Billboard in Liverpool / via Standing for Women
Artillery Row

Standing for Women founder arrested

Women’s rights are not deemed to be a political cause worthy of protest

The democracy of ancient Athens is still spoken of as a beacon of civilisation in a distant past that was otherwise chaotic and often bloody. It’s easy to forget that this “democracy” never existed; most people were denied the right to vote and indeed excluded from public life all together. Most of these people were women. Over two-and-half thousand years on it would be comforting to think things had progressed, but sometimes the patriarchal prejudice of our ancestors resurfaces into the present day. It seems that just as in the ancient world, today women are forbidden from entering the public square to make political demands about their rights.

According to West Yorkshire Police, women’s rights are not a political cause

Yesterday, when the group Standing for Women tried to assemble at Victoria Square in Leeds to discuss the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) (GRA) their meeting was broken-up by the police. Three of the sixteen women were arrested, including the event organiser Kellie-Jay Keen. A lengthy risk assessment had been completed and submitted ahead of the event to ensure the group were Covid-19 compliant, and the police were kept fully appraised of the group’s plans. After the event Kelly-Jay Keen explained that she knew was likely to be arrested, part of the reason she refused to give her details to the police was in order to have the opportunity to voice her concerns in court.

Despite the current draconian regulations prohibiting public gatherings, there is an exemption for political events. Thanks to this, protests such as Black Lives Matter have been allowed to go ahead unimpeded. But according to West Yorkshire Police, women’s rights are not a political cause. A police officer told Kelly-Jay Keen that Standing for Women “failed to meet the legal definition of a political organisation”, though he himself seemed unable to explain what the legal definition of a political organisation was. The socially distanced crowd then divided into smaller groups of six to comply with Covid-19 regulations, but nonetheless officers began to take the names and addresses of attendees and the planned speeches were left unspoken.

On the same day as women were arrested because their protest was not deemed political, Caroline Wheeler, Deputy Political Editor of The Times reported on the very issue that had brought most of them together; the proposed amendment to the GRA. Standing for Women’s campaign against the reform of the GRA has centred upon the definition of “woman” as meaning “adult human female.” The proposed legislative reform would have in effect changed “woman” to mean “any person who identifies as a woman” effectively making women-only refuges, changing rooms and hospital wards mixed sex. It now seems likely these proposals will be ditched.

Stonewall, the UK’s largest LGBT organisation, opposed women’s groups by lobbying for the introduction of gender self-identification. They also campaigned to lower the age to access legal gender change from 18 to 16 and for recognition of so-called “non-binary” identities. Interestingly, despite the duty to uphold the law free from “fear or favour” West Yorkshire Police pay a subscription to Stonewall as members of the “Stonewall Diversity Champions” scheme.

Women are still at a fundamental level not recognised as full human beings

It seems no-one can quite decide whether Standing for Women is political. In July Network Rail removed a billboard reading “I ♥ JKR” that had been paid for by the campaign group. This statement was in support of the children’s author J K Rowling, who has been accused of transphobia for raising concerns about gender self-identification. Network Rail stated that it had received complaints and somewhat bizarrely concluded that “I ♥ JKR” was a political statement. A freedom of information request revealed there were no emails requesting the poster be taken down, but that there were 158 complaining about its removal. In news that will not shock those who have been paying attention, Network Rail also pay for membership of the “Stonewall Diversity Champions” scheme.

Whether an innocuous poster or a socially distanced protest, it seems statements in support of women’s rights are deemed threatening, branded either “too political” or “not political enough” and shut down using whichever method is most expedient. Speaking after her arrest and release Kellie-Jay Keen said:

It is not really the right of the state or the police to tell people they are not allowed to assemble to discuss their rights … everyone should have the right to assemble in this country, it is the foundation of our democracy and the fact it’s being cancelled by over-zealous police forces should concern us all.

Feminists occupy a strange “no-man’s land” in the culture wars, hated as ‘TERFs’ (trans exclusionary radical feminists) by the mainstream left and sneered at as identity-obsessed faux victims by the right. But defending the rights of 51% of the population should not be seen as a niche concern; struggling to end the violence of men at home is every bit as political as campaigning for peace in foreign nations. It should be noted that in Leeds, where Kelly-Jay Keen was arrested, a “managed zone” in the Holbeck area allows men to buy the sexual services of women, who are often drug-addicted and desperate, for as little as £5 without fear of arrest. That popular feminist campaigns are reduced to “pussy hats” is a testament to how desperately needed women’s liberation is. Feminist campaigners are left with nowhere to turn, and to date not even civil liberties groups like Liberty will defend women’s freedom of speech lest it offend men who identify as women.

Proof that, as in ancient Athens, women are still at a fundamental level not recognised as full human beings is in the speed at which our hard-fought for rights are being removed and our language changed. Less than a century on from the passing of the Equal Franchise Act in the UK and feminists today risk arrest for campaigning for our own spaces, our safety and for the very definition of the word “woman” itself.

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