This originally appeared on Fem2.0. Republished here with permission.
Last weekend I was at the gym, waiting for a fellow male bodybuilder to get off the pull-up bars. Yours truly can do about 7-10 wide grip pullups unassisted of which she’s very proud, and that Saturday was a heavy back day. While I’m waiting, another gym guy comes up and asks me if I’m doing just that, waiting. Why yes. Yes I am. Then:
Gym guy: “Can I just get in my reps before you?”
The first thought that crossed my mind was that this grown man had not attended kindergarten. That is the place, I recall, being taught about the concept of waiting your turn. But here he was, a full (approximately) 27 years later, clearly having passed kindergarten (although we musn’t assume). So then,
Me: “Uhh, no. I’m going to finish my set first.”
Gym guy: “Seriously? Jesus Christ!” and storms away.
The truth was, of course, that this guy figured that because I was female, my sets didn’t matter as much as his. His goals, his body, his gym routine were more important. He could probably do more, lift more, and above that he was male. He belonged in the gym far more than I did. His presence was normalized behavior, mine was other—invited. Think I’m kidding? Do you think he would have attempted to butt in front of another man?
It’s interesting, this concept of gendered spaces. The gym is a great example of a place where men clearly feel they belong there more than women—and women definitely feel they need to either fight for their place or be relegated to the “women’s only” section. Sometimes I feel like I have to push harder, lift more, be faster—just to justify my presence in the free weight section, usually the only woman among a good 20+ men. I find myself making my workouts harder and more complex, just to earn my spot. I guess this is motivation, but I’m not sure its from the right source.
Although public spaces are supposed to be just that—open to all—often they are dominated by those with privilege: traditionally white males. While these spaces have opened their invisible doors, those barriers often still exist, based primarily on gender, race, and financial access. Think of country clubs, golf clubs, members-only groups—while many have publicly denounced their racist and gender discriminative past, privately the gates remain closed, with white males still populating most of the ranks. Others who are allowed in are generally more scrutinized, need to have more credentials, pass more tests. More hoops to jump through, just to attain the norm.
The gym is not the only place women feel excluded. The very public arena of the street is highly gender-discriminatory, with a seemingly free for all in men’s gazes and words toward women. Sexual harassment through furtive touching on sidewalks, groping in public transit, and cat calling on the street makes these public spaces discriminatory and exclusionary toward women. While walking down the street for a white male might be second nature (he belongs there after all, these are his streets), for a woman, it entails the burden of the male gaze, unwanted touching and jeers masked as compliments. Sometimes the street can resemble a soft battlefield.
If that weren’t enough, governments have taken to enacting policy that is making public spaces even more exclusionary and engendered. Whether you agree with France’s decision to ban women in headscarves from public places or not, it does fail on several accounts. First, the law was implemented without consulting the women who wear the headscarves—thus removing their agency and denying them a voice in a matter that affects them. Then, it contradicts its own motivation: It chooses to ban the headscarf, denoting it as a tool used to opress women, but instead of challenging the root causes of why this might be, it simply band-aids this supposed (both sides might be right, but its important to include both sides) problem, thereby further excluding (especially if the person in question is a girl in school) an already marginalized portion of the population based on gender and religion. Massive fail.
We have always been very concerned about protecting women within the private sphere—domestic violence, abuse, the burden of care and domestic gender roles are being criminalized and politicized. We’re becoming aware that women are participating more in obtaining higher education and in the working sector but without a diminished role at home, and that this is a major issue. See: Can Women Have it All?
More and more, however, I wonder if we are taking public spaces for granted, assuming that without actual targeted measures, these spaces will automatically veer toward gender equality. They are, after all, public. But we know that not to be true. We know that when left to the norm, the norm veers male. White male. Time and time again.
I’m not sure the “women’s only” section at the gym is the answer. Sure, women like to have a space where they don’t feel the male gaze. It can be very very liberating. But I think better strategies are needed. Maybe if sports were seen as normal for women. Maybe if women weren’t seen as sexual objects. Maybe if women weren’t seen as having lesser worth than men. Maybe if men were socialized to see women as equals instead of conquests or pushovers. The list goes on.
But maybe what it really comes down to is having women involved in the discussion. The ridiculous pictures of the Congressional Panel on Birth Control on Capitol Hill that included exactly zero women seems to be symptomatic of a widespread persisting issue: Men are still talking about what women should and shouldn’t do without involving any women in the discussion at all. Again, this provides the message that we don’t have a voice.
I completed my pull-ups, and went on to my next exercise. Equality can’t be that far, I thought. But it’s still just out of our reach.
Clara Ashley Gabriella Vaz is a full time writer and women’s rights consultant. She has a BA in Political Science from Laval University and a Masters in International Law from Kent in Brussels, and has worked for several organizations on human rights and gender issues, including UNICEF, HPCR International and the European Parliament. She recently spent seven months in Swaziland working on sexual violence and rape laws for SWAGAA and continuing her writing as communications officer for the Breast Cancer Network. Clara tweets at @ClaraVaz1.