Segregating men and women at university events won't lead to equality

It enables the unequal distribution of power resulting in gender based discrimination

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Malcolm X once said; “America preaches integration and practices segregation.” I believe Universities UK preaches equality but promotes segregation. 

As a university student I once recall walking down the street when I noticed the president of my Islamic society (Isoc) walking towards me.  When he saw me, a look of panic glazed over his eyes and he hurriedly crossed the road and continued walking.  That was 13 years ago, yet little has changed.  This week, a student told me how wanting to pray Friday prayers, she approached one of the “brothers” at her Isoc to ask which room prayers were being held in.  His response?  He turned his back to her and faced the wall.  These experiences of misogyny stem from the belief that women are immoral and the ‘solution’ to this is gender segregation as proponents advocate.

There has been much controversy about the legal status of university events allowing gender segregated events.  Universities UK’s new published guidelines suggest side to side segregated seating is acceptable as “both men and women are being treated equally” and therefore women would not experience “less favourable treatment.”

Universities UK clearly cannot see the wood for the trees. The idea that both men and women are equally segregated and therefore treated equally is highly erroneous.  Perhaps one could argue such a point if so many Isocs weren’t such patriarchal constructions; shaped, structured and led by men. 

So let me spell it out for Universities UK, segregation results in ‘less favourable treatment.’  It enables the unequal distribution of power between men and women, resulting in gender based discrimination and inequality.  It manifests itself in few female speakers being invited to speak to a mixed audience, limited decision making powers by female members, and how there have only been a handful of Isoc female presidents. 

Segregation perpetuates discriminatory social norms and practices, shaping male attitudes about women and restricting the decisions and choices of women.  By allowing gender segregation, Universities UK are complicit in the gender inequality being perpetuated by Isocs whose advice will only make it easier for Isocs to treat socially unequal groups, in this case women, even more unequally. 

But also rather astonishingly, Universities UK delves into trying to tell us what constitutes Muslim religious belief implying that those opposed to segregation must be people from outside of the Islamic faith, not recognising that often it is Muslims themselves who oppose gender segregation.

Theological differences on the validity of segregation within Muslim societies, the nature and location of such segregation and who it applies to exists.  I am sure however, Universities UK would tell us they don’t wade into theology or take a theological position on such issues but why then, with the advice it has given, recognise and promote the religious belief of those who do advocate gender segregation as opposed to those Muslims whose religious belief is the opposite? 

Universities UK then advise that the gender segregated views of the speakers must be respected in order to protect freedom of speech despite that those who do believe in gender segregation view women as inferior.  Preacher Haitham al Haddad, who has spoken in approximately twenty Isocs in the last two years, argues that women should withdraw from public life, hoping to disempower them by denying them their economic self-determination and to silence them through their invisibility.  In the interests of freedom of speech how often do those Isocs who host such preachers invite speakers with opposing views? 

Universities UK are not only giving speakers like him a green light to say these things but are also preparing the gender segregated seating for him to say it.  For years I have witnessed institutions and statutory agencies, while breaking their backs to respect ‘cultural sensitivities,’ will happily do so while making martyrs out of ethnic and religious minority women.

Perhaps Universities UK should heed the wise words of Paul Harris, founder of Rotary, “segregation never brought anyone anything except trouble.”

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