British unionist Kiri Tunks: A woman’s place is resolute

Kiri Tunks is a trade unionist and co-founder of Woman’s Place UK.* Below is a talk she gave in London on 23rd January 2019

A Woman’s Place is Resolute – Nothing about us without us (Kiri Tunks)

First of all, I want to pay homage to the disability rights movement for popularising this brilliant slogan in the UK. It’s a refrain with a long and global history because the fundamental principle applies to all of us:

Decisions which affect our lives cannot, should not, must not, be made without our input and involvement.

This is something so obvious it feels shocking in 2019 to have to say it.

And yet…

How have we come to a situation where women are denied the right to define the words that describe them and describe their oppression?

How have we come to a situation where women are told the rights they have fought for and won can be changed without our say-so?

How have we come to a situation where organising to challenge these changes is subject to fascist-like intimidation and harassment?

Kiri Tunks

Nothing about us without us

Who are the ‘Us’?

For WPUK, the ‘Us’ is women. Adult human females.

Women: whose sex-based rights have been established in law and yet now find that these rights are being undermined and erased by people meddling with a definition determined by biological reality, that have been socially agreed and understood for millennia.

Feminists are routinely accused of ‘biological essentialism’ but we are not the ones who reduce women to bodily parts or functions like ‘vagina-haver’, ‘cervix-owner’ or ‘menstruators’ or ‘bleeders’ – all reductive and offensive terms.

Erasing the word ‘woman’ and reducing us to a series of disjointed biological functions dissects the wholeness of our being, denies the material reality of our lives and dismisses the oppression we face.

It denies us our right to collective determination and organisation.

Women face discrimination & oppression because of society’s inability to organise itself to suit the lives and experiences of everyone. It’s hardly surprising if women are getting organised themselves.

The rights we have are only ours because we have fought our corner; because our fore-sisters hacked this space out in the face of huge opposition and hostility.

We have no intention of giving them up. But more than that, we have come to realise how flimsy and limited these rights are.

Not only will we defend our corner, but we will fight for more because, frankly, what we’ve got isn’t enough.

Women suffer endemic levels of sexual harassment, abuse & violence

Plan UK report that 85% of women aged 18-24 suffer routine street harassment. Reports from the National Education Union/UK Feminista, End Violence Against Women and Girl Guiding show sexual harassment and abuse is rife in schools and colleges.

We have heard from Karen about the hig levels of domestic violence in the UK for which women are often blamed.

Women have to contend with the failure of criminal justice systems

Fewer than 6% of reported rapes result in conviction. How many rapes are unreported

There is a societal failure to prevent or stem domestic or intimate partner violence and a failure to protect women and children.

Campaigning groups like the Centre for women’s Justice have to go to the Supreme Court to get a judge to tell police to investigate crimes against women properly…

Women suffer persistent Economic inequality

The pay gap is increasing again. Women still largely work in low paid jobs in the 5 ‘Cs’ (clerical, caring, catering, cleaning, cashiering). 54,000 women in the UK lose their jobs every year due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. And women are the hardest hit by this government’s austerity policies. The UN Rapporteur said of the UK welfare system that is so sexist ist may as well have been compiled by “a group of misogynists in a room” . We know from research by the Women’s Budget Group that poor, Black women are the worst off.

Women are inadequately represented

There is a lack of women in politics, commerce, culture, justice, academia, Science & Technology; a lack of representation in leadership or positions of agency. Attacks on trade unions and collective bargaining have a particular impact on the rights and conditions of women at work and their wider lives.

We are witnessing the rise of retrograde cultural attitudes

There’s a resurgence of stereotypes such as the pink brain/blue brain nonsense. There is a constant judgement of women and women’s behaviour. Women are demonised and sexually objectified. Women are abused and reviled in public discourse in both mainstream and social media. You only have to look at how Diane Abbott is treated to acknowledge that.

For all these, our experience is exacerbated by class, race – disability,

And yet, the development and implementation of polices without involving women is rife:

  • The move by stealth to mixed sex wards despite the NHS being obliged to offer single sex facilities
  • The conversion of single sex toilets in schools and public places to mixed sex without any consultation.
  • The number of councils and organisations who have substituted gender for sex as a protected characteristic and are obstructing women from accessing their sex-based legal rights
  • The leisure centres moving to mixed sex changing rooms with no thought as to the rights or wishes of women who might for reasons of faith, privacy, dignity, safeguarding and trauma want single sex facilities or sessions
  • The completely inadequate response to sexual assault survivors from the police, criminal justice system and health services so that leading campaigners like Jessica Eaton now no longer advise women to report their assault.
  • The underprovision & underfunding of women’s sector services by a government that think these services should instead be funded by the Tampon tax or the lottery
  • The erasure of lesbians, their identity and their boundaries including from organisations that pretend to represent them – see Michael Biggs’ analysis of reports from Stonewall, HRC and GLAAD.
  • The opening of All Women Shortlists to self-identifying women instead of looking at other mechanisms to address the under-representation of other groups
  • The reliance on token female representation and the lack of diversity so that women of colour, women of faith, disabled women, lesbians, young women, old women poor women are ignored and excluded from decision making

And, of course, the failure of the Women & Equalities Committee to call any women’s representatives to give evidence in person to the Transgender Inquiry or to address the concerns raised by women in their written submissions.

The debate that ensued around these proposals exposed some ugly truths about the world in which we live:

  • women are allowed to have opinions as long as they are the right ones;
  • women are allowed to have rights as long as they don’t exercise them
  • women who step out of line will be put back in place.

We are not prepared to tolerate that. 

When we started WPUK we thought we were just clearing a space for women to be heard; staking a claim for women in the debate.

For this, we have experienced a vile and abusive backlash.

But actually, as women, we are used to this kind of treatment.

We refused to be intimidated by it.

A failure to consult and involve people in decisions is a clear signal that you think those people don’t matter. Well, women do matter and we intend to make that mean something.

  • We want women represented at every level of every organisation and political party.
  • We want the views of self-organising women’s groups to be sought and incorporated into any policy or legal development.
  • We want organisations to actively involve the widest range of women in developing their policies so that they are representative and responsive to the needs of all women
  • We want organisations to review their equality policies to ensure they are compliant with their legal obligations.

And we will call out anyone who claims to know what women want if they cannot show they are basing this on the widest possible survey of the women they claim to represent.

Anything else is unacceptable.

Women make up half the world.

It’s about time we had our fair share of it.

@kiritunks

Links to all the speeches are here:

1. Women have the right to self-organise

2. The law must work for women

3. An end to violence against women

4. Nothing about us without us

5. Sex matters

  • It’s unfortunate the organisation has ‘UK’ in the title as UK means ‘United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland’.  In other words, includes the British-occupied part of Ireland.  We prefer the name ‘Britain’, which is what the Irish republicans call it.

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