth Serwotka told a packed meeting at London’s iconic Marx Memorial Library this week.

The latest Woman’s Place UK debate tackled five new resolutions from the group, which was set up to discuss the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and has been holding meetings up and down Britain since late 2017.

First up, Serwotka, co-founder of the organisation, and convener of Socialist Feminist Network, said women’s right to self-organise had been under attack.

She explained that the majority of WPUK’s meetings had faced protests and “most venues have been harassed, so our free speech has been curtailed.”

“At a meeting in Scotland a survivor of sexual violence was drowned out by protesters banging pots and pans outside.”

She slammed Leeds City Council, among others, for buckling under pressure, cancelling a booked WPUK meeting, and failing to uphold freedom of speech.

Serwotka also pointed to online use of the acronym “Terf,” which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

“This word is always used alongside misogynistic language,” she said, “Terf means a woman not worthy of respect.”

Phrases used online that have fed a culture of fear and intimidation include “Terf bigot, witch, Terfs get the wall.”

Serwotka said that it was women’s right to discuss the fundamentals of feminism, and the “first fundamental is what is a woman? It is our free speech to say what is a woman — an adult human female. It is our right to say these things without fear of harassment. It is our right to describe our status in the 21st century.”

Reminding the audience of the suffragettes’ struggle, she said women were again being “parodied, caricatured and shamed. There is something very wrong in that, 100 years on, we’re back to the beginning of having to assert our right to meet.”

“We’re losing the ability to have rational discourse,” she said.

Former firefighter Lucy Masoud, now a trainee barrister, said many businesses and organisations should be fined for flouting the law, as they removed single-sex spaces. The Equalities Act allowed for the exclusion of men in some areas, including women’s sports, hostels, or women’s book clubs.

Many were abandoning the law, in fear of bad publicity.

Trans men and women required spaces and services too, Masoud argued, though these should not be at the expense of female services, nor should they become part of female services.

“I, like many people here, would happily campaign and fight for these services to be available to the trans community. They [the services] must be equal, but they must be separate.”

Women’s services were being closed down, said Masoud, as funding was withheld if they did not accept men.

“The law is not being enforced to protect women and girls, and this needs to change.”

A year ago, at a similar meeting, she had warned that the fire service would try to save money by having only mixed-sex facilities. She was accused by some of “scaremongering.”

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, however, announced in November last year that there would be no single-sex facilities including toilets, dormitories and showers in its new standardised layout for fire stations. Defending this radical change, the service cited trade unions’ recent support for the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, on sex self-ID.

They were ripping away the rights of female firefighters, said Masoud.

“Women are under attack,” she said, “but we don’t bully or intimidate, to make our arguments. Instead, we use our sisterhood and our strengths. We will work within the law to ensure that the law is protected.”

“The law needs to be tightened up and it needs to be enforced. Organisations should be fined if they knowingly flout the law,” she emphasised.

Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of nia, a charity supporting women who have suffered sexual and domestic violence, focused on the government’s draft Domestic Abuse Bill launched this week. It already missed the mark, she felt, as a Bill concentrating on ending violence against women and girls would have been more appropriate. The draft says that “domestic abuse occurs regardless of gender.”

“Not only are sex and gender not the same thing — it is sex which is a ‘protected characteristic’ — but it fails to acknowledge that socially constructed gender plays one of the most critical roles in maintaining and justifying sex inequality.”

The fight, she said, was for women’s human rights. “It’s about not denying anyone’s human rights, anyone’s privacy and dignity. It’s about … for some of us … the right to life itself.”

Kiri Tunks, also a co-founder of WPUK, said women’s sex-based rights, established in law, were undermined “by people meddling with the definition determined by biological reality, that has been socially agreed and understood for millennia.”

“The rights we have are only ours because we have fought our corner. Our foresisters hacked out this space for us, in the face of huge hostility and intimidation. We have no intention of giving those rights up.”

A failure to consult with women, she said, was a clear signal of the view that their opinions didn’t matter. Organisations needed to represent a wide range of women in developing their policies.

“We will call out anyone who claims to know what women want, if they cannot show they are basing this on the widest possible survey of the women they claim to represent. Anything else is unacceptable.”

Tunks complained about an increasing “reliance on token women’s representation” in many areas of public life. It seems that “women are allowed to have opinions — as long as they are the right ones.”

“Women make up half the world — it’s about time we had our fair share of it.”

Philipa Harvey, a teacher and WPUK activist, looked at the importance of data for decision-making across all aspects of life. There was a risk in redefining or blurring what it meant to be a woman. Robust and transparent data was vital in looking at, among other areas, “the pay gap, rates of sexual harassment, levels of domestic violence, access to medical screening and the funding that’s needed.”

A proposal by the Scottish Parliament, in considering the 2021 Census, to introduce three categories of “gender”: male, female, and “other”, would make comparisons impossible. Knowing how many males and how many females are in the population is vital for policy-makers and statisticians, she said, and breaking with how data had been gathered previously would mean the data would lose its worth.

Echoing this demand was writer and campaigner Raquel Rosario Sanchez. Although unable to make the meeting, she sent a powerful statement: “Sex-based research is vital to countless medical issues ranging from cardiovascular disease, cancer diagnosis and lung diseases to the interactions and implications of sex differences in placental health.

“We are barely beginning to grasp the importance of sex-based research and the fatal impact of neglecting to take our female sex into account when addressing disease, medicine and drug treatment.

“Beyond medicine, the importance of sex affects every single feminist issue under patriarchy: from bride kidnapping, women’s refuges and services, reproductive health, women’s sports, the burdens of care work, the feminised face of poverty and the disproportionate impact of austerity on women to political quotas for women, the statistics on male violence against women and employment discrimination.

“All feminist work, around the globe, hinges on us having clear data on sex-based oppression and on society being able to develop policies that are evidence-based.”

More public events are planned this year: see



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