6 Women-Only Spaces Giving Sororities A Run For Their Money
Discussions about women-only spaces come up a lot lately, from a British politician's advocacy of female train carriages, to the popularity of women-only social clubs like The Wing. The notion of an exclusive space purely for women is ancient: the Romans had women-only sacred festivals and religious collectives, while everybody from the Ottomans to the imperial Russians had spaces that kept certain classes of women separate from men. Men, however, have tended to dominate the catalog of gender-segregated places in history, from male-only colleges and universities to monasteries and the private clubs and societies of big cities. Many modern women's spaces have formed as a reaction to those traditions, but they also carry important ones of their own, devoted to fostering empowerment and support in "a room of their own" (in the words of Virginia Woolf, who wrote her famous essay after being banned from entering a male-only Cambridge library).
These days, women-only spaces can be controversial. Saudia Arabia's announcement in 2012 of the potential construction of a women-only city of workers raised concerns that it would entrench, rather than help, the embattled state of women's rights in the country. (The city was never built.) Air India's attempt to beat the problem of in-flight sexual assault by creating women-only sections on planes has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the problem occurring in the first place. And of course, there is a debate about whether these spaces, by virtue of their sex-specific branding, exclude trans women or people outside the gender binary, but this isn't always the case.
The conversation about the value of women-only clubs isn't new. As the legacies of these six women-only spaces across the world demonstrate, gender-segregated places and their implications for feminism and equal rights have concerned people for, in some cases, hundreds of years. Here are six inspiring women-only spaces that are way better than your typical sorority.
University Women's Club, London
From Victorian novels to P.G. Wodehouse, the London of literature has always been populated by gentlemen's clubs — all exclusive, generally for a certain kind of higher-born gentleman, and only allowing ladies under extreme duress. The English club is a cultural institution (it's where the disparaging saying "old boy's club" comes from), but as British women have gained more rights, they've demanded similar spaces of their own.
The oldest of these is the University Women's Club, established in 1887 by female graduates of Cambridge to reflect the growing numbers of women being allowed to gain higher degrees in British universities. It's member-owned and entirely male-free, resides on the exceptionally fancy thoroughfare of Mayfair, and is exclusively for the use of women who have university degrees. It's a place for socialising, networking, using the library and connecting with the luminaries who are also members; Sandi Toksvig, head of the Women's Equality Party, reportedly installed a fireplace there.
For 27 years, the village of Umoja has been one of the world's most unusual shelters for women. It is an exclusively female space that provides homes and livelihoods for survivors of gender violence and discrimination across Kenya. Umoja is a haven for women who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, genital mutilation, child marriage, or other hardships, and is supported by craftwork by the women and by international donations.
Founded in 1990 by women who had been sexually assaulted by British soldiers, the village houses around 50 women and up to 200 children. The elders also work outside the village to educate other people in their remote part of Kenya about the dangers of FGM and child marriage. It's a living and thriving community designed for permanent residence, and involves schooling and education so that children can grow up to know a better world.
The idea of beguinages, small communities of lay religious women, dates back to the European Middle Ages, but there are some that survive in the modern world. While the most famous beguinages exist across Belgium and are often UNESCO-listed, they're very rarely still used as women-only communities. In other parts of Europe, however, beguinages have had a bit of a resurgence.
In Schwerte, Germany, a secular beguinage has existed since 2005 that allows single women, with or without children, to come live as part of a female-only community. Other beguinage communities across Germany are more Christian, and partner with convents and explicitly religious institutions across the world. While the way of the beguinages has largely died out as European women were afforded more opportunities and rights, the idea still has its converts. They're designed to revolve around shared living spaces, communal help and, in some places, prayer: a ready-made community of support and help for women without many other connections to help them.
Hijra Communes, South Asia
Across South Asia, the existence of a "third sex" known as the hijra is culturally and, in some cases, legally recognised, encompassing intersex people, eunuchs, and transgender people while also involving uniquely spiritual local meanings. Hijra themselves are often transgender women, and live together in communities of their own from Nepal to Bangladesh and India. Each commune is traditionally run by a guru or mentor, who is known as the group's 'mother', and governs how the 'daughters' of her commune behave. Communes along these lines, with their own individual traditions, have been part of South Asian history for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, hijra are both excluded from the mainstream and regarded as powerful; they're brought in to dance for luck and entertainment at weddings and childbirth for money, and are believed to be tied to gods of fertility and gender. Some hijra communes act as magnets for prostitution, but many provide a vital community for transgender women to express themselves, find mutual support, and be protected from outside discrimination.
Pankhurst Center, England
In Britain, the Pankhursts are the first family of suffrage: Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia, Adele and Christabel, were some of the biggest luminaries in the fight for women's right to vote in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The house in which Emmeline was born in Manchester has now been made into the Pankhurst Centre, a female-only space that reflects its history as a key part of the fight for equality.
The Centre itself was established in 1974, but held the first meeting of suffragettes in the UK in 1903, so its legacy as a woman-only space is pretty unparalleled. While people of all genders are welcome to look at the Centre's museum of suffragette artifacts, its community space is run by women, for women, and provides drop-in services for Manchester organizations centered around domestic violence and women's aid.
Mirman Baheer, Afghanistan
Mirman Baheer is less a space than an idea. It's a private and secretive Afghan women's poetry club, held in homes and other locations across Kabul to allow Afghan women of all ages to read and write poetry. They particularly specialise in landays, two-line Pushtun folk poetry that can be on any topic and are traditionally only performed aloud rather than written down. Under Taliban law, these gatherings are heavily censured, and women occasionally participate by telephone to avoid being discovered by parents or husbands.
Mirman Baheer has obtained a worldwide fame since it was first revealed to a Western journalist in 2012; in 2015 its founder, poet Sahira Sharif, was invited to speak at the International Poetry Festival in London, and her work and that of other members of Mirman Baheer has been published more widely. As the Taliban's hold on Afghan ideology holds strong, however, they must remain in the shadows in their homeland.
The controversy around female-only spaces and whether they really provide empowerment is an old one, but their continued popularity shows how much they're still sought out. Women continue to need safe places in which to express themselves, feel safe, seek comfort, and be empowered. Sign me up.