A Music Festival without Men?

A Swedish comedian organises a men-free music festival to provide an event free of sexual harassment for women. The media, unfortunately, treats the initiative as a cheap sensation, although it poses some serious questions.

The official poster of the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was perhaps the most famous women only event (downloaded from curvemag.com)

A week ago, after a Swedish music festival was cancelled because of sexual harassments during the event, a Swedish comedian and radio host, Emma Knyckare tweeted that maybe there should be a “men-free” festival until every man learns how to behave.

She received so many positive reactions that the organisation of the men-free festival is already under way, with many leading Swedish musicians signing in on the project.

News about mass incidents of sexual harassment, and outright rape against women and girls has become a common place after events involving large crowds. This only means that violence against women at least has become news lately not that earlier it did not happen. The initiative of Ms Knyckare was widely reported throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the resulting debate seemed to have stopped at the question whether such an event would be discriminating against men. In view of the media attention the initiative received I consider this a missed opportunity. There are much more relevant and disturbing questions that could (should) have come to the fore of the public discourse.

Are public places more dangerous for women?

I find this the most troubling question, and the answer is no. The fact is that for women it is much more dangerous to be at home than in a public space.

A recent global study on intimate partner violence using data from 66 countries, where detailed data was available on homicides, found that the proportion of women killed at their home by their intimate partners was six time higher than the proportion of men. The researchers found that in every country in the sample women’s main risk of homicide was from an intimate partner. At the same time the overall proportion of men killed is much higher than women. But the overwhelming majority of men are victims of interpersonal and not domestic violence.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that about 1 in 3 women worldwide experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and that most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide almost one third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partners. The majority of victims of sexual violence were not attacked by strangers but knew their perpetrators (as for example this American survey also confirmed).

Is a festival without men a safe space for women?

Bearing in mind the statistics summarized above, I think the answer is yes. Even if women are hardly immune to being violent. Women also hurt children, they bully and even use physical violence against each other, and commit sexual crimes against each other and even men. Ironically, attributing non-violence to women, particularly in the domestic sphere and first and foremost against children, which is treated as a taboo in most societies, stems from the same sexism that oppresses women.

Still, the fact is that the perpetrators for overwhelming majority of violent crimes — any crime, for that matter — are men. The clear majority of the victims of sexual violence are women and children, and their abusers as a rule are adult men.

Are men-free places the solution?

I really have no idea. To be fair, Ms. Knyckare never claimed that her man-free festival would be a solution to the problem of violence against women. She just wants to organise a music festival where women can have a great time free of violence and harassment ranging from degrading comments on their bodies, “catcalling”, grabbing and touching to rape. Still, her initiative poses this question.

Since 2016 March a German regional train operator, the Mitteldeutsche Regionalbahn (MRB) provides women only sections on its trains between Leipzig and Chemnitz. In Japan, there have been such sections on trains for years. As this article about the initiative of the MRB shows, however, not everyone thinks that it is a solution for the problem of sexual harassments in public spaces (in this case, trains). There are feminists, who argue that women only spaces instead of creating equal access to public space for women deny this from them, and instead of questioning the logic of patriarchy conform with it. Because the logic of women only spaces means to accept and even to reinforce male domination of and violence in public spaces (and to accept the view that men “just cannot help it”).

Others argue, however, that women only spaces are just practical solutions to a very imminent threat against women (see above). Advocates, even if they agree that the real solution would be complete emancipation, argue that women and girls simply need to be protected, and women only spaces are a means to an end.

“until EVERY man learns to behave themselves”

“tills ALLA män har lärt sig hur en beter sig” — wrote Ms Knyckare in her tweet. What does she mean by that? Instead of asking whether men are discriminated against if there is a woman only music festival, what we should ask is whether every man is a potential abuser and rapist? Are we? Does the fact that most of violence against women and children are perpetrated by men makes us all potential perpetrators by association?

Even if our answer is no — and nothing indicates that Ms Knyckare suggested that every man is an abuser — we, men (particularly, heterosexual, cis men) have some — a lot of — soul searching to do. Even if we have never hit or explicitly harassed women did we ever stand up against such behaviour? Do we stare at women in public spaces or at work? Do we make sexist remarks about women in public spaces? If we have heard such remarks did we ever protest?

And last but not least: who can attend a men-free festival?

The question might seem redundant, but this is more complex than it seems. Organising a men-free festival is hardly some revolutionary idea. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) was held every August between 1976 and 2015 for example. Interestingly, the discrimination issue with MWMF was not that men were not allowed to attend, but their “womyn-born-women” policy. That is, that trans-women were not allowed to attend.

This controversy was addressed in Transparent’s “Man on the Land” episode (S02E09), where Moira attends a festival resembling MWMF with her daughters (which becomes a nightmare for her as she learns about the policy). MWMF was a queer event, with almost exclusively lesbians attending, and was much more than a music festival. The policy of transgender exclusion was one of the main reasons for its closure two years ago. Transgender activists camped outside the festival for years, many artists decided not to perform because of the pressure from their fan base.

It would be interesting to know what Ms Knyckare thinks about this issue. She wrote in her tweet “icke män“, that is, “non men”, which can include trans-women.