Protests Against Religious Gender Segregation: the Issues at Stake.
Students in the UK are demonstrating against university guidelines allegedly backing gender segregation. Channel 4 News looks at what sparked the debate in the UK’s biggest universities. Channel Four.
The report explains,
Campaigners are targeting Universities UK (UUK) offices in Tavistock Square, London, after the organisation published a report last month saying universities could segregate by gender during talks from external speakers.
In the report, UUK claimed that universities faced a complex balance of promoting freedom of speech without breaking equality and discrimination laws.
The report presented some hypothetical case studies which come up on campuses, including whether a speaker from an ultra-orthodox religious group requests an audience is segregated by gender.
Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of One Law for All and Fitnah, Movement for Women’s Liberation, said: “Today, International Human Rights Day, we rally outside of the office of Universities UK to condemn their endorsement of segregation of the sexes.
“Their new guidance to universities on external speakers states that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as both men and women are segregated side by side rather than women being made to sit in the back.
“Would racial apartheid have been non-discriminatory if white and black people had been segregated in the same manner? In fact that is the very argument the apartheid regime of South Africa used when faced with criticism: separate but equal.”
In an extraordinary defence of segregation, Camillia Kahn, Head of Communications, Federation of Student Islamic Societies, argues that religious, that is Islamist practice, is fair because women are “separate but equal”.
It begins with this gobbledegook,
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 – it is a word loaded with modern history, drawing back to the belligerent injustices of the slave trade, apartheid, and the Holocaust. It blows the discussion out of proportion and acts to politicise it further. Segregation implies a hierarchy a form of discrimination which asserts the dominance of one group over another- which is a very different reality to a voluntary seating arrangement which impacts both males and females equally. Thus, the current discourse is creating new imagined problems rather than solving existing ones.
In other words, speech, critical ‘discourse’ about this practice, tries to create a reality.
The discourse surrounding this issue must change if our campuses are to continue placing student interests at the forefront, broadening their view to a more diverse perspective.
Kahn continues, by reference to the Qur’an’s recipe for gaining, “the pleasure of God” “ultimately in salvation through good deeds.”
It would be interesting to know how a “discourse” can indicate the truth of this claim about something called ‘God’.
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. The men and women’s rows in the Prophet’s mosque were separate, yet it formed the basis for a social model which empowered women to become scholars, businesswomen, military personnel and doctors.
So equal in fact that women can take as many husbands as men can take wives….
The term ‘segregation’ denotes discrimination and isolation – and this couldn’t be further from the general reality. There needs to be a linguistic shift in the discourse – but more importantly, the shift must be an ideological one which accepts that there exist differences based on sound spirituality, and these need to be embraced, led by brave and nuanced organisations such as Universities UK.
Guy Deutscher in Through the Looking Glass. Why The World Looks Different in Other Languages (2005) accepted that things may indeed take on distinct aspects in different languages. This appears to happen through the way time and space are organised in verbal morphology but in fact any language can still make the same distinctions by adding information not indicated by the conjugations of verbs.
He founds however that colour terms, spatial co-ordinates (our internal cognitive compass),and even (more debatably) grammatical gender may be part of a stratum that indeed shapes our fundamental thought by dint of the language we use.
But these are minor aspects. If some languages code information in distinct ways, and their grammar obliges people (they must) express things in such a way, all languages may refer to the same reality.
Deutscher has fun taking apart strong linguistic relativism.
One case he cites is George Orwell’s Newspeak. This aimed to make certain thoughts impossible. Deutscher comments that eliminating words might then be seen to eliminate the things.
If be banish the word poverty, hey presto, poverty is abolished!
Now what is the reality of gender segregation as practised by Islamists?
In Tunisia the attention of the Salisfists is focused precisely on this area.
KB: Could you describe the current situation and the biggest challenges for women activists and secularists now?
AG: The main subject is civil liberties and how to survive the current wave of violence against women. There is tension vis-à-vis women in terms of their clothes, their life-style, etc. For example, swimming in Ramadan causes problems now for some women. It is a new phenomenon in Tunisia – this new relationship with the body and the feeling that in the public sphere you are not free. There are others who are using violence in order to “correct” the behavior of women. It is not possible any more for women activists to travel around the country on their own at night or to go to rural areas, especially to some areas where fundamentalists impose their rule, such as rural areas near Bizerte where there is reported to be Salafist controlled territory or “Imara Salafya”. Tunisia is not the same as it was two years ago. We do not have the same freedom of movement
Perhaps Camillia Khan would care to comment on these “syntagmatic relations”.
Yasmin Alibhai Brown, fighting for democracy, and equality, restores the reputation of the liberal Islam that Khan besmirches.
Glory to those fighting Religious Segregation!
More background from Shiraz Socialist.