Gender segregation at university student events is not a new phenomenon. Separate gender seating arrangements have been practised by Islamic societies in universities for decades, during which time few eyebrows were raised, whether in students unions or beyond. Recently however, a gender segregated event held by IERA
at University College London sparked a public debate on the topic.
The event was given prominence by an alarmist report
from Student Rights, a project of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society. The report drew wide generalisations from skewed statistics, and prompted guidelines in a wider report
on external speakers by Universities UK (UUK), which suggested conditions where gender-separated seating could legally be permitted. Protests were subsequently held where many campaigners who clearly had an Islamophobic
axe to grind denounced ‘gender apartheid’.
This eventually generated enough publicity for politicians, including the Prime Minister,
to wade into the debate leading to an intervention
by the European Human Rights Commission (EHRC), obliging the UUK to withdraw its earlier guidelines, pending a review.
I do not want to devote much attention here to the legality of gender segregation at university campuses, since this debate has been over analysed and given far more attention than it merits. Briefly, I concur with Myriam Francois Cerrah
that the biggest issue in this whole politically driven row was not women’s rights, but the erosion of academic freedom in our universities.
What I do wish to focus on is the response that has been given by many Muslim students and organisations. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies
(FOSIS) and others
offered unqualified defences of gender segregation, to the extent that the place of gender segregation in Islamic tradition was confidently, if inaccurately, portrayed as an inarguable truth. Emphasis has been given to the voluntary nature of gender-separated seating, of the preference that women themselves have of sitting separately and of the empowerment that they achieve through this ‘safe space’.
These arguments may all be true to an extent, but they certainly do not paint a complete picture. Engaging in men- or women-only activity, such as sports, education or social settings is one thing, and is indeed something that is widely accepted in this country. However, gender segregation at events open to both men and women poses specific issues. Firstly, the officialization of separate seating provides little added value – the audience by default are free to sit as they wish, and if their preference is to sit in all-male or all-women clusters, there is nothing to stop them. Indeed many students do this anyway – for religious or other reasons – in seminars, lectures, as well as in social and entertainment settings. Conversely, the officialization of separate seating arrangements - even if ‘voluntary’- places pressure on all
attendees to sit according to their gender rather than in an allocated mixed seating area.
Secondly, Muslim defences of gender segregation have tended to gloss over some of the undesirable features that are sometimes associated with such arrangements. These include a male-female relationship that becomes defined by segregation, rather than by shared values and goals. Practically speaking, gender-segregated arrangements have witnessed an acute lack of female speakers, and female audience members are encouraged to pass questions to speakers in note form rather than engaging directly with them – both of which not only stifle women’s participation, but limit opportunities for open debate and discovery between young Muslims and their peers, and more generally all students. It is one thing for some Muslim women to argue that their experience of gender segregation has been a fulfilling result of free choice, and something else completely to extrapolate that this has been the case for all Muslim women, or indeed all those who attend such events.
Banning gender segregated events, although it now looks likely, is not the answer. But Muslim organisations do need to move beyond knee-jerk ‘defence’ of their community practices, towards a more reflective approach that includes a healthy dose of introspection and self-criticism. They need to consider with honesty and clarity just what the impacts are of continuing the convention of separate seating for men and women at university events. Muslim organisations need to differentiate between their right to make separate seating arrangements, and the question of whether, in a university setting, it is the right thing to do. It is a shame that this debate was ignited by right-wing Islamophobes, and exploited by headline-seeking politicians. But it is not too late for authentic Muslim voices to take ownership of it and move forward.