Where are the feminists / No more segregated weddings for me

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: Kia Abdullah on the unwelcome segregaton of her own wedding. Nothing on Feministing. Nothing on the F-Word.

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.


17 thoughts on “Where are the feminists / No more segregated weddings for me

  1. I applaud your stance – and as you know I would do the same. (Of course, I would rubbish people’s beliefs, that’s one of mine after all: your beliefs are stoopid!) “The feminists pick their battles” is very well put. Thanks for this. x

  2. I’ve been to RC weddings and managed not to walk out while the priest leading the service talked up the essential maternal qualities of the bride and the necessity of God to successful marriage. I’ve been invited to hen dos and put on the bunny ears. And my religious relations didn’t storm out of my marriage in a snit at the lack of prayers and hymns, or the fact that I already had two children.

    You take part in these things because someone you care for has invited you, and practically all marriage ceremonies with any element of tradition involve a little light subjugation. Everyone picks their battles, otherwise you’d spend your entire life fighting (hey, patriarchy’s *everywhere*). Pick one when you’re actually at your friends’ wedding (rather than gracefully extricating yourself beforehand), and – to my mind – you’re actually being a bit of a knob.

  3. Sarah, for you this seems to be primarily about a) one’s debt to one’s friends; b) the harmlessness of tradition; c) tolerance.

    There’s a d) whether Jim Fitzpatrick was politically irresponsible in bringing notoriety to this wedding. That depends on how the story got to the media. If it was, as it seems to be, JF himself, then I share the distaste at the fast, loose treatment of his friendship. But you also have to bear in mind the coded view of men and women that this bridal couple imposed on their guests – and without any prior notice. I think that it is important to understand that the argument that ensued is also about norms and contesting norms, and I think that Jim Fitzpatrick probably felt he had to take this stand.

    So it’s b) I disagree with you about. I don’t agree with you that “patriarchy is *everywhere*”. Patriarchy is outlawed in the public realm because it is contravenes anti-discrimination law. The private sphere has to sort itself out, and this is what I am suggesting. A new set of customs. And hen nights are different. I’m against marginalisation and subordination, not single sex gatherings.

    marryasunni, if you’re recommending that people of faith live reflective lives, I would agree – it’s one of the conditions of pretty much all religions.

  4. Should I have walked out of the RC ceremony? I objected pretty strongly to the terms of the service and would dispute them in conversation, but as a guest I would rather respect my friends’ relationship and the way in which they choose to honour those bonds.

    People often apply antiquated customs to a wedding ceremony, perhpas because it gives their relationship a connection to the permanent, and in many cases those conventions don’t reflect their day-to-day attitudes. The time to make a new set of conventions is at your own wedding and in conversation with other people, not on someone elses’ big day. And patriarchy might be outlawed in the public sphere, but it’s still very much active.

  5. Thanks for coming back to this, Sarah. I don’t know – should you? I can’t say. If you think not, that’s good enough for me. I’m sure if the cleric had turned to the congregation and demanded some kind of demonstration of support for the maternal qualities you mentioned, then you would have remained firmly in your seat. But I don’t want to go down the route of fabricating scenarios to prove my point. The simple answer is, it’s up to you.

    I disagree that the time to make a new set of conventions is at your own wedding. I’m not intending to get married (nor am I intending to ever split from Matt), but I am expected to turn up and participate in the weddings of my friends and families. Since I’m expected to be part of the performance, why don’t I get to say “I’m not comfortable with that, I’m out”?

  6. “Since I’m expected to be part of the performance, why don’t I get to say “I’m not comfortable with that, I’m out”?”

    Maybe you could ask beforehand?

    That way you are not put in the position where you have to accept patriarchal b.s. in order to be a good friend and your friends are not put in a situation where they are dissing a good friend in the name of being good sons/daughters.

    Just a suggestion…

  7. And you can/should let them know why you are not attending. That way you can inform them why you are making this decision–you do not support these patriarchal conventions and think they need to be challenged–and not make it personal.

  8. “Where are the feminists?”

    The feminista group I worked with back in the late 80s insisted on women [we are not “ladies” we are women] only meetings! I’m not sure that things have progressed since then? There was a women only Green Party conference recently.

    I did find that the seating arrangements at my off-spring’s wedding was a wonderful opportunity for revenge on some of my relatives.

  9. NC, exactly.

    Weggis, I wonder if they are shy of these kinds of issues. It’s marginalisation I worry about, rather than segregation. I think that identity-based groups are understandable where there is identity-based prejudice and discrimination. So it seems to me there’s a difference between sub-groups at grass roots level in an organisation, or in a society, and blanket segregation imposed from on high.

  10. Originally, when I read about this at the daily (maybe) I too had thought that Fitzpatrick was just being rude.

    I am not one of his fans, but when you see the video of him explaining events then his reaction is much clearer.

    In 15 years he’s only run across two segregated weddings, the first one stated it was gender segregated on the invite, so Fitzpatricks declined.

    This second one, didn’t indicate that guests would be gender segregated and apparently the Fitzpatricks were annoyed when they got there and were told they’d be split up.

    In that case, I think their actions were understandable and not rude, rather it was the fault of the organizers that they did not indicate on the invite that the wedding would be gender segregated, and if the Fitzpatricks don’t wish to condone gender segregation by attending that is their privilege.

    Neither they or anyone else should be force to attend a gender segregated wedding if they don’t want to.

  11. I do find it strange that a wedding, which is about the joining of a man and a woman together in holy matrimony, should practice a custom that seperates already married couples at the same function.

  12. Do they separate blacks and whites? straights and gays?

    well, they probably would if they could I guess. I don’t like it, it’s backwards and all in the name of the sky God. I’d like to see what they’d say to two men in a civil ‘partnership’. That would fuck em up.

    2009, lets evolve and improve things quickly.

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