Gender segregation

Last night we went to Little India for dinner. We arrived just before 6 p.m. Immediately I thought there must be some event because the park across the street from the restaurant was filled with thousands of men, not a woman in sight, sitting on the grass and chatting and walking along the sidewalk, arm in arm. I asked the cab driver what was going on and he said that it was a weekend afternoon so people were out enjoying the day. Seeing that reminded me of the other time that I visited Little India, and there was a moment when we seemed to wander into a restaurant courtyard that was full of men watching an Indian film. We entered right next to the screen and it felt very strange to have all those eyes turn to us. Where were all the women?

I know that in some cultures public space is dominated primarily by men (and women entering that space cover up to limit the public-ness of their presence). I’ve read loads about women growing up in highly gender-segregated cultural worlds and often that work emphasizes the ways in which women are empowered to have successful careers, etc. I also get it to the extent that I sometimes I feel it would be freeing to be released from scrutiny and expectations regarding physique and fashion, etc. All the same, when I encounter such segregation it doesn’t feel OK. I do my very best to be a cultural relativist but I do struggle to fathom gender-segregation. If there are not gender-integrated public settings, if it is considered in appropriate/impossible for men and women to have friendships with people who are not family, can there really be equality?

Perhaps I need to learn more. Perhaps I am bumping against the limits of my pluralism. I don’t know.

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