In November 2013 Universities UK, the organisation which represents university managements, published guidelines which said it could be discriminatory (undermining of free speech) for universities not to allow segregation by gender in meetings if external speakers wanted that arrangement. The ruling has been backed by the National Union of Students.
Under pressure, Universities UK withdrew the guidelines on 13 December.
The ruling said steps 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”.
The fact that university bosses think that gender segregation is unimportant enough to bargain with in this way is both outrageous and instructive. What’s going on? It is obvious that “the establishment” (of which universities are a central part) want to privilege the practices of religious organisations. In this case they are most concerned about Muslim groups and/or the demands of particular speakers; this is the way they chose to “clarify” and justify a situation which is already going on.
Who knows how the law works here or what the outcome would be if it was tested in court? The ruling is, in principle, wrong.
Whether men and women of religious faith chose segregated seating is beside the point. They are completely free to sit, stand or move around in any way they like in private and/or religious spaces.
But the lecture hall of a university is neither a private nor a religious space.
There is an awful lot of voluntary sex segregation in society. We fight it, but how we fight it will vary. I don’t like the fact that my daughter attends a single-sex school. That was her choice, however, and it was right to let her choose. But if there had been only single sex schools available in our area I would have been duty-bound to fight that situation.
The voluntary religious/cultural practice of women and men that involves sex segregation cannot be opposed by ostentatious “we know better”-ness; we can’t set up a gender police which marches into mosques, synagogues, or orthodox churches to re-organise the seating arrangements.
But we can demand that universities, as public institutions, consistently oppose gender inequality. As sex segregation is, in all societies, the structural underpinning of gender inequality, it is important that universities set very clear boundaries against sex segregation.
In some parts of most religions, the ideology that justifies sex segregation is very rigid — more so, often, than that which underlies other social divisions on sex lines. A university should not be part of the legitimation of fierce absolutes — that men and women are fundamentally different, that gender roles should never be transgressed.
As many people have pointed out, if it were a matter of segregating along racial lines there would justifiably be an enormous outcry. It is because sex segregation and gender inequality are so pervasive, seemingly so intrinsic and “natural” to human culture, that they are often tolerated.
If sex segregation were to be tolerated in this or that public meeting just because an outside speaker insists that it is so, it could set a precedent for other many other different kinds of meetings where individuals in the audiences try to insist that it become a rule, a compulsory segregation — in the student union, in lectures and so on.
This ruling should be reversed!