Women and girls matter

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer and researcher. She specialises in ending male violence against women and girls and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol. She talks about women’s right to political participation and the way policy making regarding sex and gender has been taking place worldwide.

This is a transcript of the speech she gave at our Bath meeting, A Woman’s Place is to be heard. You can watch the film here.

Good evening, everyone.

I want to begin by thanking you all very much for being here. Thank you, Woman’s Place UK, for inviting me to participate on this panel. Particular thanks to our venue for withstanding intense pressure and facing down intimidation because by remaining strong, you have stood up for women’s rights to freedom of thought (1), freedom of conscience (2), freedom of expression (3) and freedom of assembly and association (4), as they are already enshrined in the Human Rights Act (1998). What a ghastly prospect that this needs to be said, but thank you very much nonetheless.

I would like to speak to you about why I am involved in this campaign. Why put yourself through this? Why does this even matter?

It matters because women and girls’ matter. That’s why.

You may have noticed that I’m an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. I came to the United Kingdom less than a year ago in November 2017, to start a PhD at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research with the University of Bristol.

My experience with this topic goes backs a few years ago, when I was doing my master’s degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. It was there were I encountered many of the theories and analysis that explain the current political climate. But I didn’t know that back then. Back then, when I listened to the analysis of Queer Theory and Postmodernism, I thought that they were… one out of many different theories. I never took an interest in those subjects because, to be honest, none of it seemed structural and it couldn’t produce a systemic analysis of the oppression of women and girls, which is what I was interested in.

So, I thought of it, the way I think about Ecofeminism and Cultural Feminism and Lesbian Separatism: all have some valid points, but these were one out of many theories within feminism. I obviously have very strong opinions about sex and gender (in case you couldn’t tell from my writing!) but I think that it is perfectly legitimate and even healthy to have all these perspectives out there, because you get to decide how you want to create your framework of analysis. Perhaps I was a bit naïve in thinking that this “lets all hold hands” kind of approach was sustainable in the long terms.

Fast forward a few years and I was working as a civil servant at the Ministry of Women in the Dominican Republic. Part of my job was to analyze policy and I began to find Queer Theory definitions in several law projects. I didn’t understand… I was not so much taken aback, just baffled that these ideas that were, at best, a niche set of theories in US academia had found their way to my country.

Nobody had discussed these issues on a national level. There were no debates in newspapers or in television…

There is a conversation going on now, because I started writing publicly about it, so they’re all very mad at me for doing so, not with the people who wanted to hide this stuff in the law from the public.

But my, perhaps naïve, question is: why was this being proposed to be enshrined in law, at all? Some of the definitions said that a ‘woman’ was anyone who identifies as a woman, others said that ‘misogyny’ was a rejection of ‘the feminine’ and trans people were defined as ‘anyone who rejects gender norms’. These are, quite obviously, very contentious legal definitions needing further discussion.

I started having lots of meetings with all sorts of people involved in decision-making positions to grasp where they were coming from on this topic and how much they had thought this through. What I found is that nobody was even aware that there is a legitimate feminist case for critiquing many of these ideas. At the same time, I started connecting with feminists in other countries: Brazil, the United States, Spain, Canada, Bolivia, Chile… and they all repeated the same themes: “No, this hasn’t been properly discussed but its already in some law projects that they’re trying to pass.” And in some of those countries, it has already become law.

Here I want to you pay attention to the power dynamics of this situation because many countries are influenced by international non-profit organizations and state actors. The fact that many powerful NGOs and major states (progressives and not-so-much) are enshrining gender identity, and indeed self-id, in their policy manuals and their legislatures can carry a lot of weight. In this process of trying to figure out what’s going on, I’ve also had a chance to meet many people from those major organizations as well and they all repeat the same thing: “yes, we have this in policy but there’s a lot of infighting about it” or “I’m struck by how little we thought this through”.

That’s significant because, from the outside, you don’t see those intense conversations. You see major players going along with self-id, the erasure of sex-based protections for women and girls and the idea that gender in an innate feeling, which means they are legalizing gender essentialism while abolishing a material reality. Those state actors and players in the nonprofit sector can carry enormous weight for many countries.

These are massive shifts in the way we understand not only feminist theory but also feminist praxis. I think we can all agree that women and girls are a distinct sex class (1), a political subject on our own right (2), and that gender identity politics are problematic (3) …but maybe we’re wrong? So, let’s discuss this and debate this publicly, the way that all political issues must be aired before the public. The question becomes: why can’t we have public conversations about sex and gender without being ostracized and seeing our jobs and academic opportunities threatened?

This particular point is what makes what is happening here, in the United Kingdom, so politically significant. Because it is normal for women to say, behind closed doors, “this doesn’t make sense to me” but never say that publicly. We keep these objections between ourselves. As long as we keep the peace by not uttering those objections out loud, we’re safe and can keep pretending that what’s happening worldwide when it comes to sex, gender and policy making is fine. What we are saying tonight and in these campaigns is “not only does this not make any sense, but you don’t get to enshrine things into law that haven’t been properly discussed with the public”. And when I say “the public”, it means everyone in society. Including the people who you don’t like.

That is a basic principle in policy making and the fact that it is being steamrolled on this topic is deeply worrisome. In your little Whatsapp group, in your local organization, in your political party… you can say “the only people worth listening to are X, Y and Z” or “me and my friends all agree on these set of ideas, therefore these are our norms”. Yes, on those settings, you can do that. But when you are working on public policy locally, nationwide or internationally, you must consider everyone’s opinions, reflect on their interests and respect that their rights must also be taken into account.

I am not saying that is always easy but that’s democracy. Whether we like it or not.

The Yogyakarta Principles are the most perfect example of groupthink and what happens when you get a group of mostly wealthy men from the Global North together in a room to write policy about gender: the result is a document that doesn’t even consider women and girls interests and our rights. Surely, we can do better than that!

We need to remember that this entire conversation is not taking place in a void, it is taking place in a patriarchy. And what we know about patriarchy is that we’ve been socialized since the moment we are born to dismiss the concerns of women and girls, to believe that women and girls do not have boundaries and that everything will be better if women and girls just played along and are nice. Nice girls don’t want to sit down with politicians to debate the minutiae of policy changes. Nice girls don’t insist of holding meeting to discuss their rights under the current law and the threats facing them. Nice girls accept whatever our male-dominated political establishment hands down us, regardless of how awful it may be. And what we are doing tonight is saying, “Actually, no”.

What we are seeing time and time again is that women are being systemically prevented from voicing political opinions about the law, often under the threat of violence or of losing our employment, and we have a political class that has decided to turn a blind eye. Instead of repudiating the climate of fear and hostility that has, unfortunately become the norm for women’s rights campaigners on this issue, we see politician after politician ignoring the toxic aspects of what’s going on and instead, siding with the people bullying women.

The fact that this is happening in a country where women already have sex-based rights and are currently a protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) should trouble all of us, regardless of what we think about the proposed reforms to the GRA. In the UK, women are currently celebrating some women gaining the right to vote, which paved the way for all women gaining the right to vote but, as I’ve said often before, that right is not just about casting a ballot on election day; it is also about the right to political participation.

What we are witnessing is the sidelining of women’s voices from the political arena on a crucial topic (whether women are a political subject, on our own right). Everywhere around the world, people can see that. The normalisation of the abuse of women on this issue is spreading.

We already live in a sexist society that is violent to women and girls. When a Labour Party Women’s Officer says to women “if you don’t like our policy on sex and gender, you can suck my lady cock” that language debases women and the entire political arena. Let’s stop and reflect on the fact that a major progressive political party, in England, is giving a position that was created for women, to open space for women’s participation in politics, to people who are turning them into Bully Pulpits to abuse women. Something has gone terribly wrong here.

However, this toxic context, as harrowing and inhospitable as it is, is our best ray of hope of finding a progressive solution that upholds the rights of everyone to live a life free from discrimination and violence, but without infringing on the rights of women and girls, because we have opened up a public conversation about sex, gender and identity.

To me, this in an issue of how society works and what does it mean to live in a democratic society. What does it mean to include content in the law that the vast majority of people have never in their lives even heard off? As Lisa Muggeridge says, this is not about X law in X country. This is about correcting a global blind spot in how we construct not only laws and policies, but also school trainings, public discourse and the way we understand women’s role in society: why does everyone have a right to an identity defined in law, except women?  Why did we had to face intimidation to discuss a law project today, here in Bath? Why are we not allowed to talk about this openly? Why do women meeting to discuss setting boundaries around ourselves need to hire security?

The worst-case scenario is not that we lose the debate. The worst-case scenario is having absolutely no debate. Because what we know is that unless there is an immense pushback from “regular people”, what will become public policy, taught in school and academia, spread in the media… is whatever benefits the powerful. And women, regardless of our own individual privileges, have never had enough structural power to be considered a powerful sex class.