Ayesha Hazarika (edited)

Cowardice calls to cowardice

The unworthy heirs of Millicent Fawcett

Artillery Row

In a very short space of time women have become unable to discuss the reality of their sex without being dismissed as “transphobic”, finding themselves reported to the police, sacked from their jobs or refused a platform in public debate.

The fightback has been concentrated and necessary. Women have had to organise and raise considerable sums of money to take various court cases simply to restore the rule of law.

A very significant recent example of the success of such “lawfare” was found in Maya Forstater’s recent victory at the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Now,women who share her belief in the immutability of biological sex are no longer dismissed as having views not legally worthy of respect in a democratic society.

This judgment, following shortly after the Reindorf report, is of great consequence for women and their rights. Prior to this we had been sliding into a new reality where even a glancing reference to biology would be treated as bigotry and transphobia.

The Fawcett Society ought to be well placed to comment. It is named for Millicent Fawcett — “a suffragist and women’s rights campaigner who made it her lifetime’s work to secure women the right to vote”. Her motto is the stirring “courage calls to courage”.

But there was only strange and timorous silence from the Fawcett Society following Forstater’s victory, until it was finally broken by an article in the Evening Standard on Wednesday.

Ayesha Hazarika wrote in the Standard, “Cruelty and hate in the trans debate on both sides is terrifying — moderate voices must be heard”, and self-identifies as a board member of the Fawcett Society. She’s therefore at least aware that they campaign for women’s equality. She doesn’t, however, get off to a great start, managing to misspell Forstater’s surname as Forster, but it’s quickly apparent that this is the least of the article’s problems.

Hazarika calls for “more moderate voices” to overcome the toxicity of the current debate, and an end to “cruelty and polarisation”:

As with so much right now, extremist, unforgiving, rigid voices on both sides dominate the online war in a fight to the death of who can scream and shame the loudest. And all it does is alienate people in the middle who want to find a solution which is humane, modern and common sense. But more moderate voices who could find the common ground here and find useful solutions are too scared to join in and who could blame them?

It is not trans women who are facing criminal trials or secret police recording their political speech

It is not merely the crude and unfair caricature of the current position which reveals the bad faith of this author. This is emphatically not about “both sides”. It is not trans women who are facing criminal trials or secret police recording their political speech; nor is it trans women who are being no-platformed by universities in breach of their statutory obligations to protect freedom of speech. It is also not trans women who are being sacked from their jobs for talking about issues of sex and gender.

The author revealingly returns to the tediously familiar expectation that women be “kind”. And that this “kindness” extends to welcoming others into their space, not based on any shared experiences about the messy, painful, glorious reality of a woman’s body and reproductive system — but on the basis of their ability to find just the right handbag and shoes for the occasion.

There’s a lot of talk of courage. Organising a Twitter pile-on is not brave by the way. What about kindness and empathy? Most people are accepting of anyone providing they’re not a total arsehole. I’m part of a wonderful Facebook group of older women celebrating confidence in our “hot girl years”, AKA the menopause. Trans women are not only welcome, they are cherished — we have all learned from their stories and world class ability to accessorise.

If middle-aged women wish to call themselves “hot girls” and treat the female state as a pantomime, that is a matter for them. But no one can legitimately expect that this gives them any authority to tell other women to sit quietly while their legal rights are dismantled, or to claim some kind of moral high ground from sitting on the fence.

Hazarika tries to explain away her cowardice:

“Where is your courage?” furious gender critical women raged at me. It’s a fair question and I’ll answer it today in an entirely personal capacity. Hands up. Guilty as charged. Squeak squeak. I’m absolutely terrified about this debate. Even as I type, my anxiety levels are through the roof. I’m braced for the inevitable, merciless online abuse. I even booked in an emergency session with my therapist to work out a coping strategy for my mental health. Does this sound right to you? No. Because it’s not. This debate has become utterly toxic.

Those who do not have the mental resilience to confront grim realities cannot demand that those of us (who don’t have the luxury to choose otherwise) should turn away because they find it hard.

I am sorry that Hazarika finds herself so threatened by legitimate criticism that she needs a mental health professional on speed dial. Perhaps she might like to spare a thought for the thousands of women every day who face much worse and who do not have this privilege.

Define your terms. No discussion can take place unless we can agree what we are talking about. I suspect Millicent Fawcett had no difficulty defining a “woman” — they were the ones denied the vote. What does the Society that bears her name and operates under her banner of “courage calls to courage” now think a woman is? And what rights will it fight for her to have?

There is no middle ground here: either women have rights, or they do not

I can’t recall any great campaigns that were won by squeaking mice, but if the Fawcett Society thinks timidity is the way to win women’s equality, fine. Do as you wish. But please don’t expect to go publicly unchallenged when you suggest that this represents the limits of what a woman can aspire to be, or to criticise her for defending her legal rights with vigour and robust language, in the face of continued threats of physical and sexual violence. If you really find argument and discussion so traumatic then that is your weakness to address, not our responsibility to fix with our “kindness”.

There is no “middle ground” here. Either women have rights, or they do not. Either they are allowed to speak about their rights, or they are not. If you seek to persuade us that “being kind” is more important than “having rights”, then you will need to do better than this. And change the name of your society. You have offered sufficient insult to the legacy of Millicent Fawcett.

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