Do We Need a Women’s Only Venue at Glastonbury?

"It’s not easy for girls to go out at night and feel entirely comfortable the whole time, which is a shame. A place like this is a short-term solution but it’s a solution nonetheless."

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Jun 27 2016, 10:00am

When it was announced that Glastonbury would be launching its first ever women’s only venue called The Sisterhood, angry people on the Internet started bashing their keyboards in unison. The general consensus among them was that if the idea were reversed, and the festival announced a venue for men only, there would be mass outrage. “REVERSE SEXISM!” they retorted, throwing up an argument staler than your nans biscuit tin, and one that ignores the crucial element of context.

The basis of this argument relies on the idea that outside of such a space is neutral territory for all genders—but we know this is not the case. When detractors point out that there would be uproar if there were a male-only venue, they disregard the fact that most music venues and festivals are already male-dominated in terms of visibility. Last year, for instance, British music festival line-ups were 86 percent male, making the female talent largely imperceptible.

And then there are all the shitty things that women have to deal with during nights out on a regular basis. Whether it’s batting off some limp chirpser by the bar who won’t leave you alone, having to keep an eye on your drink in case you get roofied, trying to avoid getting groped by some sweaty bloke on the dancefloor, or having to navigate your way through a space that has a serious and unaddressed problem of sexual assault, festivals and venues have never been neutral spaces. If men want their own male-dominated space, they just need to look around them. They’re already in it.

The organisers of The Sisterhood describe the venue as an “intersectional, queer, trans and disability-inclusive space open to all people who identify as women,” adding that it is “a secret space for women to connect, network, share their stories, have fun.”

As someone who likes anything with the word ‘secret’ in it, this sounded like a decent way to spend my Friday night at Glastonbury. But, as with anything, there’s not much point in having a solid opinion about a place unless you’ve actually been there. So with that, I squelched across the mud through the red hue of Shangri-La in my rapidly deteriorating wellies, a warm plastic cup of lager in one hand, and my hopes and dreams for a utopian female-friendly future in the other.

What I found didn’t look like a venue from the outside, but instead a nail salon with blacked out windows. I stood there, half drunk and perplexed, until a woman tugged on my arm. “You’re here for your nail appointment?” she asked, ushering me inside. A man with ginger dreadlocks tried to get in behind us, looking curious as to what it was. “Erm, you don’t have a nail appointment, sorry!” she told him, closing the door on his confused face, and walking me through a narrow walkway.

Inside there was no nail salon, but a dark pink womb-like tent, with about 50 women dancing to J Hus and drinking mugs of gin below a huge disco ball. Lined up against the walls were velvet sofas, pillows and lamps, with a small stage in the middle where all-girl punk band Dream Nails were setting up their equipment. It felt kind of like someone’s living room, but with a shelf full of booze, extra sofas, and no men.

Looking at the handful of dancing girls around me, some of whom looked barely 18, and others who looked over 50, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a small, harmless space could create so much admonishment. Camille, the co-producer of The Sisterhood, told me that she wasn’t at all surprised by the backlash. “People find it uncomfortable to be confronted. Guys want to feel like they’re the nice guys, and some might not be aware of the way their actions can be oppressive, which can be challenging to confront.”

“Also, some people feel that if you want equality, you have to pretend there’s no inequality,” she added, “but that doesn’t work! Racism exists, for example. In reality, we are all human beings in which race has no biological basis, but socially, in terms of power relations, it is a real thing. You have to acknowledge it and work against it in order to get where you want to go. And you have to create spaces to do that.”

For Camille, it was important that a space like the Sisterhood upheld intersectional values and felt inclusive for women. “White feminism doesn’t apply to my existence,” she told me. “But then you’ve got to look at class and identity and all the things within that. So it’s about creating a space where we’re all supporting each other—that’s the aim—having somewhere where everyone can chill together and have a good time.”

While the intentions behind the venue were largely political, after downing a few shots and dancing, it just felt like any other hidden tent at Glastonbury, but with a more relaxed atmosphere, and a noticeable lack of judgement. After Dream Nails performed a bunch of tracks like “Cookies” (where they sung “Cookies for you! You’re not a rapist!”), I decided to join a group of girls who were huddled on the velvet sofas.

“I can’t explain it but it feels totally free, like you can just dance like a nutter and no one will look at you funny—in fact, they’ll probably join in,” Jazz, aged 20, told me. I’ve come here from Norwich and there’s nothing there like this at home. It’s not easy for girls to go out at night and feel entirely comfortable the whole time, which is a shame. A place like this is a short-term solution but it’s a solution nonetheless. I’m into it, personally.”

Her friend Lucy, also 20, echoed her sentiment. “I stumbled in here a couple of hours ago, and I intend to stay here all night,” she told me. “It’s nice to not have to watch your drink, or have your conversation dominated by a dude. But, like, if we want to hang out with the guys they’re just outside. It’s no big deal.”

In essence, these ideas seemed to define The Sisterhood. If women don’t want to go to a venue without men, they don’t have to. The Sisterhood is a mere blip on Glastonbury’s 900 acres of land. It’s not as if all the women at Glastonbury are getting together to hurl all the men on a bonfire in the stone circle at dawn in a mass sacrifice, with Emily Eavis at the front chanting “Safe space! Safe space! Safe Space!” It is just a tent for women to hang out, dance and get drunk in. It’s that simple—and that’s why it works.

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