Tendance Coatesy

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Protests Against Religious Gender Segregation: the Issues at Stake.

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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.

It explains,

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….

Her conclusion?

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.

Tunisia’s fight against fundamentalism: an interview with Amel Grami


KBCould 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   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.

Written by Andrew Coates

December 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm

12 Responses

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  1. This whole business is a ridiculous storm in a teacup, though. If there is an issue at a university event where a part of the audience wishes to be segregated and part does not (e.g. a debate between some ultra-hardline Muslim and someone else), then the simple solution is three blocks of seats: ultra-pious men one side, ultra-pious women the other, normal people in the middle. Sorted.


    December 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  2. “Words cannot fully describe what I feel today,” said Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, a feminist group. “Rage, indignation and sorrow are just some that spring to mind.” And she went on to say “that the assertion of religious political power obliterates the very ideas of liberty and equality that so many people lived for and died for”.

    ‘Separate but equal’ is not equal at all was the message being spread by protesters. And of course it isn’t. By pursuing the appeasement of these religious fundamentalists anyone is right to question where this might end? ” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10510284/Gender-apartheid-segregation-is-real-in-UK-universities.-So-why-arent-more-people-fighting-it.html

    Andrew Coates

    December 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm

  3. I find it telling that religious obscurantists have adopted the language of modern-day political obfuscation — ’empowerment’, ‘diversity’ and so on.

    Dr Paul

    December 11, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  4. Many of these words are used in manager-speak as well….

    Andrew Coates

    December 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm

  5. “Many of these words are used in manager-speak as well….”

    That’s right. The corporation I work for uses them. I should say it uses them when promoting quite reasonable activities, but it is a new kind of piety-speak. As for “empowerment” – I read something in yesterday’s Metro that working as a Playboy bunny was “empowering”. By “empowering” it meant being “chosen for your looks to make quite good money”. At the same time it stressed that the women so empowered were multi-lingual, had PhDs, were starting businesses. So you couldn’t just be empowered by the looks and the money – you had to show you were worthwhile by other stuff as well. When the woman gets a top translator’s job by being multi-lingual, she won’t talk about feeling “empowered”, she will just have a good job. .

    @ Francis – if a debate can only take place in front of a segregated audience, the debater who demands such conditions should be told to fuck off. If they’re so keen to get their message across, they can do the compromising.


    December 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm

  6. Rosie – as for a debater attempting to dictate terms – agreed, If *some* of an audience wish to segregate *themselves*, then they can move chairs about if that’s their pleasure. Why should we care? If they want to insist that the *rest* of the audience segregates itself, again that’s out of order.

    But – what is the scale of this “problem”? How many times have students who *wished* to sit in a mixed group been *obliged* to segregate? And has this ever happened outside of events organised by university Islamic Societies, which students are completely free to avoid like the plague?


    December 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

  7. The word ’empowerment’ means to me some illusion of being in control of one’s destiny, or to influence it, through one’s being granted the ability to make a trivial choice or two, whilst power stays resolutely with those up top.

    The word ‘diversity’ means to me the ability of every obscurantist to defend his (and occasionally, as in this case, her) right to be an obscurantist without my having the right to reject either the theoretical basis of these views or the practical consequences of them, on the grounds of their ‘cultural’ or religious basis, whilst at the same time maintaining the right on the obscurantist’s part to reject my views.

    This is not what those words should mean, but these definitions show what they have come to mean, at least to me.

    Dr Paul

    December 11, 2013 at 7:36 pm

  8. i seem to recall there was a lot of fuss about women only caucuses, meetings etc on campuses in the 1970s. In general the far left used to defend them back then, but consistency has never been the far left’s strongest feature and i have no doubt i will be informed of the enormous differences involved here.

    holy joe

    December 11, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    • At the rally, Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, said:
      For me, today is a particularly emotional moment. I stand here reminded of the heroic struggle waged against racial apartheid in South Africa, and yet find myself protesting against another form of apartheid that is also being justified with reference to that ubiquitous but flawed logic ‘separate but equal’. Who would have thought that in the 21st century, we would be protesting against policies adopted by institutions that should be in the business of producing and nurturing truth and knowledge, but which are instead endorsing the subjugation of one half of the human race? Who would have thought that in the 21st century, gender apartheid would become the new battleground?
      Writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said:
      UUK backs gender segregation and defends it. The reasons given- choice, human rights, freedom and the law- are all untested and spurious. This ‘advice’ is based on cowardice and proves collusion with fanatical religionists. Gender parity is non negotiable. UUK is unfit for purpose if it cannot understand that basic, fundamental value.
      Comedian Kate Smurthwaite said:
      The word equality has only one meaning. It’s not the back of the bus and it’s not the side of the lecture theatre. This is not about telling women who want to sit separately that they can’t. This is about allowing external speakers to demand that the audience be segregated.
      James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, said:
      Opposition to gender segregation is an issue of fundamental freedom: people should be permitted to sit with who they like in a publicly funded university. It’s also a question of politics, though: we shouldn’t pretend that those who wish to segregate men and women view us as equals. They don’t. They think women are little more than a temptation to men; and they view men as uncontrollable predators whose view of women is on a par with that of uncovered meat.
      Chris Moos added:
      With alleging that “genuinely held beliefs” of speakers or event organisers trump existing equality legislation and allow some groups to take away the basic right of people to choose where to sit, Universities UK has become the laughing stock of the legal profession.Universities should be spaces where we all are treated equally no matter what their beliefs are. By proposing a framework that would allow a small minority of religious fundamentalists, who do not represent religion or religious people to impose their beliefs on others, Universities UK has set a dangerous precedent that would lead to students to be singled out and refused access to certain areas of their institutions merely on the basis of their gender. The right of individuals to express themselves freely within the law does not extend to the right of groups to impose their sensibilities or preferred seating order on others.
      Marieme Helie Lucas, founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Secularism is a Women’s Issue sent a solidarity message saying:
      By bending to the Muslim Far-Right’s supposedly-religious diktats of segregating sexes on university premises, UUK also endangers further the women and men of Muslim descent – believers and unbelievers alike – who stand both against fundamentalism and against xenophobia and discrimination, in increasingly difficult circumstances.
      In another message of solidarity, Human Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell said:
      The people who approved this policy are unfit to hold any public office – and should resign. Universities once pioneered the Enlightenment and liberal, progressive values. Now, it seems, they appease misogyny and cave in to religious sexism and intolerance. The right of women and men to sit where they like is not negotiable… Universities have a moral and legal duty to uphold equality and respect for all. If they don’t, we will fight them, just like the Suffragettes fought male chauvinism 100 years ago.
      Maryam Namazie, co-organiser of the protest and Spokesperson for Fitnah and One Law for All ended by saying:
      We will continue the fine tradition of the anti-apartheid movement and Nelson Mandela but also the ongoing resistance of the people of Iran and elsewhere against gender apartheid by breaking up segregation wherever we can. We are the new sex apartheid busters and will go to segregated meetings at universities with women dressed as men (like Iranian women who dress as men to enter football stadiums where women are banned) or as men dressed in drag (like the men who did so to support women’s rights after the Islamic regime in Iran paraded some men in the streets of Iranian Kurdistan wearing women’s clothing because according to them being a woman is the greatest source of humiliation).
      UUK and Islamists: you have been warned! Gender segregation is as intolerable as racial segregation and cannot be permitted at our universities.


      Andrew Coates

      December 12, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  9. The Suffolk People’s Assembly mailing list appears to have been hacked by somebody pursuing their own agenda:

    To: Suffolk Peoples Assembly

    The National Campaign against Gender Segregation have called a demonstration outside Roedean Girls School in Sussex on Saturday 21st of December.

    This segregated Girls Boarding school charges between £6,3000 for day girls and £10,870 for full boarders.

    Daughters of the Clergy are eligible for bursary funding, starting at an equivalent to a 20% reduction on day fees, with higher remission available, depending on parental means.

    The Daughters of those serving in the Military are also eligible for a 20% reduction.

    Alumni of this gender-segregated, ruling class brainwashing institution include :-

    Ursula Violet Graham Bower, who conducted a guerilla struggle against Japanese troops in Burma in World War 2.
    Jillian Becker an expert on terrorism and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, who has served in a working group to advise the British Parliament on measures to combat international terrorism
    Adèle Geras , writer and wife of Marxist academic Norman Geras.

    Assemble outside Roedean School
    Roedean Way
    BN2 5RQ
    1.30 pm

    Supported by NCGS, WLM Euston, Sussex Freedom Association, BrightonTelegraph readers group.

    Against Austerity! For a Living Wage!
    Defend the NHS! Defend Education!”

    Andrew Coates

    December 12, 2013 at 11:06 am

  10. Reasons why things are different today – Tunisia is not far away, and the Salafists exist in the UK:

    “A group of Salafists tried to have an appointment with the Dean. They demanded a prayer room on campus, segregation between men and women, and that female professors only teach female students. Within two months, the campus was under the control of the Salafists. We were kicked off our own campus and they were inside playing football. It was reported that some even engaged in sex with their partners, whom they married according to customary laws. One female sit-inner was taken to hospital when on hunger strike and was found to be pregnant. The authorities refused to intervene because, they argued, it was an ideological debate. The son of Ali Larayedh (the then Minister of the Interior from Ennahda) was there with the Salafist activists.

    KB: What was the response of the students?

    AG: It took time for them to become aware about the real project of the Salafist groups, and about what it would mean if Manouba fell under their control, which would mean that all the universities would be. What happened here was a test, and our resistance was also a message for the other faculties about what is at stake: our future and our academic freedom. It is our role as professors to defend the future of education. It all came to a head on March 7, 2012, when the Salafists lowered the Tunisian flag over the university and raised their own black flag.

    KB: When this occurred, it turned the Tunisian population decisively against the Salafist occupiers. In what became an iconic gesture, a woman student defied the Salafists, climbed on the roof and put the national flag back up. The occupiers lost at Manouba, despite the utter failure of the authorities to intervene to stop them. However, the university community had already suffered months of harm. Can you describe what that time was like for you and your colleagues?

    AG: There were repeated acts of violence against professors. For example, they used a knife on one colleague to try to force her to accept students wearing the niqab.

    KB: Habib Mellakh writes that the Salafist occupiers warned that damnation and hell would be the fate of women students who “go naked” – which in the Salafist lexicon is a synonym for showing one’s face. They particularly targeted women, it seems.

    AG: Yes. I myself was surrounded by a group of students and their supporters and told to “dégage” – get out – (the anti-Ben Ali slogan of the 2011 revolution). It hurts, these groups of students considering that you are evil, you are “Aytem França”- the orphans of France, that you are representing the West. I cannot forget this event. Some of them used the threat of rape against me. I spent my life teaching values, and I am a member of many groups for interfaith dialogue. My whole project is the right to be different and the philosophy of differences in terms of race, class, gender, religion. Then, finally, I found myself the other. And, after the revolution no less.

    KB: Can you explain the heroic role of Dean Habib Kazdaghli in successfully resisting the Salafist take over?

    AG: He spent months organizing demonstrations, press conferences, petitions, calling on civil society and intellectuals to support us, with the help of journalists and opposition politicians. It was not easy. It was another form of struggle. Despite what we did, and the fact that we took back our campus, the struggle for academic freedom in Tunisia continues. Just this month, there was an incident at Jendouba University in northwest Tunisia, near Algeria. Groups of Salafists – most from outside the university – blockaded it to protest the punishment of some Salafist students who violated the law, and they managed to stop all classes. Exams could not be held, and the students risked losing the entire year as a result. There was no intervention from the police. So, we are in a critical period. The Salafists believe they are above the law and operate in impunity. This view was strengthened by the fact that those who attacked the U.S. embassy (on September 14, 2012 during the furor over the film “The Innocence of Muslims”) got a six month suspended sentence – they were not punished.”

    Andrew Coates

    December 12, 2013 at 11:08 am

  11. There is, I feel, quite a difference between the call for women-only or gay or black or Asian groups and caucuses in unions and what the Islamists are demanding today.

    These caucuses were largely because those concerned felt that labour-movement organisations were not taking up such matters as sexual discrimination, racism and other related matters in a serious enough manner, or were even ignoring them. Such caucuses were therefore aimed at reforming working-class organisations in such a way that they would take up matters of discrimination and hopefully get those not suffering from the various discrimination to do so.

    They were therefore a means to overcome problems of discrimination. One might question their effectiveness, and one can also point to the dangers of their implicitly giving support to separatist ideas, but all in all they were aimed at promoting equality: that women, gays, blacks, etc, etc, had the right to participate fully and equally with men, straights, whites, etc, etc, in all areas of society.

    Islamist ideas of separation, however, are an attempt to reinforce gender roles, to widen the gaps that have been to various degrees narrowed, and even to establish new divisions between men and women. All the blather above by Ms Khan about Islamic gender separation being ‘the basis for a social model which empowered women to become scholars, businesswomen, military personnel and doctors’ — whether this was actually the case in classic Islamic societies (it certainly isn’t today; compare the situation in Kabul pre-1980 Kabul or pre-1993 Iraq with now) — merely serves to hide the fact that religious obscurantism, of whatever kind, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, etc, aims at turn back the historical clock.

    Dr Paul

    December 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm

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