In March this year, University College London hit the headlines after a Muslim organisation hosted a debate in which audience members were offered one of three options - male-only, female-only or mixed seating. Following the publication of a report by Universities UK which advised that if the segregation represented the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the hosts, separate seating could be upheld, a number of journalists decried that “the sexist eccentricities of some religions” were being given “priority over women's rights” and protests erupted outside the London headquarters of Universities UK.
I am not personally in favour of segregating talks at universities – as a Muslim, I don’t see the rationale for it. The logic behind the spatial distinction between male and female spaces during prayer doesn’t extend beyond those ritual acts and rigidly enforcing it outside of that context is - to my mind - unnecessary.
But the discussion of this issue has been troubling. The two main arguments appear to be an opposition to religious segregation in public spaces and an argument over equality.
Firstly, separating men and women cannot necessarily be assumed to reflect a statement of male supremacy. It can reflect personal preferences, as in women-only gyms, etiquette concerning behaviour in sacred spaces, as in orthodox synagogues or mosques, or feminist calls for “autonomous women's space”. Like some feminists, some conservative Muslim women argue for their right to female-only spaces. Why should such requests be ignored simply because their purveyors are Muslim rather than radical secularists?
The fact that some Islamic societies are run or dominated by ultra-conservatives is undeniable and I share concerns that such individuals limit female participation, either as speakers or as members. Separate seating can reflect an idealisation of a Saudi-style system where men and women hardly interact outside of a familial setting. This de-facto disempowers women who are reduced to existing in a male universe. This is neither desirable, nor Islamic. But prohibiting separate seating doesn’t resolve underlying sexism, it merely forces its advocates off campus where the views expressed are less likely to be challenged. And what does it say of more progressive interpretations if the only way to encourage them is through legal imposition?
The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and others have argued that “whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal”, but separate seating spaces, like single sex schools can hardly be compared to Apartheid South Africa, convenient as the rhetorical device may be. Racial segregation was the reflection of a belief in white supremacy. Schools don’t separate children because girls are assumed to be inferior, but because it is believed by some educationalists that girls and boys perform better in single sex environments. Similarly to those who believe students of the opposite sex can be a distraction in co-ed classrooms, some Muslim groups believe this applies in lecture halls. One doesn’t have to condone this view (which I don’t) to accept its right to exist.
If secularism means anything, it means the neutrality of the state on religious matters. Separate but equal access to a lecture is no more or less discriminatory than separate but equal access to education more broadly. As Baroness Warsi quite rightly points out, “there are certain boys in our political system who have spent their whole life being segregated from girls as they were educated, some of the best schools in our country are segregated.”
The question does arise, why - when some of the UK’s leading schools, including some state schools - continue to offer separate educational facilities without encountering mass protests, why Muslims organising separate seating in an educational facility, does.
The assumption is clear - any differences in the treatment of men and women by religious folk is indicative of assumed male superiority and can therefore be denounced as an affront to women’s rights. This ignores the fact that feminists, both secular and religious, hold a variety of views on the manifestation of true equality, some preferring the notion of equality in difference, the not-particularly- religious notion, advanced by Aristotle among others, that “justice consists not only in treating like cases alike but also in treating different cases differently”.
Treating men and women identically doesn’t always mean treating them equally, since each might have specific needs. One Muslim scholar of the Quran, Asma Barlas, argues that “sexual equality in procedure often may ensure rather than obliterate sexual inequality in outcome” and believes the Quran advocates a model of equality which can be conceptualised not as blindness to sexual difference but rather as responsiveness to it.
Don't ban segregation
It is entirely possible, as some Muslim feminists do, to argue that spatial separation of men and women in the context of prayer or ritual acts, is underpinned not by an assumed male superiority, but by conventions which seek to ensure men and women reach full and holistic emancipation on their own terms.
Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.
More worrying to me is that this kerfuffle over segregation actually masks far more concerning issues, namely the erosion of freedom of expression and the policing of political and religious expression on British campuses. No distinction is currently being made, even in the UK Universities publication, about academic freedom verses the use of university premises for third party or student events, for instance. Even guest speakers to academic events may now be vetted. Segregation is surely a side issue in the face of the picture emerging from this document of our universities, our bastions of free thinking and free expression, in flight on the back of increasing securitization and deprivitization. Our universities are undergoing profound changes which will have long term implications for academic freedom and free speech – that, not segregation is the real story.