Editorial News is never short of controversy. The most recent, and interesting, concerns something that English author JK Rowling had written in response to a headline that read, ‘Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID 19 world for people who menstruate’. She challenged, tweeting that ‘people who menstruate’ had a name. Predictably, there was criticism. This initial reaction spilt over to the debate on transgender rights, in light of the Scottish Parliament’s move to introduce the Gender Recognition Bill. The Bill, if passed, would allow an individual to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate if she or he feels that they belong not to the sex ascribed at birth. To be considered, an applicant has to prove that she or he has lived in the acquired gender for a prescribed period of time. The purpose of writing about this is not to open the door for a debate. But anyone who has been even remotely interested in the arguments and counter arguments in this storyline may notice, that an important right has been challenged here – that of the freedom of expression. Critics were quick to label Rowling transphobic, and this was followed by transgender activists and transgender individuals raging and railing against the author. Rowling’s argument is sensible. She contends that by erasing the concept of sex, many will be deprived of their ability to meaningfully discuss their lives. As a survivor of abuse herself, the author is speaking for millions of women who have survived horrific violence and continue to be the victims of horrendous abuse – sexual, physical and emotional, at the hands of their partners, family and even strangers, not forgetting the harassment in their places of work and women in countries that consider them as second to men and have meagre legislation to safeguard their rights. How can we even forget victims of modern day slavery and the sex slaves of recent conflicts? How about showing some respect to the lived realities of these women? This is not about not respecting the transgender community, it is about not forgetting the context in which millions of women live around the world, choosing to live their lives as women, who ultimately make up the ‘lived reality’ in an often lopsided partnership between two sexes. Rowling’s arguments are serious. She writes, “I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.” Bravo. But see, transgender people, activists, supporters, sympathisers, not forgetting international celebrities jumped the ‘rights’ bandwagon to criticise Rowling. She is right when she says speaking the truth is not being hateful. The point is, in today’s context, in spite of legal safeguards, freedom of expression is the domain of a select few and this select few navigate the narrative around whose rights should be defended. Sri Lanka has not been different, and neither has it become better today. For instance, not long ago anyone who spoke for the rights of Tamils was branded a terrorist sympathiser. No individual could take a moderate or humane stand. This, in turn negated any space to legitimately air people’s grievances or the plight of people directly affected by the conflict. Social media and skewed mainstream media can lead the attacks on an individual who dares express solidarity with any group relegated to pariah status. Anything that contradicts the dominant narrative is deemed too radical or liberal; the dominant narrative is conservative to the extent that it is elastic in tandem with authority. What is so wrong about contemporary movements is the inability to give space to counter arguments, and sadly the proponents and activists see themselves as good and brave, but their enthusiasm is so unreasonably fanatical and fascist like in fervour that it drowns rational, moderate and truthful voices. This violates the right of another to dissent. “I see a woman convicted and hung and wonder where the same venom is for the men that do actual harm to all womankind” read one comment, which sums up today’s conundrum. Every voice matters. Like Rowling’s, our voices matter too. Let’s get over this inclusive language of just being people who menstruate. We should be women who cherish our lived reality, and our strengths over our perceived weaknesses.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane