Here’s the thing – I’ve actually been on a women only train carriage.
Just before being ordained I won a scholarship to travel to an orthodox country and went to Egypt to meet the Coptic Church. Actually, the truth is, I chose Egypt because I needed to come up with such a glittering application for the scholarship in order to win it and get some time away from my ordination training in Edinburgh. In the end, I discovered that the scholarship had only one applicant and that I could have won it and had a lovely time skipping around Greek islands instead of going to the Egyptian desert which was a much more tricky trip. However, the nature of tricky trips in countries like Egypt is that they are character forming and no mistake.
Mistake is very much what I accomplished when trying to take a ride on Cairo’s metro system however. I ran down the platform to catch a train that was just about to leave and jumped on just in time. Just in time to see about 100 female eyes swivel in my direction as the doors closed behind me and I realised that I was on a women only carriage. (The last carriage on the train was designated for women and children).
I’ll be honest and say that I’m quite enjoying Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to think outside the box. He said today he would be interested to hear what people (particularly women) thought about women only carriages as a way to safer travel.
I’m against the idea myself. I can understand anyone wanting to be able to travel in greater safety than they may feel they can currently travel. However, I think that women only carriages are the thin end of a rather destructive wedge. I can’t see that it is good for society to take policy decisions that are predicated on the idea that men are beasts and can’t help themselves. Zero tolerance to violence must be the answer I think, not purdah. The argument for women only carriages is not far from an argument for women wearing burqas. And yes, I’m aware of feminist Muslims feeling empowered by shrouding themselves from the gaze of men but no, I’m not convinced that’s a balanced, proportional or even particularly effective way of challenging sexism and male violence.
Interestingly, whilst the women only train carriages idea has caught the public imagination, I’ve become aware that a political party that I once was a candidate for is debating the introduction of women only shortlists again. And again, I’m not in favour. It seems to me that the idea that you can challenge the sexism that leads to women not being elected for things by introducing sexism against men is daft. However, it isn’t only daft, it is unlikely to succeed. And I think that because, unlike quite a lot of people in the Lib Dems these days, I’m a liberal. That means I believe in tackling root causes. The root cause of women not being elected is sexism within political parties and within society. I don’t buy the idea that sexism would disappear all of a sudden with a few more women leaders. I think that’s patronising in a number of directions. People who can’t sort out sexism in their own political party should not in my opinion be given a share in running the country. All women shortlists are not the answer to sexism. Challenging sexism is the answer to sexism. It isn’t easy but fights worth winning never are.
Incidently, I’m opposed to gay only shortlists and black and ethnic minority only shortlists too even though I often argue in favour of greater representation and visibility in both areas than we have seen hitherto.
From time to time people have a go at me about why we’ve not got any women bishops here in Scotland. They changed the rules in England and got women as bishops very quickly. We changed the rules ages ago and haven’t got one.
My answer is always the same. Which of our current bishops do my interlocutors think should be bumped off and which women do they think would be automatically elected in their place? We’ve got no vacancies for any new bishops at the moment and haven’t had many elections in recent years. There’s only been one election in which there was a female candidate and the electors chose a different candidate anyway – my current bishop. I was there at that election and don’t believe gender played any strong part in the selection. Most of the electors were bewildered that the world’s press came and camped on the cathedral doorstep and befuddled when they were told that it was because one of the candidates was female. “Really? Really?” was the common cry as people came in to vote pushing past the press
I’m often surprised that my church world is more diverse than other worlds I encounter. My congregation looks and feels a good deal more diverse than the people I encounter at the opera or theatre. It is also more diverse than the recent cohort of leaders in training that I met on Common Purpose.