Photo by Miguel Bruna

The same old misogyny

A feminist student society has taken legal action against the Bristol Student Union for sanctioning their women-only spaces

Artillery Row

A new legal challenge has entered the already populated world of feminist litigation against the “gender identity” autocracy currently controlling institutions, employers and high-ranking politicians around the UK. A feminist student society called Women Talk Back! was sanctioned by the Bristol Student Union for implementing the exceptions available in the Equality Act 2010 to protect single-sex services. Their recently launched crowdfunding page argues that by sanctioning the women-only society, the student union has committed direct and indirect sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

On the night of 1 March 2020, the society was scheduled to discuss the topic of “Boundaries and Feminism” when a group of trans activist students, with a history of targeting feminists on campus, attempted to infiltrate the meeting. A male student was refused entry into the female-only space, by me, in my role as society president during a 45-minute standoff in which they refused to accept “no” for an answer. Afterwards, the students complained to the Bristol SU, claiming that women setting lawful boundaries around ourselves constituted “extremely harmful psychological injury”. The Bristol SU agreed. I spoke with three of the claimants about their reasons behind this litigation and why they insisted on being women-only. 

Why are you anonymous? What do you worry could happen if your name was out there now?

I have been warned I could lose my job by friends who are genuinely concerned

Claimant #2: I worry that other people might target me and try to hurt me because of this, hence, my wish to remain anonymous for the time being. But I know that what is happening to us is the tip of the iceberg. Other women-only services have been effectively dismantled or made to change their women-only policy (for example rape crisis centres or domestic violence shelters) or face bankruptcy because funding has been conditioned. This is a necessary fight for women’s rights. I feel like there is no other option for me; I know it is a big risk I am taking on, but I know I could not live with myself if I did otherwise.

Claimant #3: I am worried by the fact that some of my friends and family strongly disagree with what we are doing. I am a very non-confrontational person, and I struggle to confidently express my beliefs when someone challenges me on them. In debates, I am often the person who tries to reach a middle-ground with the other side. I think it’s important to be empathetic to someone’s beliefs, however different they are, to try to understand their logic. 

However, this is an extremely emotive and divisive topic – anyone with opinions either way feels very strongly, so it’s expected that some of our friends and family will disagree with what we are doing. It has caused some conflict in my relationships, but I always come back to the fact that I truly believe we are doing the right thing.

Claimant #4: I am regularly scolded because I am not afraid to boldly state my belief that sex is real and immutable. I am doing this, even though, in my personal life I have been warned I could lose my job by friends who are genuinely concerned about me and who do not have the confidence I have to state their views on women’s rights and gender critical beliefs.

I would say that I am not afraid of the consequences because this fight is not just for Women Talk back! It is for all women who do not consent to being redefined in law; and for the women who not consent to sharing their single sex services and spaces with trans identifying males. Women have a right to have a view about the way our existence and rights are becoming invisibilised without being demonised as bigots and discriminated against as a consequence.

How would you describe Women Talk Back!’s consciousness-raising meetings? 

They repeatedly treated us as if women aren’t worthy of having our dignity respected

Claimant #3: It’s simple – we want a space that is for us and about us. It’s so important for women to be able to create spaces like the Women Talk Back! consciousness-raising services where we feel safe to discuss our traumas and experiences relating to being female in a male-centred world. By having this group, we have created a place where we can centre ourselves. And I know that it has been an incredibly healing and beautiful experience for so many of the women who have attended.

Claimant #2: We only ever wanted a space to engage in lively debate of what it means to be a female in a patriarchal society, be able to make sense of our lives and find ways to improve our futures. Along the way of these exchanges with the Bristol SU, we have realised that this is much bigger than us as individuals. It has an impact on wider structural violence against women and how it is tackled.

Why take legal action against the Bristol SU? Have you tried other ways to have your rights upheld?

Claimant 2: I am involved in a legal action against the Bristol SU because we have been discriminated against directly and indirectly, individually and collectively, on the basis of our sex. We did everything in our power to accommodate the Bristol SU requirements to be officially affiliated so that the student community could benefit from our work. 

Since then, we have tried to resolve conflicts with the Bristol SU amicably and always following their internal procedures. Yet, they repeatedly treated us as if women aren’t worthy enough of having our right to safety and dignity respected.

Claimant #4: I am involved in this legal action because I am angry the single-sex exemption is being ignored and women rights are being violated. Enough is enough.

Why have a women-only feminist society? Shouldn’t you have these conversations with men too? 

Claimant 3: I believe that there is a space for discussing feminist issues in wider context that does include everyone. We can all learn from each other and that is powerful too. But I don’t think you can have one without the other. I am proud that we have public events which are open to everyone whilst also being strict about keeping our consciousness-raising meetings single-sex. 

I think that every oppressed group within society has a right to meet amongst themselves, if they want to. Having a women-only group has been so valuable to us and although I am nervous to tackle such a heated issue, I am proud to be standing with the other brave women who are fighting this with me.

We refuse to betray women’s boundaries

Claimant #4: I do not think I need to justify my desire for a female-only space. Our meetings simply would not have been the same if men were present. Men cannot comment on the female experience, nor can they identify as having had a female experience. If a trans-identifying man was permitted in the meetings, I know for a fact that some of our treasured members would have self-excluded. So, by insisting that we include males into our meetings, the Bristol SU has been pressuring us to exclude the women that we created this service for. We refuse to betray women’s boundaries.

What was a memorable consciousness-raising meeting for you, and why was it important that it was female-only?

Claimant #2: All consciousness-raising meetings I have attended have made a very important contribution to my life, whether through learning other perspectives, gaining insight from my previous experiences, reaching closure, connecting with other women, etc. Two of the most memorable meetings (because I cannot choose just one) were one about pornography and another about menstruation. 

The fact that it was female-only made it possible for us to engage honestly with the topics to let our guards down and allow our true emotions, reflections and thoughts to emerge without the fear of backlash or other threats. Particularly, because there were participants from different religious and cultural backgrounds who would have certainly censored their invaluable contributions were there any males present, and the conversations would have sorely suffered from these omissions.

Claimant #4: In December 2019, we held a meeting about internalised misogyny and women who hate other women. It was one of my most memorable meetings because my mum joined me. And another woman was there with her mum too. I felt this was a very pivotal moment as we came away from this meeting inspired to have much deeper conversations about how women can blame other women for sexual violence. This has been the start of a healing process for both of us.

Do you believe student unions help or hinder women’s rights?

Claimant #2: I think that Students Unions, just like any other institutions, are permeated by the cultural values of the societies that they emerge from, and misogyny sadly is still deeply rooted in our cultures. In a way, I am not surprised that the response of Bristol SU has been to undermine women’s rights, now under the guise of “progressive” ideologies or “modern” theories, but is the same old misogyny.

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