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Boys Will Be Boys? (Or, Why Women Are Not Responsible for the Misbehaviour of Men)

16/06/2016 12:33 | Updated 16 June 2016

Now that Hilary Clinton has clinched the presidential nomination (and we can only pray the presidency), making her the first woman ever to do so, our surprise over the high-heels story a few weeks back seems justified. Our shock was that there still existed a law enabling employers to demand women wear heels. We thought we were beyond that. But more and more frequently there are examples of ways in which women are again being pushed from the public sphere. And the kicker is that in some cases, even women seem to be welcoming it.

Not always. When Hitchin Girls' School allegedly told GCSE pupils to lengthen their skirts so as not to provoke exam invigilators, there was understandable outrage. Why should the onus be on girls to account for the behaviour of grown men? Why is it the girls' fault that they are being objectified? Of course it isn't. Such a notion is just a stone's throw from the good old 'she was asking for it' assertion, the belief that rape is excusable if the girl was wearing a short skirt. (Or passed out, if you're Brock Turner.) Fortunately, most of us these days, agree that this is absurd.

But not Chariot For Women. Supposed to launch in Boston this April, now stalled, it is just one of a number of emerging Uber alternatives offering female only drivers to female (and children) only passengers. At first glance, in the light of various cases of rape and assault by some Uber drivers, this may sound like a good thing. It offers women a way in which to avoid that threat of violence from an unknown man. But aside from the misdeed of casting all men as potential rapists, it does exactly the same thing as the school skirts. It puts the onus on women to change, to adapt, to modify themselves in order to account for the behaviour of men.

Of course right now the idea is fledgling. And the service is optional. But where might it lead? Will we start to feel the need for segregated train carriages, too? To female-only buses? Or perhaps women should just sit at the back of the bus? If they don't, are they asking for it? Such ideas are the beginning of marginalization, of pushing a gender that has fought so hard for equality, back to the edges.

Already, such measures on transportation exist in Dubai, Iran, and India, amongst others. This is perhaps not a surprise in countries where women's rights are frequently disregarded. But during research for my new novel, Chains of Sand, I discovered that it exists too in democratic, egalitarian Israel. Between 1997 and just a few years ago, there existed in Jerusalem Mehadrin bus lines, which while public, catered for the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and therefore obliged women to enter and exit and sit at the back. In 2011 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that gender segregation was unlawful and abolished these Mehadrin lines. But on many routes the segregation remained. Now it was self-enforced by religious groups, but the imperative just as strong, so that women who refused to comply were often harassed, in some cases seriously.

We see religiously motivated segregation in the UK too: The shrouds imposed on Muslim women while their men walk free in the summer heat. Luton's Islamic school that allegedly segregated staff. Even in the more orthodox synagogues of my own Jewish community, one of the biggest tensions for me is that women are not allowed to sit with men.

While these things remain voluntary in society, while it is a choice, the poison is not lethal. Because feminism, for me at least, is all about choice. Not forcing women to be the same as men, or vice versa, but ensuring that both sexes have equal access to all areas of citizenship. As soon as we start accepting however, that they don't - that a man's crime toward a woman should be in any way expected, or accepted - then there is a problem. A problem endemic to our fundamental approach to gender. And a terrible precedent.

At Glastonbury this year, organizers have introduced The Sisterhood - a stage staffed by, performed on, and attended by women only, or those who identify as women. The explanation is that in a world where women still face oppression, they need a "secret space" in which to share their stories and find ways to fight it. But by shutting men out of the experience, out of the conversation, they are again casting all men into the role of oppressor, and burdening women alone with the 'secret' task of dealing with it.

We must teach both our girls and our boys that each of us is responsible for our own actions. No matter our gender. And whether it is at school, or work, or in taxis, we must therefore seek to tackle behaviour that is unacceptable, not marginalize those who suffer it.

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