[UPDATE by Matthew Cobb: As some commenters have pointed out below, UUK have withdrawn their advice, including deleting it from their website pending further legal comment. They accept that it would be wrong to impose sex-segregation, but they have doubts about the legal situation were it to be ‘voluntary’. More here.]
The story of Universities UK (“UUK,” a consortium of university vice chancellors) and its approval of sex-segregated seating for Muslims (or, perhaps Orthodox Jews) continues. I’ve posted about it only briefly as others have covered it elsewhere, but it’s not a pretty tale. For UUK, cowed by fears of Muslim “offense,” tentatively endorsed the right of university groups to make men and women sit apart. Their excuse was pathetic; according to a story in late November in the Telegraph:
[UUK] have issued guidance which suggests that segregation is likely to be acceptable as long as men and women are seated side by side and one party is not at a disadvantage.
In a new guidance on external speakers, vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK says that universities face a complex balance of promoting freedom of speech without breaking equality and discrimination laws.
When considering a request for segregation, they warn, planners must think about whether a seating plan could be discriminatory to one gender – for example if women were forced to sit at the back of the room it could prove harder for them to participate in the debate.
The report adds: “Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”
To those who lived through the sixties in America, that’s the same language used to justify racial segregation: “separate but equal.” But it never was, or is, “equal.” It always enforces a sense of divisiveness and tacitly marginalizes one group.
When a spokewoman at UUK was asked whether this could mandate segregation by sexual orientation (gays on one side, straights on the other), she replied that that wasn’t the same, because sexual orientation “wasn’t visible” compared to sex. That’s ludicrous and reprehensible. Discrimination is discrimination, whether or not the traits discriminated against can be seen at a cursory glance.
The Telegraph article notes that “radical preachers spoke at 180 events at universities including Cardiff and University College London (UCL) between March 2012 and March 2013. Segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of the events, at 21 separate institutions.” This includes, of course the famous debate on Islam and atheism between Larry Krauss and Hamza Tzortzis at University College London last March.
After a lot of protest, UUK issued a document affirming the right of speakers to request sex-segregation at some events; you can order a hard copy of the document here, but I haven’t seen it online. You can, however, read a legal opinion solicted by UUK from senior barrister Fenella Morris, which includes the following conclusions:
When considering events which propose voluntary segregation, it is appropriate for universities to have regard to the right of self-determination of those who wish to meet while segregated. This is particularly the case where the voluntary segregation is the manifestation of a religious belief which is specifically protected by Article 9 of the ECHR. It would not be right for a university simply to treat a genuine wish for voluntary segregation as evidence of false consciousness on the part of members of the group that seek it, and then prohibit or otherwise inhibit it.
Yes, religion gets special consideration because its “consciousness” (i.e., discrimination against women) might not be “false.” (What about Christians who would prefer gays to be segregated. Is that also “true consciousness”? Of course it is, but what’s at issue is not whether beliefs are real, but whether they’re pernicious.) The legal advice also notes that while the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission says that segregation is discriminatory when the “protected characteristic is race,” segregation is not necessarily discriminatory for other features if it doesn’t amount to “less favourable treatment.” Morris concludes:
It is unlikely that this will be the case where segregation is voluntary, or a nonsegregated area is available.
Ergo, UUK’s policy of sex discrimination is okay if there is “voluntary” segregation or a place with nonsegregated seating.
Seeking further support for its odious policy, UUK has, according to yesterday’s Guardian, asked the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission for a definitive legal ruling. That means, of course, that UUK is too cowardly to make the decision itself. Let’s hope that Commission does the right thing.
Meanwhile UUK continues to tie itself into knots defending its policy:
Universities UK has insisted that its document was purely hypothetical guidance intended for “practical assistance” and did not promote segregation. It said in a statement: “Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions themselves on a case-by-case basis.”
However, the furore intensified after Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, argued on Thursday that segregation on the basis of gender was not entirely “alien to our culture”.
Asked by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the difference between even voluntary gender segregation and doing something similar on the grounds of race, Dandridge said: “It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment. It’s not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation, which is totally different and it’s unlawful and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.”
However, she stressed that any separation would have to be entirely voluntary, adding: “We are not talking about teaching, lectures, the core business of universities. This particular case study is very specific: it’s talking about an event to discuss faith in the modern world in the course of a series of lectures about different approaches to religion.”
She said such separation was allowed only if it did not cause disadvantage: “What the law says is that segregation on the grounds of gender may or may not be a disadvantage. What this case study is exploring is when it may be a disadvantage and where it may not be. In circumstances where the audience is saying that they prefer to sit in different groups then we are saying that universities should respect their views providing – and this is critical – providing that there is no disadvantage to either men or women.”
The whole policy of “voluntary” segregation stinks. In the case of Muslims, it’s “voluntary” to the extent that many women have been taught from birth that they’re second class citizens that they should be “uncomfortable” in the presence of men. (That segregation of course enforces tension between the sexes.) After all, women are, to Muslims, temptresses, and you wouldn’t want to sit next to men ogling you and despising you at the same time.
It’s time for Islam to recognize that its religious doctrine takes second place to law and to simple decency in a secular state. The right of citizens to not be separated from others on the grounds or religion, race, sexual orientation, or anything else, trumps the right of Muslims or Orthodox Jews to put women on one side of the room and men on the other. That is government endorsement of an outdated, medieval, and misogynistic mentality.
And, at last, the Telegraph has come out against this policy an editorial, “No place for segregation at our universities.” The article concludes that:
“There is no reason, religious or otherwise, why the segregation of the sexes should be permitted at universities” and “. . . requesting that women in a public place sit separately away from men is entirely alien to 21st-century British culture. . . Universities UK needs to review its guidelines, urgently.”
As the Aussies would say, “Good on ya, Telegraph.” But the paper pulls its punches—twice. I left out part of one sentence above, which reads in full:
But requesting that women in a public place sit separately away from men is entirely alien to 21st-century British culture, and something that should be condemned as strongly as Islamophobia.
That is nothing other than a sop to Islam, especially since the piece simply assumes that the reader knows what “Islamophobia” is. How about this: “Fear of Islam because of its repressive social policies.” Is that definition to be condemned? And why use “Islamophobia” here instead of “anti-Semitism,” or, better yet, “any policy that publicly separates people who are equal under law”?
Finally, the editorial says this:
The sight of men and women sitting separately at meetings of Islamic societies is not a reflection of Islamic teaching, denies the self-evident equality of the sexes and is an affront to human dignity.
All good except for the part about “not a reflection of Islamic teaching.” Really? Since when has the Telegraph become the arbiter of “true Islam”? In fact, segregation of sexes is part of a lot of Islamic teaching, and it’s simply coddling Islam to deny it. That reminds me of Steve Gould’s “NOMA” argument that science and religion not only should occupy separate magisteria (science deals with facts about the universe, religion with morals, meaning and values), but do occupy separate magisteria. When confronted with the issue of fundamentalist Christianity, which regularly intrudes on science with its creationist doctrines, Gould simply claimed that that was not “proper” religion. This kind of circularity, as seen in the Telegraph editorial, characterizes religious accommodation. I’m glad to see that the paper has now set itself up as an authority on theology.
It is a fact that Islam does teach separation of the sexes (and inferiority of those lacking a Y chromosome), and many Muslims adhere to such policies on religious grounds. (Note to Islamophiles: this is not a reflection of Western colonialism.) Would the Telegraph claim that theocratic Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, or its adherence to sharia law, in which a woman’s testimony is worth only half of a man’s, are not “reflections of Islamic teaching”?
Mainstream media are simply unable to condemn Muslim doctrine or the reprehensible actions it inspires without throwing a bone to Islam. And that religion gets a special pass. When papers condemned the refusal of Catholic hospitals to abort fetuses that endanger the mother’s lives, we didn’t see them adding “this behavior is not a reflection of Catholic teaching.”