May 23, 2023 - 10:00am

Women who discuss sex and gender identity in the “Global North” face smear campaigns, physical abuse and legal harassment, said the UN Human Rights Office in a May 22nd press release.

Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, warned of “the shrinking space” in Western countries for women and feminist organisations “to gather and/or express themselves peacefully in demanding respect for their needs based on their sex and/or sexual orientation.

“I am disturbed by the frequent tactic of smear campaigns against women, girls and their allies on the basis of their beliefs on non-discrimination based on sex and same-sex relations,” said Alsalem, one of the UN’s women’s rights monitors. “Branding them as ‘Nazis’, ‘genocidaires’ or ‘extremists’ is a means of attack and intimidation with the purpose of deterring women from speaking and expressing their views.”

The Special Rapporteur claimed that the attempts to silence concerns about the tensions between women’s rights and gender identity are “deeply troubling, as they are intended to instil fear in [women and girls], shame them into silence, and incite violence and hatred against them.” She insisted that the social, legal, and violent censorship of sex-based women’s rights “severely affect[s] the dignified participation of women and girls in society.

“We have witnessed incidents of verbal and physical abuse, harassment, and intimidation, with the purpose of sabotaging and derailing such events as well as silencing the women who wish to speak at them,” Alsalem said.

She emphasised that those who prioritise transgender inclusion over sex-based rights “also have a right to express their opinion,” but should not be allowed to threaten “the safety and integrity” of those against whom they are protesting.

The Special Rapporteur claimed that such censorship undermined the safety and livelihood of women and girls at all levels of society, noting that even “women politicians are sanctioned by their political parties.”

Alsalem’s formal censure comes a few weeks after Kate Forbes, the SNP leadership candidate who was widely attacked for her gender-critical views, claimed that cancellation attempts like those levied against her and fellow SNP politician Joanna Cherry earlier this month have been “not about disputing someone’s views: it’s about […] sacking people from jobs.”

The UN Human Rights adviser’s warning also comes amid growing concerns about the violent rhetoric of some transgender activists, as well as the widespread de-platforming of female scholars, journalists, and public figures who aim to broaden debates around gender identity to include sex-based rights and biological considerations. Perhaps most famously, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s claim that “if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased” has since led to years of public criticism, censorship, and organised burnings of her books.

Mana Afsari is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.