The Sex Matters petition requesting clarification of the word “sex” in the Equality Act 2010 reached its target of 100,000 signatures and on 12th June we will have a Westminster debate.
This letter explains why so many women care so much. It’s not just about toilets and changing rooms – important though they are. It’s about the need for female people to have our specific needs and vulnerabilities understood and taken seriously throughout our lives. It’s about recognising that being female is real, important, and not just an identity.
I am writing in relation to your request for evidence for the debate on whether gender refers to legal sex in the Equality Act. In this letter I outline my experiences in the hope that it assists you with your argument.
In 2014 I suffered sexual harassment by a colleague, and I was bullied and subsequently fired from my job. It felt like the entire institution turned against me and joined together to defend the predator. My female union representative complained to me that I endangered the predator's marriage even after my employer had upheld my complaint. I suffered severely during and after that chapter, but eventually I felt strong enough to review the situation. I wanted to understand the dynamics, the social norms and the power structures that facilitated the predator keeping his job and me, the victim, being bullied and let go. In 2016, I decided to undertake a Master’s Degree in Law in Gender, Conflict and Human Rights.
What I learnt on that course changed my life and gave me a new perspective on what happened to me and on my life going forward. It can be boiled down to this quote:
“Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labour. We are considered inferior beings whose only purpose is to enhance men’s lives … we have been kept from seeing our own personal suffering as a political condition … the conflict between individual men and women are political conflicts that can only be solved collectively … We identify the agents of our oppression as men. Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination … All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women
(New York Redstockings manifesto, in Morgan, 1970, p. 598)
Essentially, women are an oppressed class and all men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. I learnt about Mary Wollstonecraft, the suffragettes and various waves of feminism.
I remember at the time, men and some women, used to deride gender studies as a total waste of time. It was compared to clown school and labelled "worse than worthless". It concerned women’s issues and who cares about that, right?
But two things have changed in the short time since.
Firstly, gender studies has changed its meaning. Now it can mean queer theory or gender identity or many other schools of thought. Nowadays, if I choose to tell people, I have to take time out to explain what I actually studied. I have to explain that what I actually studied was old fashioned, “burn-your-bra” feminism.
The second aspect that has changed is that now, if you say you have studied feminism, you risk being called a fascist because the field excludes men. People may be accused of transphobia purely by being concerned about women’s issues and the oppression that women alone suffer.
The change in attitude is incomprehensible. How can a subject go from being completely irrelevant to the point of being called “worse than worthless”, to suddenly being comparable to fascism? It demonstrates that some men are threatened by women thinking and will do anything to shame women into keeping the status quo.
Feminism is a movement that recognises the power imbalance between men and women, attempts to explain the causes and consequences of that imbalance (women’s oppression), and strives to do something about it. During my course I learnt about female genital mutilation, honour killings, rape conviction rates, rape as a weapon of warfare and a method of committing genocide. I read disturbing articles about female infanticide and how menstruation is used to shame and isolate women, how menopause is disregarded and how child brides are abused. I read that the economist Amartya Sen, calculated there are one hundred million women missing in Asia due to female infanticide, homicide, honour killings and suicide. Women are subjected to sex-based violence, silenced, stalked, harassed, trafficked and damaged by the porn industry.
Thankfully, my lecturers informed me about all the progress that has been made to attempt to redress this imbalance. Academics, NGOs, and governments cooperated and negotiated for decades to draft human rights instruments recognising the unique discrimination that women suffer.
Instruments were drafted such as the Beijing Declaration, The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the UN Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, and the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention).
It is clear from reading these documents that gender means biological sex. For instance, take points 23 and 24 of the Beijing Declaration that was intended to require countries to apply gender mainstreaming into their decision making. It is clear that the intention was to force countries to include biological women’s perspectives in their policies. Countries should:
23. Ensure the full enjoyment by women and the girl child of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and take effective action against violations of these rights and freedoms;
24. Take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and the girl child and remove all obstacles to gender equality and the advancement and empowerment of women;
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey represented the UK at Beijing and it is axiomatic that she used gender interchangeably with biological sex:
"If this Conference achieves only one thing it should be a global recognition of women's right to freedom of choice. Women's lack of choice perpetuates patterns of gender inequality from one generation to the next. A more equal sharing between women and men of parental and household responsibilities is fundamental for women's advancement.”
The only interpretation of gender inequality in these documents is inequality between biological men and biological women. All these human rights instruments (see Appendix) were intended to end the discrimination women experience in almost every aspect of their lives and which biological men benefit from.
Imagine my disappointment when the company I work for, which I love, this year invited a person who has been living as a woman for only four years, to speak on International Women’s Day. That person has been celebrated for being a “woman” in a male dominated industry. That person won awards specifically intended for females struggling to make it in that male dominated industry. The company could have chosen any number of women working in the industry. Or they could have invited that person to speak at Pride or IDAHOBIT. But no, the individual spoke on International Women’s Day.
If gender means legal gender instead of biological sex, then decades of women’s rights struggles, hard work, devotion and tenacity will go to waste. All those laws designed to end sex inequality will be nugatory because they include male bodied people. Biological males will take over laws, spaces, protections and awards that were intended for women and all the progress society has made will be for nothing.
That is why there can be no doubt that in human rights law, gender means biological sex!
Council of Europe, The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (11 May 2011, entry in force 1 August 2014) CETS No. 210
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR)
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1976) 993 UNTS 3 (ICCPR)
UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Declarations, reservations, objections and notifications of withdrawal of reservations relating to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1 March 2010, CEDAW/SP/2010/2, Note 52, <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reservations-country.htm#N51> accessed 2 December 2016
UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (adopted 18 December 1979, entered into force 3 September 1981) 1249 UNTS 13
UN General Assembly, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (adopted 6 October 1999, entered into force 22 December 2000) 2131 UNTS 83
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR)
UNSC Resolution 1325 (2000) < https://www.un.org/shestandsforpeace/content/united-nations-security-council-resolutions-women-peace-and-security>
UNSC Resolution 1820 (2008)
UNSC Resolution 1888 (2009)
UNSC Resolution 1889 (2009)
UNSC Resolution 1960 (2010)
UNSC Resolution 2106 (2013)
UNSC Resolution 2122 (2013)
UNSC Resolution 2242 (2015)