Alex Salmond lambasts Scottish MSP over rape comments

Campaign for Bill Aitken to step down grows after he suggests a gang-rape victim was a prostitute.

 

The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has criticised Bill Aitken, the Scottish Conservative MSP who suggested that a woman who was gang-raped in Glasgow might have been a prostitute.

During a live webchat on the Mumsnet forum, he said:

I deprecate Bill Aitkens' reported comments, which were rightly greeted with outrage from both general public and across the political spectrum. I don't think they really represented his views, and in fairness, he did apologise later. However, it does illustrate two dangers.

Firstly, the implicit assumptions betrayed a dreadful attitude to the serious crime of rape, which is abhorrent for any person. Secondly, the temptation of politicians to occasionally shoot first and think later. It can cause deep hurt and upset.

As for the repercussions, it seems to be the best thing is don't vote Tory.

This follows criticism from the Labour deputy leader, Johann Lamont, who said: "No woman is ever to blame for rape and we need to challenge these attitudes by turning the focus on the male perpetrators."

There is a growing Facebook group calling for Aitken to be removed from his role as convenor of the Scottish Parliament's justice committee, which helps formulate rape laws. Aitken, the shadow minister for community safety, made the comments to Glasgow's Sunday Herald.

Though Aitken has apologised "unreservedly" for his remarks, they do raise serious questions about his suitability to adjudicate over rape. His automatic position of scepticism, and his suggestion that the importance of rape is somehow diminished by the circumstances of the victim, betray exactly the kinds of attitudes that prevent many women from coming forward.

You can judge for yourself – here is a leaked excerpt of the phone interview in which Aitken made the remarks.

Sunday Herald: Wondering if I could chat to you about the – have you seen the ET today?

Bill Aitken: No.

SH: The police are looking for another Glasgow city centre rape gang. I think from our counting it is the fourth or possibly fifth sexual assault in the city centre . . .

BA: Alleged.

SH: Alleged sexual assault since Christmas. Police are saying it's fairly – you know. It was a brazen attack, it was shocking by the . . .

BA: This one does seem to be a nasty one. Where had the woman been, to that Savoy disco, was it?

SH: Can you say that again?

BA: Where had the woman been? To that suave club?

SH: I'm not sure if we know that yet, unless you've read more than I have.

BA: Well, the address is indicative.

SH: It was the Walkabout area. Renfield Street way.

BA: Renfrew Street, was it not?

SH: Renfrew Lane, off Renfield Street, yes.

BA: Aye, exactly.

SH: We're interested in the pattern, really. Testing this idea that we are returning to something we thought we might have stamped out – very brazen attacks in the city centre, lane rapes. What do you think?

BA: Well, I really think we need to know a bit more about these. They are not always as they seem to be, put it that way.

SH: How do you mean?

BA: Errr. Well. If I was a woman up a lane.

SH: Right. She was dragged off the street.

BA: From Renfrew Street.

SH: Yeah, this is the thing.

BA: Huh?

SH: She was dragged off Renfield Street, into the lane.

BA: No, she wasn't in Renfield Street, she was in Renfrew Street, was she not?

SH: Errrm. Right. I mean, what I understood – she was raped in Renfrew Lane, but she was dragged off Renfield Street. I might be wrong.

BA: She must have been dragged about half a mile then. [LAUGHS]

SH: OK. Either way. I mean there's an element of dragging, which mirrors –

BA: No hold on. I'm not taking the [INDISTINCT]. If this woman was dragged halfway through the town, then it just couldn't possibly happen. So has nobody asked her what she was doing in Renfrew Lane?

SH: Right. What do you think she was doing?

BA: Well, I think, errr, somebody should be asking her what she was doing in Renfrew Lane. Did she go there with somebody?

SH: Right. What I'm getting at is are you not concerned that there have been four, five alleged gang rapes? In the city centre? In the space of two months.

BA: Well, what is particularly noteworthy in this case is it's three Asian people they are looking for. Now, Renfrew Lane is known as a place where things happen, put it that way.

SH: What sort of things?

BA: Well, it is an area where quite a lot of the hookers take their clients. Now, that may not have happened in this case. But, you know. What was happening? Certainly we cannot have a situation where women are getting dragged off the streets up lanes and raped. Erm, but you know . . . Are the police saying it is the same outfit?

SH: No, this is the thing – they are saying this and three or four attacks we are looking at since Christmas are completely unrelated. One was Asian, one was Middle Eastern, and there was a white group. And yet they appear such . . . There was a woman who was literally dragged off Buchanan Street into a lane. Sorry, carry on, where were you?

BA: Right. Well, you always know there's a lot more to these city-centre rapes than meet the eye, of course. But this does sound concerning. So what I will be saying: there is a disturbing pattern, and while the offences may not be related it is absolutely essential that unaccompanied women take the greatest care when walking in these areas. I have little doubt that the police will eventually get a result but it is a disturbing situation nonetheless. OK?

SH: That's really helpful. Thank you.

BA: OK?

SH: No, that's great. Appreciate it.

BA: Is there anything else you're wanting? Want me to toughen it up?

SH: You were mentioning the fact it's an Asian gang but I'm not sure if it's relevant. What do you think?

BA: If youse got an Asians, then you've said you've got Middle Eastern. If they're Asians is that the same outfit? How do you tell a Middle Eastern from an Asian?

SH: Well, police are saying not.

BA: Well, they'll know what they're talking about.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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