A tent of one's own
Glastonbury organisers have revealed they'll have a 'women-only' venue at this year's festival. It's a bold move, but is it necessary, asks Ed Power
It will be ladies' night every night at Glastonbury 2016, with Europe's biggest rock festival announcing a female-only tent at this year's event. 'The Sisterhood' is billed as a "revolutionary clubhouse" open to all who "identify" as women and featuring an exclusive line-up and behind-the-scenes crew.
The goal, say the organisers, is to provide a "secret space" where women can "connect, network, share their stories, have fun and learn the best way to support each other in our global struggle to end oppression against women". It will run throughout the festival, from June 22 to 26.
"The producers of The Sisterhood believe that women-only spaces are necessary in a world that is still run by and designed to benefit mainly men," explain those responsible for the "revolutionary clubhouse". "Oppression against women continues in various manifestations around the world today, in different cultural contexts."
Response to the news might be kindly described as mixed. Twitter was brimming with diverting opinions about the merits of The Sisterhood (which, in addition to women-only, is styled as "intersectional, queer, trans- and disability-inclusive").
"Love this so much. Thank you @GlastoFest for providing a safe space for women and for heightening representation," read one Tweet. But others questioned the wisdom of designated gender zones.
"Am all for equality but creating gender-specific areas is something they do in Saudi Arabia," chimed a commentator.
"Cannot believe there is a women-only area at Glastonbury, imagine if they proposed a men-only area," said another.
Could a gender-specific tent work at an Irish festival? At first glance it appears unlikely. There is little clamour for such a facility here. Indeed, Irish festivals tend not to be as politicalised as in other countries, owing to our lack of a socially progressive counterculture with roots in the 60s rock revolution.
Maybe I was blinded by the sun, but I cannot for instance recall stumbling upon a feminist poetry group as I made my way from the dance arena to the main stage at last weekend's Forbidden Fruit in Dublin. Nor was anyone grumbling about the lack of a "safe space" for those identifying as female.
"Glastonbury is so big they have the freedom to try different things," says Shane Dunne, organiser of Indiependence, the popular rock festival taking place outside Mitchelstown in July.
"It might be a bit weird - but it's getting a huge amount of coverage. They can try it this year - but who knows whether it would be back in 2017? With 200,000 people at Glastonbury there will unquestionably be an uptake."
Because Irish festivals are far smaller - the largest, Electric Picnic, has a capacity of circa 47,000 - the scope for a female-only arena is significantly narrower. Moreover, although Glastonbury is one of Europe's highest-profile festivals, it isn't especially influential.
Nobody in Ireland has for example followed the Glastonbury tradition of outsized flags; when it comes to festival "chic" Coachella in California casts a significantly longer shadow. So don't expect festivals to rush into booking all-female tents just because of The Sisterhood.
"I don't think we're big enough," says Dunne. "We just don't have the numbers. If we did it, it would be empty most of the time.
"Interestingly, our data shows that our audience skews female - about 57-58 pc. One of the things about Indiependence is that it was a nice chilled atmosphere - males and females like to mix."
"You could have something like this at an Irish festival and you might have only five people. You multiply it out for an event such as Glastonbury and you could have a couple of thousand," says Graham Sharpe, founder of the KnockanStockan festival which takes place at Blessington in late July.
"Straight up it does sound pretty strange," he adds. "But if it's a question of like-minded people sharing experiences, sharing stories, that changes it a little bit."
On the other hand, there is no question that rock 'n' roll still has a gender problem. The industry can be supremely sexist behind the scenes. The days when female publicists risked a random groping from the bands they were representing are thankfully at an end. Yet sexism still manifests.
For instance, a writer for online magazine 'Spin' recently accused one half of popular retro rock duo the Last Shadow Puppets of none too subtly hitting on her during a tete-a-tete.
"The interview eventually comes to its natural conclusion, but I may also have unconsciously wanted to wrap things up early in the interest of standing up and walking out… When I extend my hand to Kane, he yanks me in for a not-entirely consensual kiss on the cheek," she wrote (Miles Kane subsequently apologised for his "silly" behaviour, saying he was "mortified").
The number of women forging a career from rock 'n' roll is, moreover, lamentably low. In 2014, for instance just 3.5pc of bands booked at festivals in the UK were all-female, against 43pc for all-male bands.
Nor is the line-up for Glastonbury 2016 one to cause a feminist's heart to swell. The headliners constitute a proper bloke's club - of the six main stage headline acts the only woman is Adele.
Otherwise it is a boys' own affair, headed by the thoroughly bestubbled Foals, Tame Impala and Coldplay.
Talk to female musicians and they'll tell you up front that the industry continues to be male-dominated and that being a woman can make you feel an outsider.
Most behind-the-scenes songwriters, producers and studio hands are men. As are the staff who crew live venues. When last did you see a female roadie? For women the environment might be considered unnerving - even actively hostile.
"It truly is an all-male world," Theresa Wayman of Los Angeles female foursome Warpaint said to me several years ago. "The house engineers are male. The techs are male. The majority of producers are male. Most people in bands are male."
"Growing up, if you arrived somewhere with a guitar, you'd have a guy going 'what's the girl doing here'?" so Este Haim of Electric Picnic 2016 headliners Haim told me before a show in Dublin two years ago.
"I would start playing and be better. That was my way of saying 'shut the f*** up'. I was a better player, period. The proof is in the pudding."
Success does not erase sexism, she said. If anything it exacerbates it.
"We travel and talk to other girls in music and they get it too. It can be extremely patronising. For instance, we've heard we couldn't have played on our record, that it must be a bunch of dudes hidden in a studio."
Given those experiences, perhaps a female-only tent is not the world's sorriest idea?
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