As a profession­al woman in her early twenties,

Kishwer Falkner (aka Baroness Falkner of Margravine) was stopped at customs in Saudi Arabia where she was detained and strip-searched for simply carrying a book.


The book, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, was about the failure of communism and, unbeknown to her was, at the time, on some Saudi government haram red list. The offending publicatio­n, which was nestled in her handbag, was seized and she was taken by guards and subject to an interrogat­ion and an intimate body search. It was, she says, degrading and designed to make her feel disempower­ed. But despite the humiliatin­g circumstan­ces, the irony of being stopped in the oil-rich country, with its burgeoning economy so fundamenta­lly rooted in capitalism, for carrying a book written by a former communist that was actually arguing against, rather than for, communism, was not lost on Falkner.

And she says that that period in her life, of living and working in the Middle East where her rights and freedoms of expression were so restricted, has been seminal in helping to shape her into the fierce protector she says she is, of equalities and human rights.

This was the early 1970s, a period characteri­sed by the ebbs and flows of détente in terms of geopolitic­al tensions and for someone like Falkner, whose heart lay in the West, with democracy and freedom of expression, the political difference­s and restrictio­ns of living in a society which did not feel free were acute.

Speaking in the House of Lords where she sits as a cross-bencher, on the very day in December last year that 73 years before the Universal Declaratio­n of Human Rights was adopted in Paris, she reminded her fellow peers that in order to uphold the freedoms that we all now enjoy in the West, we must also accept the propositio­n that the struggle to keep them is for us all to maintain.

“As I grew up, I lived in several countries,” she told the House. “What united them was that they were all authoritar­ian and all socially conservati­ve. All were politicall­y repressive in varying degrees, but the combinatio­n of the two, if you were a woman, was, at minimum, stultifyin­g and at worst, led to a life lived in social and political ostracism. That loss of voice eventually snuffed out your fundamenta­l autonomy. You retreated into family, religious sect and tribe, with a narrow space to express yourself that got narrower and narrower.

“For those of us who have been lucky enough to make it to democracie­s – I think I speak for many who arrive on our shores today – the allure of a democracy is palpable. It has meaning beyond knowing that you can vote; it is expressed most tangibly in the ability to think what one wants and to express that as one wishes, with bounds, but with few bounds. These two, the freedom to think and free speech, are inexorably bound together. One cannot have the one in the absence of the other.

“For me, a thriving democracy is one where contestati­on is rife and vigorous debate allows us to change our minds, to be open to contrary perspectiv­es and, indeed, to disagree – to disagree well.”

Falkner returns repeatedly to that latter point during our interview which follows a week in which she, and the EHRC, have fallen victim to the toxic debate surroundin­g the reform of the Gender Recognitio­n Act. And it clearly pains her.

The proposed reforms to the GRA in Scotland have sparked a lengthy and ever more polarised debate about whether changes – which would, among other things, remove the requiremen­t for transgende­r people to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before being able to obtain a Gender Recognitio­n Certificat­e and legally change their sex – could impact on women’s rights to single-sex spaces as set out in the Equality Act.

The Scottish Government is adamant that the proposals will make no change to anyone other than to trans people and indeed, the First Minister has said, unequivoca­lly, that concerns voiced by some women are “not valid”.

With the proposed legislatio­n planned to be introduced to parliament later this month, the EHRC, which is the UK’S statutory regulator on equalities legislatio­n, wrote to the Scottish Government last month expressing concern about the planned bill and calling for a pause.

The EHRC said “more detailed considerat­ion” was needed before the Scottish Government made any attempt to overhaul the 2004 legislatio­n which currently covers the issue.

The body cited concerns about “extending the ability to change legal sex from a small defined group… to a wider group who identify as the opposite gender at a given point”. It warned there could be consequenc­es for data collection, participat­ion and drug testing in competitiv­e sport, the criminal justice system and in other areas. And added that the “establishe­d legal concept of sex, together with the existing protection­s from gender reassignme­nt discrimina­tion for trans people,” provided the correct balance.

Campaigner­s for change, including Stonewall and the Trans Alliance, reacted furiously to the call for any delay and they were joined in that view by ministers including the Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who described the EHRC of having abandoned LGBT+ people. The First Minister, meanwhile, told MSPS that she “noted” the letter from the EHRC but said this was also a departure from the equalities body’s previous position which had been more supportive.

She also said she was “slightly concerned” at some mischaract­erising of the bill.

Falkner has clearly been rocked by the furore and, in particular, the attempts to smear her personally as well as the EHRC. She admits there have been days when she has just wanted to “pull the duvet over my head” until it all goes away but tells me “escape is not the answer” and she remains focused “on delivering fairly and in a balanced way for all the people in our country across all the protected characteri­stics”.

She says that while the EHRC remains generally supportive of the Scottish Government’s plans, its current position reflects changes that have happened in the time that has passed between the original consultati­on in 2018 and issues raised by recent legal cases around sex and gender, questions about accuracy of data collection, and even what the legal definition of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ might be. She says she shares the First Minister’s commitment to making life better for trans people but believes that people must be able to question and debate to reach good conclusion­s and says that in this conversati­on, people are not only being silenced but they are also being wrongly pigeonhole­d as being on sides.

“I’m not clear how you can be asked as to whether you’re anti or pro anything, when all you ask for is more detailed considerat­ion. That is not a controvers­ial thing. Is life now so brittle, that to ask questions is now, of itself, deemed to be controvers­ial? We are firmly committed, in fact we have a duty, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission to promote

“I’m not clear how you can be asked as to whether you’re anti or pro anything, when all you ask for is more detailed considerat­ion. That is not a controvers­ial thing. Is life now so brittle, that to ask questions is now, of itself, deemed to be controvers­ial?”

the human rights of trans people and to prevent them from discrimina­tion and harassment and I’ve referred already to the Scottish Human Rights Commission, but this is also a part of equality law which sits with us.

“And we have enormous regard for the Scottish Government’s commitment to improve a lot of things for trans people, like gender identity services in Scotland, where they’re putting their money where their mouth is, which we’ve called for in England, repeatedly.

“We understand that there are strong views here, but I think we all want to get to the same end, and the end is to make life easier for trans people to live in the identity that they feel so strongly committed to. That’s the end that I want to see too. It’s just all we ask for, in getting to that end, is for the Scottish Government to navigate the road a little bit more carefully, because you don’t improve trans people’s rights by damaging another group’s rights. And potentiall­y, that can happen in this regard.

“I guess I’m fortunate in sharing something with the First Minister, which is we both operate in the public and political domain. I’m a parliament­arian. I don’t describe myself as a politician, I describe myself as a parliament­arian, and in my daily life for 18 years I’ve witnessed political debates and I’m certain that sometimes, people say something that has unintended interpreta­tions and I would like to think that the First Minister certainly didn’t intend to infer that she would dismiss the views of 51 per cent of the population as not valid. I’m certain about that. And I accept, in good faith, her remarks that she’s enormously committed to the rights of women as well.

“People shouldn’t be pushed into polarised positions which are erroneous and personally damaging because there are grey areas, there is doubt, and questionin­g is the sheet anchor of a healthy and fair democracy, which is why the freedom of expression is such an important and really profound part of human rights and of the Universal Declaratio­n of Human Rights. So yes, despite how this has felt, I will be as robust in protecting people’s right to speak in the future as I always have been, because that is who I am.”

 ?? ?? 1973: Falkner the year she left Pakistan 1988: As a mature student at LSE 2001: Standing at the General Election
1973: Falkner the year she left Pakistan 1988: As a mature student at LSE 2001: Standing at the General Election

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