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Reem Alsalem is Standing for Women’s Rights
The voice we need right now
Earlier this week, many people were pleasantly surprised and even stunned by a United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) press release titled “Allow women and girls to speak on sex, gender and gender identity without intimidation or fear: UN expert.”
The statement was written by Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls. It begins:
I am deeply concerned at the escalation of intimidation and threats against women and girls for expressing their opinions and beliefs regarding their needs and rights based on their sex and/or sexual orientation. Disagreement with the views of women/girls including politicians, academics, and women rights advocates should never be used as grounds to justify violence and intimidation. In addition, discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation is prohibited in international and regional instruments.
The damning statement criticizes countries in the Global North for failing to protect the ability of women and women’s organizations to express their views peacefully. It calls on law enforcement and the rest of the legal system to ensure that women can exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, particularly in a way that “enables women’s speech to be audible.”
Reem also notes “with concern” the tactic of “smearing” women and girls who hold lawful and protected beliefs as “Nazis” and “extremists” in an effort to instill fear and shame them into silence.
She goes even further, writing that, “it is important that people, including researchers and academics, who express their views on ‘gender affirming’ interventions including for children are not silenced, threatened, or intimidated simply for holding and articulating such views.”
Reem then takes aim at the criminalization of “hate speech” on the grounds of “gender expression or gender identity,” noting that “such provisions are being taken to mean that any interrogation of the scope of rights based on gender identity amount to hate speech against non-binary persons and perhaps even incitement of hatred and genocide.”
She ends the statement with a powerful and uncompromising stance:
Attempts to silence women based on the views they hold regarding the scope of gender identity and sex in law and in practice and the rights associated with these, severely affects their participation in society in dignity and in safety, as well as their country’s prosperity and development.
For many on the “gender critical” side of the gender debate, this report seemed too good to be true. I saw numerous people expressed confusion about how “the UN,” which is notorious for buying wholesale into gender ideology, could be making such an about-face. After all, we’ve been hearing so much about the UN IE SOGI Victor Madrigal-Borloz lately and his inability to understand or even acknowledge the issues surrounding gender self-identification. It has also been a while since UN Women has been able to define the word “woman.”
But I need to stress that this statement does not come from the faceless “UN”—all focus should be on and credit given to Ms. Alsalem working in her capacity as a Special Rapporteur, one of the UN’s Special Procedures experts (Madrigal-Borloz falls into this category as well).
According to the UN, “Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.”
You can believe those claims to whatever extent you wish, and you may want to call me naïve, but Alsalem’s statement and OHCHR’s press release do give me a renewed sense of hope in the Special Procedures mechanisms.
Alsalem was appointed to her position by the OHCHR for a three-year tenure that began on August 1, 2021, and this is not the first time she has spoken out on issues related to gender ideology.
In November of 2022, Alsalem raised concerns about the Scottish Gender Recognition reform bill, writing:
I share the concern that such proposals would potentially open the door for violent males who identify as men to abuse the process of acquiring a gender certificate and the rights that are associated with it.
The ongoing efforts to reform existing legislation by the Scottish Government do not sufficiently take into consideration the specific needs of women and girls in all their diversity, particularly those at risk of male violence and those who have experienced male violence, as it does not provide for any safeguarding measures to ensure that the procedure is not, as far as can be reasonably assured, abused by sexual predators and other perpetrators of violence. These include access to both single sex spaces and gender-based spaces. It is important to note that insistence on safeguarding and risk management protocols does not arise from the belief that transgender people represent a safeguarding threat. It is instead based on empirical evidence that demonstrates that the majority of sex offenders are male, and that persistent sex offenders will go to great lengths to gain access to those they wish to abuse. One way they can do this is by abusing the process to access single-sex spaces or to take up roles which are normally reserved to women for safeguarding reasons.
Though Alsalem takes great pains in the 10-page letter not to paint trans-identified people as inherently dangerous and though she argues that they are also “entitled to differentiated and equal services,” she drew the ire of captured “feminist” and human rights groups in Scotland and around the world.
On November 29, 2022, Alsalem was sent a letter co-signed by the heads of Engender, JustRight Scotland, Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, Scottish Women’s Aid, Amnesty International Scotland, and Rape Crisis Scotland saying that the organizations were “surprised and disappointed” with her stance.
The next day, she was sent another letter undersigned by AWID, CREA, Count Me In consortium, ILGA World, IWRAW Asia Pacific, and the Sexual Rights Initiative, which began: “As a coalition of feminist and international women’s rights organizations, we firmly believe in bodily autonomy for all people - cis, trans, and non-binary alike.”
Alsalem was also criticized and had her concerns dismissed by the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
The chair of the Commission, Ian Duddy, twisted Alsalem’s remarks and said he was concerned about the “underlying narrative that's been developed that trans people are sexual predators,” even though she went out of her way to state the opposite.
Despite such a concerted pushback, Alsalem appeared before the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee on December 19 to elaborate on the letter she had sent and the issues she had raised.
“Self-ID has no established basis in international law,” Alsalem begins, further explaining, “I think it’s very logical and legitimate to expect that any process where there will be access to a group of individuals that may be vulnerable, such as women and children, by sex offenders, are firewalled by safeguards or have safeguards attached to them.”
Madrigal-Borloz was also present at the meeting and handwaved away all such concerns, valuing only the feelings and safety of trans-identified men.
Scottish Parliament was much more sympathetic to the views of Madrigal-Borloz, and the Gender Recognition Bill went on to pass. However, the United Kingdom government has blocked the bill from receiving royal assent.
One of the organizations that had criticized Alsalem over her stance, the Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI), continued to stew and, on February 15, 2023, released a statement on her “harmful position on gender identity,” writing: “The Special Rapporteur’s position clearly undermines trans rights.”
Crossing its arms and stamping its feet in a huff, SRI concludes: “We refuse any suggestion that there is feminist support for anti-trans positions.” It also called on other “feminist organizations” to stop engaging with Alsalem.
SRI posted the statement online and did not share it with Alsalem, who stumbled upon it by accident. Nevertheless, she replied with her own letter, addressing the organization’s accusations in a clear and thoughtful manner.
Some choice excerpts include:
The LGBTI community, as with other communities is a diverse one; and I believe that the SRI’s views do not represent the entirety of this global community. Indeed, LGBTI organizations and individuals, including trans persons, were amongst those that had written to me asking me to intervene on this issue.
The issues I addressed in relation to the GRA fall squarely within the purview of my mandate, namely the lack of safeguarding of the proposed legislation and its impact on the dignity and safety of all women and girls, and their access to single sex spaces as well as their freedom from violence.
It is disingenuous on behalf of SRI to suggest that I am trying to “fragment and divide human rights and social movements along narrow identity or issue-based lines”. These issues have been in discussion long before my letter on Scotland’s GRA. If anything, it is because of the refusal to hear and the isolation of the voices of women and women organizations that have legitimate concerns concerning the impact of gender identity on the rights of women that we are where we are today.
Alsalem is an important voice that we need in this debate right now. She has been solid on this issue for a while and only continues to stand by her stance. In fact, it appears that her opinion has grown and evolved over the course of her mandate.
Back in December 2022, Ian Duddy of the Scottish Human Rights Commission said that Alsalem appeared to support self-ID in a 2021 letter co-signed by three other UN Special Rapporteurs, Madrigal-Borloz among them. I assume he was referring to this letter to the government of Bulgaria, which does indeed call for states to “provide for a simple administrative gender recognition system that is based on self-determination.”
Duddy claims, uncharitably, that Alsalem is contradicting herself. What really happened is that she listened to the growing concerns around such a system. In fact, Alsalem herself has clarified her postion on Twitter, noting that she sent another letter to the Bulgarian government in January of 2023 correcting her position and writing, “in retrospect and with additional hindsight, I would not have endorsed or signed this letter as such.”
Denigrating the fact that someone changed their mind after exposure to new information speaks volumes and only reflects negatively on Duddy.
I’d like to thank Alsalem for her willingness to listen outside of what must surely have been an ideological bubble. She has provided a crucial platform for concerns that so many of us share.
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*This piece has been updated to note that Alsalem publicaly corrected her position after signing the letter in support of self-ID to the Government of Bulgaria.