Cambridge Students Boycott Glasgow Debating Competition Over 'Sexist Heckling'

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Cambridge University's debate union is boycotting a prestigious competition after two women were subjected to misogynistic abuse from students in Glasgow.

Student debaters Marlena Valles and Rebecca Meredith were competing in the Glasgow University's annual Ancients competition at the weekend when the incidents took place.

Valles, who was named best speaker in Scotland at the country's 2013 national championships, was told "get that woman out of my chamber", by one student. When Cambridge Union Society (CUS) member Meredith, who is ranked as one of the top 20 speakers in the world, was booed by male members, she was told it was "to be expected".

One judge was called a "frigid bitch" when she objected to the students' behaviour.

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Students Marlena Valles (left) and Rebecca Meredith (right) were shocked at the misogynistic reception they received

On Monday, the CUS voted unanimously to revoke its membership with the Glasgow University Union (GUU), saying it would never again send students to Glasgow debates.

Both Valles and Meredith posted statements on their Facebook pages expressing their horror at the incidents.

Valles wrote: "We both realised why we were being booed: it was because we were advocating for women’s rights, speaking in the GUU. I understand the way that the GUU 'bear pit' chamber works... am fine with speaking to the gallery and having audience members clap when they like a point and even say 'shame' when they don’t. What I’m not okay with is people interrupting speeches to be misogynistic.

"It is difficult to speak confidently to an audience that is booing you for the sole reason that you are a woman in a dress talking about women’s rights, especially when you are the only girls in the final.

"The problem was that it was the entire Union that seemed to be weirdly proud of its misogynistic roots throughout the competition. The social Friday night was a pub quiz which included the question, 'In 1980 the GUU had a vote to allow women into the Union. There is an annual dinner to honour the men who voted against the motion– how many men were there?' and the two GUU teams participating in the quiz whooped and banged their hands on the table in support of the voters against."

Valles added she was told by members of the GUU who apologised for their friends' behaviour, explaining it away as "a joke".

The Edinburgh University law student, who described the incidents as "frustrating" continued: "Later, as I was getting a drink, one of the men who was booing us said quite audibly 'Get that woman out of my chamber' as his GUU friends, who had minutes ago apologised for his behaviour, laughed along.

"This is my question: Members of the GUU clearly knew that this was something that happened. They knew that certain members would boo women if they spoke about women’s rights. Why on earth were they allowed to come to observe the final and why were they not asked to leave after or at the very least, issue a genuine apology to the speakers that they had rudely interrupted with their misogyny?"

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The GUU, which was founded in 1885, only voted to allow women to become members in 1980. In November 2012, the GUU hosted its controversial "Last All Male Board" (LAMB) dinner. The dinner, a long-running tradition, was set up to "commemorate" the last all-male board of management, after females were admitted. The president of the GUU, David Lockhart, attends the LAMB events.

On the GUU website, the debating society is described as "the finest training grounds for young politicians". Former union debaters include Sir Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy and Liam Fox.

Meredith wrote: "Last night [Valles and I] were openly booed by a small number of misogynistic male Glasgow Union debaters and members during the final of the Glasgow Ancients competition for our presence as female speakers.

"Sexist comments were made about our appearance, and we were told to 'get that woman out my my union' by a male member. Our speeches were interrupted by cries of 'shame woman' and boos at mention of female equality within the context of the final. Sexism is not just something we talk about - it is something real people experience everyday. After complaining, we were told by several GUU debaters that it was "par for the course" and "to be expected" that female speakers in the Glasgow debating chamber would be booed.

"I have been told as a female debater that I should be careful not to sound 'hysterical' as a female speaker, I have been told to defer to my male partner on analysis and economics because male debaters are 'more convincing', but never have I been openly disparaged in a final merely for being a woman.

"Debaters should probably realise that while we all say we care about sexism, incidents like those of last night, the lack of proportionate numbers of females in competitive finals, and (most worryingly) the number of female freshers who report they have abandoned debating due to sexist behaviour or intimidation are not acceptable, and we should probably start doing things to change them."

Kitty Parker-Brooks, a judge at the competition, said she overheard male members from the GUU making derogatory comments about the speakers' appearances. "[They were] physically picking them apart", she said.

"I 'shushed' them and then one of them called me a frigid bitch."

Ben Kentish, President of the Cambridge Union, described the students' behaviour as "disgusting".

"I am appalled by the treatment of one of our competitive debaters at the Glasgow University Union. This kind of behaviour belongs in the 19th Century and it is disgusting that female students who had gone to Glasgow to debate were subjected to this abuse.

"We have written to the Glasgow Union to express our strong feelings on this issue, and have already decided to revoke our reciprocal membership with that society.

"I hope all those guilty of making these comments will be dealt with appropriately by the Glasgow Union."

A copy of the letter can be viewed at the end of the article.

John Beechinor, the Chief Adjudicator and chair judge of the competition, told The Telegraph he is "ashamed" to be associated with the debate.

"Both speakers told me how upset they were while giving their speeches and Rebecca stated that she was on the verge of tears on a number of occasions,” he said.

"The conduct displayed in the GUU Chamber is incredibly distressing and perpetuates the idea that debating is for white, upper-middle class males from English-speaking countries."

It is not the first time the GUU has found itself in the news for the wrong reasons; in 2011, members of the union indulged in a "drunken rampage of vandalism and intimidation".

David Lockhart, President of the GUU said: "GUU is now investigating the incident and will take disciplinary action against any member whose conduct was found to be improper. I would like to apologise on behalf of GUU for any speakers or attendees who felt offended. While GUU encourages heckling at its debates events, we strongly condemn sexism."

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