What I Saw on the 3rd March
I saw many things on the 3rd of March 2021: a songthrush, a single shoe on a beach, crocuses, Nicola Sturgeon answering questions from a parliamentary committee in Holyrood. Each of these thing has its own story, but the one that drew me in – compelled and horrified – was the parliamentary enquiry as it unfolded over eight hours.
Just as each day holds many things, each story contains many facets and tales. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brilliantly warns us of the ‘danger of the single story’: the risks of believing that one version of events is the only valid one. Lots of people have described and analysed the Holyrood enquiry from a variety of angles. I want to talk about what I saw unfold on the 3rd of March in my country’s Parliament: a story of misogyny and the ancient, powerful narratives of patriarchy, much older than the parliamentary inquiry itself.
I saw a woman defending herself against being destroyed by a man whom she has superceded and surpassed. Nicola Sturgeon is no saintly icon of mine; she herself has admitted to making mistakes. She has also, unflinchingly, held press briefings over the past year amidst unimaginable pressures, in a way no other UK politician has done. During her leadership, 21 polls in a row have shown a majority support for Scottish independence. This has doubtless been aided by Scottish voters’ discomfort over how the UK government has handled Brexit and the Covid pandemic; but it did not happen when the SNP leader was Alex Salmond.
Salmond has been likened to the father in a ‘dysfunctional family’ who is angry at an ungrateful daughter. I saw something more insidious: the old alliance of misogyny and political interests showing its power once again . I saw a female politician – leader of the SNP, whose politics actively challenge the Union – being asked to resign by a male politician from the Conservative and Unionist party. Douglas Ross called for Sturgeon’s resignation based on witness statements; before Sturgeon herself had spoken to defend herself; while her alleged wrongdoings were unproven. Mr Ross and his party colleagues have made no such calls regarding senior Conservative male politicians who are still in power after proven breaches of regulations.
This alliance is familiar from the years I spent as a girl in Italy during the Berlusconi years. It was rare to see any women in positions of real power that were not dependent on men’s approval. The few women who did take up such roles were regularly judged and attacked for their looks or marital status or reproductive choices: essentially for not being pretty or subservient enough. Again and again I saw women being asked to resign or apologise over things for which men would never have been held accountable.
And so something ended inside me when I saw Murdo Fraser – another male, Conservative politician – suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon should apologise to the Scottish people for asking them to trust Alex Salmond. What ended was my patience with enabling entitled men to blame others for their own shortcomings. Patience with allowing such men to destroy the world rather than admit that they, too, are flawed. Patience with waiting for them to accept that they, too, have made mistakes and need to own them rather than asking others to apologise for them.
I saw how the wider story that led to the parliamentary inquiry – one which was rooted in women’s voices telling of male aggression – had become a story centred on blaming and scapegoating a woman. I saw how the women at the heart of this inquiry had been let down, repeatedly. I saw that most media reports failed to name these deeply damaging patriarchal norms of victim-blaming, perpetuating them instead. Again. And again.
Others saw what I saw, and shared my anger. The 3rd March was also a day of deep grief for many who want an independent Scotland and had felt that we were so, so close – only to see a hellscape of internal SNP overthrown hope. But it is so important to keep the heid through all the emotions and politics: this is bigger than the story of just one woman or one political party. It is about the kind of country we want to live in, the Scotland we want our children to grow up in. I don’t want my daughters to think what I thought at her age: that they should be really careful about speaking up in public, because women who do so get destroyed. I want for them – for all of us and all our weans – a country where people can do their work and make mistakes and talk about it without bracing for inevitable violence.
Certainly there are many other stories in this story: mishandling of investigations, misjudgements, withholding reports, a whole library of other stories. Dialogue about these is vital. But dialogue is not made of accusations and abuse, which is what seems to prevail in so much of Scottish politics right now. Dialogue is made of perspectives and stories exchanged, and the changes that come from that.
So, where do we go from here? What do we do with what we see?
First of all, we name it. We use words carefully, deliberately. Then we listen: to each other, to ourselves, to the many stories alive among us. Then we change the things that need changing, through words and action. Nicola Sturgeon did not behave like a victim; she rightly refused to apologise; she held her ground.
But still, what I saw on the 3rd March can’t be undone. Today, not even a week later, among all the froth and tokenistic celebrations of International Women’s Day, we have to stay alert. We have to keep watching, keep naming what we see, and turn our anger and grief and patience towards building what we want to see instead.