A woman’s place

Lucy Masoud is a firefighter and a trade unionist. This is the speech she gave at the WPUK meeting in London on Tuesday 27th February 2018.

Thank you for inviting me here this evening. When I was first invited here as a speaker I was not sure how my contribution as a fire fighter could really have much relevance to this debate. But then on speaking to Megan she said just talk about your experience about being a women in a male dominated profession. So that’s what I’ll do this evening.

I joined the fire service in 2005. At the time I was the only female in my squad of 16 people. It became very clear to me, very quickly, that women in the fire service were an exception.

Let me put it this way: there are 4,000 firefighters who work for the London Fire Brigade. Of those 4,000, 98% are men.

At training school, I was one of the first group of recruits to not have to share changing facilities with the men. Before this time, male and females would have to share. The ability for me (a gay women from a Muslim background ) to be able to change in private in my own space was hugely important.

The fire service is an extremely male dominated industry, and in order to attract more women to the job, women must be confident that their privacy will be protected

Before I joined the London Fire Brigade, men and women were forced to change together in the same changing rooms, with the women having to change behind a screen if they wished for any privacy. At fire stations, women also slept in the same dorms as men and had to use the same shower facilities.

This was hugely intimidating for female firefighters, who were often already experiencing hostile attitudes towards them from some firefighters. It often led to female firefighters avoiding the changing rooms all together, sleeping in offices rather than the dorms, and in some cases, leaving the job altogether.

After years of complaints from female firefighters being ignored by fire services, eventually in 2004 the Fire Brigades Union in London fought a long and hard campaign called ‘Privacy of All’.

‘Privacy for All’ was a policy that was simple but crucial. It demanded that ALL fire stations in London have proper changing areas and sleeping areas for female firefighters. Female FBU members in London strongly argued the case and showed numerous examples where female accommodation on stations was completely inadequate and not fit for purpose.

Since 2004, the FBU and female firefighters have demanded respect and that their accommodation needs be taken serious.

Of course, we were met with the normal justification from management as to why they could not accommodate us – that there was not the space on fire stations, and that there was not the budget available to spend on new spaces. Management tried to pit male firefighters against female firefighters by stating that if they made space for female only areas then it would be at the cost of communal areas such as gyms and TV areas.

Some people tried to accuse female firefighters as painting all male firefighters as predators, when in fact all we wanted was our own private space to be able to change and shower

Despite the hostility from managers and some male firefighters, we carried on our fight and did not back down.

Now – thanks to our ‘Privacy for All’ battle – every fire station in London has female toilets, female showers and female only accommodation.

Accommodation for females on station isn’t perfect, but it is certainly better than having to change in our cars or in the corner behind screens like we had to not so long ago.

So how is this relevant? My point is women in the fire service have, and are still, fighting for recognition and respect. I have spent most of my career as a firefighter fighting for the right to privacy and the right to have female only facilities. Now, thanks to the current push of gender neutral toilets, our hard fought battles for privacy for all may all have been for nothing.

I can assure you, there are managers within the fire service who are watching the current political landscape very closely and will jump at the chance to cut costs and save money on stations by getting rid of female only spaces and instead installing gender neutral toilets, changing areas and dorms.

Gender neutral toilets and shared changing facilities may tick the boxes of the Stonewall Index, but they will be at the expense of female fire fighters.

So if we do recognise that females requires female facilities on fire stations then we must also recognise that the same is true in society as a whole. As in the fire stations, women must have spaces and areas that are women only.

For me this isn’t about genuine trans women having access to our spaces, this is about men. Men who do not have gender dysphoria, are not women, have no intention of physically becoming women yet believe they have the right to be accepted as women.

Men demanding to be included in all-women short lists, demanding to be woman’s officers, demanding to compete against women in sporting events and now, of course, demanding to have access to women only spaces.

All this is taking place right under the nose of the Labour party, who seem intent in either sticking their heads in the sand, or worse yet, joining forces with misogynists in order to bully the rights away from women.

What we should be doing is ensuring that the rights of genuine trans women are protected and respected and that they have safe spaces.

We should be fighting for the breakdown of gender stereotypes in society and tackling all types of discrimination.

What we should not be doing, however, is taking away the rights and protections of women so we achieve this.

What we should not being doing is stripping away a century’s worth of women’s suffrage simply to indulge the gender identity mafia.

What we should not be doing is attacking women and labelling them transphobic (and far worse)  simply for discussing their concerns.

And lastly what we really shouldn’t be doing is ignoring women.

We woman are strong,  We are resilient and we are loud.

We are mothers, we are fire fighters, we are trade unionist and we are Mumsnet.

You ignore us at your peril.

Lucy Masoud