I’m ambivalent about gendered public spaces. Even leaving aside trans-gender issues, which are real, I just find it hard to mount an intellectual defense of separate public spaces for men and women. It really gets my back up being barred from a religious site for that reason:
Mind you, there are some advantages. I’m not pro on adjusting my Spanx and picking krill from my teeth and throwing away my tampon refuse in front of strange men. I doubt they like it much either. (Come to think of it, the feeling is entirely mutual: my limited experiences in men’s lavatories have left me screaming for a biohazard suit .) And on my trips to South Asia, I’ve never had a problem standing behind a curtain for security checks or in a separate line to buy tickets. In a crazy way it feels respectful…
Except when it doesn’t. I thought about women in public spaces when I read about the recent ferry sinking in Bangladesh, which has so far claimed 112 lives. I remember crossing, by bus and ferry, a similar river in Bangladesh in 1986.This was back when Bangladesh had the second lowest per capita income in the world, before women entered the garment industry en masse and became wage earners, before the fertility rate dropped dramatically, before there was any kind of middle class, and women were largely hidden from view.
Now, I know things have changed a lot there. But even so… I couldn’t help remembering the man who advised me to step off the bus and into the open air with all the male passengers during the ferry crossing while the women remained behind in the sweltering bus. “People drown on ferry crossings and it’s always dangerous to stay trapped inside,” he advised. “This way you’ll have a better chance of survival if the ferry tips over.” I asked him why, if it was so dangerous to stay sheltered inside the bus, there were no women except me on deck. “Well, the ladies can’t come outside!” he replied, stating the obvious.
As a foreign woman, I was often accorded a neutered status while in Bangladesh, and at times it was humiliating; once I was told to sit on the men’s side of the banquet at a wedding celebration. But I was glad to be standing with the men on that ferry.