Women Only Train Carriages and All Women Shortlists

Here’s the thing – I’ve actually been on a women only train carriage.

Just before being ordained I won a scholarship to travel to an orthodox country and went to Egypt to meet the Coptic Church. Actually, the truth is, I chose Egypt because I needed to come up with such a glittering application for the scholarship in order to win it and get some time away from my ordination training in Edinburgh. In the end, I discovered that the scholarship had only one applicant and that I could have won it and had a lovely time skipping around Greek islands instead of going to the Egyptian desert which was a much more tricky trip. However, the nature of tricky trips in countries like Egypt is that they are character forming and no mistake.

Mistake is very much what I accomplished when trying to take a ride on Cairo’s metro system however. I ran down the platform to catch a train that was just about to leave and jumped on just in time. Just in time to see about 100 female eyes swivel in my direction as the doors closed behind me and I realised that I was on a women only carriage. (The last carriage on the train was designated for women and children).

I’ll be honest and say that I’m quite enjoying Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to think outside the box. He said today he would be interested to hear what people (particularly women) thought about women only carriages as a way to safer travel.

I’m against the idea myself. I can understand anyone wanting to be able to travel in greater safety than they may feel they can currently travel. However, I think that women only carriages are the thin end of a rather destructive wedge. I can’t see that it is good for society to take policy decisions that are predicated on the idea that men are beasts and can’t help themselves. Zero tolerance to violence must be the answer I think, not purdah. The argument for women only carriages is not far from an argument for women wearing burqas. And yes, I’m aware of feminist Muslims feeling empowered by shrouding themselves from the gaze of men but no, I’m not convinced that’s a balanced, proportional or even particularly effective way of challenging sexism and male violence.

Interestingly, whilst the women only train carriages idea has caught the public imagination, I’ve become aware that a political party that I once was a candidate for is debating the introduction of women only shortlists again. And again, I’m not in favour. It seems to me that the idea that you can challenge the sexism that leads to women not being elected for things by introducing sexism against men is daft. However, it isn’t only daft, it is unlikely to succeed. And I think that because, unlike quite a lot of people in the Lib Dems these days, I’m a liberal. That means I believe in tackling root causes. The root cause of women not being elected is sexism within political parties and within society. I don’t buy the idea that sexism would disappear all of a sudden with a few more women leaders. I think that’s patronising in a number of directions. People who can’t sort out sexism in their own political party should not in my opinion be given a share in running the country. All women shortlists are not the answer to sexism. Challenging sexism is the answer to sexism. It isn’t easy but fights worth winning never are.

Incidently, I’m opposed to gay only shortlists and black and ethnic minority only shortlists too even though I often argue in favour of greater representation and visibility in both areas than we have seen hitherto.

From time to time people have a go at me about why we’ve not got any women bishops here in Scotland. They changed the rules in England and got women as bishops very quickly. We changed the rules ages ago and haven’t got one.

My answer is always the same. Which of our current bishops do my interlocutors think should be bumped off and which women do they think would be automatically elected in their place? We’ve got no vacancies for any new bishops at the moment and haven’t had many elections in recent years. There’s only been one election in which there was a female candidate and the electors chose a different candidate anyway – my current bishop. I was there at that election and don’t believe gender played any strong part in the selection. Most of the electors were bewildered that the world’s press came and camped on the cathedral doorstep and befuddled when they were told that it was because one of the candidates was female. “Really? Really?” was the common cry as people came in to vote pushing past the press peoplemen.

I’m often surprised that my church world is more diverse than other worlds I encounter. My congregation looks and feels a good deal more diverse than the people I encounter at the opera or theatre. It is also more diverse than the recent cohort of leaders in training that I met on Common Purpose.

Article in Herald: I’ll march with Pride – but…

I’ve got an article in The Herald newspaper this morning ahead of tomorrow’s Pride March in Glasgow. This is what it says:

Agenda: I’ll march with Pride at our achievements but there is still a long way to go

This weekend, I’ll be marching through Glasgow in a black clerical suit and dog collar amongst a sea of rainbows as I take my place in the Pride March.

There’s a huge amount to celebrate this year, not least the way marriage equality is sweeping the world. It is an idea whose time has come. However, there are a lot of areas where change still needs to come.

The truth is, marriage law reform is not enough to achieve equality and it isn’t as though we’ve actually achieved equal marriage yet in Scotland either. Most religious people who happen to be gay still cannot get married in their own chosen church or other place of worship. The law may have changed, as have social attitudes, but there are still plenty of institutions that discriminate directly against people like me.

The next steps are easy to foresee but they won’t happen automatically. We need individuals to continue to stand up against prejudice when they see it. We need the major equality organisations to understand how much remains to be done, particularly in areas touched by religion. We need political parties to continue to consult about the next steps in changing the law.

The most obvious area where a further change in the law could make a difference is in respect of charity law. It simply shouldn’t be the case in a modern Scotland that any group can be a charity, with all the tax breaks that implies, and campaign or discriminate against lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) people. Yet religious charities can do exactly that. Charities that tried to campaign against people because of their race would be utterly unacceptable in society even though that was once justified on religious grounds. The same change needs to happen in respect of all charities, religious and otherwise; no exemptions, no get-out clauses, no discrimination full stop. Why should any citizens have to live with so-called charitable organisations getting tax-breaks to campaign against their wellbeing?

Religion remains one of the areas where even the pro-equality organisations fear to tread. Yet equality will not ultimately be won in wider society until it has been won in even the most intransigent institutions. Campaigning organisations have helped to remove or at least significantly lessen prejudice and discrimination in so many unlikely institutions: the military, the police, the fire service, and so many workplaces have changed hugely for LGBT people. Their work cannot be completed until religious institutions have changed too.

Fortunately, the religious scene is beginning to change. The views of people in the pews of most of our institutions are converging around the acceptance of same-sex relationships. However, institutionally there is much to do and there’s a particular need for many in leadership positions to articulate publicly the support they have been happy to give to gay colleagues in private for years.

There will be many who share my view that no school, religious or otherwise, should have access to public money unless it is not merely tolerating gay staff and gay pupils but actively encouraging them to thrive. Education policy needs to catch up with public opinion. Conversations between government and the faith-school sector need to be both robust and challenging.

One of the most bizarre claims that we heard in the debate about marriage is that allowing same-sex couples access to marriage would somehow imperil the married lives of straight couples. Such nonsense was as likely to come to pass as the claims that hurricanes and earthquakes would follow on from strengthening gay rights.

In fact, there are areas of society where campaigning to improve things for LGBT people will lead to supporting marriage rather than threatening it. LGBT people are disproportionately and adversely affected by poor sex education in schools, for example, but that area of education is becoming a crisis for all pupils. Most young people learn about sex from pornography. If we want them to learn something different then it means parents working with schools to produce much better age-appropriate sex education using some of the successful models found on the continent. Such education will be much more explicit and come much earlier. It will also be much more effective leading to better life choices, happier people and fewer teenage pregnancies.

I’ll join the march this weekend with a strong sense of Pride in what we’ve achieved but also a strong yearning for the changes that we’re yet to bring about.

The Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth is Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow