Why I won’t be declaring my pronouns

I’m publishing this for anyone who doesn’t want to share pronouns at work – which is to say, I decided fairly early not to declare a gender identity and have needed to be prepared to defend this decision ever since. To cut a long story short, I consider gender as a set of stereotypes and a social imposition I’ve spent a long time trying to get away from, and consequently I don’t have a gender identity. But even as I ungender myself, I still have a biological sex – female. Human animals tend to use the term ‘woman’ for female bloggers (girls are more likely to be found on the gram). However, unlike hens, does, cows, and mares, some human animals are also trans, which means that the meaning of ‘woman’ has expanded to allow some males.

The reason I won’t declare a gender identity is not that I don’t welcome trans people or want them to feel comfortable. It’s that adopting one myself might identify me with political positions I don’t hold, namely that gender identity should have primacy over biological sex, and that recognising biological sex as a major social determinant is essentialising and akin to or as bad as racism.

I realise that may seem a bit of a leap. You might observe that it is equally essentialising to use pronouns to denote biological sex – and in any case what place does biological sex have at work, where we’re supposed to have equal rights and professionalism dictates that we don’t hook up with each other – at least not in core hours. And I’d respond in turn that even if it were desirable to be biological-sex-blind it would be futile. But I can’t see how it is desirable, because distinguishing between equality and equity depends on recognising differences that matter, and biological sex is a major determinant in our lives – for women, menstruation, maternity and menopause are hugely influential, and those are only the most obvious. It’s also not desirable because we are being urged to do the opposite for gender, not to mention other legal equality characteristics – why should sex be excluded? And futile because biological sex is never going to stop being fundamentally important in our society. It’s no coincidence that two of the three gender identity pronouns in general use map directly onto dimorphic sex, and no coincidence that the pride flag does gender as the (I’d say stereotypical) binary pink and blue alongside the non-binary white. Biological sex is very present in trans rights movements. I’d say it’s not a problem to solve – it’s simply at the heart of our species. But we also know that high profile campaigns believe that biological sex undermines gender identity and cannot exist along side it. In many spheres they have attempted to eliminate biological sex as a relevant category, even to the extent of interfering people’s sexuality. And if you publicly objected to that, as many – mostly women – did, it would be open season on you and you’d be fortunate to keep your job.

I’d actually go further. I see the attempt to sever the links between ‘he’ and ‘she’ and biological sex as creating injustice in a number of settings. A failure of monitoring participation by sex coupled with a sharp rise in younger trans people means we have to guess representation in different study, leisure and career pursuits where women are under-represented. If you’re into sport, you’re being asked to accept male-bodied people competing against women in sports where they are likely to win. We cannot accurately monitor sex offences and where there are signs of a sharp rise in women committing them, we cannot know whether the women are biologically male (there is no centrally mandated policy on data collection) which means that we cannot feed the data into valid policy. Accommodating male sex offenders who identify as women in women’s prisons has been recognised as a risk by a judge who nodded it through anyway. I never again want to read the headline “woman accused of exposing penis”. That’s not because I’m in a state of moral panic, it’s because it only takes a few cases like that to ruin the data on female sex offenders and frame women as more likely to commit sex crimes than they are.

I recognise that rounds of gender identity declarations are also intended as a gesture of welcome for trans and non-binary people. Our places of work are supposed to be spaces for people of different beliefs and none to come together and get things done, and one way we do that is not to impose one group’s set of beliefs on groups who object to them – unless it’s a battle for rights where the group being imposed upon is responsible for the injustice. It’s not like that in this case, and moreover here we need to avoid a zero sum game battle of rights between gender identity rights and biological sex rights. There are many kinds of marginalisation that I would like to acknowledge and bring in at work, so If I’m running the introductions I’ll invite people to share anything they want the group to know about them. Then, if anyone wanted to express their personal gender identity, I would observe the pronouns they requested. I might forget sometimes, and I hope that everyone would treat that with the same tolerance I extend to people who, say, refer to me as ‘he’ on social media or forget how to pronounce my name.

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.


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).


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.

Threshold concepts and feminism

On Spiked Brendan O’Neill writes:

“… it seems to me that internet trolling, particularly the vile sexist stuff, is an unwitting by-product of the cultivation in recent years of a stringently emotionally correct society.

…In response to such linguistic stricture, such moral straitjacketing, some men, usually sad fucks, are going to seek out a space in which they can let their id go crazy and scream out certain words or thoughts – ‘cow!’, ‘slut!’, ‘rape!’, whatever. The emotional slovenliness of the trolls is in direct proportion to the suffocating emotional correctness of society at large.”

If by ’emotionally correct’ and ‘moral straitjacketing’ he means taboos, I’d agree. I’d also agree that defensive advocates too often resort to theatrical outrage and manufactured controversy which censure expression rather than explore the sentiment.

But there may be a different angle to these distressing and frightening outbursts. In my line of work we sometimes refer to education in terms of ‘threshold concepts’.

A threshold concept may be seen as a crossing of boundaries into new conceptual space where things formerly not within view are perceived, much like a portal opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. (Land, 2013)

I know it isn’t a good idea to deal lightly with theories, and the social world is different from formal educational settings but – with that in mind and this being just a blog – I’m sometimes drawn to thinking of feminism (and other isms close to my heart like veganism, anti-racism) as founded on threshold concepts. One example might be the idea of indirect discrimination. Another might be the distinction between intent and effect, or the person and the act. Another might be the notion of non-human animal sentience. And by way of comparison, in physics, heat transfer; in economics, opportunity cost; in accounting, depreciation. All of these are ‘threshold’ because they are core beliefs without which it is impossible to develop or deepen an understanding. Their apprehension is transformative, requiring the knower to abandon familiar, taken-for-granted perceptions or (in the social world) norms and begin to think like an anti-racist, or a feminist, or an anti-speciesist.

Not always a comfortable or straightforward experience, you might guess. Perkins (2006) sets out five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’ which interfere with threshold concepts, summarised by Land,

“…knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert (unpractised), conceptually difficult and complex, counterintuitive, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things.”

As Richard Palmer points out (2001) learning can be deeply unsettling, leaving you bereft of your illusions. “The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant”. There’s a sense of loss, sometimes even grief. It’s then easy to become ‘stuck’ in an insecure ‘liminal’ state between relinquishing the old perceptions and acquiring the new ones. I frequently perceive this unsure state in myself, and in many reticent observers of the recent debates on feminism and immigration – the ones who don’t bring up the subject and who discuss it cautiously. There’s a mimicry of understanding, but it isn’t an authentic way of thinking. In this liminal state they’re incapable of defending a principle against the sacreligious attacks that Brendon O’Neill is trying to explain (not that they are merely sacreligious – I take them more seriously than he does).

I wonder if the liminality also brings a vulnerability to societal power relations in the form of competing  threshold concepts. Perhaps – thinking about the Twitter rape threats – the liminality is so unpleasant that some people spasmodically throw it off and rebound back to the comfortable world view they held before, decisively sealing this by expressing their vitriol against the people they perceive represent the concept they rejected?

So what?

Well, I’m out of my depth.

Daniel Dennett writes in his book Intuition Pumps (2013) that:

“…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty, truth, goodness, time, causation, and so on, to make sure they actually aim their analyses and arguments at targets that are relevant to the rest of the world.”

Fair enough, but it relates to a pre-liminal settled knowledge and doesn’t relate to liminality, which is disorientated and bereft of commonsense. Ray Land makes some suggestions which for good reason assume students and teachers – but in any case he views threshold concepts as markers rather than tools.

I’ve reached the bottom and the end.

Incidentally, the recent mainstream media coverage of the stem cell burger with little or no discussion of cruelty indicates that views about animals are depressingly – or to use Perkins’ term – ‘defended’.


Dennett, D (2013). Intution pumps and other tools for thinking. London: Allen Lane.

Land, R (2013). Discipline-based teaching. In Hunt, L and Chalmers R (2013) University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach. London: Taylor and Francis.

Palmer, RE (2001). The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics. http://www.mac.edu/faculty/richardpalmer/liminality.html

Perkins D (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer J and Land R (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Oxon: Routledge.

What to do if you encounter sexual segregation on your campus

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:

  1. Contact the organisers to verify what their policy is. It may be a misunderstanding. But if not, then proceed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Encourage any speakers or panellists to put pressure on the organisers to desegregate. Ask them to consider boycotting the event unless they have guarantees..
  5. If that fails, obtain a reliable eyewitness account.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Women bishops versus church and state

Next time somebody tries to tell you that this country has separated church from state you could cite this response to the e-petition – still open and in need of signatures – No women bishops, no automatic seats in the House of Lords. My emphases:

Dear [Flesh],

The e-petition ‘No women Bishops, no automatic seats in the House of Lords’ signed by you recently reached 10,519 signatures and a response has been made to it.

As this e-petition has received more than 10 000 signatures, the relevant Government department have provided the following response: The Government is committed to the Church of England as the Established Church in England, with the Sovereign as its Supreme Governor. We consider that the relationship between Church and State in England is an important part of the constitutional framework that has evolved over centuries. The Government believes that the second chamber should be more representative of the British people, which is why we introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill; however, the Bill was subsequently withdrawn when it became clear that it could not make progress without consuming an unacceptable amount of parliamentary time. While there continues to be an appointed element to the membership of the House of Lords, the Government believes there should continue to be a role for the Established Church. It is for the Church itself to decide whether it will appoint women Bishops and, if so, what arrangements are necessary to support those who cannot accept this change, but it is obviously disappointing that the Synod was unable to agree how to take this forward. The Government believes that the time is right for women Bishops – indeed it is long overdue. This e-petition will remain open to signatures until the published closing date and will be considered for debate by the Backbench Business Committee should it pass the 100 000 signature threshold.

View the response to the e-petition


HM Government e-petitions http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

This is unsatisfactory. The Church of England can’t be such “an important part of the constitutional framework” that its primitive exclusions of women from high office should be overlooked. There may be “better uses of parliamentary time” but there are also many worse uses – this is a highly symbolic case of a faith group with a toehold in officialdom taking a position outside good progressive law by excluding women. See One Law For All for arguments against this kind of secession. Moreover this is not just some private members group we’re talking about – it’s the House of Lords, one of the highest governance forums in the land.

I’m for disestablishment but unlike the New Humanists I don’t think this reform-minded petition is tactical blunder. I think campaigning for the exclusion of 26 Lords Spiritual as a matter of principle rather than urgent redress is harder to warm to than arguing for the inclusion of women.

So how about that 100,000 signatures? Sign the petition.

Stella Browne

“In 1937, the middle-aged “Miss” Stella Browne, when giving evidence to the UK Government’s Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion, delivered a thunderbolt – she told the committee that she knew from personal experience that abortion was not necessarily fatal or injurious. No record was made of the horrified silence with which such a personal statement must have been greeted. Abortion was illegal and certainly not something that a “respectable” unmarried, educated woman would need to resort to. But Stella Browne (1880-1955), a passionate advocate of birth control, legalised abortion and greater sexual freedom for women, was no shrinking violet.”

Read on at the Times Higher.

All 47 issues of The Freewoman, the journal she contributed to, are digitised and can be accessed at the Modernist Journals Project.

Thanks for the women, BBC

I have no idea what’s going on – it’s nearly a month since International Women’s Day – but this week the BBC has not under-represented women in the programmes I’ve watched and heard. If the BBC persists with giving us these illustrious female role models, there may yet come the day when men and women shake off the mind chains, and women become able to assume our rightful status in society without requiring massive amount of coaching and mentoring to even countenance this heady ambition.

Just watched Kirsty Young presenting the documentary Britain at Work – it’s truly astonishing how few documentaries are presented by women.

The other day – can’t easily find out which – I was struck by how many women were on Newsnight. Sue Lloyd-Roberts went to talk to Saudi Arabians about the total and legally enforced dependency of women there. Aayan Hirsi Ali’s case for secularism and one rule of law for all was magnificent (used to thinking of her sadly as somebody damaged to the point of open and implacable anti-Muslim sentiment, somebody I couldn’t link to, but either I had that wrong, the Newsnight interview was atypical, or she has softened). She knows better than most the inhumane  implications of sharia law where it is permitted to become the law of the land.

Newsnight tonight is presented by Stephanie Flanders, and the Science Editor Susan Watts is talking about Fukushima. Having to listen to Christina Odone misrepresent Harriet Harman and sympathise with David Willetts attributing a decline in working class malehood to feminism was less disturbing because there were other women there to make  appropriate counter arguments. Maureen Lipman, Germaine Greer and Martha Kearney next on the Review Show. Jennifer Egan has won a prestigious literary award.

You know, I was thinking that there were approaching sufficient numbers of women on our screens and radios for me to indulge my dislike of Mariella Frostrup a bit, when I read an extremely good essay of hers on feminism’s global challenge for International Women’s Day and decided to stow it.

I’m not sure if it’s the novelty or something to do with the discourse itself, but I find it easier to concentrate when the people broadcast talking politics are women. 

I’ve heard an Any Questions this evening on BBC Radio 4 with an all-woman panel comprising Lynne Featherstone, Anne McElvoy, Laurie Penny (please, why?) and Margaret Beckett (who unsettled my pro-AV position).

Keep it up with the women, BBC. We love it.

PS worth mentioning that some of the best feminists I know are men, and sad to say the kitschest I know are women who think that belittling their and their friends’ menfolk somehow advances the female condition. Hope it’s alright for me to continue to think of that as balls.