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Protection from prejudice must be for everybody, not just politicians

There was plenty to welcome in this week’s Programme for Government. I applaud the recognition of the need for state support to boost green industries and create new jobs as has been done in the USA. It is also good to see land reform back on the agenda. And I particularly welcome the commitments to continuing action on disability rights and drug deaths and increasing the pay of social care workers in direct care roles. I have seen at first-hand how hard these people work and how important their contribution is to our society.  We must work towards giving them a wage which recognises their increasingly vital contribution to caring for our ageing population.

But what I like most of all is the First Minister’s focus on supporting women, his recognition that women are disproportionately affected by the pressures of modern life and the measures he announced to address this including expanding childcare. I was also delighted to hear the FM speak out against misogyny, and against the harassment and the violence to which women are subjected too often in our society. 

I am not convinced that legislating to criminalise misogyny is the way to go. Great care would require to be taken that any legislation did not run counter to the free speech protections in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act (HRA). That said, a bill on misogyny, although problematic, would at least allow the issue to be properly explored in the Scottish parliament.  However, I would prefer to see the Scottish Government legislate to make sure that the law recognises that women can be as vulnerable to offending behaviour motivated by prejudice as the other groups protected under Part 1 of Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act which consolidated existing law in this area. Not taking the opportunity to protect women from crimes aggravated by prejudice has sent out the wrong signal. It really cannot be right that a male cabinet secretary is better protected from hate crime than an ordinary working-class woman.  The police lost no time in arresting and charging someone for allegedly shouting “deviant” at Patrick Harvie while the young men who displayed disgusting signs advocating extreme violence against women at a rally in Glasgow earlier this year have seemed very hard to track down despite their photographs being plastered across the media after unwitting politicians were photographed standing in front of them.

Even worse, a middle-aged woman taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Aberdeen in July was attacked and punched in the face by a man trying to steal her banner.  Rather than charging him with assault the police let him off with a warning. So much for zero tolerance of violence against women.  Again, the contrast in the treatment of the perpetrator of this attack and the perpetrator of the alleged verbal assault on Patrick Harvie is quite striking.

Feminist groups have written to Police Scotland expressing their concern about the police decision merely to issue a warning where a woman was injured while exercising her right to free speech. They have yet to receive a response. A similar letter to the Lord Advocate elicited a response from a Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service official which failed to address most of the points raised.  

Section 6 of the Human Rights Act states that “It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention Right.” Article 10 of the ECHR protects freedom of expression.  Article 11 includes protection for freedom of assembly.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission have said that the HRA requires all public bodies including the police to respect and protect the human rights of all.   How seriously the police take assaults on women meeting peacefully to discuss and assert their lawful beliefs will affect how their rights under Article 10 and 11 can safely be exercised.   It seems to me that the police failed to properly fulfil their HRA duties in the way they dealt with the Aberdeen case and that the guidance they are following may not be human rights compliant. I would like to see our existing laws against violence against women properly enforced and the human rights of women put front and centre of government policy and by all public bodies. The lackadaisical approach to the violence and the threat of it against women described above is not confined to Scotland.  In England a violent criminal was recently acquitted on charges of inciting violence against women despite video evidence.  

“At the Trans+Pride rally in London on 8th July, Sarah Jane (formerly Alan) Baker, who served 30 years in prison for crimes, including kidnapping, torture, and attempted murder, told the crowd: “If you see a TERF, punch them in the f**king face.” This incitement, and the response of the whooping, cheering crowd, were captured on film. 

“TERF” stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It is a slur often accompanied by misogynistic and sexualised threats. It is used against women who recognise the fact that men commit violence at greater rates than women, and that men cannot become women by changing their name, clothing, or parts of their anatomy. This belief is also termed “gender critical”. 

Initially, the Metropolitan Police brushed off women’s complaints about Baker’s threatening words. Only after multiple complaints from women and a public outcry did they arrest Baker. Despite his history of extreme violence and the evidence captured on video, the court accepted his explanation that his words were a “joke”, merely intended to get him some publicity and newspaper headlines.” As a result of this travesty feminists in England have written a public letter to the PM asking him to act against the escalating threats and campaign of intimidation against women and to reform a criminal justice system that is failing women. So far, the letter has gathered over 10,000 signatures. You can read the letter from which I have quoted above here 

I would like to see our FM take similar action and what he said in his Programme for Government speech gives me hope that he will. I would also like to see all our political leaders and political parties lead by example by having policies of zero tolerance of misogyny.  Party members and staffers should not be able to bully, abuse or threaten women on social media or elsewhere without disciplinary action. 

Finally, a word to male readers who may fear that their rights could be overlooked. Of course, I recognise that not all men are part of the sort of toxic masculinity described above.  The FM spoke about how positive masculinity can help us all to build healthier relationships and lead to better mental health and wellbeing for men and boys. I am acutely aware of the pressures that men, young and old, face in our society. In order to understand this better I spent time this summer with men from Andy’s Men’s Club and the Men’s Shed movement learning about how men are getting together to offer each other peer support.  The FM has promised new Human Rights legislation in Scotland. We should always remember that human rights are universal and must be available to everyone.