I notice that Jim Fitzpatrick, food, farming and environment minister is getting criticism for walking out of a sexually-segregated wedding when it emerged that he and his wife would be split up for the duration.
I realise the family decided to segregate man from woman out of “respect for elderly relatives”. I would like to talk about respect for women.
My mum was raised orthodox Jewish in north Manchester. When we went to see relatives, it would invariably fall on a weekend and we would have to go to shul. The men and even very little boys would be seated downstairs close to the action and the objects of reverence. Women would sit upstairs in the gallery. I had to wear a hat. I was learning Hebrew until my own bat mitzvah, but it was impossible to follow the service because the women would talk. And why not? All indications were that their attention was of little importance.
At work there was an event which was mis-advertised, meaning that I turned up early. In the hall the seating was partitioned into two – one side for women and the other for men. Losing my nerve, I took a chair to the middle at the back and waited for the event to begin. Three minutes into a sermon – some kind of exegesis on part of the koran, in the style of an American evangelistic preacher – I realised I was at the wrong event and gratefully crept out. When I returned an hour later to listen to Muslims, Jews, Christians and the a-religious talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to my relief the chairs were arranged in an egalitarian horseshoe.
One of the more recent wedding receptions I went to was sunni Muslim in a Barking community centre attached to a mosque. A work-friend’s father had died suddenly and a marriage had to be quickly brokered for her. Vaseline-lensed photos had been posted on a matchmaking site of her reclining on an ottoman, hair uncovered and wearing pantaloons (she wore hijab usually). A suitable husband had been found. She would marry and immediately move to Birmingham.
On arrival at the wedding venue I was dragged by a group of small girls I had met before to a large room downstairs filled with women and children. Little of the bright sunlight outside penetrated through the narrow windows along the top of the outside wall, so it was artificially lit. The room itself was spartan and the additions for the wedding guests were modest. Over the course of the celebrations, the little girls were obliged to remain downstairs but the little boys went between our room and the men’s room upstairs at will. As I left, I decided to take a peek into the room upstairs. I saw carpet, upholstery, curtains and some gilt. And some men asked me whether I was looking for a husband. No, just wanted to see how the other half lived, I replied. That will be the last time I attend a sexually-segregated religious event of any shape or form.
Where are the feminists? Oh, they’re picking their battles. Picking your battles means being much, much angrier with Jim Fitzpatrick for bringing negative and political publicity to his friends’ wedding, than they are with the patriarchy in evidence at that wedding. I searched my feed reader and the commentary has been dispiriting (I’m sorry – these days it seems I only write about stuff where the commentary has been dispiriting). David T makes a number of feminist points but concludes that it would be “rude” not to go to a friend’s segregated wedding. JimJay has no feminist comment to make whatsoever. The bridegroom, departing from the “elderly relatives” reason for segregation, deplored Jim Fitzpatrick for not respecting his religion’s customs. One commentator on the Today Programme on Friday said that he went to weddings he “did what we’re told”. Charlie Pottins, so-called socialist, has nothing to say. Subordination of women forms no part of Iain Dale’s moral dilemma. Some other bloggers I read haven’t got round to talking about this (yet?).
In each of the examples above, which I have experienced first hand in a way that few men would have the opportunity to do, I felt a sense of shame and subordination. The difference of opportunity between women and men must instil a sense of male superiority and autonomy and female inferiority and subordination from a young age. It allows the false premise that men cannot control their thoughts of sex, and in fact turns it into a cultural pillar. I think it is very wrong. To their credit, my parents raised me in the reform Jewish faith in a community with a feminist rabbi.
At Pickled Politics, Rumbold points out that sex segregation also happens at most gurdwaras. He says there is no easy answer as to what to do in these situations. I agree – it’s not easy, but it’s clear what you have to do: create a different set of customs.
I won’t rubbish my friends’ and family’s religious beliefs, I won’t cause a scene, I’ll choose my words as tactfully as I know how to, I’ll ask for the video, and I’ll make sure nobody could use me to further a cause of intolerance or hatred of religious minorities – but I won’t again participate in the normalising of marginalisation and subordination of women and girls.
If I’m invited to a religious gathering again, I’ll ask whether women and men will sit apart, and if the answer is yes, I’ll politely decline and say it’s against my beliefs to separate the sexes as if it were harmful for them to be together and as if one was less deserving than the other.
Otherwise I would hate myself in the morning.
Update 2: Jobeda Ali says “let’s not confuse standing up against sexism with standing up to racism“. Some commenters miss the point spectacularly, can’t seem to recognise the difference between single sex events and marginalisation or subordination.