EVERY FEW YEARS, it seems, women-only spaces come into the news for a brief moment. Sometimes the focus sparks debates about whether women’s spaces subvert the patriarchy or act as its agents. Other times, it centers a critical lens on problematic “feminist” niches and other wrongfully exclusionary spaces.
August 2015 saw the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival held near Hart Township. Every year, since its 1975 inception, the MichFest brought thousands of women to The Land: a large, open area that was perfectly suited for the woman-owned, -operated, -hosted, and -attended event. In 1991, however, a dark shadow crept over the event after a transwoman named Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival. As Burkholder and her supporters protested MichFest’s exclusion of trans individuals, the music festival’s mission statements were altered to indicate that the event was for “womyn-born womyn.” It’s a stance that MichFest founder and organizer Lisa Vogel has defended many times, and one that, even a quarter-century later, she maintains.
Supporters of the womyn-born womyn philosophy claim that cisgender women’s experiences are unique, their spaces sacred. They should not, therefore, be encroached upon by trans individuals. This line of thinking, however, ignores the fact that womyn-born womyn spaces are just as exclusionary as good ole boys’ clubs, and rejects intersectional feminism altogether. It assumes that trans individuals will have the resources and privilege to design their own safe spaces. The womyn-born womyn philosophy denies trans women the right to their identities by purporting that they are not born, but made, female.
This transphobia masquerading as feminism still exists in the world, but it is not the major focus of this writing. Instead, I want to look at sex-segregated spaces in mainstream society and determine how they function for and against women.
The UK recently floated the idea of creating women-only train cars to curtail sexual harassment. If implemented, these passenger cars would be the newest part of a tradition stretching back to the early 20th century. In most countries offering these spaces on public transport, female passengers have the option of riding in either mixed-sex or women-only carriages. Malaysia started offering special taxi services, with cars operated by women and ready on-call, in 2010, adding to already existing women-only buses and trains.
But do these spaces help prevent sex crimes and other forms of violence against women, as many supporters claim? Hard statistics are difficult to come by, but offering women-only public transportation doesn’t seem to discourage harassment and assault in mixed-sex spaces, such as bus stops and ticket stations. Having train cars and taxis for women also, unfortunately, opens the door for victim-blaming should a woman be assaulted after choosing to enter a mixed-sex car. However, this cannot discount the comfort many women — myself included — might feel in a space that pretty much guarantees they will spend next few minutes or hours not fending off unwanted advances from strange men.
Although the idea of sex-segregated dining might seem ridiculous, women in the US were still fighting to eat at certain restaurants and bars well into the 20th century. Restaurants could legally ban women from entering until the late-1960s and early 1970s, and these discriminatory practices inspired sit-ins and lawsuits from women looking for a literal place at the table.
There might not be many sex-segregated eateries in the US, but women-only dining is popular in the Middle East today. Many restaurants offer closed booths for families, where veiled women can relax and eat as if they are in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. December 2014 saw the launch of the Scranton Restaurant: a small, women-only diner in Herat, Afghanistan that serves as a meeting place for women whose social lives might be otherwise restricted in the country. On the other hand, some restauranteers in Saudi Arabia began banning women unchaperoned by men from their establishments in that same year, claiming that their presence threatened society’s moral fiber.
Many westerners criticize the sex-segregation in Middle Eastern restaurants as oppressive. Though I’m sure Saudi Arabia’s single women aren’t happy about restaurant-owners’ rejection of their business, many women view these spaces less as attempts to protect the sexes from harmful contact than as welcoming places where they can be themselves in public.
When we try to discern whether a women-only space is oppressive or empowering, it’s important to note how inclusive the event or establishment is. Does it deny access to women of color, queer women, or those who are not cisgender? Does it offer the choice of sex-seclusion, or is it an imposed segregation? If the space exists outside of our culture, we must always look to the women it affects most for guidance, rather than passing orientalist judgments. There are no hard and fast answers when it comes to dealing with sex-segregation, but there is plenty of room for dialogue.