The ‘Segregation’ Debate 4 February 2014

Fathima Khatun delivers her verdict on the debate that dominated discussion last autumn.

Autumn 2013 witnessed a bizarre spectacle – the news was dominated by discussion of ‘gender segregation’ at British universities. I call it bizarre because the debate felt more vehement than it needed to be, and it seemed to feel like an argument against no opposition.

The fiasco began with Student Rights, who published a report last May on the prevalence of gender separation at events held by university Islamic Societies. The report was generally patchy, with lots of generalisations and conclusions not supported by the little information they had gathered. Hilary Aked, journalist and PhD student, published a devastating critique of the report and of Student Rights in May 2013 for the Huffington Post. She summarises: –

“What we are being told is that that 25.5% (a quarter) of the events that Student Rights chose to monitor because it suspected they would practice gender segregation or host ‘extreme’ speakers did indeed practice gender segregation. And anyone with even a basic grasp of social science knows that there’s a name for that: a biased sample”

Nonetheless, it hit the front page of The Times, and thereafter was picked up by dozens of UK news outlets. Unexpectedly, most headlines took little account of the biased sample and instead made shocking generalisations about student Islamic Societies. The debate fermented over the next few months, before reaching its zenith in autumn 2013.

Part of the stimulus was guidance published by Universities UK (UUK), the representative organisation for British universities, which argued that there were times when gender segregation could be appropriate when hosting a speaker with conservative religious views. A chorus of opposition was then raised, from feminist groups, to Muslim commentators hitherto unknown, to the Prime Minister himself. Eventually, UUK withdrew their advice.

There are so many misconceptions about gendered seating in British universities, and the debate took a life of its own in the months that followed, comparing gendered seating to South African apartheid or segregated America – both sensationalist and inaccurate comparisons.

There were also too few Muslim women involved in the debate. The best critique of the whole debate came from Laurie Penny, who noted the way in which Islamophobes had adopted the language of feminism. Her critique was a welcome relief to the orthodox narrative that had begun to take set in the media discourse, though it was disappointing that the voices of countless Muslim women were ignored until something was said by a white middle-class journalist. With the sobriety of retrospect, here are a few simple truths about the gender segregation debate: –

1)    Whether or not you agree with gender segregation, the debate was co-opted by those with an anti-Muslim streak.
Consider the fact that Student Rights, the instigator of the debate, emerged out of close links with the neo-conservative think-tank the Henry Jackson Society. Note too that everyone from Tommy Robinson to Nick Griffin weighed in on how terrible gender segregation was. Are these people well-known for their feminist activism? I think not.

2)    Gender segregation is rarely policy; it is choice, but the lines are blurred.
Throw a bunch of Muslims in a room and ask them to sit down. Like it or not, there will often emerge three distinct sections; the male section, the female section and a mixed section for families and couples. It happens at mosques, it happens at Muslim weddings, it will happen at Islamic Society events too.

Most say that they have no problem with segregation by choice. But what happens when the lines are blurred? If any Islamic Society has a large event, and to assist with crowd control, highlights which sections of a lecture theatre are where with signs – is that policy? Enforced segregation? The lines get blurred, and that is where the problem is with universities.

There does need to be a discussion about how this can be best facilitated, but so far there has been little conversation, and lots of shouting by commentators on the issue who seemed willing to reach no middle-ground at all.

3)    Women’s space isn’t anti-women’s rights
Here is an important question to answer. Why do Muslim women want to segregate in the first place? Well consider that all space in society is male space. Really think about that. In Western society, space by default belongs to men (the private sphere, the home, is feminine, whereas the public sphere is masculine). Gender segregation creates a space for Muslim women that is our own, even if it is only a section of a lecture theatre.

It is the same in a mosque. Women’s space is not necessarily about the relegation or regulation of women but about carving out a space in the landscape for Muslim women – a space of belonging where we make the decisions about how we use it.

4)    Muslim women have different opinions
Obvious as that statement is, it seems to have flown over the heads of many media pundits. Yes, there are Muslim women like Yasmin Alibhai Brown or Sara Khan who don’t like or want segregation. But there are also many do who want it. Some will have to learn that no matter how much they want Muslims to become a homogenous block with a single, manageable opinion – it will never happen.

Furthermore, by trumpeting up the voices of those who opposed segregation, and making it seem like a policy enforced by men, women like myself who prefer segregation were effectively cut out of the debate. By shouting so hard and loud, rather than using their platforms to bring other Muslim women into the debate, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and Sara Khan did a disservice to Muslim women in Britain.

5)    There are many bigger issues of sexism on campus
I don’t believe gender segregation is against women’s rights. There are some that do however, and for those who do, I would ask them to carefully consider which battles they choose to fight. The National Union of Students published a report in early 2013 titled ‘That’s What She Said’ (.pdf) which explores the experiences of women on campus in the context of an emerging and often misogynistic lad culture. The NUS identified a link between lad culture and sexual harassment and abuse of female students.

Why are we having a national debate about my choice to sit amongst other women in a lecture theatre, and not about the genuinely worrying prevalence of certain sexist conceptions of masculinity on campus? That latter leads to rape and sexual abuse, and its something female students must endure daily.

So to those who consider gender segregation sexist, how about a truce? How about we tackle some of the bigger issues facing women on campus, and some time in the future, when those issues are resolved, we’ll have a conversation about where myself and other Muslim women choose to sit.

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About Fathima Khatun

Fathima Khatun is an undergraduate law student in South East England.

all, Islam, Opinion