If you are unclear of the ongoing gender segregation debate then here's all you need to know! It’s been in the press a lot recently - if you’ve missed it, here’s how the gender segregation debate has panned out so far.

The issue arose earlier this year when events at universities were staged with separate seating for men and women. For example, in March, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) held a public debate - Islam or Atheism: what makes more sense? - at UCL (incidentally the first university in England to admit students regardless of their religion and to admit men and women on equal terms.) The audience was segregated, and those who objected were ordered to leave. One speaker, US scientist Lawrence Krauss, walked out and returned only when integration was permitted. The IERA was subsequently banned with an IERA spokesman accusing UCL of extremist Islamophic action. 

The issue, now dubbed as “gender apartheid,” led to the publication by Universities UK (UUK), the voice of UK universities representing more than 130 higher education institutions, of guidance on external speakers at university. Controversially, using a hypothetical case study involving an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith, they bizarrely suggested that if the speaker requested segregated seating areas then this was permissible, as neither men nor women were “disadvantaged”. Their reasoning was that “imposing unsegregated seating” could “contravene the genuinely held religious beliefs of the speaker,” therefore leading to the “unlawful curtailing” of “freedom of speech.” 

However, this guidance didn’t go down as well as hoped, I think, for two reasons. Firstly, UUK has effectively decided that institutions’ duties under law, not to bar anyone on the grounds of their beliefs or views (the Education Act) outweighs other duties under law to help eliminate unlawful discrimination, and advance equality of opportunity between men and women (the Equality Act). 

Secondly, the free speech concern is a red herring. No speaker is prevented from speaking just because the audience isn’t arranged to their preference, it’s a rule they’ve imposed on themselves. Students can choose to stay or leave if they are asked to sit with their own gender, and if all the audience leaves, the speaker can still deliver his lecture to an empty auditorium. However, there is an issue with what constitutes choice, a voluntary decision to sit with those of your own gender, or the necessity of having to sit with your own gender. 

Last week, David Cameron told UUK to urgently reevaluate their position on gender segregation leading to the withdrawal of their guidance. Quick to note that their guidance is, in fact, guidance, and not prescriptive, they’ve now reevaluated this, with the help of Fenella Morris QC, and a statement issued on 12th December. This advice “confirms that the guidance is correct and provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making.” The press release also notes that “in adjudicating between conflicting priorities in relation to gender and religion, institutions have to balance a range of competing interests and strike a fair balance between them having regard to all the individual circumstances of each case.”

This debacle reveals a profound concern about interpretations of Islam that conflict a modern civil liberties agenda with political correctness, sensitivity to the charges of Islamophobia and commercial considerations restricting discussions about what should and shouldn’t be untouchable in British society.

Sarah Khan responds with a brilliant piece in The Independent. She suggests that the “segregated yet equal” view is highly erroneous (just like blacks and whites sitting on buses “segregated yet equal.”) Although unmentioned by UUK, the issue is, unfortunately, with Islamic societies at university. These societies promote an unequal distribution of power between men and women, resulting in gender-based discrimination. This segregation “perpetuates discriminatory social norms and practices, shaping male attitudes about women and restricting the decisions and choices of women” with UUK “complicit in the gender inequality” as their advice “will only make it treat socially unequal groups...even more unequally”.

Khan also refers to the “freedom to speech” view held by UUK proposing that those who believe in segregation - and, in the hands of UUK protected by their freedom of speech - are the same people as those who believe that women are inferior and therefore not “segregated yet equal.” For example, Preacher Haitham al Haddad, who has spoken in front of approximately twenty Islamic societies in the last 2 years, agues that “women should withdraw from public life, hoping to disempower them by denying them their economic self-determination and to silence them through invisibility.” However, in the interests of freedom of speech it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a time when we can invite speakers with opposing views. 

She, furthermore, questions UUK’s position; why would they recognise and promote the religious belief of those who do advocate gender segregation as opposed to those Muslims whose religious belief is the opposite?

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of UUK, advanced her position on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Thursday, and her arguments annoyed me profusely. She repeatedly pointed out that segregation is voluntary and that “if the university decided that there was pressure being put on women [to sit in a certain place], it wouldn’t let this event go ahead.” She suggests that gender segregation is “totally different” to race or religion or sexuality, and that divisions by gender are something “not alien to our culture”. She says that hypothetically comparing gender segregation to sexuality segregation is completed different as it has “never happened” and she “can’t believe that the participants, heterosexual or homosexual, would say they’d want to segregate in that way.” But as the commentator said, it would be possible, and there would be plenty of people in the UK who may want to segregate along those lines.

For me, this is the issue. The issue is over the voluntary nature of segregation. Khan points out that often Muslims oppose gender segregation, and are pressured, forced, into acting in a certain way. Orwell’s 1984 talks of doublespeak where language disguises the nature of truth and inverts meaning. Through propaganda the boundary of what is acceptable shifts as does the “norm.” People who oppose segregation may currently comply, but in future generations, this compliance will be forgotten and everyday segregation, and hence inequality, will become the “norm.”