Feminist Open Government?

Can there be transparency, accountability and participation in the development of public policies on gender identity

Over the last couple of weeks there were two blockbuster international conferences in Canada — the Open Government Partnership Summit in Ottowa and “Women Deliver” in Vancouver. They were both slick affairs, where people from governments, intergovernmental and non-government organisations could rub shoulders and say good things.

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It is easy to be cynical about the international circuit of such jamborees. But it is important for people working on common agendas to meet, talk, learn, and test ideas together, and sometimes this involves big set-piece events.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an international initiative which began in 2011 and involves seventy-nine countries, thousands of civil society organisations and coordinated funding from major philanthropic foundations. Its vision is for governments to become more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive, and it does this through national action plans to “open up” areas of government so that citizens are better able to scrutinise and influence government policy and service provision.

I wasn’t at the OGP Summit, but I followed along on twitter. Two big themes stood out. One was the recognition that open government reforms must connect to the lives of ordinary citizens, and the other was the quest to involve more diverse voices, with a particular focus on “gender and inclusion” (#feministopengovernment) .

As Nathaniel Heller, Civil Society chair of OGP said at the opening

“We continue to miss the mark on opening up government because of who is at the table designing, executing, and ultimately benefiting from those reforms. Inclusion matters for OGP because it is the bridge to truer co-creation, one where all citizen voices have a place in the debate, not just privileged voices. We know that when women and girls are empowered to make public sector decisions in almost any context, smarter and more equitable outcomes emerge.“

A feminist open government report was launched which highlighted the problem that;

“governments tend to engage with elite civil society rather than grassroots advocates and rarely with the perspectives of women”.

These recognitions all sounds good to me.

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But, read closely, the feminist open government report itself reflects and exacerbates a major gap between elite civil society organisations and ordinary people.

They disagree on what a woman is.

Most ordinary citizens around the world think that women are female adults and men are male adults.

They believe that women have particular healthcare needs, and that there are situations where women and girls should have privacy from men and boys (when they are vulnerable, undressed and sleeping — such as in prisons, dormitories, hostels, refuges and changing and washing facilities) and that women and girls should have their own sports and the ability to meet and organise without men.

But civil society elites, schooled in fancy university gender theory, now argue that this view is old fashioned and offensive. It is exclusionary, they say, to define women in a way that does not include those who desire to be included in womanhood and women’s spaces, but who happen to have male bodies.

According to this view (as set out in the Feminist Open Government report) anybody with any anatomy can be either a man or a woman or neither. The glossary says that being a woman does not fall under “biological sex” but under “gender” — it is defined as involving femininity “in attitudes, norms, identities, ideologies and practise”. Both women and men can get pregnant, can impregnate, can rape. There is no need for a single specific word to distinguish female adults from male adults. [A note on language below*]

If you think this makes no sense and leads to an anaemic form of feminism, if you argue (clearly enough and loudly enough) that people should be able to live their lives as they chose, but that women still need a word, a political movement and single sex spaces as females, you are likely to be labelled a hateful bigot (and if you are a woman; a ‘TERF’) and excluded from a place around the table of elite civil society.

The Feminist Open Government report draws on research on women’s involvement in open government reforms in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Mexico, Morocco and Tunisia.

Did these women, far from the international decision-making table, express the view that womanhood is nothing to do with having a female body?

I doubt it.

It doesn’t seem like anyone discussed this major conceptual redefinition with them. No one asked these women if they agreed with the idea that feminine attitudes and practices are what make them women. Probably they believe that having the type of body with the potential for pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, rather than for impregnation is what makes them a woman. And that the way society treats female people, from birth, affects their life. Probably you do too, if you are honest about it.

You may think I am being pedantic about words. Isn’t it just that people are using “gender”, when they mean “sex”? Certainly this is often the case. The OGP secretariat’s page on “gender” for example talks about motherhood, girls being kept out of school, reproductive health, women being blocked from participating in public and political life. This is sex, not ‘gender identity’.

But I know from discussions on twitter with some of the members of the Open Government #OpenHeroines network (“by and for all those who identify as women”) that defending the idea that women are female, and that males are therefore not women, is seen as unwelcome, bigoted and possibly hateful.

One example of this in practice were the “Principles of Openness” adopted for the Ottowa OGP Summit. This code of conduct erased sex altogether. It says

“we want you to feel welcome and empowered to participate regardless of who you are, and any defining characteristics you might have, including gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, physical appearance, nationality, race, age or religion.”

Alongside more general prohibitions such as against “intimidation or silencing”, it prominently warned participants against “deliberate misgendering, or refusal to use preferred pronouns”. This rule is not just a matter of social nicety or respect. General prohibitions against “misgendering” are a mechanism which effectively shuts down discussion about the impacts of policies which switch self-identified gender for sex, as it makes it unacceptable to recognise a person’s sex under any circumstances (including in general discussion such as saying “lesbians don’t have penises”, or “transwomen are males and therefore should not be in women’s prisons”).

“Transwomen are Women” as the slogan goes. Get over it.

What about people who think that sex matters? What about those who view the demand to never acknowledge that someone is male as “deliberate intimidation or silencing” in itself? They are not welcome at OGP, or at least they should learn to keep quiet.

Heller did a neat trick, at the end of his speech to show that people are not just a single aspect of their identity and that we should value “all of our neighbours for their whole selves”. He put on a Jewish skullcap saying

“When I put this yarmulke on, I instantaneously transform from privileged white guy to a member of one of the most persecuted minorities in the history of the world…. This simple piece of cloth has the power to transform me from being a member of a dominant group to being an outsider, to being different and not fitting in, to having others judge me without knowing me.”

Of course this neat trick only worked because Heller really is Jewish. The yarmulke did not transform him. If a non-Jewish person had tried this on it would have been crass and offensive. Similarly if Heller had put on turban and claimed to be Sikh, or blacked up his face and claimed to be African American.

But we are told that if a man puts on lipstick and pulls out a gold lame pocketbook, or even does nothing more than demand we recognise them as a woman, then we must see them as women. Women are told we should let down our defences and risk assess them as if they were female. In fact we must view them as the most vulnerable and powerless of women, we must “watch our cis privilege” and defer to their expertise on womanhood. And we must allow our own identity to be redefined to avoid giving offence by talking about the oppression of women as a sex.

Many women find this not only fantastical but offensive (some men too, but they have less skin in the game). Being a woman is not a costume. Just because men who identify with femininity have been made outsiders by men, and require their own human rights protections, does not make them women, or require that women give up their name, their rights or their safety.


Across the country in Vancouver the Women Deliver summit took place a few days later. It is the world’s largest gathering on “gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women”. It had sessions on FGM, on contraception and abortion, on childbirth and maternal health, on breastfeeding, on cervical cancer, on menstruation and menopause, on early marriage, violence against women, on rights power and women’s bodies, on solidarity groups of girls and women and the rights of women in law.

This seems like one of those situations where it should be obvious and uncontroversial that ‘gender’ is being used to mean ‘sex’; and that “women and girls” means the class of people with the type of body which carries the full burden of reproductive labour and risk.

But no. Women Deliver explicitly says “When we use the term “women” it is wholeheartedly inclusive of transgender women”.

This is incoherent. It suggests that the concept of “women” they are using (based on gender identity) excludes female people who identify as non-binary or as transmen (as well as those who reject the idea that they have an innate gender identity altogether). All of these people are females and share the same reproductive system as others. None of them share the same reproductive system as transwomen.

Women Deliver could have politely and clearly said “We are here to talk about women’s reproductive health needs. We wholeheartedly support the right of transwomen to express their gender identity without fear of harassment or discrimination, and we applaud them for challenging the stereotypes associated with their sex. But our focus is on female people. We do not want to be distracted from this into efforts to centre the feelings or to validate the identity of male people. Please respect that.”

But they didn’t.

That Women Deliver (a well funded organisation whose tag line is“an unwavering advocate for women and girls”) could not stand up and say clearly and politely it knows what a woman is, is hugely disappointing.

Perhaps you think that I am being petty and mean to worry about some words used to describe a conference, but the whole point of these big conferences is to send signals and set community norms.

The signal that Women Deliver sent is that, even when we are talking about grave and urgent topics concerning people with female bodies: maternal mortality, reproductive freedom and male violence against women, we should be willing to put men’s feelings ahead of the ability to speak clearly about reality. Be kind.

This is a step that many organisations in the established and funded women’s sector have taken. They have all quietly switched from saying clearly that women are female, to using a definition based on feminine gender identity (or at least saying the words, and hoping this will allow them to continue to get on with their work based on the understanding that female people do exist).

Some rationalise living with these two incompatible definitions as pragmatic — we know that people with female bodies are women, and we can work to address their needs, while also including transwomen in the category of women — The trouble with this approach is that there are real life situations where the interests of these two different groups are not aligned. Is elite civil society willing to stand up for clear speaking when it matters, in practice? For example in assessing the impact of allowing males into women’s prisons, statistics on women (such as crime figures), women’s refuges, sanitation facilities, women’s sports and women’s and girls associations, and for safeguarding?

So far the answer has been no. The elites of civil society, academia, government, the corporate world and progressive foundations are unanimous: self-identified gender should overwrite sex in law and policy. This is best practice. There are no concerns. None. And no research or debate is needed. Other opinions are not welcome.

This is the view of Stonewall and the ACLU, of the Open Society Foundations, of Amnesty International, of the NSPCC, and in the UK of all mainstream political parties: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (just to give some examples from a country I know well). It is completely out of whack what ordinary people think, and it has been adopted without scrutiny or engagement.

UK representative survey, October 2018

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In the UK, the US and Canada, and many other countries that have introduced “Self ID” in law or practice the dynamic of debate (or lack of debate) has been the same. The policy has been imposed from above, often under cover of obscurity rather than democratic legislative processes, without impact assessment and with flawed and manipulative consultation processes.

No mainstream woman’s rights or human rights organisation has published any analysis of the impact of gender self ID policies on women and girls.

This is the opposite of open government.

And women have started to push back.

Over recent years there has been a groundswell of grassroots, feminist women organising to say ‘we need to talk about this’. These groups include women from across the political spectrum, with many on the left. They include working class women, lesbian and bisexual women, women who do, or have previously identified as trans and non-binary, survivors of male violence, and lots of mothers, as well as some male allies.

Without support from foundation funding, or from established civil society, and in the face of threats to their safety and their livelihoods ordinary women have mobilised with considerable bravery, to organise meetings, undertake research and understand the issues with impressive thoroughness. Using only crowd funded donations and volunteer labour they have undertaken opinion surveys, analysed child protection risks, and done their own impact assessments. They have knocked on the door of every part of the establishment and mainly had them slammed in their faces. Elite civil society organisations have smeared them and refused to debate or engage with arguments. But they have persisted in trying to influence the powerful institutions making fundamental decisions which concerns them.

Here are two examples of recent documents by grassroots women’s groups in the UK concerned about the impact of gender ideology based policies on women and children:

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Scottish Women and Girls Discussion Paper on Self ID

Transgender Trend’s Briefing on Safeguarding Concerns (ie.child protection)

Funders and civil society organisations promoting open government should pay attention; this is a case study example of citizens organising from the grassroots to scrutinise and hold governments and powerful institutions accountable. This is what it looks like.

What if open government principles were applied to the introduction of gender ID policies?

At the “Women Deliver” Summit the Global Philanthropy Project, a collaborative of 19 philanthropic funders that fund lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) rights launched a Position Paper. Many of the funders, such as the Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation and Hivos are also major funders and opinion formers of open government efforts.

It is clear from the paper that as a collective they have not yet joined the dots between their work on open government and on gender. They have not understood the concern coming from ordinary women and from mainly left wing, pro-choice, feminists about gender-ideology based policies being imposed on them. In their view the only opposition is based on homophobia and animosity to women’s rights and is linked to right wing, anti-human rights and religious conservative movements.

The position paper calls for more coordinated and connected funding of LBQTI and women’s rights organisations to build solidarity. “By supporting groups that are concerned with both women’s and LBQTI rights, funders can help build stronger bases of support to combat these anti-gender forces.”

This sounds nice (and there is common cause in standing up against autocrats and human rights abusers). But transgender rights and women’s rights are not the same thing. When funders flex their muscles without listening to what people on the ground are saying the results can be devastating. Rape crisis centres and women’s domestic violence shelters were set up by women for women in recognition of the healing power of all-female environments. Women who have been subjected to violence, sexual assault and abuse are likely to be re-traumatised if there are people of the male sex sharing intimate spaces with them. It is not that any one individual transwomen (or any other man) will be a risk to women, but it is inappropriate for males to be in these spaces. Being forced to pretend to perceive that that a male person is female, for fear of losing a safe place to stay is an abuse of power against already traumatised and powerless women. And many front-line workers understand this keenly, even if headquarters staff are failing to stand up for this principle, under pressure from funders to be inclusive. In Vancouver city councillors recently voted to cut funding to Canada’s longest standing rape crisis centre and women’s shelter because it is a women-only space. A representative for the centre said “nobody bothered to invite us to explain our position, practices, politics, and services”. In the UK, users and staff of women’s domestic and sexual violence services say they are afraid to voice their opinion for fear of losing funding.

Funded organisations have the ear of funders, and vice versa. This can create an echo chamber where foundations and civil society elites all believe (or at least are willing to profess to believe in order to keep their jobs) that gender identity is all that matters. Sex is irrelevant. Don’t talk about it. Some women have penises. Get over it.

But most ordinary women do not believe this. Given the power relations between men and women, transwomen in women’s spaces are not refugees but colonisers.

And powerful institutions marginalising women’s concerns is a pattern that has been repeated many times before.

Funders are powerful players, and should use their power carefully. They must recognise that the policy environment they have contributed to on sex and gender identity is toxic and dysfunctional. Women are being redefined, and female only spaces, services and sports taken away. Pressures not to talk about this include accusations of transphobia, intimidation, threats and violence, fear of losing your job, or your funding.

Last week a member of the Scottish Parliament issued a public apology simply for attending a meeting with women who want to talk about this. A Senior University Professor apologised for causing ‘hurt or anxiety’ for tweeting articles considering the impact of gender self-identification on women’s rights. A people’s history museum removed sticker with the definition of woman (“adult human female”) from its visitor co-created ‘protest lab’ exhibit saying it was hostile.

Foundations that believe in the power of informed citizens being able to understand and influence government policies should consider how the principles of open government could be applied here. They could use their power to open up the policy debate so that ordinary women can be heard, and politicians and institutional leaders can find the integrity and bravery to think, listen and discuss.

[*] I am using “women” throughout to refer to female people (this includes what some would call cis-women, transmen and non binary people with female bodies, I think we need a single word). I use “men” to refer to male people (this includes what some people would call cis-men, transwomen and non binary people with male bodies). If you think my word choice is offensive, I have been told that the preferred terms to use are AFABs and AMABs (“assigned female at birth” and “assigned male at birth”). If you prefer to use these terms then you can substitute. I chose not to use this formulation because I think we should be able to talk about something as basic as women’s rights and women’s health without using an acronym that 95% of the population do not know. Also sex is observed at birth, not assigned. The only people who have sex assigned are those with very rare, complex and often traumatic intersex conditions, and I don’t want to appropriate their experience. We already have two perfectly serviceable words for adult males and adult females.

This is mainly where I write about sex and gender

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