Grinning inanely at the camera, the Bute House wannabe held up a large, heart-shaped piece of garishly pink cardboard, emblazoned with the legend ‘Upholding Rights’ and a megaphone emoji. “As SNP leader and First Minister, I will advance women’s rights,” he declared, adding the hashtag #HumzaForScotland just in case the ladies had forgotten that he was standing for election. He also listed six issues that he, as First Minister, would fix if he wins the SNP leadership contest, but more of them later.
Feminist Twitter erupted in scorn. His choice of a pink heart was mercilessly mocked, reminiscent of the storm that greeted veteran women’s campaigner, Labour MP Harriet Harman, when she unveiled her pink battle bus during the 2015 general election campaign. She was greeted with cries of “sexist” and “patronising” with her van compared to a Barbie doll car. Labour went on to lose that election, with David Cameron being returned as Prime Minister with a small majority. Writing in the Guardian at the time, commentator Anne Perkins echoed the views of many women when she said that the 2015 general election had been “a campaign run by men, for men”.
Yousaf’s campaign is no different. Policy expert Lucy Hunter Blackburn dismissed his clumsy attempt to win women’s support with a scathing putdown. “It's the political equivalent of trying to get a first date and your mates giving you a bit a steer on the sort of things girls like, cos you've not really talked to any before,” she tweeted.
"What do women like? Pink things. Hearts. They keep banging on about rights. Put the word 'rights' on a pink thing shaped like a heart,” suggested feminist author Victoria Smith, sarcastically. And with her usual impeccable timing, author JK Rowling swooped in and got right to the ‘heart’ of the matter. "What a lovely pink heart,” she said. “Now tell us why you voted down the amendment to stop rapists being housed in women’s jails, Humza Yousaf.”
Herein lies Yousaf’s problem: his track record on women’s rights. Let’s examine the six pledges – his women’s manifesto as he described it on Thursday – emblazoned on that pink heart. He promises to “protect and advance reproductive rights” by working to make abortion available up to the legal limit of 24 weeks and decriminalising the procedure, as well as to “support buffer zones” around sexual health clinics.
In Scotland, an investigation by this newspaper last year showed that most health boards do not offer terminations up to the legal limit and women who need this medical procedure are sent to England. Yousaf has been in charge of Scotland’s NHS for two years. If women’s reproductive rights matter so much to him, why has he not already instructed health boards to comply with the law?
As Justice Secretary for three years from 2018, he could have introduced legislation for buffer zones around abortion centres and fully decriminalised abortion. But he didn’t. His promise to “improve support for sexual offence victims” is shorthand for the Criminal Justice Reform Bill which is already in the pipeline, and his pledge to “progress the Misogyny Bill” would have more creditability if the government’s ill-thought-through Hate Crime Bill, which he introduced to parliament as Justice Secretary, had been implemented. Two years after it passed, it still lies dormant.
His undertaking to “fast track 1 + 2-year-old childcare” reveals more about Yousaf than he would like us to see. It is uncosted and sexist. The Scottish Government’s budget is in a terrible state. There is no spare cash. How is he going to fund 22 hours of free childcare for toddlers? And why is this a ‘women’s rights’ issue? Surely it is a parental problem? Or are only women are responsible for bringing up baby in Yousaf’s Scotland?
And finally he promises to respect Sturgeon’s legacy with a “gender-balanced cabinet”. A vow that would have more weight if Yousaf knew what a woman was, but like his ‘progressive’ role model, the man in charge of Scotland’s health service believes that people can change their legal sex simply by filling in a form.
Indeed, the government of which he was a senior member went to court to protect the rights of male-born trans women to take seats on public boards set aside for women. And Yousaf has promised to challenge the UK Government’s block on the controversial Gender Recognition Bill, subject to legal advice from the Lord Advocate.
“I want women across Scotland to know that if I am elected First Minister, I will not allow one step back on your rights,” Yousaf told a newspaper, while brandishing his pink heart. His performance in the leadership campaign – where he has sometimes dismissed his two female opponents, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, with an abruptness bordering on aggression – tells another story.
Yousaf is typical of far too many male politicians, particularly those who like to think of themselves as on the left. They pay lip service to women’s rights, but it is feminism on their terms. They rarely talk of the economic divide that keeps so many women in poverty, or of the institutional sexism that sees men maintain supremacy – a recent Fawcett Society report showed that women are outnumbered two to one in positions of power.
Instead they, and their handmaids, patronise with us clumsy messaging, waving pink hearts – or driving pink buses – while mouthing platitudes about our “rights” as if they were theirs to give away. But women have no need for sparkly slogans. What we want, what we really, really want, is an end to the economic, cultural and political oppression that has kept us down throughout history. Humza Yousaf has a lot to learn.