Published on February 10, 2014 | by Beau Bass

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Splitting the sexes: Is gender segregation discriminatory?

ALN’s Beau Bass questions whether gender segregation is discriminatory, if it holds a place in universities, and why it has generated heated arguments from both men and women.

A woman sits by herself while a group of men stand away from her.

Those who oppose gender segregation believe that they are freeing women from discrimination, but Muslims who are in favour of it on a voluntary basis feel their religious rights are being oppressed [Hasan Nezamian]

Just as the dust had just began to settle on the veil ban controversy, another religious practice has come under fire leading many to question whether or not gender segregation is discriminatory towards women, or would not allowing it be oppressive to the religious rights of the Islamic faith.

The argument against gender segregation at university events began when Universities UK (UUK) released new guidelines about the subject in December 2013.

The backlash came in the form of an intervention by David Cameron, an open letter by women’s and student groups to the UN condemning gender segregation, and UUK withdrawing their guidance for reconsideration.

Furore

Why such a furore over seating arrangements? The argument against gender segregation is that it places the rights of the speaker, who may demand gender segregation, above the rights of women who may not want to be segregated.

David Cameron took this issue one step further and stated that he believes even voluntary segregation should be banned at universities.

Student Rights, a group that aims to support equality on university campuses, strongly opposes gender segregation.

The group argues that segregation harms equality on campuses as it creates an environment in which women are discriminated against.

Student Rights’ Rupert Sutton told Arts London News: “We would say that the separation of men and women at certain events is oppressive, particularly when women are forced to sit at the back of a lecture hall or even in separate rooms. It also risks creating an environment in which women feel pressured to conform to certain norms.”

“We would say that the separation of men and women at certain events is oppressive, particularly when women are forced to sit at the back of a lecture hall or even in separate rooms.” Rupert Sutton

However, some Muslim women feel uncomfortable with the idea that even voluntary segregation may be banned. After all, is it not one’s right to choose where to sit in lectures?

Arij Liman, a journalism student at London College of Communication and member of the UAL Islamic society, said: “It is quite frankly ridiculous that David Cameron feels that by banning voluntary segregation, or in essence forcing a seating plan on me, he is helping to lift me out of oppression.”

She added: “The meaning of the term ‘voluntary’ is choosing to do something you feel comfortable with and, for many Muslim women, this means sitting beside their female friends and colleagues rather than men they don’t know.”

The idea of not allowing gender segregation at universities can create a certain paradigm when it comes to the notion of oppression.

Those who oppose gender segregation believe that they are freeing women from discrimination.

But Muslims who are in favour of it on a voluntary basis may feel their religious rights are being oppressed if they cannot choose to be segregated.

Oppression

“I feel that in the name of freeing Muslim women from oppression, David Cameron and students rights organisations are in fact oppressing them by forcing views upon them,” adds Liman. “If Muslim women feel that they would rather sit on the right side of the lecture hall with their female friends, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?”

Student Rights stands firm on their view that student societies should not be allowed to impose segregation on attendees of events in any way.

Their main issue is with segregation being forced on those who are not in agreement with it.

“If individuals wish to sit away from members of the opposite sex, no one is stopping them, but they cannot impose their views on others,” says Sutton, highlighting that at no point have those opposed to gender segregation stated or suggested that students should be forced to sit next to members of the opposite sex.

“I have been to events at UAL where men and women sit on different sides of the room, and I have had no problem with this and have not felt I was unable to contribute to discussions in anyway.” Shelly Asquith 

So where does UAL stand on this issue? SUARTS president Shelly Asquith said: “I think this sounds like a very reactionary response to an observation of faith that does not disempower or discriminate against anyone, but merely recommends a seating arrangement.”

“I have been to events at UAL where men and women sit on different sides of the room, and I have had no problem with this and have not felt I was unable to contribute to discussions in anyway,” she adds.

The idea of a double standard has been brought in to play on this issue.

The separation of men and women in certain circumstances in Britain does not seem to be a problem when associated with secular values; for example in schools, changing rooms and hospitals.

Contention

Some have began to question why gender segregation is such a cause of contention when associated with Islam.

A spokesperson for the group Women against oppression: Liberation through Islam said: “When Muslims adopt a separate seating arrangement based on their faith, liberal commentators scream that they are unacceptably trying to change the nature of Britain by imposing extremist practices that are discriminatory towards women.”

The debate has managed to stir up a certain degree of Islamophobia, with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown referring to gender segregation as “the Talibanisation of British universities” in an article for The Independent.

Some have began to question why gender segregation is such a cause of contention when associated with Islam.

It is clear that gender segregation is an issue that divides our society, but as students we should avoid any form of Islamophobia and respect the beliefs of others. Asquith worries that “some of this rhetoric is used to rile up Islamophobic prejudices.”

However, according to Sutton: “[Gender segregation] could harm equality on campuses as it creates an environment in which women are discriminated against because of their gender.”

At the same time, if Muslim women wish to voluntarily segregate themselves by sitting on the other side of a lecture theatre, this should not be banned either. Surely a happy medium can be found in which equality is paramount for both women and religious groups in this debate.

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