SCOTLAND’S political elites are not normally bashful when prestigious international conferences pitch up in Glasgow. At COP26 in 2021 dozens of them converged on the SEC like TikTok storm-troopers at a Star Wars convention. Nicola Sturgeon was pictured there so often she was probably liable for council tax. It was all for ‘wur planet’ though, and so everyone was getting a free pass.

Across three days in Glasgow last weekend, something curious and unprecedented occurred in the city centre. A prestigious international conference took place, organised by the influential feminist group, FiLiA, and featuring women from more than 30 countries discussing issues directly affecting half the population of Scotland.

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Yet, not a single representative of the Scottish Government was there to greet them. The venue, Platform – directly underneath Central Station – is a five-minute walk from the City Chambers, but Glasgow’s ruling SNP group gave it a bodyswerve too. How odd.

And then, gradually and so predictably, the reason for their uncharacteristic diffidence became wretchedly apparent: these were the wrong sort of women. That is to say, they were real and among the many subjects they had all gathered to discuss were women’s protected rights and the threat to them posed by gender self-ID.

Doubtless they’d all been told that Scotland prided itself on being progressive, liberal and enlightened. Many had travelled far from countries where to be a women is to be treated like a serf; others had lived experience of state-sanctioned violence against them. No matter: they had to be avoided at all costs.

Not that Lisa-Marie Taylor was complaining much. Ms Taylor, who co-founded FiLiA ten years ago, was simply delighted that more than 1000 women had snapped up every seat available well before the conference began. And even when trans-rights activists had forced venue managers to attempt to cancel the event barely 24 hours before it began, she was unfussed. The law is firmly on the side of gender-critical women and after the venue had been firmly reminded of that fact, the show duly went ahead.

Even as these women began to file into the venue a small, but very vocal group began verbally abusing them, repeatedly shouting “F*ck You” at them. Among them were two local councillors belonging to the Scottish Greens. Was she surprised at this reception and by the attempt to cancel the event? Had anything like this occurred at previous FiLiAs?

The Herald: Lisa Marie Taylor - Chief Executive Officer, Co-Founder, Trustee, FiLiALisa Marie Taylor - Chief Executive Officer, Co-Founder, Trustee, FiLiA (Image: FREE)

“We’d anticipated a lack of engagement by most politicians,” she said. “We’ve seen this in previous FiLiA cities and it’s not a surprise to us. What was shocking was the venue deciding to cancel our booking the day before we were due to set up. We advised that some protestors would likely show up (we support the right to protest; not to intimidate). The police had no concerns, but the venue owner capitulated.

“Luckily, we had a fantastic legal team and FiLiA2023 went ahead with more than 1,000 women from around the world. The reception from Scottish women has been phenomenal, and we are grateful to those few politicians such as Joanna Cherry, who have stepped up and supported us.

“And besides, FiLiA covers a huge range of topics. Women know that female genital mutilation, femicide, economic abuse and systems which enable prostitution are all connected. They are keen to learn; to organise and to mobilise. FiLiA provides a space for that to happen.”

Ms Taylor says she began to embrace feminism in her late 30s via a series of conferences called Feminism in London.

“I walked out of my first feminist event and saw the world in an entirely new way. These women had opened my eyes to what was being done to us collectively, and in turn this explained many of my own personal experiences for the first time. My life was changed forever, and I will be grateful to those women for the rest of my life.

“From that moment, my driving force has been to bring new women into the movement and FiLiA emerged with the help of my co-founder, Julian Norman. We gathered 13 women and put on our first event in 2013. We were quite terrified; politically naïve and had no organising experience. We had the unshakeable belief though, that by bringing women together, magic would happen.”

And so it has proved. In those ten years, FiLiA has grown to a team of 130 women with diverse lived experience and skills, including some who have been subjected to domestic abuse; those seeking sanctuary and survivors of the sex trade.

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“As we gained experience, she says, “we were able to articulate our broad aims: building sisterhood; amplifying the voices of women (particularly those purposefully silenced) and defending women’s human rights.”

Another reason last weekend’s event sold out before a speaker or session was announced was because of FiLiA’s unequivocal stance on women’s sex-based rights. Ms Taylor is uncompromisingly eloquent on this issue. “Women have demanded that politicians and NGOs create the space to challenge #NoDebate, but have been ignored, silenced and targeted.

“When politicians say that they don’t hear this issue being raised on doorsteps, they are lying. Organisations that should – at the very least – have supported women to have these discussions, failed to do so. This created a gap into which women stepped fearlessly and at FiLiA we are able to hear from some of those brave women.

“We receive messages relaying a nervousness about attending for the first time, followed by jubilant emails talking about how FiLiA has changed their lives and pledging to become more involved in campaigns or set up local groups. We’ve had so many testimonies from attendees talking about a ‘Feminist Glastonbury’ and feeling invincible in the knowledge they now have 1,000 women standing beside them as they face the world.”

I tell her that I’ve been astonished at how quickly advocates of self-ID have managed to erode several of women’s sex-based rights at a point when women’s voices were beginning to influence politics and the media.

“Look, some progress had been made in some areas,” she says. “But progress is not linear and there is an ongoing battle for the liberation of women that has been taking place over millennia. The self-ID issue offered vested interest groups as well as misogynists an open invitation to form a pincer movement around women (feminists and lesbians particularly).

“What they and their political backers hadn’t foreseen was that this was to have a galvanising effect on women everywhere. This mass mobilisation has been extraordinary to witness, and I am in awe of the pure determination of women who have stood firm.”

Has she been shocked at how rapidly some who would consider themselves to be liberal are now advocating for the erosion of services designed around women's sex-based rights. Why was this allowed to happen?

“We must come back to vested interest groups such as Stonewall pushing a particular narrative, combined with politicians who turned a blind eye to the take-over of public institutions by what has been dubbed ‘Stonewall Law’.

“Some women’s services have stood firm and now we are seeing national organisations and government departments removing themselves from the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme. I suspect it will disappear in the coming years as the reputational damage is recognised and acted upon. The tide is definitely turning thanks to the various legal wins, activism and vocal opposition led by women.”

I inform her that both my daughters have told me how encouraged they are that women from non-political and non-activist backgrounds are now much more aware of issues which are affecting them in everyday life. Yet, she remains vigilant.

“Young women continue to tell us that pornography and the sexualisation of women is hugely damaging to them, both physically and mentally. I personally consider pornography to be one of the greatest challenges to our liberation. But let’s be clear: poverty, war, racism and the environmental crisis all affect women differently or disproportionately.

“Pragna Patel [the founder of Southall Black Sisters] told FiLiA2019 in Bradford that women had to “fight on many fronts” and this is what FiLiA aims to do: to give a space to those women to organise and mobilise locally, nationally and globally.”

There’s another reason Scotland’s political leaders recoiled from this conference: they rarely react well when faced with reality.