I have shed many tears this week. Some of joy. Mostly, however, they have been tears of utter despair. This has been a maddening, exhilarating, but ultimately, a frightening week to be a woman in the UK. Sarah Everard is the name on every woman’s lips, her story one that we internalise from the moment we first become aware of our sexualisation by men – usually just as we are hitting puberty, if we are lucky. If we are less lucky, traumatic childhood experiences inform us of the risk that men pose to any female. At any time. In any setting.
Women. Adult human females. A word that feels as though it is under increasing attack. This was the week in which Fair Play for Women took the Office for National Statistics to Court for misleading guidance accompanying the census question concerning sex. It was not so long ago that such guidance would not have been required. Sex. A binary option. Male or female. But that was before the concept of gender identity took root in our government, in our institutions, in all ways of life, where the word woman has been appropriated by anyone who claims to feel that they are a woman, ignoring their own immutable biological reality.
I have a great deal of empathy for those who struggle with the body they are born in. It is a struggle I recognise. However, I deplore the way in which women’s spaces, women’s sports, women’s sex-based rights have been eroded by an ideology which demands unfettered access to anyone who says that they are a woman. I hate how women are expected to make way, make space and be kind, even when that kindness comes at a cost to us. To women.
I didn’t set out to become a gender critical feminist. Indeed, I never really thought much about feminism at all, up until circumstances made it imperative. And once I did the reading, considered the place of women given our history of oppression, given our fight for the right to exist, to own our own property, to vote, it seems to me almost impossible that I did not join the fight sooner.
I was proud to support Fair Play for Women’s action against the ONS, even though it is maddening that women had to crowdfund an action to prevent the stealth attack on the notion of sex that the ONS guidance was. I watched the live Twitter feed of the hearing, pressing refresh on my screen again and again, not daring to hope that somehow… somehow… women would prevail. Sitting on the other end of the screen, hope screaming against disbelief in my heart, I watched, with breathless anticipation, until THAT Tweet finally came, telling us that we had an arguable case, that the guidance had to come down immediately. I have to be honest. I never believed the action against the ONS would succeed but had been clinging on to a desperate hope that somehow common sense would prevail. I wept with joy. And I celebrated with my sisters throughout the UK – and even throughout the world. Ordinary women who had given what they could to ensure that the word sex retained its meaning.
But the joy was short-lived. Sarah Everard. When the dreaded but unsurprising news came that they had found a body, I wept, broken, my rage muted by the weight of my sadness. We should be able to walk home. We should be able to walk the shortest route possible, not have to think about which streets are the ‘safest’. But we can’t. We can’t because men are a constant threat to women’s safety – to our very lives. We make little adjustments every time we encounter a male when we walk alone. I posted on FB of my despair:
I find myself beyond upset at the news about Sarah Everard. We have all been the woman who walked home in the dark, heart beating, keys clenched in our fist, our flight/fight response alert and ready. We have all known what it is to keep our eyes down, clutch our coats tightly around us, praying if we make ourselves smaller, unseen, that we will be safe. We all know we should be able to walk home and feel safe from attack. But that day now feels further away from us than ever. I am so heartsick tonight, and so tired of women being told what we should do to be safe. But enough. Men – do better. You are the reason we don’t feel safe. I know it is not all men. But it is always a man who does this. That poor poor woman. My heart prays for you tonight.
And the thing is, you have to say it. It is not all men. Not all men are predators. But all women are prey. All of us. Always. We are never safe. And no amount of telling women what they should do to be safer addresses the fundamental problem of male violence against women or male entitlement to women’s attention, to women’s time or to our bodies. We tell men that we are married when we are not because it signals to a potential rapist that we are already taken by another, we smile at them when they tell us that we should because we are afraid to trigger their disapproval that could lead to an attack. We try to protect ourselves in a million small ways, because we know that while it is not all men, it might be this man who stands in front of me, telling me to smile as I try to walk past. Enough. When will it be enough? When will we be safe as we try to walk home?
Sarah’s death still sits as a raw wound in my heart this morning as I caught up on the other news and read the longlist of the books for Women’s Prize for Fiction. A Prize which only last year was opened up to anyone who identifies as a woman. It is yet another area in which women are being shoved aside to make way for men who feel that they are women. The reason that the Women’s Prize was established was to celebrate women’s voices, especially as those voices were often underrepresented in the existing prizes such as the Man Booker. Wasn’t it great that we had a Prize to celebrate women writers? This year, however, one of the longlisted books is by a transwoman, Torrey Peters.
I have only read one of the books on the longlist. It was not the book written by Torrey Peters. But I did look at some of Peters’s previous work, in which Peters writes:
Whatever size I might be, whatever shape, Felix saw me as a woman, and that he could treat me as a vulnerable woman, confident that I’d react as one. And I did. The thought turned me on. His slap had been the most feminizing thing that had ever happened to me, the most pure forced feminization of my life.
The book, The Masking, appears to be a celebration of forced feminisation literature and in it Peters fetishizes violence against women.
This is the voice that the Women’s Prize for Fiction chooses to amplify? What female story has been lost so that this book can take a place on the longlist? I am angry – even more so because I supported the Woman’s Prize for Fiction when it was precisely that – a prize that celebrated the writing of women. Now it feels like it is a prize for anyone. What is the point?
To top it all off, I have just learned that the vote to include sex in the Scottish Hate Crime Bill was lost. It seems women have been abandoned and are being made voiceless.
I am gutted for women this week. It feels like we are under constant attack. We cannot walk home without fearing for our lives. Even in writing this, I know that I am courting the anger of men who would prefer that I was silent. I risk censure. Yet after this week, all I can do is add my own voice to the growing storm that sits inside all women as we process our anger, our disbelief, our vulnerability, and our despair. Sooner or later, that storm must be unleashed.