During the week of September 16, an AUB student posted a poll on AUB Guru asking whether others thought it would be a good idea to have women’s only hours at the campus swimming pool. Naturally, this provoked heated debate.
Notably, the voices of women were mostly missing from the debate. While there were a few who eventually presented their own thoughts, the comment thread was taken over by male “trolls” threatening physical violence against their detractors, making transphobic comments, and attempting to present “rational” arguments that rely on an Orientalist worldview of cultural hierarchy whereby “Western values” are more progressive than “our values”.
Such an argument, when translated to cruder terms, simply means that a supposedly “Arab” or “Islamic” ethos is barbaric, while a supposedly “Western” ethos is enlightened.
Another recurring concern was that male students’ right to the pool would be violated if women got it to themselves for a few hours.
Instead of making baseless arguments promoting their own self-interest, I call on all men at AUB to ask themselves: why did the poll receive an overwhelming amount of “YES” votes, mostly from women? Why are women’s only spaces a ubiquitous phenomenon in the first place? Could it be that women are monsters who want to flip the hierarchy and oppress men, or is there something deeper happening here?
Maybe it’s the fact that all spaces are men’s spaces by default, unless women claim a section of that space as theirs.
AUB itself was initially an all-male college. The first female students at AUB graduated in 1908, a full four decades after the establishment of the university that espoused “Western values” from the very beginning.
Maybe it’s the fact that structural misogyny throughout Lebanon constantly places women at a disadvantage, and this isn’t even counting female Asian and African migrant workers in the country, who are even more disadvantaged than their Lebanese counterparts.
We are privileged to even be having this debate about the AUB pool – many of these Asian and African migrant workers aren’t even allowed access to swimming pools across the country, reminding us of the legacy of segregated pools in the United States.
Put more simply, the “enlightened” Western ethos of progressiveness that AUB students keep invoking to argue against women’s only spaces is a dangerous myth, one we should collectively strive to think beyond.
When taking all this into account, asking for two or three hours a week to use the pool without men as a form of redistributive justice is not so bad after all.
Besides, a lot of women are not necessarily thinking about redistributive justice. For some, the matter is simply about comfort, religion or otherwise.
Many men jumped to the conclusion that the request for women’s only hours at the pool was solely about religion; while that may be a factor, it isn’t the only one. Many of the women who endorse the claim are not religious and simply have a problem with swimming around men knowing that they are constantly at risk of being verbally or physically harassed.
Being in public has never stopped men on Beirut’s streets from relentlessly harassing and stalking women.
Even at AUB, harassment is not uncommon. Last semester, a YouTuber named Alex Stifler – not an AUB student – was prowled the campus grounds and harassed female students into giving him their numbers for a video titled “Picking Up Girls at AUB”.
The video unleashed a torrent of discursive violence in the YouTube comments section, mostly from men who felt inclined to share how “ugly” they thought the women were. It also sparked backlash from women who unsurprisingly felt objectified and disgusted by the entire premise of the video.
Even if some women’s reasons for making the request were religious, so what? AUB itself was founded “to serve the peoples of the Middle East”, and several presidents have noted the university’s commitment to the community most immediately affected by its existence: the residents and citizens of Lebanon.
Providing veiled female students in Beirut with the opportunity to use the pool a few hours a week isn’t “backwards”; it is simply the fulfillment of a promise to the community the university has pledged to serve.
The knee-jerk response to women’s request for exclusive access to the pool for two or three hours a week should not be mockery, or calls for “men’s rights” – “rights” that men already have, all the time and everywhere.
Instead, we should all – collectively, but especially men – reflect upon why women feel compelled to make such a request, with the goal of abolishing the conditions that make women feel unsafe in co-ed spaces in the first place.