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By Matthew Handley
The Oxford Union’s all-female debating competition will seek to help combat misogyny in debating, after the weekend saw two prominent female debaters subjected to sexist heckling in the final of a major competition.
The ‘Oxford Women’s Open’, to be held in May, has demanded “NO. MORE. GLASGOWS” on its Facebook event page, after the final of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) Ancients competition was marred by sexist abuse. Marlena Valles and Rebecca Meredith, the only two female finalists, were met with cries of “shame woman” and boos throughout their speeches by audience members, who also allegedly made derogatory comments about their appearances.
The debacle has led to outcry in the debating community, with anger directed both at the audience members and to some GUU members, who, according to co-Chief Adjudicator Pam Cohn encouraged her to “leave it alone” when she raised concerns about the incident during the final. The convenors have also attracted ire after failing to prevent the hecklers from attending the post-final social, and describing the incident as “funny” in a Facebook post.
Debaters have been quick to condemn the events of Saturday’s final. The Cambridge Union, of which Meredith is a member, has pledged to boycott future GUU events and has revoked the society’s reciprocal membership policy with the Scottish institution until a public apology is issued and internal action is taken against the members in question. Moreover, Meredith has launched an online survey on ‘Experiences of Sexism and Misogyny in Debating’, which “concerns sexism and misogyny at competitions, within university debating unions, and general trends and social perceptions”, and asks all debaters to share their experiences of prejudice and discrimination at debating events. The survey also pledges to “use the data gathered in this survey to format strategies for dealing with these problems”.
The results of this survey will be discussed at the Oxford Women’s Open, which consists exclusively of all-female teams, and offers “world-class, all-female judging” for debates. David Wigley, a New College PPE-ist, issued a statement on behalf of the competition’s team consisting of himself and Francesca Whalen, a Balliol first year, as well as Anat Shapira and Leela Koenig, who will serve as Chief Adjudicators. In it they described the developing plan of action: “There will be a space in the schedule dedicated to discussing these issues. In particular, we will be working with Rebecca Meredith, who is collecting people’s experiences of sexism and misogyny on the debating circuit.”
They continued: “A report based on those findings will be published in time for the competition, which we’ll be able to use as a basis of discussion.”
The statement also outlined the competition’s goal of ”promot[ing] women’s participation in debating”, adding: “Because of this, we think it’s important that the competition can also be a space where we share and learn from each others’ experiences of being female debaters and explore the most effective ways of combating the problems facing women in the circuit, within a community of mutual support.”
“Although this weekend started with a bad experience for women in debating, we’re also very excited about the momentum that’s been generated in terms of addressing gender-based issues on the circuit. We feel encouraged and supported by the community’s shared condemnation of what happened, and cherish the widespread expression of determination to make this stop. So let’s make the most of it.”
Rebecca Meredith, who spoke in the final of the GUU competition, commented on the announcement: ”I am so grateful for the support of the Oxford Women’s Competition. The events of the weekend, during which my female partner and I faced boos and sexist remarks simply for being women, show that misogyny is still pervasive in debating and society at large.”