Before I go any further, I must declare an interest. As a fresh-faced councillor, I was a junior member of Edinburgh District Council’s Women’s Committee which introduced Zero Tolerance, the UK’s first such campaign.
I claim no credit for it. It was conceived by the staff of the Women’s Unit, and an experienced Labour councillor and fierce feminist, Margaret McGregor, did the political heavy lifting to persuade some of our more cynical comrades to get tough on abusers.
More than one male councillor baulked at the campaign posters which bore messages such as “From three to ninety three, women are raped” and “No man has the right”. But Margaret was determined that Edinburgh would lead the way in eliminating violence against women and girls.
No doubt the First Minister will acknowledge Margaret’s contribution when she gets to her feet on Tuesday. She will, rightly, refer to her own government’s efforts. Its Equally Safe strategy, produced in partnership with Cosla, Police Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and others, holds true to the principle that Scotland should be a country where “women and girls live free from all forms of violence and abuse – and the attitudes that help perpetuate it”.
She may even refer to the quote by the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, which introduces her government’s strategy: “There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.”
But I bet my dog-eared copy of Andrea Dworkin’s ‘Our Blood’ that she will not quote Reem Alsalem, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls. Indeed, when asked about Ms Alsalem at First Minister’s questions on Thursday, she couldn’t even bring herself to utter her name.
“The person from the UN,” she said in her inimitable snark, when responding to a question from Pam Gosal about a letter Ms Alsalem had sent to the UK Government earlier this week. It’s hardly surprising the First Minister was less than pleased with “the person from the UN”, because in a devastating nine-page report, Ms Alsalem laid bare the problems with the government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, echoing many of the concerns of grassroots women’s groups from across Scotland that the First Minister had previously dismissed as “not valid”.
Perhaps the most brutal paragraph came early on in the missive, and it is worth quoting it in full. “I share the concern that such proposals [self-ID] would potentially open the door for violent males who identify as men to abuse the process of acquiring a gender certificate and the rights that are associated with it. This presents potential risks to the safety of women in all their diversity (including women born female, transwomen, and gender non-conforming women).”
Ms Alsalem goes on to say that the government’s proposals do not provide any safeguards for women and girls at risk of male violence, that there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between the draft Bill and the 2010 Equality Act, and that the consultation process prior to the Bill being tabled in Parliament was neither fair nor inclusive.
She is particularly critical of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities Committee – chaired by Sturgeon ally Joe Fitzpatrick – which refused to meet five survivors of male violence to hear about their concerns in relation to the Bill. “Second-guessing and questioning the needs of survivors of violence born female for single-sex assistance and protection services is not victim-centred and ignores and undermines the survivor’s involuntary trauma, agency, and dignity,” she wrote.
Nicola Sturgeon seems determined to ignore the United Nations, just as she has ignored the women of Scotland. “It is violent men we should be focusing on… I don’t believe we should further stigmatise the trans community because of the actions of violent men,” she insisted on Thursday. Which is exactly what the special rapporteur said in her letter when she wrote that the bill opens the door for “violent men” to abuse the process, so risking the safety of women, including trans women.
Sturgeon’s refusal to listen even to the United Nations was mirrored by her close friend and the Bill’s sponsor, Shona Robison, at the Equalities Committee on Tuesday, where amendments to the Bill were considered, and largely dismissed.
Even Pam Gosal’s impassioned plea on behalf of women like her mother, who because of her religious faith cannot be examined by a male-bodied person, was ignored. “For many religious women, particularly in the Islamic faith, it is religious law that they shall not let a man touch or see their body… We must ensure that the Bill is truly compatible with those women’s religious rights,” she pleaded, to no avail.
Shona Robison’s stony-faced performance prompted one highly respected former senior civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, to describe the minister’s demeanour as shameful, showing “contempt” for women who were “getting in the government's way”.
So, when Nicola Sturgeon soaks up the applause on Tuesday for being a staunch champion of women’s rights, a “real” feminist even, remember this. In the city that pioneered the Zero Tolerance campaign, there are elderly women living in fear of being intimately examined – against their wishes – by a male-bodied person.
In the country that led with way in domestic abuse legislation, female survivors of male violence were recently refused a hearing because MSPs could not bear to meet them face to face. And the United Nations has just warned that the Scottish Government is about to push through a piece of legislation that puts women and girls at risk of male violence.
Could it be that Nicola Sturgeon’s tolerance of violence against women and girls is negotiable?