Hailey Maxwell

Hailey Maxwell

Why the Scottish Left Must Do More on VAW

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Saturday marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 Days of Action Against Gender Based Violence, a campaign which runs until International Human Rights Day on 10 December. With thousands of women speaking up on sexual violence, Hailey Maxwell argues the Scottish left needs to be doing more…

Violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and so-called ‘honour based’ violence, continue to be prevalent across society. The destructive effect of this violence is felt by individual women and girls, and ripples across society, touching everyone. It cripples public and voluntary services and degrades any notion that democracy, dignity or freedom are operative values in society. Eliminating gender-based discrimination needs to be central to any strategy that hopes to transform Scotland, whether it be as an independent nation or within the UK.

The scale and ubiquity of sexual violence in the West has been a frequent topic of conversation for the past month. A catalogue of disclosures made by high-profile men and women involving high-profile perpetrators is steadily growing by the day. #MeToo continues to facilitate confessions, disclosures and solidarity, providing individuals without mainstream media platforms the opportunity to speak, be heard and to hear others in public discourse around sexual violence across digital space.

I initially began writing this piece as an outraged response to the lack of support for women I perceived from men in the Scottish Left in the early phases of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the first few days of #MeToo. I felt that people, organisations and institutions I respected were not taking the disclosures seriously enough and were not framing the issue of sexual violence at work as an issue crucial to trade unions and the labour movement. In the first week there was nothing official from any left wing parties or trade unions. I wondered if it would have made a difference if the disclosures were made in Catalan. 

Legend has it that in the 1970s, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution, Zhou En-lai (first Premier of the People’s Republic of China alongside Chairman Mao) responded: “too soon to tell.” Whether En-Lai was speaking about the French Revolution of 1789, 1830 or 1968 is unclear, yet his reticence to formulate a conclusion points towards the notion of political and social paradigm shifts as being open-ended rather than final. 

The velocity of our increasingly automated and largely digital culture means there is a pressure and tendency to make instant, hyperbolic judgements on everything we see and to share these judgements immediately, screaming into the same, internet-based echo chamber as our enlightened friends. As such, despite prompting a welcome discussion around issues of sexual violence, it’s far too early to say what long-term, large-scale cultural or political transformations, if any, will be brought in by #MeToo.

As with the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, initial shock and sympathy has begun to become replaced by open scorn and victim blaming. We can point to a number of significant, necessary and outstanding victories achieved in the liberation of women over the course of history and agree that these cumulative successes are something to be happy about. However, the work of ending violence against women and girls, and the radical restructuring of society needed to achieve this, is not yet done.

Sexual violence includes but is not limited to commercial exploitation and human trafficking, rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, grooming, groping, voyeurism and the sharing of indecent images without consent. In 2015, 51% of the Scottish population were women. Research suggests 25% of women will experience at least one form of sexual violence in their lifetime.

Scottish Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as “a pattern of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and/or violent behaviour, including sexual violence, by a partner or ex-partner.” The conversation around violence against women and girls is not intended to minimise or exclude the experiences of men who have survived either domestic or sexual violence, but “what about the men?” is a common diversionary question asked by those uncomfortable with empirical evidence.

Statistics show that abuse is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and experienced by women, and men are more likely to be abused by another man than they are by a woman. More men are likely to be disgusted and upset by violence against women and girls than to be perpetrators.

It has never been a secret that sexual violence and misogyny transcends party lines – and why should we think otherwise? It’s partly due to a real fear on the part of this author that any mention of specific well-known figures or scandals in the Scottish Left would prompt a vicious social media backlash that this response has had more time to ferment. There is nothing constructive about chastising socialist men for not tweeting that they think sexual harassment is bad.

But there are still plenty of men and women who identify as being on the Left who are not sold on the basic idea that gender equality directly impacts on improving societal conditions for everyone, much more than constitutional change on its own. Still, for groups who insist we can resolve a host of complex hurdles challenges and become a successful independent nation, the simple concept of mandatory gender-balancing in panel discussions is apparently a totally unachievable and impossible task.


As such, it’s much more productive to make the case to all self-identified opponents of capitalism that there can be no meaningful revolutionary change which is not fundamentally feminist, and that change requires political opinion to be evidence-based, rooted in the contemporary and translate into action in the real world of lived experience.  

This recommendation applies to everyone on the gender spectrum – surely we can all agree that emotional and rhetorical utterances on the internet, no matter how woke or witty, are no longer effective or meaningful forms of political action. Anti-capitalist organisations in Scotland, both Unionist or in support of Independence, need to seriously consider how any future society which has not eliminated gender inequality could possibly be any different from the one we live in now.

We easily accept Capitalism as a self-reproducing and self-perpetuating system which effects and involves everyone in society, however the notion that Patriarchy works in the same way is more quickly challenged. Patriarchy establishes the asymmetric power relationships in terms of ownership of property and labour and is the structure around which social life is organised from the way individuals perceive themselves, from the conservative model of the family, to more large-scale techniques of biopower such as social security or health policies. As such, it is vital that united opponents of capitalism come to the consensus that the patriarchal organisation of society is the foundation upon which capitalism builds its architecture.

In the prosecution of criminal offences, there is a scale of charges based on the perceived seriousness of an incident. However, when panel show pundits and Twitterati rhetorically compare allegations on a scale of severity to demonstrate that one complaint such as of an unwelcome hand touching a knee trivialises the seriousness of a rape complaint for example, this does two unhelpful things.

One, it suggests that we should expect that our bodily autonomy won’t always be respected. Secondly, it treats abuse as unconnected, standalone acts, rather than as part of a chain or pattern of behaviour which often starts with small gestures that wound, disempower and then escalate. 

While the Left broadly recognises these kinds of incremental oppressions within structures and systems of class-based violence, grand narrative thinkers often fail to apply the frameworks used to understand power on a societal scale i.e class stratification, to interpersonal interactions between two individual political subjects.

t has become clear that people who easily recognise seedlings of gentrification at the sight of a single pop-up cereal café in a working-class area, are unable to recognise that a hand on a knee is on principle an unacceptable violation of a person’s bodily autonomy, indicative of possible further violations in the future.

Interpersonal violence, no matter how ‘small’, is about power and control, and as such has no place whatsoever in radical politics on principle. Misogyny and violence against women is a symptom of authoritarianism, imperialism and white supremacy, both on the part of the perpetrator and the society which produced him.

A frequent refrain in Scotland, a fallacy frequently espoused by well-known members of the Scottish Commentariat who have built lucrative media careers upon their insistent self-identification as working-class, is that feminism only appeals to white middle-class women and does not care about working-class people. “Do you think people queuing at the foodbank care about gender equality?” they crow.

Disavowals of gender inequality like these show a real ignorance of the way poverty is experienced in reality.  It also flies in the face the dedicated work of voluntary organisations like Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, who have built radically governed organisations from the ground which have lobbied governments, enacted change within criminal justice, advocated, educated, supported and housed thousands of women and children for over 40 years from Shetland to the Borders.

It seems that particular people who perceive themselves as being on the Left, who openly balk at the mention of the word ‘feminism’, either have no idea or refuse to engage with the fact that the evils of neoliberal capitalism they are so ardently opposed to, disproportionately affect women in every area (particularly BME women).

As a movement, we have not collectively considered and agreed that a co-ordinated, gendered approach would likely enact more impactful and sustainable improvements for the lives of the Scottish working-class in general. And this is because many on the Left – who can more easily recognise racial inequality, and many of whom very much identify asymmetric power between nations in the UK – cannot stomach and accept the basic facts of gender inequality.

In 2015, the Scottish Women’s Budget group published Plan F: A Feminist Economic Strategy for a Caring and Sustainable Economy, a set of recommendations for wealth redistribution which reflects the reality of lived experience and the roles people play in society. Gendered budgeting is about prioritising spending to ensure it reflects the needs of citizens and recognises the need to collect statistical data which can demonstrate who accesses social security why they need it.

This approach does not aestheticise macho, heroic socialist utopias gone-by or consider internet memes as helpful expression of class consciousness. There is no need for a faultless ‘absolute boy’ to lead us to salvation. A gendered approach to budgeting and social security simply proposes that we collect evidence about how poverty is experienced and assess this within the context of nuanced power dynamics in society and uses this information to plot realistic, achievable ways to redistribute wealth and resources  to those who need them most.

We accept that zero-hour contracts are exploitative, depriving workers of respect, certainty and rights in the workplace. According to the Office for National Statistics, women make up a bigger proportion of those reporting working on zero-hours contracts (52%) compared with women in employment not on zero-hours contracts (47%). This disproportion is likely due to the overrepresentation of women working in sectors worst hit by zero-hour contracts like cleaning, catering, social care and education.

It’s self-evident that the erosion of the welfare state in the form of cuts and the reform of social security enacted by Westminster inflict oppression on working-class people. Under 2015 welfare reforms, families will not receive child tax credits or the child element of Universal Credit payments for third or subsequent children.

The list of alarming problems regarding this reform is seemingly endless – and it’s fundamentally a direct attack on the reproductive rights of women and attributes civic worth to children.  Both gestures demonstrate a will to prevent poorer people from ‘overbreeding.’ Families with moral, cultural or religious oppositions towards abortion or contraception may find themselves in extremely difficult positions.

The ‘Rape Clause’ of this piece of policy – whereby a woman can still receive the payment if she discloses and evidences that her child was conceived through rape – is one of the most directly harmful, inhumane and misogynistic articulations of state bureaucracy this country has witnessed and as such, no womens’ organisation or healthcare provider in Scotland has agreed to collude with it. 

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Given the recent revelations about the scale of sexual harassment in Westminster by male MPs against other elected representatives, it’s hardly a surprise that a piece of policy as vile as this would be directed at lower-income women and their children.

As Universal Credit is to be made as a single household payment, anyone living with domestic abusers will be at risk of further economic co-dependence and for many will make the prospect of escape extremely difficult. And these are not small numbers of people potentially affected: between 2015-16 58,810 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded by Police Scotland.

According to Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, 25% of children in Scotland are living in poverty and as such can expect worse outcomes, lower incomes, poorer health and earlier deaths than their more affluent peers. These children have households, and of the 291,000 children living in lone parent households, 92% of these lone parents are mothers.  Access to affordable childcare, flexible working and maternity rights in the workplace matter a great deal.

We’re lucky in Scotland that the Government is willing to listen and cooperate on the issue of gender based violence. This week, the Scottish Government released the 118 action point delivery plan of Equally Safe Strategy and announced extra investment in the sexual violence preventative education programme delivered by Rape Crisis Scotland centres to include 11 extra local authority areas. This continued investment in long-term cultural change is extremely significant and demonstrates effective partnership working between the government, schools and voluntary organisations. 

So what can Conter readers do? Organisations and groups on the Left outside the state or third sector would benefit from taking a gender based approach, investing in training around trauma, educating themselves about feminist governance models. Collectives must seriously consider the purpose of their work when ‘the cause’ trumps ethics in the case of individuals within groups perpetrating abuse and should develop robust, fair and safe processes to manage situations like these.

Organisations like Scottish Women’s Aid, Engender, Zero Tolerance, Rape Crisis Scotland, Amina and Shakti Women’s Aid and White Ribbon are all excellent and deserving of practical support in the form of money, time and labour. While some socialist men might feel alienated from feminism as an ideological framework, it’s worth abstracting how socialist values of labour, ownership, horizontality and human rights are positioned within feminism to clarify the value of it as a complementary system of thought.

Everyone regardless of gender can make a point of finding out about the experiences of women in relation to health, care-giving, violence and within the workforce. Men can think about how they personally reflect their political values through their inter-personal behaviour, particularly with regards to feelings of entitlement to space and audience.

When proposing political change, it has to be clear what ‘change’ means, what it hopes to achieve and who benefits from that change with attention to detail, nuance and evidence, rather than relying solely on emotion, ego and individual opinion. Neither national sovereignty or a Labour Party win can make any discernible or sustainable difference to living conditions a without targeted, strategic approach to ending economic exploitation and deprivation – and the specific place of women and the types of labour they perform need to be given appropriate attention.


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