Do we really need women-only spaces in 2017?

Marie Claire Dorking
Do we really need women-only spaces in 2017? [Photo: Getty]

There’s a certain game I remember playing at school with my girl friends. It involved a group of us linking arms while wandering round the playground encouraging our other gal pals to join on the end and creating a sort of human sausage of solidarity. “No boys, only girls, all join up for the army,” we sang while flouting our girl power in the faces of the boys who looked on in bemused ambivalence. But it seems we might have been onto something with our childish boy ban, because women-only spaces are currently enjoying something of a revival.

Last month, for the first time ever, an airline released the news that they would be launching women-only flights. Air India announced that female passengers would be given the option to purchase tickets in a small women-only row of seats on every domestic flight.

According to the Times of India, the initiative is a bid to combat sexual assault following a recent on-board incident when a male passenger reportedly groped a woman on Air India’s Mumbai-Newark flight.

“We feel, as national carriers, it is our responsibility to enhance comfort level to female passengers,” Air India’s Meenakshi Malik said in a statement. “There are a lot of female passengers who travel alone with us and we will be blocking a few seats for them.”

There is a safety element to some female-only transport initiatives [Photo: Getty]

The moves comes after Jeremy Corbyn flouted the idea of introducing women-only tube carriages in the UK in a bid to make women feel safer travelling on public transport.

But while the notion did shine a light on the unacceptable number of sexual assaults that are taking place on public transport, the plans were heavily criticised by many as a step back in time for feminism. Particularly when you consider women-only carriages were actually abolished on British Rail trains back in 1977.

It isn’t just transport that has been experimenting with a return to women-only spaces either, businesses in the US are introducing all-female offices and the idea is starting to gather pace in the UK too. Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle is fast becoming a blueprint for the women-only movement, with 80% of the 200 business residents being women-founded or purely run by females.

And all-female members clubs are now a thing too. Achingly cool new social club, The Wing, in New York has a waiting list of several thousand women all desperate to sign-up to the £1800 a year membership fee.

Set up by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, the club was “born out of the belief that women need and deserve a multi-purpose space designed to make their lives easier, and that magic is created when women gather together”.

Even Glastonbury is getting in on the banning of boys [Photo: unsplash via Pexels]

Even Glastonbury is getting in on the male-free act. Last year, a group called ‘The Sisterhood’ announced a women-only venue at the four day festival. “In a world that is still run by and designed to benefit mainly men,” the group explain, “oppression against women continues in various manifestations.” And they believe the way to fight against this sexism is to ban boys from coming within 10 feet of them at a festival.

The concept of women-only spaces isn’t a new one. In the 19th century, as gentlemen’s clubs started becoming popular, women sought out their own same-sex space and female-only clubs started popping up all over London.

Gradually though as women found other ways to interact with one another and focus on issues particular to their sex – magazines, newspapers, TV – social clubs started to fall out of favour.

More recently, social networking groups and websites allow open discussion without the foggy cloud of criticism. But now, there seems to be a growing need to return to gender-specific physical spaces.

Advocates of working in a man-free zone claim it allows women to escape the frustrations that can come from working in a male-dominated office culture. It can’t come as a surprise that women who experience sexism every day (if you need a specific example see the gender pay gap) may enjoy working away from the male gaze.

Plus science seems to suggest that all-female work environments can bring out the best in its double XX chromosome-ed colleagues. Recent research from Cambridge University found that women-only programmes have the best impact on female tech entrepreneurs.

It’s possible the reasons for the improvement are the same as those cited for explaining why girls perform significantly better in single-sex schools. Experts claim the reasoning is down to the fact girls feel more confident to voice their opinions when boys aren’t present.

But while it may be true to say that all-girl schools could foster confidence and ideas to flourish, when girls become women and move on into the grown-up world they will likely have to study and then work alongside men, so what then? Does fostering female-only spaces in the real world merely send out the message that women can’t function as well unless they are doing so in a man-free zone?

And then there’s the question of sexism to consider. In order to get away from sexism women suffer on a daily basis, is creating female-only spaces actually sexist?

All-female offices and work spaces are becoming more popular in the US and the UK [Photo: Getty]

Perhaps the argument for women-only zones depends on the reasons they are wanted. In the case of having man-free zones on transport, advocates say its a question of safety. Women have the right to travel in a space they feel safe. Which is obviously true. But in presenting this as the solution are we shifting the focus away from tackling increasing sexual assault rates and instead sending the message that woman are only safe if they travel in their own little bubble.

It also opens up the thorny subject of victim blaming. If a woman is attacked on a plane, but she didn’t book a female-only flight, are we saying the attack was somehow her fault?

There are obviously situations and circumstances where women-only spaces can work in a positive way, where women feel empowered to support and encourage one another away from male judgement. That being said, women-only transport solutions could well reinforce the idea that woman are right to feel scared, that they need to alter their behaviour in order to stay safe. For some women, women who may actively choose to attend female-only gyms and to not run on their own after dark for example, that’s a precaution worth taking. But for others it represents a step back in time, and in a time when we want to be moving forward, that has to be considered a little disappointed.

What do you think about the concept of women-only spaces? Let us know @YahooStyleUK

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