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by Mandy Rhodes
16 June 2024
Our progressive parliament has all but ignored the rights of women

Campaigners against gender self-ID at the Scottish Parliament | Alamy

Our progressive parliament has all but ignored the rights of women

Last week was a good week in the Scottish Parliament when the rights of women to access healthcare, without fear of running a gauntlet of shame, moved closer to being enshrined in law. And however protesters want to frame their silent vigils outside abortion clinics, it is shame that their presence is meant to evoke in women seeking a termination. And that is hateful.

Efforts to ban protests outside abortion services, given a veneer of acceptability by being cloaked in the right to pray, have been long-standing and too often excused by local by-laws or arguments over the right to protest, have been deployed to thwart attempts to stop them. But it is such an ugly stain on modern life that women could be intimidated, harassed, and chastened for simply accessing healthcare. It gets to the very fundamentals of women’s subjugation – our biology, our reproductive rights – and the ability to choose what to do with our own bodies. It’s hard to imagine anything more misogynistic than this.

So, well done to Green MSP Gillian Mackay who doggedly pursued a prohibition along with the courageous young women from Back Off Scotland. I applaud Mackay for doing this with grace, fair-mindedness, and a willingness to take on board all concerns (however ridiculous) without being derailed from the primary principle about women’s rights. 

It was heartening to see the parliament, which has been so toxic of late, particularly around issues of equality, come together in unanimity (bar one). We are at our best when we can debate, discuss, and reach a rational consensus that works for all and that for some time has been absent. 

And when women’s rights, globally, are under siege, when abortion is banned in some US states, when hard-won rights are being rolled back, when prostitution is reframed as work rather than exploitation, when surrogacy raises important questions about the commercialisation of women’s bodies, and only serves to illustrate the embedded inequity that our biology serves up in a world still dominated by men, and when women and girls are subject to violence and death daily, simply because of who they are, how amazing that Scotland can help lead the world in doing the right thing for women and have that led by a young woman.

But sadly, that momentary celebration of solidarity also brought into sharp relief how women’s rights have been split along a bizarre dividing line that is about women accepting men as women. 

So, yes, I cheer how progressive our parliament can be, but I am also grieving for how regressive it has been on other matters that should have put women first.

I accept I am in pensive mood as I pen this column to mark both the 25th anniversary of the parliament and of Holyrood magazine. And while I believe there is much to celebrate about a quarter of a century of devolution, I am also fast becoming more furious about where we have rolled back, and why. 

Tell me what it says about devolution, democracy, or the quality of political discourse, when a grassroots campaign, a mass movement, waged by women who found themselves in the eye of the sex and gender storm, has been all but ignored by this so-called People’s Parliament?

Two weeks ago, I chaired the largest online book launch ever. Over 1,000 people (mainly women) signed up to watch the launch of a book written by, about, and dedicated to, all women. A book that charts the extraordinary fightback against the political elite, the institutional establishment, and the well-funded bodies that have the cheek to call themselves feminist.

The book, The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht, a homegrown, literary success story, has already become a major bestseller and starts with a dedication: “To every woman, past and present, who stood up and spoke out, even when her voice was shaking and her heart breaking. To every girl across the world – may you grow up to be a strong, independent woman, whose voice is always heard.”

I am a contributor to that book and each and every woman in it is a warrior, because we fought together on an unremitting frontline. Over the course of the last five or six years, like all of them, I have been told that my feminism is old-fashioned, that effectively, feminism is no feminism unless it includes the rights of men to be women, that I am a hateful bigot, and a transphobe.

And shamefully, that hate was legitimised by the former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who told women that their concerns were invalid and that the same people that used women’s rights “as a shield for their bigotry” were likely to be racists as well as homophobes.

That left us open to attack. And we were attacked.

As one of the other authors says in the book, “women were never the oppressors in this fight, we were the oppressed”. And yet the then leader of our nation deemed the hard-won rights of women to be of lesser importance than those of men who felt, however transiently, that they were women.

Even now, with the Gender Recognition Reform Bill hopefully permanently on ice, with so many landmark legal cases proving our point, with watershed moments exposing the nonsense around gender self-ID, with the publication of the Cass Review exposing the dangers of leading children down an untested medical pathway, despite all that, I still cannot comprehend how women, doughty feminists who wore the battle scars of yesteryear’s fights, were painted as prejudiced protagonists in what could then be easily dismissed as a culture war in which crimes of haberdashery actually became a thing.

As we mark this quarter century of devolution, as I write the 531st (award-winning) column for Holyrood, no words can adequately describe my disappointment, rage, and disbelief at the sheer absurdity that ensnared our legislature.

This book should be essential reading for all MSPs. It is simply a catalogue of heartbreak. A chronicle of bullying, intimidation, and an assault on critical thinking. It is also an important historical and socio-political account of how Scotland’s first woman first minister bowed down to an ideology that sanctioned medical experimentation on children, put women at risk, and gave in to the demands of men to be women, rather than listening to the cri de coeur from women who were being told to haud their wheesht. I suspect this is one book Nicola Sturgeon won’t care to review.

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