Segregation on campus: Is it discrimination or inclusiveness?

The segregation by gender of Muslim students has been in the news this week, after a pressure group claimed the practice was widespread. Reyhana Patel, herself a Muslim, believes that gender segregation can actually be empowering for her and her sisters
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A report published this week by the group Student Rights argued that student Islamic societies (ISOCs) are promoting discrimination by encouraging segregated seating at university events. The study showed that 46 segregated events were promoted at 21 university campuses across the country between March 2012 and March 2013.

Segregated seating is a practice that is encouraged in several faiths, and at ISOC events across the country this ritual remains voluntary with many of those attending opting to sit with their gender counterparts.

Does voluntary segregation promote gender discrimination, as argued by Student Rights, or does it provide a more inclusive society as counter-argued by many Muslim women? And should institutions have the right to force mixed seating?

When looking at audience separation, three factors need to be considered.

Firstly, Islam, in general, is against the gratuitous mixing of men and women without good reason. As a result, most Islamic student societies accommodate voluntary segregated seating because for many of those attending such events it is a customary practice and would expect the option of separate male and female seating.

The second point to note is that even on the rare occasions where an ISOC may insist upon separation, we should remember that those responsible for implementing the policy would have been democratically elected by their peers to run the society and its practices, including, presumably, issues around segregation.

Perhaps Student Rights wants not only to counter these democratically expressed membership preferences - but also to force participants to sit in mixed assemblies against their will?

And, thirdly, for me as a Muslim woman, having the choice to sit amongst my sisters is all about my own space and empowerment. All women, Muslim and otherwise, regularly feel the pressure of living in an over-sexualised society that demands continual performance from women. Cue the obesity, anorexia, and general panic among a lot of young women I know. Muslim women love being able to withdraw into their separate space or modest clothing and, thereby, opt out of this perpetual rat race and commoditisation of their bodies and looks.

Voluntary segregation

Voluntary segregation promotes inclusiveness and contributes greatly towards Muslim women participation in British Society - by allowing Muslim women to participate in campus activities without compromising their religious beliefs. As one undergraduate student at Oxford University told me:

“I avoid mixed events if I can as it makes me feel uncomfortable as a Muslim woman. Having the option of segregated events allows me to participate more in university activities. What is undemocratic about giving everyone a choice of where to sit and with whom?”

It appears that Student Rights is now using gender as the new cloaked dagger to bash the Muslim community in an increasingly intolerant attempt to prove that Islam is incompatible with western society.

What the group also failed to highlight in their so-called ‘expose’ was that at the heart of ISOCs across the country, females are the driving force to the operational success of these groups with many at the fore of empowering other Muslim students. Take for example, a recent women-only empowerment workshop, organised by FOSIS and the NUS, which provided training to equip female students with the skills needed to establish real change in their university and wider community.

The sad fact is that the more groups like Student Rights continue to complain about Muslims doing things ‘differently’ and being ‘the other’ – they only serve to convince others of their own intolerance and illiberal ways.

The down side of all the above, of course, is that segregation and the ‘disappearance of women’ actually got a lot worse in Muslim societies during the period of European colonisation – when the colonial master (having defeated the armies) demanded access to the most intimate parts of their conquered society – the family and the women.

How ironic that that the trendy lot in Student Rights should be carrying on with this noble colonial impulse. I’ll leave Raheem Kassam and his fellow colleagues to ponder on this.

Reyhana is a journalist and researcher specialising in issues surrounding Muslim communities, community cohesion, radicalisation and counter-terrorism policy. You can follow her on Twitter here.