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‘You are a woman, you can’t sit here’: UK Universities condones gender segregation

This is a guest post by Chris Moos

If the new guidelines by Universities UK, an organisation representing the leadership of UK universities, are adopted, this is a phrase that might become not uncommon to hear at UK universities.

The attempts of extreme religious speakers and organisations to impose gender segregation and the harmful effects of such policies on students have been well documented. In March, University College London banned the Islamist organisation iERA from its premises after it tried to physically impose a gender segregated seating order on the audience of an event called “Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?”.

Now, it appears that organisations like the iERA will get their attempts to forcibly segregate men and women officially sanctioned. On November 22nd, Universities UK, which calls itself “The voice of UK Universities”, issued new guidelines on external speakers in higher education institutions. In a shocking reinterpretation of the segregationist “separate but equal” slogan of long-gone regimes, the document states that “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.” Notably, the guidelines make it clear that not only voluntary self-segregation would be permissible, but also the imposition of a seating order through forceful means, telling students where to sit, and next to whom.

In what appears to be a deliberate misinterpretation of existing equality legislation, the organisation also claims “segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.” Incredibly, this posits that treating someone differently because of his or her gender, telling them that certain students cannot sit next to certain others, would not amount to discrimination. In what seems to border at the absurd, the organisation indeed says that “an act of indirect discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. According to Universities UK, forced gender segregation is thus “legitimate”.

Of course, if differential treatment was not “less favourable” to some groups, it would not be differential – it would simply be equal. In addition, this totally ignores the sizeable part of the population that have gender identities that neither fit into the “male” or “female” category. Should these ideas be put into practice, this would mean that all students could be forced to reveal their gender identity when entering a lecture theatre, and should it be neither male nor female, forced to pick one or the other side.

The document also provides a clear rationale for what could lead back to a new era of segregation in universities that was long thought overcome. For Universities UK, the privilege to impose highly controversial religious practices on students trumps considerations of gender equality and the basic freedom of people to sit wherever they choose, and with whom: “Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.

While asking whether there is “scope for segregation to be voluntary/optional”, Universities UK concedes that, in general, there should be an area where genders would be allowed to mix. Yet, incredibly, Universities UK claims that, if the organisers or speakers are opposed to gender mixing, it might be against the law to allow for an area with mixed seating: “Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

In a stunning display of disregard for the rights of students, Universities UK also suggests that universities should indeed allow not only partially, but fully segregated events, should this be the wish of the speaker: “If the speaker is unwilling to speak unless the event is fully segregated, it may be necessary to further explore the basis for his position before deciding whether a partially segregated event is a possibility.

It is hard to imagine that a document, which proposes the infringement on the rights of students to a yet unprecedented level, would find the approval of an organisation that claims to defend the rights of students. Yet, in another shocking revelation, the guidelines apparently won approval from both lecturers’ leaders and students – with the National Union of Students saying it had been involved in detailed discussions with Universities UK about drawing up guidance. As the Independent reports, Colum McGuire, vice-president of the NUS, said: “We fully support UUK guidance and worked with them to advise on best practice in these matters. We encourage our members to follow this to assess the risk of all speakers to determine the action they should taker to protect students and keep them safe.

Given the failure of the NUS to protect the rights of students to choose where to sit, it is to be expected that the guidelines will meet fierce opposition from both religious and non-religious students. Yet, in what seems to be an attempt to prevent students from challenging the proposed policy, the document anticipates this, and even issues specific instructions on how to deal with those who do not want segregation: “Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief.

The guidelines of Universities UK are a shocking display of what happens when religious privilege is allowed to trump other considerations of equality and basic human rights. As long as religious beliefs are “genuinely-held”, they will override any other principle that have come to be the egalitarian consensus on which interaction between genders is built in the UK.

Arguably, this is not the first time that higher education institutions and governing bodies have infringed on the rights of UK students. Yet, this appears to be hitherto most elaborate attempt to legitimise the forceful imposition of highly contested religious practices on students, ironically in the guise of a defense of freedom of expression. Should these guidelines be implemented, students could be forcibly segregated at UK universities, by the very university staff whose duty it is to protect students from extremists.

First reactions have been unequivocally dismissive of the new policy. Commenting on the case, Keith Porteous-Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “A commitment to Freedom of Expression does not extend to submitting to speakers imposing their own conditions which are, or should be, contrary to the values of the institution, such as the segregation of audiences, or the refusal to allow questions or challenges.”

Women’s rights activists like Maryam Namazie have called for action: “I would also suggest that NO speaker or audience ever agree to enter a room that is segregated. We should boycott universities that accept this guidance and the speakers that agree to speak in such situations. How do you think racial apartheid ended? Not by appeasement and certainly not by institutionalising misogyny against women.”

An open letter signed by public intellectuals and human rights activists such as A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Gita Sahgal and Polly Toynbee calls for an immediate rescindment of the guidelines. You can sign the petition here, and join the protest on December 10th.