Should self-identifying trans women be on all-women shortlists? Our writers discuss | Shaista Aziz, Susanna Rustin, Shon Faye and Sonia Sodha

Labour is consulting on the inclusion of transgender women without a gender recognition certification. Four writers share their views on this proposal

Shaista Aziz: True feminism gives a voice to the most marginalised women

Shaista Aziz. Circular panelist byline. DO NOT USE FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE!
Photograph: Supplied for byline

Last year I was selected to stand as a candidate on an all-women shortlist in Oxford city council’s 2018 election in Rose Hill and Iffley ward. I put myself forward after taking part in a year-long political mentoring programme run by the Fabian Women’s Network to increase the representation of women in politics. This scheme totally demystified power and politics for me, and helped me understand even more clearly why women with intersectional identities are still missing from the hallways, corridors, rooms and chambers in the House of Commons. We are locked out from these spaces because of structural inequalities that exist in wider society.

There is no level playing field for women with intersectional identities: for black women, lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, Muslim women, women of faith and working-class women. It doesn’t matter how talented we are or how much we know, we face reinforced concrete ceilings in politics based on discrimination.

The inconvenient truth is that the so-called sisterhood doesn’t work for all women; it never has and it never will unless the gatekeepers understand they need to make way for the most marginalised women to step to the front and amplify their voices – this is what true feminism is.

Many white cis women – the women with power and privilege – are just as likely as some white men to pull up the ladder behind them, and in so doing further reinforce the patriarchy.

There should be absolutely no question of self-identifying trans women being accepted on all-women short lists. Of course our trans sisters should be in this space. These are the women on the margins of our society and most at risk of rape, sexual violence and abuse.

• Shaista Aziz is a journalist and a member of the Fabian women’s executive committee

Susanna Rustin: Of course all women are eligible, but female anatomy is not irrelevant

Susanna Rustin. Circular panelist byline. DO NOT USE FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE!

All women must be eligible for all-women shortlists, and the current furore – which is not limited to the Labour party: this week also saw a confrontation on breakfast TV about whether trans women are entitled to work in women’s shelters – is partly the government’s fault. Last summer’s promise to consult on plans to adopt a non-medical system of gender “self-declaration” has not been followed through.

The current, angst-ridden limbo is the result. Clearly those responsible for managing such sensitive single-sex settings as refuges, prisons or sports clubs must have some process of verification. It cannot simply be enough to say: “I am a woman”. Apart from anything else, such a non-system would be an invitation to cheats – or, as one Labour MP said of shortlists, male activists who object to women-only selections and wish to subvert them. Which is not to say that a new law will sort everything out.

We are in the midst of a profound societal shift, and decisions about single-sex spaces will have to be made case by case. But until the expected self-declaration system – whereby a trans person can change their gender permanently without a quasi-legal examination – is properly worked out, we are stuck.

And where we are stuck is awful. Most importantly, it is awful for transgender people, because their lives and futures have been left hanging. But as the debate surrounding gender identity has become more polarised, and the divergence of views between trans activists and some feminists has hardened into a standoff, others too have come under attack. Clearly some women are prejudiced against trans people. But the label “transphobic” should not be hurled at anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the interests of trans women and other vulnerable women might sometimes come into conflict.

Meanwhile, and whatever gender theory says, many of us (myself included) are struggling to keep up. I understand that gender identity and biological sex are different, and that anyway biological sex is not so straightforward as was once thought. I believe in a non-binary future (the writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf, two of my heroes, were pioneers of such ideas). But theory and life are not the same, and the fact is that for many women, our female bodies (periods, fertility, fear of female cancers, awareness of men’s greater physical strength) feel like an important part of our identities.

Sexual violence, laws that force girls and women who have been raped to give birth, shoddy maternity services: the oppression of women can take brutally physical forms, and while female anatomy isn’t an essential characteristic of a “woman”, nor can it be dismissed as an irrelevance. Yes, trans people are arguably the most vulnerable and persecuted minority there is. But misogyny is real too, and the hatred and disgust aroused by female bodies is one of the reasons why we still need feminism.

That there is no easy route out of this goes without saying. The risk to the wider progressive cause, of rival groups of activists getting stuck in a culture war cul-de-sac, are obvious. At least Labour, by addressing the question of all-women shortlists, is trying to find a way through.

• Susanna Rustin is a Guardian writer and editor

Shon Faye: How would a man benefit from posing as a trans woman?

Shon-Faye. Circular-panelist-byline.DO-NOT-USE-FOR-ANY-OTHER-PURPOSE!

Trans women, like all women, have immensely different experiences from each other. Some begin living as their authentic selves before puberty, some in their teens, some at 40 and some even later. Trans women can be gay or straight, white women or women of colour, disabled or non-disabled, we can be Muslim or Christian or atheist. We can be anarcho-communists or home counties Tories.

As a result, arguments to exclude trans women from all-women shortlists based on our natal sex alone become incoherent, given that they normally rest on reductive and totalising assumptions about how trans women are socialised, usually in contrast to other women. Our difference is highlighted and what we share with fellow women is erased. It’s why campaigns for blanket bans on trans women quickly descend into the same old dehumanising rhetoric about genitals – which is strange, given that I have never had cause to write to my MP inquiring about theirs.

Many trans women will share the same setbacks as other women in life: sexual violence or its threat, the expectation we should fulfil feminised roles of caregiving and the pay gap. We also face the same obstacles all women in politics face: belittling and dismissive attitudes from men, media scrutiny based on our looks, social media abuse, being excluded from the old boys’ club of men’s social networks and so on. As a result, it is entirely just and appropriate that trans women be able to access support systems to boost women’s representation in parliament, such as all-women shortlists.

“What if men pretend to be trans to get a seat?” is the last refuge of the desperate. Politics is already a game rigged for incompetent white men – how would such a man benefit from posing as a trans woman?

Let’s be honest: if a trans woman gets on to a shortlist she still has to win the candidacy (against the other women) and then ultimately the seat to enter parliament – against the immense prejudices and scrutiny that comes from being an out trans woman in public life. The idea that self ID facilitates an easy route for men or anyone not deadly serious about their identity as a trans woman to sneak into parliament – or anywhere else for that matter – is a canard and a weak one at that. In 10 years we’ll all cringe that this was even a discussion.

• Shon Faye is a writer, artist and standup comedian

Sonia Sodha: Be wary of anybody claiming absolute moral certainty

Sonia Sodha. Circular panelist byline. DO NOT USE FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE!

The trans rights debate has become deeply toxic, in part because of what people perceive there to be at stake, but also, I suspect, in part because of a lack of understanding of each other’s perspectives. It’s all-or-nothing: some trans advocates deny there may be legitimate questions about how to balance the rights of trans and cis women, and denounce those asking them as transphobic. Some cis feminists seem unwilling to give way on anything, fearing a slippery slope that ends with their hard-won rights being trampled.

I support making it much less intrusive for people to register their gender as different from the one they were assigned at birth; it’s clearly demeaning for trans people to have to be diagnosed with a medical condition in order to change their gender. But I think it’s wrong for supporters of trans rights to say it’s transphobic for women to ask questions about spaces that exist to protect women from male violence.

Of course some trans women have suffered male violence, and are no less deserving of protection. But if changing your gender is a matter of self-declaration, what safeguards are there to stop male criminals disingenuously declaring themselves female to get themselves out of a violent men’s prison and into a women’s prison? What would happen if a trans woman with a history of sexual violence against women – and who still has male sex organs – says it’s their right to be in a women’s prison? These are questions that need exploring, and risks that need mitigating.

I don’t see the same clash of rights in all-women shortlists. Trans women face no less discrimination when it comes to politics than cis women; there are none in parliament. Trans women make up a tiny percentage of the population and I can’t see men faking being trans in order to get on to a women’s shortlist. This could represent an opportunity for two groups to come together and argue for Labour to expand its use of all-women shortlists – that are inclusive of trans women – even further; it’s a shame that this seems unlikely.

At heart, these are fundamentally complex issues that involve competing rights, and are not easy to resolve. We should be wary of anyone claiming absolute moral certainty.

• Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer


Shaista Aziz, Susanna Rustin, Shon Faye and Sonia Sodha

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