Cambridge Union Society debater Rebecca Meredith had this to say about the sexist heckling she and her debating partner were subjected to at the Glasgow University Union three months ago:
During the debate, a select number of male students, including former committee members and even an ex-president, made sexual comments about our appearance, shouted “shame woman”, booed loudly and questioned “what does a woman know anyway?”. This was not mere heckling, and not related to the content of our speeches. None of the male speakers faced the same treatment. After the debate, a member of this group shouted “get that woman out of my chamber” as my partner Marlena passed.
When female students heard these comments, one confronted the male members and was told to stop being a “frigid bitch”. After the debate, a female Cambridge student rose to confront the perpetrators. The organisers of the tournament, and GUU committee members, begged her to sit down and not “cause trouble”. I myself confronted one of the male members concerned, and the GUU committee, only to be told that it was “to be expected” and “par for the course” that women would be booed in the GUU chamber. When I asked whether they would accept the treatment of racial minority speakers in the same way, I was told “they would be booed too, but we don’t have them here.” The committee accepted we were booed because we were women, not for any other reason, but refused to take action against their members.
This is not the first time the GUU has been accused of misogyny. Every year a number of members choose to celebrate the men who voted against admitting women to the union in the 1980s with a celebratory dinner in their honour. As an outsider, I was shocked to hear a Union pub quiz in which the question, “how many men voted against letting women into the GUU” was met with a torrent of applause from male students.
Debating shouldn’t be about shouting over men who believe your gender makes you inherently inferior as a speaker. The equal art of debate is not for men to have a free platform to speak while women are sexualised and abused. To debate is to be judged on argument, to be listened to on an equal platform as your competitor. We were judged on our gender, we were deemed unequal because we were women who had chosen to speak in the Glasgow Union. We did not run away crying. We confronted the committee at GUU, and an individual involved, and what shocked us the most was that we were met with a brick wall of silence. The world of the 21st Century should not be a world in which women are to accept that they should shout over sexist abuse, not because their arguments are being challenged, but because they are female.
Following the publicity, so many current and former students were coming forward to report incidents of misogyny at Glasgow University Union that a website was set up: Banish the boys club.
Judges Pat Kohn and John Beechinor released a joint statement condemning the misogyny that took place, as well as proposing new moves to change the male-dominated debating circuit. They said:
“This type of behaviour is beyond unacceptable. Although we cannot control GUU policy and what they do with these individuals, we would like to make it exceptionally clear that these individuals (who sometimes take part in competitive debating) are not welcome at any future competition either of us are part of the organising committee or Chief Adjudication panel for. This is one of the worst displays of sexism that either of us have seen on the debating circuit, and cannot express how upset it has made us.”
The GUU announced they would hold an investigation. Then they said they would delay their investigation until after Glasgow University Senate had held an investigation.
The Senate held a closed-doors investigation. The two men identified as the sexist hecklers, former student president Chris Sibbald and politics student Paddy Baxter, say it wasn’t them.
The Senate announced today that there was no case to answer:
The men were told after a closed-doors hearing by the university Senate that there was no case to answer.
Former student president Chris Sibbald and politics student Paddy Baxter denied allegations of sexist heckling at the Glasgow University Union’s annual Glasgow Ancients debating contest in March. ….. The university refused to discuss the Senate hearing’s confidential conclusion. A separate inquiry into the culture of the Glasgow University Union, one of the oldest in the UK, is now to take place.
Understandably, Rebecca Meredith and Edinburgh law undergraduate Marlena Valles have said the decision was unfair and have lodged a complaint into the conduct of the hearing.
GUU is now to conduct an inquiry, armed with the surety that Glasgow University Senate had already ruled that – regardless of what the women testify or what the debate judges may have said – nothing actually happened.
Meredith and Valles said they did not have legal representation at the hearing, but Chris Sibbald and Paddy Baxter did: Meredith was unable to attend because of final-year exams, and key witnesses were unavailable. They said:
“One side had top QCs, hired by the defendants, while we had no legal representation at all. Under such unbalanced circumstances, it is unsurprising an incorrect verdict has been reached.
“The university did not try to reschedule the hearing for a time when witnesses could attend.”
Joe Fenster, president of the Cambridge Union Society, which had announced in March that they would no longer send debaters to Glasgow University Union debates, asked other university debating societies to join their boycott.
“We continue to support the efforts of Rebecca Meredith and Marlena Valles to achieve redress for their appallingly sexist treatment at the Glasgow Union, as well as their formal complaints regarding this judicial process.
David McKie, a former president of the GUU, said:
“This episode was potentially very damaging to the reputation of the union which is regarded as the leading debating union in the world. I hope the verdicts will repair any damage caused.”
I don’t think so, do you?
From the Independent, 5th March 2013:
Rebecca Meredith, of King’s College, Cambridge, and Marlene Valles, of Edinburgh University, were attempting to debate the centralisation of religion when they were confronted by a slew of derogatory, sexist comments. Audience members reportedly commented on their chest sizes, how they were dressed and their general level of attractiveness.
When Meredith and Valles spoke of women’s rights and equality, they received boos and cries of “Shame woman”. One of the judges, Kitty Parker-Brooks, remarked that a group of men from the GUU were ‘physically picking them apart’. When she attempted to quiet them, she was promptly called a ‘frigid b***h’.
That’s not any kind of “leading debating union”. That’s just a bunch of lads engaging in “banter”; proving themselves unfit to deal with real ideas and issues in real debate.