As the grand-daughter of a woman who went to university in 1914 to study medicine (yes, she did become a doctor and a very good one, too), I feel very strongly on the subject and ought to have written about it before. (Not sure where the last few weeks went but blogging has been sparse with little else to show for it.)
For the moment I am going to take what might look a lazy way out and publish somebody else's thoughts on the subject. Tehmina Kazi (full disclosure: she is a friend and has agreed to my publishing her piece) is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Here is her summary of the arguments:
Aspects of the gender segregation debate that have annoyed and perplexed me
1. Denial that gender segregation even exists in universities.
2. Downplaying of the discrimination and shoddy treatment faced by women who have experienced it, which goes back many years.
3. Those who are unable to see why it is problematic for a public body like Universities UK to prioritise the whims of external speakers over university public sector equality duties, and THE SPIRIT of equalities law.
4. No-one has given me a GOOD reason as to WHY gender segregation it is practiced in the first place, in either civic or theological terms. "Because we've done it for years..." does NOT count.
5. When I ask how gay, lesbian, transsexual and intersex people can fit into gender segregated environments, many people seem to assume they can sit where they like - and are able to exercise this in reality. This completely ignores the power dynamics at play here... Who could forget the case of trans Muslim convert Lucy Vallender, whose local mosque told her she was not allowed to pray alongside women? As Kate Maltby wrote for the Spectator: "Basing your very seating arrangements on the belief that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are the fundamental categories of human existence is deeply discriminatory to transgender or intersex students – these fenced-off areas offend by their very presence, even if mixed seating areas are also available." Further, how many of these mixed seating areas are, in practice, for married couples only?
5. Women who turn around and say, "But I've never had a problem with being segregated." Fair enough, but where is the empathy for people who HAVE suffered as a result?
6. The endless comparisons with toilets. Since when did the privacy issues of taking a dump compare to those of engaging one's brain and listening to a speaker as part of an audience?
7. The endless comparisons with single-sex educational establishments, which people actively CHOOSE to attend. Even if the choice was made for them by their parents, you'd think they would be able to enjoy such freedom of choice themselves at the age of 18, SHOULD they decide to attend university. What people effectively have NO choice over is attending a public event at a MIXED university - either as a guest or student - where the arrangements inhibit them from sitting or entering alongside the opposite gender.
(As for the single-sex colleges at Cambridge University, they were originally set up to help redress the gender imbalance in higher education. As I understand it, at least one of the Cambridge colleges in question intends to become co-educational when the proportion of women at Cambridge reaches 50%).
8. The automatic willingness to believe opportunists who have SMEARED activists who peacefully protested against segregation at the UCL event in March 2013 (which triggered the Universities UK guidance in the first place). One of these activists is a good friend who has gone through quite substantial hardship to raise money for orphans in a MUSLIM-MAJORITY country, no less.
9. Confusion over the distinction between discretionary segregation (where people randomly sit where they wish, perhaps in same-sex clusters) and organised segregation (which is either enforced by the event organisers, or requested by the student societies in question).
10. Complaints that the issue is receiving disproportionate public attention NOW. Where were these complainants when women's rights activists were raising these issues within the community for YEARS? Keeping schtum and not upsetting the apple cart, yes?
11. Complaints that those who raise this issue MUST have an Islamophobic agenda, when many of them are actually Muslims whose concerns have been brushed aside for years. (As an aside, many of these same Muslim activists have ALSO done a lot to challenge GENUINE anti-Muslim sentiment).
12. Assumptions that those who campaign against gender segregation in university events MUST also automatically oppose it in congregational prayers. This is not about acts of worship, as Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive Mark Hammond made clear: “Universities can also provide facilities for religious meetings and associations based on faith, as in the rest of society. Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it. However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission's view, permissible to segregate by gender."
Some of these points I find more important than others but all of them are worth thinking about. I suspect I shall be returning to the subject in future blogs.