I attended a sexually segregated event in the student union at a previous place of work in the not too distant past. Avoiding confrontation, my friend and I slunk to the back and dragged chairs to straddle the mid line between men and women. A pitiful gesture. Then as a bombastic cleric began to yell from the front we realised it was a scheduling error on the part of the student union – we were at a religious event by mistake, so we left. I often wish I had protested the ignominy of sexual segregation on a university campus. The chaplain of the time was there. He seemed unbothered.
If you encounter sexual segregation on your campus, chances are it’s against the university’s policies protecting staff, students and visitors against discrimination. So:
- Contact the organisers to verify what their policy is. It may be a misunderstanding. But if not, then proceed.
- Pinpoint the institutional policy to the effect that religious belief does not justify discriminatory behaviour. If your institution doesn’t have such policy, then lobby for it.
- Contact institutional senior management and copy in the people responsible for public or media relations. Insist that the organisers are obliged to make it clear that people can sit wherever they like regardless of sex or any other protected characteristic.
- Encourage any speakers or panellists to put pressure on the organisers to desegregate. Ask them to consider boycotting the event unless they have guarantees..
- If that fails, obtain a reliable eyewitness account.
- If you don’t get a prompt and decisive response, use social media. Ideally amplify your concerns by contacting a celebrated secularist, feminist or other principled public figure – if nobody else already has – and make an indignant scene.
- Hold the institution to account – they should ultimately appreciate this anti-discriminatory counter-pressure. Particularly if they have form.
I firmly believe that campuses should be secular spaces – not atheist, but secular. Not without rooms where worship can happen, but secular. I strongly object to the view that male-female proxmity constitutes sexual harassment on the one hand or enticement on the other. I reject the ‘three sections’ approach because it makes default of segregation and normalises segregation – we want to normalise mingling, exchange and diversity across society’s boundaries, and de-emphasise the role of sex in academic spaces. I will oppose any such elevation and institutionalisation of sex as a division between one human being and another.