Labour MPs who spoke at Satruday’s sex-segregated rally in Birmingham don’t seem too keen on explaining themselves to The Spectator. Siôn Simon, now a Labour MEP for the West Midlands, proudly tweeted a picture of a Labour rally in Hodge Hill, in which seven Labour representatives spoke at a packed Islamic community centre. Only problem? The picture clearly shows that men and women were seated separately in the audience, during what was supposed to be an event to encourage political engagement.
Last weekend before the election? Must be Hodge Hill rally time pic.twitter.com/q5P17oaGXL
— Siôn Simon (@sionsimon) May 2, 2015
And rather than defend this practice, none of the Labour candidates have been willing to comment on the subject. Jack Dromey, Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, and husband of leading Labour feminist Harriet Harman even blocked me on Twitter for raising the question. It’s almost like they’re embarrassed.
They’ve got plenty be embarrassed about. There can be no excuse for requiring women to sit separately at an event at which they’re supposed to use their brains as engaged citizens, not as sex objects or as baby machines. True, orthodox branches of both Islam and Judaism require men and women to sit separately in their religious services – one reason why I’m not planning to convert to either any time soon – on the grounds that proximity to the opposite sex may distract worshippers from meditating on God. As yesterday’s rally wasn’t a religious service, I can only conclude that rather than meditating on God, the organizers were anxious that no sexual thrill should distract the watchers from meditating instead on the noble figure of Tom Watson.
If that sounds ridiculous, is it more ridiculous to assume that men and women are incapable of engaging with each other politically without thinking about sex? And engaging politically does start with sitting next to each other. The idea that men and women should hold separate conversations about politics might have a fig-leaf of equality about it, if men’s conversations hadn’t been the only ones that mattered for the past umpteen thousand years.
There’s nothing voluntary about any sex-segregation in a society with such pre-existing pressures within it, which is why we need leaders to refuse to accept it. As I’ve written before, simply having the option of separate seating sends a message that anyone who doesn’t conform to traditional male and female roles is a problem. Would Liam Byrne speak at an event that asked gay people to sit separately, or allowed white people to ‘choose’ to sit in a reserved space? If not, why not?
If separate male and female political engagement doesn’t sound to you like ‘male political engagement, in which a few women are allowed to watch’, look again at the photograph Siôn Simon tweeted. In the front two sections, I count seven seats per row in the male section, and five for the female section. The women are crammed in, far outnumbered by the men in the room, who also hem them in at the back. Here is the old adage made flesh: separate is never equal.
This was a rally to rouse the local Labour party to get out the vote on Thursday: one wonders if Hodge Hill women are allowed to volunteer alongside men, and if so, how any of them climb up the local activist party. Back in 2010, of course, Harriet Harman was championing all women’s short-lists in places like Birmingham Erdlington to tackle women’s historic exclusion from politics. Until a certain Jack Dromey decided to stand.