Separate seating is not segregation

The last couple of years various groups have stirred up a controversy out of nowhere about the tendency of some Muslim groups to separate men and women at lectures on university campuses. This has been going on for years and reflects the practice in almost every mosque, except for some major showpiece mosques such as Regent’s Park, which have a common entrance although washing and prayer areas are separate. The stirring has come from the usual sources: secularist “liberal” commentators and blogs who have been objecting to one thing or another the Muslims have been doing since 2001 and their allies among the Muslims, such as the shadowy “Student Rights” group and the so-called British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Two examples are this piece on the Spectator website by Nick Cohen, and this by Sara Khan of “Inspire” on the Independent’s website.

A black and white photograph showing two water fountains, a tiny one marked "Colored" and a large sink with two taps marked "white"The weekend after the death of the man who probably did the most to fight the real thing, we should really remind ourselves what “segregation” means in this context. People use the term for its emotive effect, to evoke memories of American segregation and Apartheid, in which races (not sexes) were segregated in all aspects of life; they were barred from universities (or at least the prestigious ones) altogether, barred from certain professions and openly discriminated against in the workplace, expected to drink from different water fountains, expected to eat and drink in different places, to ride in different parts of the bus and different carriages on the train and so on, and people of different races were not allowed to marry. This was entrenched in law and backed-up by state violence, as was seen in the response to demonstrations against the régime in both South Africa and in the USA, as well as by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the lynch-mob. People were beaten in the streets, spent long terms in prison and were tortured and murdered.

Where the talk is at a university, Islamic societies separate men and women for the hour or two that a talk goes on for, and they are separated left from right, so there are good seats for men and women. To claim that it does not promote equality is to miss the point; equality is provided by the university or college which allows women to attend on the same terms as men, to eat in the same canteen, to attend the same lecture theatres and sit in the same rows as men, and to receive degrees subject to the same conditions as men (in some places, papers are marked anonymously so that assumptions about gender do not factor into marking; this has been going on for years). For that matter, most Islamic societies are bound by the university’s or student union’s rules and allow women to vote and stand in society elections (and they can start their own society if the existing one is not doing its job properly). If a woman is already at university, it is likely that her parents appreciate the value of educating a woman to degree level (or that she is independent enough to fund her own degree). The idea that separating men and women at one 90-minute event a week seriously impacts on gender equality is ridiculous.

Khan refers to a couple of incidents in which men from Islamic societies refused to respond to women who asked them about events at the society. It is clearly unnecessary and wrong to do this — the right thing would have been to simply answer her question, something they no doubt did when approached by female tutors or women on their work teams — but these two incidents do not really represent how men behave at all university Islamic societies, perhaps just one or two when a particularly hardline group controlled it (the group can change from year to year with a committee election, and it is not unknown for the new group to get rid of most of the contents of the prayer room library). They do not “stem from the belief that women are immoral and the ‘solution’ to this is gender segregation” — there is no Islamic text that says women are immoral and no Muslim that I’ve ever met believes that. They stem from the belief that Muslim men and women who are not married or closely related shouldn’t be talking to each other without necessity and that the woman has transgressed by approaching him rather than another woman. This is a view shared by most, if not all, Islamic scholars: that “free mixing” is not allowed and that men and women should not socialise with each other; at Muslim weddings and other social events, men and women will eat and talk separately, usually in different rooms.

Islamic society talks are not, of course, the only place in the British educational system where males and females are separated: a large proportion of our secondary schools do this. However good the local boys’ school is, girls cannot attend, even if there is no mixed or all-girls school of a similar quality, and the same is true of girls’ schools for boys. While there are some parents who prefer a mixed or single-sex school, it is not always possible to make the choice they (or their children) want because there isn’t a school of the type they want that is of sufficient quality or has places available. There are what are regarded as sound educational reasons for keeping boys and girls apart, including reducing the distraction of having the opposite sex present (and thus making the school more of a place of learning and less of a place for partner-finding) and reducing the risk of sexual harassment for girls (until recently both Oxford and Cambridge had all-female colleges, and there remain all-women colleges in the USA, particularly in New England). The first of these is an important justification for the separation of men and women at Islamic society events also: they are meant to be for learning, not chat and not looking for a wife or husband.

Nick Cohen’s article is a barrage of hysterical anti-relgious invective and is full of the flabby, fallacious reasoning typical of this kind of literature, and contains his usual dishonest asides such as the claim that Universities UK, which has recommended allowing Islamic Societies on campus to separate men and women at their events, is “recommending segregation”. He claims that “Universities UK is taking a momentous step, which goes against 150 years of struggle for women’s emancipation, without judicial or parliamentary authority”; after all this time, feminists still defend single-sex schools on the grounds of advantage to and safety of girls, so clearly not everyone sees “women’s emancipation” in terms of the free mixing of the sexes in an academic environment. He claims that University College, London banned such “segregation” after Lawrence Krauss, “an eminent atheist and former adviser to President Obama” (note the appeal to authority there), walked out of a debate with Hamza Tzortzis when “security staff tried to throw out three men who had gone to sit in the women’s section of the audience” — so a bunch of men invading women’s space is now emancipation for women? Again, many feminists, such as the (non-Muslim) organisers of certain London feminist conferences, would disagree with that. Krauss later complained:

People are not only afraid to offend, but afraid to offend a vocal and aggressive group of people. There is a segment of the Islamic community that is very vocal about this.

Clearly those three men set out to offend, and he was not afraid to cancel his talk, and the management of UCL was not afraid to take his side once someone, who could have found out that men and women were going to be separated before he came to the talk, as this is the norm in many Islamic societies and has been for decades. (For that matter, the gutter press are not afraid to attack Muslims on their front pages, and nor are various thugs so afraid of Muslims that they will not attack them in the street.) If a speaker has a history of speaking vituperatively against Jews, gays or any other group, then the university has every right to exclude them, but this is not the mark of an “extreme religious believer” (as opposed to a normal one, who according to this mentality just believes in whatever gods, fairies or whatever he believes in in private), but of a normal practising Muslim. Cohen writes that when he asked the chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, why “women should come last” (i.e. be “discriminated against” by segregation while races or sexual orientations were not), her reply was “because gender difference is visible”, and he continues:

So there you have it. If women did not insist on growing breasts and wearing their hair long, Universities UK would treat them with greater care.

Except that the question is a straw man, because nobody is suggesting segregating people of different races or gays, and women do not “come last”, but sit on a different side of the hall to the men. Groups which would segregate races are, in any case, already banned, but he carries on with stories of the segregation of Jews in universities in Poland in the 1930s and Rosa Parks’s defiance of the segregation of American buses in the 1950s. Again, race. Race is not sex, so the moral equivalence is not valid. Segregation purposely excluded its victims from the better facilities; separate seating at an event does not, as long as both sides can participate equally. If that is not the case, those seeking to ban separate seating should say so, but nobody has.

Someone connected with the BMSD has made a separate point on social media that she has Muslim male friends who are disabled and whose wives are their carers, and separate seating arrangements mean they cannot perform these tasks. While this may be a problem at events where men and women are in separate halls, where they are in the same hall, there is no reason why they should not sit together — in these circumstances the organisers should be flexible about the matter because if the talk is worth anyone hearing, it is better that the couple should sit together than that neither of them are able to attend (if they are not, the student union or college should be involved, but only on the grounds of disability discrimination; to exclude them would be a breach of existing anti-discrimination policies, if not law). This is, however, a special case, and the majority of Muslims who attend Islamic society talks are not disabled, let alone disabled enough to need a carer with them all the time. The needs of this group can be accommodated without changing the rule for everyone else.

There have been some student unions which have stood out against this latest witch-hunt against Muslim student societies, including that of LSE which passed motions approving a “no-platform” policy for fascists, Holocaust deniers and rape apologists, and supporting the “Real Student Rights” petition and opposing the outfit “Student Rights”, which is orchestrating much of this witch-hunt and has connections to the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing think-tank. Any Muslims who are tempted to support the campaign against this should realise they are being led by forces hostile to Islam and which will lead to other attacks on distinctive Islamic customs, such as the wearing of hijaab (and as with the attacks on that, this is spearheaded with false assumptions such as that it is based on a notion of women as immoral or inferior). If they want to help women in Islamic education, they should focus their attentions on mosques which do not admit women, or which hold talks in which women are excluded for no good reason, or which make no effort to teach women in scholarship. It is utterly ridiculous to compare separate seating for a 90-minute talk with a régime of racial oppression which was supported by violence. There is no human right to sit next to whom you like, whether in a lecture hall or on the bus.

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