A short time ago, Maiy Azize wrote a piece for Overland on Reclaim the Night and the history of women-only spaces. Azize reflected on the value of these spaces, stating that feminists need to revisit the question of whether men should be invited in to them. She argues that women-only spaces can still be important:
women-only spaces, and women claiming spaces, will remain important to feminism. In the health and services context, they provide opportunities for women to escape cycles of violence and poverty. In the social and cultural context, they enable women to express themselves in a supportive environment. And in the context of feminist activism, they are places that cultivate women’s empowerment. But the most important aspect of these safe spaces is the channel that they provide for women to explore, develop, and refine their ideas away from the influence of patriarchal structures – and do so in a way that directly challenges them.
Azize’s piece provides an interesting contribution to this particular debate. Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on the discussion from the perspective of a man who is also an anti-sexist campaigner. One of the interesting elements of Azize’s article is the role men have played in contesting women-only spaces. She writes:
An increasingly common objection to women-only spaces is based on the personal exclusion experienced by men. In mainstream media, it is common to claim that women-only spaces should be opposed, or that men-only spaces should be considered equally legitimate.
I have noticed such challenges many times, and may even have been involved in some myself. I have seen men demand their right to be able to call themselves a feminist, and talk about a desire to attend events like Reclaim the Night. I in fact attended the rally one year, though I didn’t march.
Often, men, who may mean well, who may want to support or be part of the feminist movement, get into debates with women about the role they should be able to play as an anti-sexist or feminist campaigner. Usually it’s framed as men simply wanting to ‘help’ the movement, but I think it’s extremely problematic.
Part of being an anti-sexist campaigner is to recognise the importance of space in patriarchal society. As Azize says, space in our world is segregated: women are confined to the private sphere while men are given the public sphere. Research has shown that men dominate discussion in dual-sex spaces, with women tending to defer to men in decision-making.
As progressive men, it is up to us to recognise these power dynamics. As anti-sexist campaigners, we must acknowledge that we live in a world in which space is largely governed by men, and that, consciously or not, we play a part in this dynamic. Women, then, have the right to take back some of this space and define it as their own. When they do so, our role is to butt out.
That is not to say we should not engage in debate about feminism and women’s liberation! That is a conversation that must be had by everyone: it affects everyone. But women have the right to demand and define their own space and movement if and when they need to. And when women do that – when women decide to host a Reclaim the Night that is women only, or if women want to set up women’s rooms in their universities – we must not try to force our way in. Delineating such spaces should not be seen as exclusionary, when, actually, it’s creating the sort of space that men have access to every day.
In fact, we should respect the decision of all marginalised groups to define their own spaces, whether it’s men respecting women’s spaces, straight people respecting queer space, or white people respecting the space of people of colour. Respecting those spaces is integral to being an anti-discrimination activist.
At times we may be invited in to these spaces, as with various Reclaim the Night marches. But it is the prerogative of feminists involved to extend the invitation. And when invited in, we need to understand the issues that can arise: we don’t speak for women, nor should we place our experiences above theirs. Same goes when invited in to queer spaces, or spaces for those campaigning for refugee rights or Indigenous sovereignty.
I agree that men have a role in feminism, just as straight people have a role in the debate about queer politics, and white people have a role in anti-racism campaigns – but part of that role is to recognise when people need their own space. In the past, we’ve often failed to see that need. It’s time we start.