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.