My partner and I were once travelling on the eastern side of Turkey. That is noticeably more conservative than the western side, and we followed the Lonely Planet’s advice. He changed his shorts for trousers and I put on a long skirt. On mini-buses if there was a spare seat next to me and a man got on he would not sit next to me, so my partner and I would swap seats If a woman came on, it was vice versa. We were trying our best to be culturally sensitive, and though we found this particular custom absurd, there’s plenty to admire about the people in eastern Turkey.
Note, though, how inconvenient it was. The bloke who got on looked tired, and had probably been working all day in the fields. But a cultural practice prevented him from taking a little ease for half an hour. Also, countries where women are segregated usually mean the women stay at home. These are not just Muslim countries. When a woman friend and I travelled around Greece in about 1979 it looked like a virus had wiped out the female population. The corollary of the local women being kept apart is that we visiting women were harassed constantly. It was a relief to get back to Britain and be treated as a normal human being.
This is working up to segregation at universities which has made big news recently.
Over at Loonwatch, an Islamophobia watch site, they are puzzled that people should get so upset about men and women being segregated at meetings at universities that they, the complainers, are very unlikely to attend. They also think it’s hypocritical, given the amount of gender segregation there is in our society.
Of course our society has a fair amount of informal segregation. Hen parties (which are yukky from other points of view) and stag parties for instance. However, the woman who goes on a girls’ night out or to a women’s networking event would be appalled to be segregated at a public meeting. It was the formal connivance of the UUK to segregation that made everyone so angry.
There are times when a woman is a female body. In a changing room, in a toilet, in a hospital ward, giving birth, flirting at a party wearing a low-cut dress and having sex. But that at a meeting she should be regarded as a female body rather than another citizen, another listener, questioner, point-putter or heckler is insulting to every suffragette and every feminist who fought for women’s equal rights in the public sphere.
Here are some of the arguments set out by Tehmina Kazi, the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. The full piece is here.
Aspects of the gender segregation debate that have annoyed and perplexed me
Denial that gender segregation even exists in universities.
Downplaying of the discrimination and shoddy treatment faced by women who have experienced it, which goes back many years.
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.
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.
. . .
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?
[An old feminist recognises "I've always got on very well with men. as an argument for anti-feminism.]
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?
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%).
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). [See above for my point on the informal and formal.]
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?
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).
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.”
This issue will come up again in another guise, and again will have to be slapped down. It is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.