(Jim has already written on this below, but I want to add my piece.)
Well, can you believe it?. An illiberal piece of policy is advanced by a powerful body, against it comes a petition, a demonstration, media shouting and then the policy is withdrawn. Amazing.
To recap, Universities UK, (UUK) (formerly The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom) put out guidelines that allowed speakers at meetings in universities to insist women and men be segregated for “genuinely religious” reasons. Student Rights picked this up. The bloggers you’d expect – Maryam Nazie, Ophelia Benson, James Bloodworth produced angry posts. The mainstream media moved in – Nick Cohen in the Spectator, and Yasmin Alibai-Brown, finely furious, in The Independent.
Imagine the scenario:-
Sheikh Shifty is invited by some ISOC group to speak about Freedom and Justice at the University of Excellence. Sheikh Shifty will only speak if the women sit separate from the men.
Obvious answer – tell the misogynist theocrat to take a hike, in these words,
“I am sorry to inform you that it is against the principles of the University to allow meetings to occur with gender segregation.”
But not in the UUK’s horrible management speak:- .
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
There was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered at length.
Then the BBC began to thunder. The Today programme (1:35) on 11th December had a long piece which started with the reporter regretting his old LSE, the one in the 1980s where students were raucous but not so ready to be offended, or offended on the behalf of putative others.
The next day the BBC got Nicola Dandridge, the Chief Executive of UUK, into the Today (2:10) studio. Regular Today listeners recognised the tones with which Justin Webb interrogated her. It’s the one which they use on a duplicitous politician who has no moral leg to stand on - who has, say, been fiddling her expenses. It’s the voice of outraged decency against a moral moron and it was music to my ears, an angry liberal telling off a squirming piece of inconsistency and illogic. (For a biting take down of Dandridge’s muddled defence, I would strongly recommend this.)
“If this is all that Dandridge means – that people have the right to sit where the hell they want and some will sit cliquishly by gender or other groupings, there is no role for Universities and no reason why the situation should ever be addressed in policy.
Worse, “If women want to sit where the hell the want”? IF? What is this world in which you live where women routinely have no desires and sit where they are told without a single thought disrupting the gentle currents of air between their ears?
All women always sit where they want unless coerced or forced. The fact that you can’t acknowledge this openly, that women naturally have desires and preferences, that we make conscious choices here-there-and-everywhere, speaks to a profound sexism whose paucity of respect for a woman’s mind truly challenges the ability of words to express. I can only repeat your own phrase:
If women want to sit where the hell they want
and goggle at your idea that you will only impose segregation in times and places where women have no preferences.
The politicians - Chuka Umunna , Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron spoke out. Under the threads of their statements in the Guardian commenters were saying, Bugger me, the horrible Tory creeps are right this time. I’d normally be spitting that politicians were interfering in University affairs – they really shouldn’t, you know – but I’m cheering them. If the representative body of the Vice Chancellors and Principals are so bloody clueless, and the NUS are so supine, they need to be kicked.
I think a lot of the response has been visceral. The suffragettes weren’t force fed for this, the women who fought a grinding battle to get entry into English universities shouldn’t be pissed on
So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segreation from its guidelines. It looks like the forces of light have won for once.
Congratulations to those who attended protests and wrote copiously. If only every campaign could be so successful. But what a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time and anger-fuelled action.
Flesh is Grass has a sane, thoughtful piece:-
Women always miss out when public spaces are segregated by leaders and organisers – even if voluntary, it’s a small change in culture, in the general view of what is acceptable. Authoritarians always use the values of open, pluralist societies against those societies themselves, and weaken them incrementally. Let’s stop this.
She also pointed out that feminists like Caroline Lucas, MP, Green Party and Natalie Bennett, Leader, Green Party did not speak out. I read that Caroline Lucas had said it wasn’t a priority. Also there hasn’t been a peep out of that clutch of feminist writers in The Staggers. Polly Toynbee, one of the old-guard Guardian, undid the miserable expectations we now have of her paper, by sticking to her old feminism and atheism. At least they didn’t publish any of their usual apologetics on these matters. The Observer has an editorial and a good piece by Catherine Bennett.
On the other side:-
Well, one is an article which looks like parody in the Huff Po by Camilla Khan, the Head of Communications,(!) Federation of Student Islamic Societies, who tries to wrap this up in a mixture of post-modernism and spirituality. She has managed to use every con-trick word – those words that irritate like berry bugs in a bra cup – “discourse”, “empower”, “nuanced” and “diversity, “
Firstly, the term segregation itself is highly problematic and acts to conflate the reality further. As Saussure theorised on syntagmatic relations, ‘within speech, words are subject to a kind of relation that is independent of the first and based on their linkage,’ and segregation connotes various forms of separation and oppression.
The problem is calling segregation, segregation. If you called it something else it would be fine. Telling Molly when she walks into a room that she can’t sit here because she’s a woman, isn’t segregation, just nuanced diverse empowerment.
Tendance Coatesey has a bit of fun with Khan’s linguistic studies – Saussure is old hat, I understand – but she really should read a bit of Orwell, and note that calling mass murder “liqudation of anti-social elements” doesn’t stop it being mass murder. But whoever has influenced her writing style, it wasn’t Orwell.
Her other con-trick is that very old anti-feminist ploy, that women taking a different (and different will mean inferior) place is a path to spirituality. So the anti-suffragists said that women agitating to take part in public life spoiled their purifying influence and their moral specialness. They were meant for a higher destiny.
As with life, Islam acknowledges that we form different groups who occupy various intellectual and social spaces. Diversity is celebrated with spirituality at the forefront, forming a broad frame of reference which is not always easily comprehensible to those outside of it.
No, I can’t comprehend how her spirituality is so much compromised when she takes a bus, goes to the cinema or sits in her cultural studies class. What about the diversity of those women who don’t want to be herded with other women, and men also. Is that celebrated? (Add “celebrate” with abstract nouns to my list of berry bug words). I think the “diversity” is a pretty damned narrow one.
Second is Shohana Khan. Khan is a member of Hitz ut-Tahrir, the fighters for a Caliphate where apostates will be killed.
Her argument boils down to:- Men and women must be separated because otherwise they will get sex on the brain and not be able to do something.
Rather the concept of separating men and women in public spaces in Islam, is part of a wider objective. Islam has a societal view that the intimate relationship between a man and a woman is for the committed private sphere of marriage, and should not be allowed to spill outside of this sphere. This is because in society, men and women need to cooperate to achieve things in society whether in the work place, in education, in interactions across the public space. Islam firmly believes if the sexual instinct is let loose in this public sphere, it can taint and complicate these relationships. Therefore Islam promotes ideas such as honouring women which are upheld in society, but alongside such ideas specific rules and laws are implemented to help maintain the atmosphere of healthy interaction between the sexes.
And if the woman breaks these rules, eg by not covering her head she’s fair game is she?
I think it has been observed that public school boys for instance, especially in times past, had a highly unhealthy attitude towards women because they weren’t used to them as normal human beings. So you’re talking garbage – and rather prurient garbage at that. Islamists are as sex obsessed as Hugh Hefner.
Now I won’t say I haven’t been at a public meeting and thought a chap in the audience was rather a dish. In fact, political meetings at universities is where many of us met our soulmates – that person who was highly vocal about the need to oppose nuclear proliferation and had lovely grey eyes. The partnerships of couples who fell in love with the shared ideals and the person can be highly productive. The Pankhursts were one such couple. Jennie Lee and Nye Bevan were another. So I can’t deny there is a sexual element at public meetings, as there is in the offices where we work.
But that it should dominate someone’s mind so much that it screws up their ability to act! What’s wrong with them? Knowing how to behave in public is part of growing up, as is concentrating on the matter at hand. The only people offering distractions who should be segregated are those twerps with buzzing mobile phones.
So a victory this time round. End with Any Questions (:38). Shami Chakrabati took what has been a common attitude – why on earth are we even talking about this?
Johnathan Dimbleby: Is there justification for segregation in an educational setting?
Amjad Bashir (small business spokesman for UKIP, Pakistani immigrant, from Bradford): No. The answer is no. Absolutely not. . . All through my life, and my children, my grand children are all mixing, all sexes, whether it’s primary schools, whether it’s secondary schools. whether it’s universities. There is no room. This is England This is the twenty first century. It’s not Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, It’s not Saudi Arabia, where they are not allowed to have bank accounts. This is England. We should allow our youngsters to mix and decide their own future. This is the twenty first century. I am against this segregation.