Catherine Ravenscroft, Durham University
Last month Russia enacted a new law effectively banning people with certain illnesses from driving. Within the listed illnesses are those viewed as “personality and behaviour disorders”, for example transsexualism and other “disorders of sexual preference”.
The move was justified by the Russian government on the basis of a need to reduce the high rates of traffic accidents occurring each year. The country currently has some of the worst figures for road accident fatalities in the world and it is believed that stricter controls on those given the opportunity to drive will make the roads safer.
Nevertheless, the Act has received international criticism due to its potentially detrimental effects on the transgender community. Jean Freedberg, of Human Rights Campaign Global, argued that the ban is “simply another example of the Russian government’s increased campaign of persecution and discrimination against its LGBT population”. Like other critics, Freedberg fails to see the logic behind connection that the Russian government has drawn between gender identity and driver ability. As Shawn Gaylord, of US-based Human Rights First, argues, “banning people from driving based on their gender identity or expression is ridiculous”. He also expresses concerns that it could deter transgender people from seeking mental health services due to a fear of losing the right to drive.
Such a deterrent measure would be shocking from any county, however this is not the first time Russia has come under scrutiny for its LGBT record. It recently came under fire for its crackdown on LGBT ‘propaganda’ before the 2014 Winter Olympics. Challenges to this law, like that being launched by the Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights, are therefore to be welcomed. Their likelihood of success, however, appears limited under the record of current government and their treatment of the LGBT community.
Thailand will recognise ‘third gender’ in new constitution
Gita Keshava, Durham University
With the aim of protecting the human rights of all people, including those who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth, Thailand’s new constitution will, for the first time, recognise a third gender. Kamnoon Sittisamarn, the spokesperson for the constitutional drafting panel, stated that this new inclusion is because Thai society has advanced. Thailand has a large and vocal LGBT community, particularly of gender non-conforming individuals, hence the effect that this inclusion is very much welcomed.
The recognition of a third gender illustrates that gender is not a binary, and that individuals may identify as neither male nor female. Thailand is following countries such as Nepal, which allow a third gender category to passports, and India, whose Supreme Court held that third gender recognition was a human rights issue. Thailand currently allows for people to change their legal gender. However, same-sex marriage is currently not legal, although it was discussed and legislation was drafted in 2012. This has many implications for same-sex couples such as taking out joint bank loans and medical insurance.
2015 welcomes Scotland’s first same-sex marriages
Oriana Frame, Durham University
When reading Nicola Sturgeon’s statement, ‘I believe that the love between a couple, regardless of their gender, sexuality, belief or background, is powerful and should be valued and recognised’, in the Foreword to the Equality Network’s guide to same-sex marriage and civil partnership in Scotland, there is a real sense of satisfaction.
The story that started with the 2008 launch of the Equality Network’s same-sex marriage campaign, which was the first major campaign of its kind within the UK, has finally and gratifyingly achieved its goal.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act came into effect on the 16th of December 2014 and is considered to be one of the most progressive pieces of same-sex marriage legislation in the world. Following the Act, couples were free to give the standard 15 day notice period of their intention to marry meaning that this Hogmanay was destined to be a memorable one.
Despite Scotland’s first same-sex marriages, technically, beginning on the 16th of December (as couples who were already in Scottish civil partnerships were given the opportunity, through a free administrative process, to convert them to marriage) the final day of 2014, will forever be remembered as the day the first same-sex marriage ceremonies took place in Scotland.
However, it is clear that the battle for equality in Scotland remains ongoing, with new targets continually being set. With many campaigners congratulating themselves on a job well done, there is always further progress to be made. And thus, it may be time now, to turn to the Scottish Government Consultation on mixed-sex Civil partnership that can be expected in Spring of this year.
Scottish Government cuts financial aid for domestic abuse care
Tammie Chung, Durham University
The Scottish Government’s cuts to financial aid for the support of domestic abuse care raises concerns for women and children across the country. The Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) has been vocal about their concern that these cuts will leave many vulnerable women and children with little to no support. Although these welfare cuts can impact men and women alike, it is undeniable that proportionately, more women and children rely on these services than adult men. The SWA say that more than 25,000 women make contact for the first time with one of their services; cuts to funding would severely impact the growing need for these services. Representatives from Dumbarton District Women’s Aid are concerned that these cuts will ultimately mean that the refuges in the area will no longer be able to stay open.
Welfare cuts in previous years have raised similar concerns, not only regarding domestic abuse support. In 2013, funding cuts raised concerns for the functioning of the Rape Crisis hotline in Scotland. In the same year, the Scottish government produced a report that outlined some of the issues of the gendered impact of welfare reform in terms of financial aid and poverty prevention programmes. Cuts made to welfare funding continue to affect women and children disproportionately, and need to be taken seriously. It is important to remember that certain types of cuts, such as the recent cuts on abuse care funding, are discriminatory in nature.
Holocaust memorial reminds Europe that the battle against prejudice continues
Oriana Frame, Durham University
When Soviet forces finally reached Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 27th of January 1945, the concentration and extermination camp had already claimed the lives of over one million individuals. Since 2001, the date has existed as Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom and as International Holocaust Remembrance Day since 2005.
This year, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, memorial ceremonies took place across Europe; with survivors, relatives and world leaders gathering to formally commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution, and commit to ensuring that they are never forgotten. Perhaps the most poignant of these ceremonies involved the congregation of around 300 Holocaust survivors at the entrance to the Birkenau site itself.
In the UK, there were various commemorations including the Holocaust Memorial Service in London. But perhaps the most crucial event was the publication of the report drafted by the cross-party ‘Holocaust Commission’. Amongst other things, the report has recommended a new national memorial that, while preserving the centrality of the Jewish loss, should also honour those such as ‘the Roma community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents, homosexuals and people with mental and physical disabilities’ who were persecuted in their thousands, alongside the Jewish people. The report, in complementing the messages articulated across Europe, provided a crucial reminder that indeed almost every minority suffered under the Nazi regime, in events that ultimately took place, not that long ago.
In grappling with the realities of the Holocaust, there can hardly be a more horrific example of the manifestation of hate and prejudice, nor a more poignant reminder of how vital the responsibilities to defend minority rights and celebrate diversity, are. Reflecting not only on the nature of the anti-Semitism, but also the other discriminations that were based on National Socialist ideology; we are reminded that discrimination can take many forms. Not only this, but also how subtly it all began. And so, the warnings offered by Auschwitz and sites like it, remain as relevant now as they have ever been. There really is no inequality or prejudice that can be considered too subtle.
Perhaps some the most fitting words of the day were those offered by Roman Kent, a survivor who spoke at the ceremony held at Birkenau; ‘It is our mutual obligation, that of survivors and national leaders, to instil in the current and future generations the understanding of what happens when virulent prejudice and hatred are allowed to flourish. We must all teach our children tolerance and understanding at home and in school. For tolerance cannot be assumed …. It must be taught.’
Anti-Feminist party to stand in General Election
Bethany Houghton, Durham University
The 2015 general election is drawing closer and, with this, political parties are beginning to campaign and gain the support of the general public. One such party is ‘Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them)’, created in 2013. This is a party that is proud of its unique selling point of being the only anti-feminist political party in the English-speaking world.
Their manifesto tells of the 20 areas, including abortion, domestic and sexual violence, and the economy where they feel men are disadvantaged. Some of the policies include abolishing the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010, stopping subsidising sperm banks for single women and lesbians, tax advantages for married couples (to encourage women to stay at home and reject employment), and reducing the time limit for abortions on grounds of the risk of injury to mental health reduced to 13 weeks.
They repeatedly assert that there are “no ways in which the state disadvantages women and girls” and that the real injustice in society is the harm of gender equality and ‘radical’ feminists (radical meaning any self-identified feminist or women’s supporter, not referring to MacKinnon and Dworkin).
Fortunately, they do not seem to have masses of popular support, which even leader Mike Buchanan reportedly recognises. However the seats they are targeting, Sherwood, Ashfield and Broxtowe in the Nottingham area, are marginal and with the uncertainty of this election even the smallest of votes for this party has the potential to change the outcome in our FPTP system.
A quote from their manifesto reads “we have a vision of Britain as a nation that doesn’t disadvantage half its citizens.” This vision is one which is shared by feminists. The pockets of male disadvantage are far outweighed by women’s even today. Unfortunately for J4MB, it is (almost) universally recognised that women are they disadvantaged and the march of feminism continues.
Amal Clooney deals with sexist journalism
Catherine Ravenscroft, Durham University
Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer recently married to Hollywood actor George Clooney, demonstrated her wit last week when interviewed by a reporter from The Telegraph. The barrister is currently representing Armenia in a high profile legal battle against Turkey concerning freedom of expression. Nevertheless the reporter chose to focus on her choice of attire, claiming there was fierce speculation about what she would be wearing for the court appearance. In response she quipped “I’m wearing Ede and Ravenscroft”, referring to the English company of robe makers.
While her response is both clever and amusing, it does reflect an emerging trend in the way Mrs Clooney is depicted in the media. Since her marriage, the media focus has been very much on her role as a Hollywood wife and not her professional achievements. This is not something the Human Rights lawyer is overly comfortable with. It also risks diminishing the importance of the trial in which she is involved, which could have significant free speech ramifications. However, she is not the only victim of such seemingly superficial reporting. Michelle Obama’s fashion choices received similar media treatment at a recent state dinner. Perhaps it is time for the media, and the public in general, to recognise that these women are more than their fashion choices. Otherwise, we risk missing the importance of the causes they represent.
First female Church of England Bishop consecrated
Sarah Thin, Durham University
It’s certainly been a long time in coming: not until 1994 were the first female priests ordained, and in 2012, the General Synod rejected legislation introducing female bishops; following long negotiations, the Synod finally voted in November to allow such a move, and on 26 January, Rev. Libby Lane was consecrated as the first ever female CofE bishop.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said that the Church is entering into a ‘completely new phase of our existence’. But how great a step forward does this move actually represent? It is clear that many members of the CofE remain fundamentally opposed to the idea. Libby Lane’s consecration ceremony was at one point interrupted by Paul Williamson, a rector from Hounslow (see the video here). He later explained in a blog post that his objection was based on the fact that the consecration of female bishops goes against the bible and therefore the word of God.
One striking element of his post was the focus on the ‘eternal and unchanging’ nature of God and the preservation of the status quo: ‘Jesus took bread and wine, and said “This is my Body—this is my Blood” and we cannot change to a hamburger and coke because that is the most popular food today.’ Lesley Crawley has written that the reasoning behind objection to women’s involvement in professions including the Church ‘often boils down to fear of change’. This is a very human fear – one that we are all guilty of at times – and it will always stand in the way of progress to some extent. Religious institutions often seem especially able to cloak such fears in the language of loyalty and true faith; to disguise prejudice as ‘legitimate theological difference’. As Crawley writes, ‘if it walks, swims and quacks like prejudice, then it is prejudice.
While steps forward have certainly been made, there is still clearly a long road to travel before we arrive at equality. It is likely to be slow-going: now over 20 years since the first ordination of female priests, women make up just over 0.2% of full time CofE priests. We can look forward to greater change and equality in the Church in the future, but it would probably be best not to hold our breath.