Brave, principled Scarlett Johansson and the boycott bullies

The bottom line is Sodastream is not profiting from the occupation and is not exploiting Palestinian workers. Workers in occupied Palestine do not support the boycott of Sodastream and until they call for and lead a boycott, and UK boycott campaigns in the name of solidarity should be scrutinised carefully. I doubt Scarlett Johansson needs this Sodastream deal. She’s probably taken it because her career success has freed her from having to curry favour. At any rate, she’s done something that perhaps only a few people will grasp, because hardly anybody stands up so directly and magnificently to the bullying tactics of boycott activists.

That’s it really. Read on, or not.

Nobody likes being pushed around. Certainly the Israeli occupation of the West Bank requires people with guns and state power saying where other people will or will not go, and when. The occupation pursues a building project which expropriates land to populate with anybody but Palestinians. Israeli society is hardening towards Palestinians and among Palestinians a militant, nationalistic Islam is growing. These feed each other and peace recedes. On other blogs I have argued that boycotting produce from the occupied West Bank may be the right thing to do, but it depends. More below.

There’s a solidarity movement of boycott activists with which I’m familiar. It takes a little while to grasp that in fact they aren’t for Palestinians but are using them as a pretext. Most boycott activists know and care little for Palestinians, to the extent that they give every impression of depending on Palestinian civil society to remain as weak, riven, corrupt and lacking in governance as it currently is. An astonishing number of them have something against Jews, to whom they attribute great power and malevolence. The anti-Jewish character unites a broad political spectrum in the boycott cause. Many boycotters are also extremely aggressive, attempting to push people around by banding together in intimidating campaigns of character assassination.

Scarlett Johansson was a target of one of these campaigns. She was an Oxfam ambassador who also took on a role as brand ambassador for the soft drinks company Sodastream. Sodastream has a factory in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in occupied Palestine, and so its vendors and faces have come under attack from boycotters.

One of the ways to tell that boycott activists aren’t interested in Palestinian emancipation is that they aren’t working with the Palestinian or Israeli labour movement. These local organisations, which should be leading any solidarity movement, are completely sidelined. This is ludicrous, given that trade unions are the parts of both societies who are furthest to the political left And more bizarre – several big UK trade unions actually formally boycott their Israeli counterparts and all but ignore Palestinian trade unions. The will to boycott Israel comes first – and if you don’t fall in with that, then you’d better be prepared to fight. Boycott activists are usually vicious.

With some brave exceptions from Kristin Davies, Editors, Jethro Tull and Madonna, targets of the boycott campaign capitulate. Perhaps they don’t have the knowledge to understand the principles at stake, or perhaps they don’t have the stomach to go against them. At any rate, they usually cancel on Israel and it’s hard not to. But instead of rolling over, Scarlett Johansson says,

“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.”

and

“SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma’aleh Adumim factory every working day.”

And Sodastream’s CEO says they wouldn’t mind moving out of the territories if anybody could demonstrate how it would help Palestinians. “We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda”.

So, when is it right to boycott produce from the West Bank? I’d say it has to be instigated and led by the Palestinian labour movement – the trade unions. I want to look for precedents but I’ve run out of time.

I may buy a Sodastream out of gratitude and admiration for Johansson. This is very odd of me, but it’s strength of feeling talking here. As for Oxfam, I wonder if their board has been hijacked as Amnesty’s was. For now my direct debit to Oxfam stands but it’s not unconditional. I will investigate further remind them that there are other humanitarian charities, and try to monitor them.

People like Scarlett Johansson who don’t let themselves get pushed around get respect – even from their enemies.

British Broadcasted 2 – RAMFEL and The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants

It was the Go Home Vans which first prodded RAMFEL (Refugee Migrants forum of Essex and London) into media engagement,

“RAMFEL didn’t really do media work. Media outlets very rarely knocked on its door; it seemed that they would rather ask suited intermediaries than engage with the complexity of the lives and opinions of migrants themselves.  But on this occasion RAMFEL carried on doing media interviews. We gave voice to our anger, and productively. We kept being quoted in newspapers, blogging on what was happening and why Go Home was so bad…and then it happened.

“A man came to the door and said he was from the BBC. RAMFEL thought they were there to talk about Go Home vans. RAMFEL was tired and was about to tell the man to go away, (especially as he didn’t have an appointment) and then the man said ‘No, I’m here about something different. I’m here because we are making a documentary about the other side of immigration, not the politicians the human story. Can we talk to you about it?’”

So RAMFEL’s Rita Chadha featured strongly in last night’s touching BBC1 documentary The Hidden World of Britain’s Imigrants. In the light of that, RAMFEL now feels the need to step out from behind the documentary production and editing and tell their story in their own way.

Proud to be British Broadcasted

BBC Radio 4 was magnificent this evening. I switched on to The World Tonight and was substantially informed about the response to rape by the Indian authorities, British attitudes to immigration, and corruption in Turkey, among other things. Of personal interest was some lucid analysis of the Jew-baiting French comic Dieudonne which I may try and transcribe.

That was followed by Book at Bedtime, The Lonely Londoners by Trinidadian London sojourner Sam Selvon. It’s about the experience of Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s – the pallid sunshine, smog, gas fires, job-seeking, cold, reserved racism.

Then the piece de resistance. Tonight’s Andrew Maxwell’s Public Enemies was nationalism, starting with the delicate subject of Scotland, taking in Cornwall, and wondering whether we should consider New Zealand or Turkey more European.

All this at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment among the UK general public is apparently running at 8 out of 10 (and based on local knowledge a good proportion of those will be first, second, third generation immigrants themselves. Misunderstandings and disinformation are ripe for exploitation.

This is why we treasure the BBC – not least its controller Gwynneth Williams. Continue reading

Racism of low expectations

Still pondering the implications of the near miss with gender segregation on university campuses.

In his 1950 book Psychoanalysis and Religion, Erich Fromm made the following distinction between authoritarian and humanistic religions which, though I can’t see where religion ends and politics starts, seems right to me:

“Man’s [sic] aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s own thought and feeling, not assent to propositions on credit of the proposer. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow or guilt.

“Inasmuch as humanistic religions are theistic, God is a symbol of man’s own powers which he tries to realize in his life, and is not a symbol of force or domination, having power over man.

“Illustrations of humanistic religions are early Buddhism, Taoism, the teachings of Isaiah, Jesus, Socrates, Spinoza, certain trends in the Jewish and Christian religions (particularly mysticism), the religion of Reason in the French Revolution. It is evident from these that the distinction between authoritarian and humanistic religion cuts across the distinction between theistic and non-theistic, and between religions in the narrow sense of the word and philosophical systems of religious character.”

I read that David Edwards (incidentally co-founder of Media Lens – a site I distrust because it views establishment media as corrupt propaganda by definition, irrespective of quality, principles and governance) developed this further in his book ‘Free to be Human. Intellectual Self-Defence in an Age of Illusions‘ as the idea of ‘power religions’ and their mind chains,

“Power religion, unlike true religious endeavour, has nothing at all do with the search for fundamental, adequate answers to human life, but is purely a means of justifying, enforcing and facilitating the exercise of power. Power religion does not consist in a particular set of beliefs, but in a set of functions supporting power. Because these functions remain essentially constant, we discover close similarities between versions of power religion widely separated by historical time, geography and superficial appearance. The differences between these beliefs represent a sort of superficial clothing over an essentially identical framework of underlying function.”

Religious authoritarianism enforces practices in the name of religion. Examples are the strict subjugation and exclusion of women (Saudi Arabia), outlawing abortion (Republic of Ireland, USA, ongoing attempts in the UK), state-enforced child bearing (Ceausescu’s Hungary), restricting the education of women (most conservative religions).

There are plenty of practices associated with power religions that mainstream UK commentators are prepared to publicly condemn, criticise or satirise. The most striking thing about these practices is that they tend to be from the dominant culture. Richard Herring’s Christ on a Bike show, which contains extensive material on the Pope and the Catholic Church met with some offended and wounded reactions to which he responded without compromise and in similar vein as before,

“A lot of things that Christians say annoy me (for example the Pope saying people should not use condoms in AIDS infested areas) but I believe they have the right to say them. The point of the routine is that it is a bit much for the Pope to tell us what to do with [our] sperm when some of his priests are having sex with kids – maybe it’s a priority to sort that out first.”

and although he has some material on Islam he points out,

“It’s harder as a non-Muslim to “mock” Islam and obviously it’s a different thing to concentrate on a minority religion, who are already the subject of prejudice and opprobrium (whatever that is)”.

This makes good sense and I am continually reassured by evidence that I live in a country where scruples about minority sensitivities have considerable influence. But, for the same reasons, it’s also tricky to criticise anything done in the name of a minority religion. This has led to the current situation, where many (most?) of the people who don’t pull their punches on authoritarian practices associated with minority religions are either open or crypto racists, the most organised of whom support the English Defence League, the British National Party, or their respective fragments.

The opinion that political left has ducked its responsibility is strengthening. A couple of months ago when campaigner against female genital mutilation Leyla Hussein took a sounding of cultural eggshells in Northampton by asking shoppers to sign a petition in favour the practice, she was appalled by her success. Signatories were prepared to support misogynistic violence against adolescent girls in order to express their ‘cultural sensitivity’. Another example, incompletely documented in some of my earlier posts, is the recent Universities UK recommendation that higher education institutions consent to segregation by gender if demanded by a presenter. The ensuing debate drew out the view – shared by a number of intellectuals including politicians and feminists as well as activists for an Islamic state – that to be worried about segregation is to be Islamophobic. For others – who themselves often face opprobrious charges of racism – this reaction confirmed their existing belief that there’s a thin spot where non-racist campaigns against religious authoritarianism should be, and in their place is the racism of low expectations.

Which finally brings me to legal scholar Karima Bennoune’s recent book ‘Your fatwa does not apply here. Untold stories from the fight against Muslim fundamentalism’. The first review I read, by Julia Droeber, sociologist at An Najah University, Palestine, approached the book cautiously in the knowledge that its subject could make it attractive to political inclinations that are unfavourable to Muslims. However, her fears were quickly allayed:

“Bennoune admits that she is walking a tight-rope. She is painfully aware that right-wing elements in the West may use this book as a pretext for further discrimination against Muslims at home and abroad. However, she says that she  felt compelled to document these accounts for two reasons: her fight for global human rights and her disappointment with the too-complacent view of allegedly “moderate” Islamists by the political Left in the West. To a large extent it is the tolerant and secular interpretations of Islam the protagonists of this book are trying to promote as they contest attempts by fundamentalists to place restrictions on their day-to-day lives, and Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here was prompted by the lack of attention paid in the West to those struggles.”

Droeber continues,

“… she takes issue with the view that Muslims and Muslim fundamentalists are victims (of the “War on Terror”, for example) and criticises governments for their reactions (or lack of reaction) to fundamentalist violence and its consequences for people’s everyday lives, for instance in Palestine.

“The final chapter’s title summarises the book’s message “Raise your voice while singing is still possible.”

Good advice – plenty more here.

Update

Gender segregation on campus – “taken over” by the far right?

Bob From Brockley has a recent piece on Mandela as a mirror. It’s about how disparate movements can opportunistically hitch up to a campaign, a cause, or sometimes a person. To add another example, we have Southall Black Sisters invoking Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle at an event protesting gender segregation, and then we get Spiked with a piece on the hyperbole of calling segregation ‘apartheid’ and the event explodes into a kaleidoscope of different angles on angles on angles. This here is mine, but on gender segregation, Sally Feldman and Laurie Penny.

Last week mainstream politicians finally found their voice and came out against religious gender segregation on campus. Predictably this functioned as a bright green go light to anti-establishment types. Here’s Times Higher columnist Sally Feldman’s weak satire on the opponents of gender segregation. I couldn’t have guessed the piece would end up defending the platforming hate preachers at the University of Westminster where she works - Haitham ‘apes and pigs’ al-Haddad and gender segregation in the same article – wow. She’s more worried about the calibre of the opponents of misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia than she’s worried about the views themselves. So, for the record, al-Haddad does preach hatred. And Sally Feldman should know that events that are carefully convened to ensure hateful views are likely be countered by other invited speakers tend to escape the kind of alarmed response she objects to – mainly because they are obviously ‘championing free speech’, rather than simply connecting haters with free premises and audiences and leaving it to the objects of their hatred to do the hard work of speaking against them.

How did we get here from gender segregation? Maybe the quality of the objections to gender segregation – the passion, the outrage, the hyperbolic exchanges – reminded Sally Feldman of the upset about al-Haddad and reminded her of her University of Westminster agenda. That’s my best guess. It’s also the most charitable account.

Which brings me to Laurie Penny’s recent Guardian piece, ‘This isn’t feminism. It’s Islamophobia‘. It’s about the pressure she has come under from ‘white men’ to condemn gender segregation. At its crux,

“…demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against “radical Islam” sounds more and more like white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: “If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.””

But at the bottom you’ll find a note, ‘This article was amended to draw attention to the fact that many Muslim and Asian women were involved in the “gender segregation” protests.’ This amendment only came about because Twitter users like the Ex-Muslims Forum, Lejla Kuric, Alya, Ophelia Benson, One Law For All, Sarah Brown and others civilly alerted her to Asian and Muslim feminists defending secular space and pointed out the stark inaccuracy of claiming that the protest on December 10th was led by right wing men. By mid morning Laurie Penny had recognised the problem and was making efforts to correct it.

Which is typically big of her but I was interested in what had happened, which is this. A self-styled feminist found the ‘white patriarchy’ so much more interesting than all the feminists of Muslim or Asian background that she completely omitted them from consideration. In this she is no better than most of the other reporters party to the silencing of non-white voices, as This Is The End puts it. Or as Lejla puts it, “White western feminist ignore us and dismiss our struggle”. Or as Alya puts it, “The very idea that this debate has been “taken over” by the far right is both naive and insulting”. As such Laurie Penny gives us a classic example of reductio ad absurdum filtering an event through an existing agenda. It’s also a particularly self-absorbed piece; the poor feminist is not the woman affected by gender segregation – it’s Laurie Penny herself beset by ‘white men’ asking her to condemn something. This is a maddening change of subject.

A united front is needed to fight religious authoritarians on campus. They are not yet strong but they would like to be and they have a small foothold already. So congratulations any ‘white men’ of any political stripe who based your arguments against gender segregation on feminist principles and not culturally racist ones. Sadly for me I think it may be true that you are mostly to the political centre and right – but you got it right this time. Please carry on doing it, as often as possible, and don’t be put off by people telling you you’re the wrong sex or colour.

Finally, Laurie Penny is right that there is certainly anti-Muslim sentiment lurking within the debate about gender segregation, as Soupy explains – people with these views are also subtly changing the subject to further their own agenda.

Universities UK agrees to redraft guidance on gender segregation

Good news below which broke after I started writing this.

This morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme said that politicians were reluctant to talk to them about gender segregation on campus. Let’s take a sounding on who is defending segregation, who is defending desegregation, and who is silent.

Defending segregation

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive, Universities UK.

Source: BBC Radio 4 Today, 12th December 2013, c. 8.15am. This person resembles somebody doing her best to represent the legal opinion obtained by Universities UK. However, I’d say from the quote below that the legal opinion is in line with the one she personally holds: it makes her uncomfortable to withhold segregation from speakers who insist on it.

“What we’re talking about here is voluntary segregation”.

Justin Webb points out that the possibility of segregation itself constitutes a pressure to go along with it. ND responds that universities will know if there is pressure. This is over-confident. She continues,

“What is very uncomfortable about this argument is you are assuming that we have the right to impose views on participants. If the participants say this is how they want it to be, it is not appropriate for us to disregard their views.”

She then asserts that this is “clearly not” core university teaching, as if that were protected in law. In fact the implication of the particular legal judgement she is promoting is that it is not protected by law.

iEngage (organisation which promotes political Islam)

“Much like the cacophony of voices calling for the banning of the niqab in the UK, in contravention of liberal democratic principles, those decrying the UUK guidelines as a sop to ‘Islamists’ display the same tendencies of subjecting a minority to ‘majority tyranny’.”

iEngage is fully aware that women are minorities in societies which segregate. They tend to be isolated from the movers and shakers who make decisions about their circumstances, and dependent on men. There are exceptions, probably, but this is the norm.

Myriam Francois Cerrah, academic and journalist implies that there is anti-Muslim sentiment in the reaction:

“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.”

There is certainly a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment around these days and it deserves attention. It’s worth wondering about the heat in this backlash against university segregation. She continues:

“Treating men and women identically doesn’t always mean treating them equally, since each might have specific needs.”

Let’s stop a minute and think about what has happened. Universities UK has said that it is OK for visiting speakers to dictate separate areas for men and women. Universities UK is at the same time saying that this could never be the case for core teaching. Myriam Francois Cerrah here is saying that men and women may have specific needs. She is quiet about different ethnicities, age-groups, sexual orientations, having different needs and what that should mean in a public space – it’s settled that segregating on those lines would be illegal, but she is asking for an exception on grounds of sex. She is quiet about the fact that it is the speaker who gets to make these decisions, rather than the audience. Is there a group of women or men so putatively empowered that they spontaneously elect to withdraw to sit on their own? If so, then so be it – as long as it isn’t organised from the top. She is also quiet about the implications for core teaching if, say, a visiting lecturer asked for male, female and mixed sitting areas. Clearly if it’s permissible for one speaker, it is for another – or if not, why not? Imagine an education system where people frequently had to make a gender-based decision about where to sit. And if in higher education, why not in schools? Because this is a matter of whether or not orthodox religion takes deeper hold in public life – Camden School for Girls is not along those lines at all.

Shohana Khan of Hizb ut Tahrir is passionate that segregation is not a symptom of a patriarchy, but a measure against the ‘taint’ of sexual instincts.

“…the concept of separating men and women in public spaces in Islam, is part of a wider objective. Islam has a societal view that the intimate relationship between a man and a woman is for the committed private sphere of marriage, and should not be allowed to spill outside of this sphere. This is because in society, men and women need to cooperate to achieve things in society whether in the work place, in education, in interactions across the public space. Islam firmly believes if the sexual instinct is let loose in this public sphere, it can taint and complicate these relationships.”

No. Firstly I’m not sure that sexual tension doesn’t galvanise productivity. Secondly, if you have sex on the brain to such a debilitating extent then you need to work on your self-discipline and your professionalism, rather than trying to rearrange society to accommodate your own prurience. I think the level of achievement in non-segregated societies is a testament to the likelihood of success in this – despite (I freely acknowledge) the awful and differently harmful sexualisation of young women and girls which seems to sink deeper just when you think it couldn’t possibly. I also think that the relative status and power of men and women in societies where religious segregation is the norm (Iran and Saudi being two of the most prominent examples (the most extreme, but premised on the same logic) confirms an association between separate and unequal.

The University and College Union has carefully responded to something that nobody was proposing, namely forced segregation. Thankfully we aren’t at that stage just yet.

Defending desegregation

Me, in my earlier post.

Jack Straw, Labour Party (BBC Radio 4 Today, 12th December 2013, c. 8.15am):

“I am very shocked and appalled … [Universities UK] are insinuating that it’s possible to be neutral about whether women are treated equally or whether they are treated unequally … Private groups are entitled to hire private halls anywhere round the country and if they want a meeting on that basis that’s one thing.” He then challenges Universities UK’s legal opinion.

Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary, Labour Party

“I was horrified by what I heard … let me be absolutely clear, a future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities. It offends basic norms in our society. Of course people should be free to practise their religion privately in places of worship and at religious events. But universities are publicly funded places of research, learning and teaching and, as such, there is no place in my view for state-sponsored segregation.”

The Guardian, Thur 12 December, 2013

Maryam Namazie, One Law For All and the journalist Polly Toynbee, and many more…

But here’s the aforementioned welcome news – as I write this, Mark Hammond, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has stated that gender segregation is “not permissible” under equalities laws.

“Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it. However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender … The guidance also gives the impression that the right to manifest or express a religious belief should be balanced against the right not to be discriminated against … We think the guidance could be clearer on what the legal framework lays down on these issues to avoid any risk of misrepresenting the legal position. UUK has now written to the commission and we have agreed that we will work with UUK to ensure that their guidance and our guidance are consistent and clear.”

Say they are feminist but silent on this

I looked to Caroline Lucas, MP, Green Party and Natalie Bennett, Leader, Green Party. Presumably they do not find it politically expedient to speak up. The LSE and its Student Union, who have been trying to exclude outspoken atheists, were also silent. They are a tiny fraction of the people who were silent, but they’re all I have time for.

I have no excuses for people who are silent or who defend segregation. In Turkey the government recently moved to segregate women’s and men’s university accommodation. Gaza’s rulers have just passed a law to segregate school classes for children over nine and prevent men from teaching girls. Iran and Saudi have a terrible culture of exclusion which expresses itself as separation. Israel allowed a culture of segregation to encroach into public spaces before the government acted. It used to happen in this country and it could happen here again. Women always miss out when public spaces are segregated by leaders and organisers – even if voluntary, it’s a small change in culture, in the general view of what is acceptable. Authoritarians always use the values of open, pluralist societies against those societies themselves, and weaken them incrementally. Let’s stop this.

On Universities UK’s endorsement of sex segregation on campus

In a recent piece of guidance to UK universities on external speakers, Universities UK has taken the step of endorsing sex segregation on campus. UUK is a professional organisation of university leaders which aspires to “a definitive voice” and “high quality leadership” - in other words, an organisation to be taken seriously. Its rationale here is a concern that historically marginalised groups – religious conservatives, women especially – be included in campus life and that campus events fall within the law. Although I am myself a secularist atheist and increasingly worried about religion in global public life, I find these worthwhile concerns. I’d defend the right to religious confession as long as it doesn’t harm others – but I do want university campuses to be secular spaces since I feel that secular spaces promise the most respect to the fullest range of beliefs. I’m not a stranger to sex segregation myself having experienced it in religious settings during childhood – and I’m not an authority either. For ethical reasons I am unwilling to attend sexually segregated events.

So what do I think is wrong with sex segregation?

  1. It is sexist – literally, it distinguishes between and separates human beings in social situations on grounds of sex. It singles out sex as a major societal schism. Sexism is generally thought incompatible with equality for the same reason that ‘separate but equal’ is history in Louisiana.
  2. Segregation sexualises our campuses – it treats sexual difference as if it were a threat to our ability to participate in academic pursuits. This sex on the brain constitutes a disruptive frisson. I find it prurient and it makes me very uncomfortable.
  3. Sex segregation ghosts out men who are sexually attracted to men and women who are sexually attracted to women, along with people who are transgender or unsure of their gender. This is because the religious ultra-orthodox have a track record of excluding these people. Sex segregation unrecognises them and signals that they are persona non grata.
  4. Formerly secular Turkey is further down the religious segregation road – it is ending mixed sex university residences. We should view UUK’s seemingly modest and liberal request for a small acts of segregation on demand in this context, among others. A precedent is being set which gives a foothold to ultra-orthodox religion. Not all religious adherents are proselytising – but the majority are. I tend to see this Universities UK approval as a crack which will widen.
  5. As the minority South African government did before the end of apartheid and as the US white majority government did before the end of segregation, Universities UK is saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the segregation happens on equal terms. But as any Equal Opportunities policy will tell you (and by the way, I scored a perfect score first time in my own institution’s induction test) you can’t bring about equality simply by treating everybody the same.
  6. Segregation of equal groups doesn’t happen. Segregation only happens if one group imposes it on another from a position of superiority and power. Here it is religious men, often endorsed by domesticated women who have internalised their oppression or who care little about women’s long struggle against their historic marginalisation. We know that women need more encouragement and stronger expectations that they will become independent parts of a historically male academic world and take their place side by side with men. I’d expect segregation to be counterproductive to this. Perhaps the thing that I find most upsetting about this Universities UK recommendation is that there leaping out at me on page 27 is the word feminism, in inverted commas.
  7. Segregation creates distance and barriers. It interferes with mutual understanding between the separated groups.
  8. Segregation exerts powerful internalising force. Young people growing up in it feel themselves to be fundamentally different. And when they grow up and become women whose role is dependent and men whose role is independent, they feel it is sex which dictates this, not society. This is how segregation leads to inequality.
  9. We live in a world where some women are brutally punished or even killed for failing to observe the dictats of religious modesty. This world is not so far away for many of the people directly affected by this endorsement. When segregation is institutionalised as Universities UK is proposing, it’s questionable whether it can be voluntary. I’d imagine that the pressure to perform religious modesty would make it harder to choose the mixed seating over the segregated seating.

As such I can’t see how a ‘balance of interests’ can be achieved by offering some segregated and some mixed seating. I can’t see how it is compatible with the equality agenda I support, and I think the events which demand it should take place elsewhere in private spaces.

I think Universities UK has performed a rush to the middle ground between what they correctly identify as vying interests – feminism and ultra-orthodoxy – which has only served to shift the ground in favour of those who traditionally marginalise women. This is retrograde and a profound disappointment to me. I don’t want to lose sight of the need to welcome conservative religious students and staff onto campus, but in accomplishing this we should rule out sex segregation. In short, as a cure for exclusion, sex segregation would be worse than the disease.

There’s a petition you can sign and it’s definitely worth writing to Universities UK on your own behalf.

Update – more comment

For the record here’s what Universities UK recommends: (Case Study 2, p29, my emphases).

CASE STUDY 2: SEGREGATION

A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender. The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high. The segregation request is not yet in the public domain but the students’ union has an active feminist society which is likely to protest against the segregation request. Other societies are likely to express similar concerns. The event is also due to take place a few days after a number of campus-based activities to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Things to consider

Legal framework – points likely to be particularly relevant

Aside from freedom of speech and the s.43 duty, the paramount issue is to consider how equality obligations apply, and how those interact.

  • For example, under the Equality Act 2010, the first question is whether the segregation is discriminatory on the grounds of a protected characteristic within the definition of the Act. Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.
  • It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).
  • Consideration will also need to be given to whether imposing segregation on everyone attending the event is required (see below). If it is required, this may amount to less favourable treatment of other attendees because of a protected characteristic. On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling. Further, an act of indirect discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meaning the institution should also have regard to its other obligations under the Equality Act and the s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.
  • It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.
  • The institution will also need to have due regard to its Public Sector Equality Duty obligations when making decisions about the event.
  • In practice, a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas, although if the speaker is unwilling to accept this, the institution will need to consider the speaker’s reasons under equalities legislation.
  • Note that decisions can be very fact-dependent, and that the law applies differently in different scenarios. For example, there is an express prohibition in the Equality Act against segregation on racial grounds, and there are also special provisions in relation to single-sex sporting events. The points above are not intended as a substitute for seeking appropriate legal advice.

Other practical considerations

  • Who is chairing the event?
  • What is known about the speaker?
  • What reasons do the speaker and/or the society give for the event to be segregated?
  • Is the event open to the public? 
  • Is there scope for segregation to be voluntary/optional?
  • Has input been sought from the institution’s equality and diversity officer?
  • Is it advisable to obtain legal advice, and/or to seek advice from the Equality Challenge Unit?
  • Can any steps be taken to ensure segregation is voluntary?
  • If no segregation is permitted, will this discriminate against any groups who will now be unable to attend the event?
  • Are there particular issues around potential discrimination, public order etc, including because of the particular demographic/religious/cultural makeup of the institution’s student body?
  • Is the event likely to generate media coverage? Do the press office and senior management team or vice-chancellor need to be informed? Decisions may need to be re-evaluated during the process of considering the proposed event. For example, if the speaker is unwilling to speak unless the event is fully segregated, it may be necessary to further explore the basis for his position before deciding whether a partially segregated event is a possibility.