Back in March, there was a slight furore when one of UCL’s student societies hosted an event and required attendees to segregate themselves on the basis of gender. Universities UK, the representative body of higher education institutions across the UK, has just published guidelines which suggest that, as long as segregation represents the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the organisers, separate seating is not in and of itself problematic. The furore has, predictably, reignited, and I think it’s a good thing it has.
When I was an undergraduate, we had a thriving Islamic Society but gender segregation was one of the areas in which I recall the most vociferous disagreement amongst both the committee and general membership. I found it ludicrous that we went to a university in which our lectures were mixed, that many of us had jobs in which we worked with members of the opposite sex, that we existed in British society which is, of course, decidedly mixed, but that whenever we had an event to which we invited an external speaker the females had to sit at the back. After much negotiation it was finally agreed that females would sit side-by-side with their male counterparts but that they would still have to sit separately. I remember having hasty, slightly panicked, discussions with other committee members during Islam Awareness Week when we realised that non-Muslim attendees hadn’t segregated themselves by gender. I found such discussions pointless then, and I find them pointless now.
This is a topic on which I am quite clear: if you, as an individual, choose to seat yourself with members of the same sex, you are free to do so. As a representative of a public institution, however, you have no right to tell me where I may or may not sit. You have no right to tell me, as a female, to sit at the back of the room, or to act as though you’re doing me a favour by ‘allowing’ me to sit side-by-side with my male colleagues. As an adult, I have every right to sit wherever I wish, whether you like it or not. You are, as ever, entitled to your opinion and to your preference. In return, I am entitled to disagree with you.
Some say that Shari’ah law requires males and females to be seated separately, but it is of note that “Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, is resoundingly desegregated”. Shari’ah may require segregation by gender during prayers, but no publicly-funded body – and societies affiliated to Students’ Unions are funded by their members, the students – has any right to dictate matters such as where a person can sit based on their sex. Would I change my view if the funding came from private sources? Absolutely not, but private funding means that you have more control over matters such as this. The principle is the same: Adults may do as they wish so long as they are not breaking the law. Student societies would do well to remember that.
That a small number of militant atheists can get a mainstream Muslim organisation banned from hosting events at a London university is bad enough; but the wading in of Prime Minister, David Cameron, commenting without investigating the facts or the instigators of the whole murky affair is downright appalling.
In March a debate at University College London (UCL) between Hamza Tzortzis of the IERA, a global da’wah [invitation to Islam] organisation ‘committed to presenting Islam to the wider community’, and neo-atheist Prof Lawrence Krauss was disrupted by a militant atheist member of the audience who deliberately headed to an area designated for Muslim women who had requested the seating and insisted on sitting between them prompting security to get involved, his commotion prompted Krauss to also accuse the organisers of forced segregation.
Subsequent to the event, popular atheist author Richard Dawkins took to twitter to condemned UCL for allowing “sexual apartheid” and for “caving in” to Muslims who want to host events where there were separate seating areas for the sexes. He failed to mention that an area of mixed gender seating was also available at the event. IERA was subsequently banned by UCL with little explanation and “no opportunity for recourse” as a spokesman explained.
“Separate seating arrangements for men and women are very much a normative Islamic practice” implemented by Muslims all over Britain at mosques, weddings, conferences and functions. At events it affords Muslim women desired privacy and at functions it allows those of us who observe the hijab and the niqab to literally let our hair down.
Universities UK (UUK) published guidelines on segregation for campuses recommending that where the religious sensitivities of their attendees need to be taken into account, events may have designated areas for male and female attendees with a mixed area and that segregated seating should be side by side. With a minor protest against the guidelines being covered by the media, and the PM commenting that speakers should not be allowed to insist on segregation, UUK has now said that its guidelines are under review.
Many Muslims are questioning why the grassroots leaders are not being consulted on what constitutes normative Islam. With ex-Muslims, militant atheists and known Islamophobe speakers regularly brought onto mainstream media to speak about these issues, misconceptions about Islam are being further exacerbated amongst the general public and hysteria whipped up that normative traditional Islamic practices such as veiling and separate seating provisions are being demonised and dismissed as extreme and fringe practises when in reality they can be found in all of the traditional Islamic schools of thought and have been prevalent in the UK for decades.
Clerics and community leaders from various backgrounds met last month to explore the best response to the sustained onslaught. On December 20 leading Muslim women met in London’s Mile End, to present ‘A Muslim Women’s Unified Community Response’ to the furore and sought to refute claims that Muslim women do not choose separate seating of their own volition and are forced to sit separately by Muslim men.
The debate is all in all a contrived one. The idea of separate space for men and women is of course not unique to Muslims. Orthodox Jews and even the Japanese have a long tradition of it. Ladies only gyms and spas, segregated hospital wards, golf clubs, schools, sports teams, toilets and restrooms, rugby student unions for men, ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and many more are all signs that gender separation is alive and well in 21st century Britain and is very much a natural and often a desirable practise.