Segregation in Universities


The debate over the guidance issued by Universities UK about what to do in the case of a request to a university for audience gender segregation on behalf of religious guest speakers has ignited spectacularly in recent days. The arguments seem to be becoming more shrill and tendentious all the time. Even the Prime Minister has now waded in with his views.

In its guidance, UUK suggested consideration be made of freedom of speech obligations as well as discrimination and equality laws when considering such requests - neglecting to say how the presumed speaker’s freedom of speech would be infringed by having a mixed audience: would he be struck dumb by the sight of females or tongue-tied with embarrassment? It concluded that ‘if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request’. Mr Cameron administered a verbal slapped wrist to Universities UK: ‘they shouldn’t say that’, he opined to Channel 4 News.

The whole business is starting to sound like one of those well meant but hapless liberal fudges which draws attention to the perceived cultural faultlines thrown up by multiculturalism, thereby giving further ammunition to its opponents. The argument goes that religion belongs in the private sphere and universities are public spaces of freedom and debate (unless you happen to be a University of London student wishing to protest against the imposed closure of your student union just recently, in which case you will be visited with the full force, judicial and physical, of the law). UUK tried to explain the need for advice to its members saying, ‘where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear’: a statement of fact, perhaps, but one which neglects to ask who is doing the volunteering and how we can tell just how ‘voluntary’ their acquiescence actually is.

To some it may seem that the whole debate has an air of unreality about it, given that the case study upon which the recommendation depends is entirely hypothetical: no such request has been forthcoming from any quarter. Not to be deterred by mere trifling facts, however, politicians of all hues have now waded into the debate, with Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable asking UUK to clarify its position, and his opposite number for Labour, Chukku Ummuna, spluttering furiously in a bid to look even tougher: ‘I was horrified by what I heard... Let me be absolutely clear. A future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities. It offends basic norms in our society. Of course people should be free to practise their religion privately in places of worship and at religious events but universities are publicly funded places of research, learning and teaching and as such there is no place, in my view, for state-sponsored segregation." (Single-sex schools sit up and pay attention!)

Debating something that has not yet happened may be viewed as simply appropriate preparedness. Yet in this instance, the heat generated by a minor intervention which would most likely have been ignored by universities anyway, who tend to operate on the most ad hoc of bases at the best of times, tells us something else, as does Ummuna’s rather splenetic response. That is: this is another of those issues in which the likely miscreants will be Muslim. Ummuna’s call to ‘the norms of our society’, make clear that the threat that someone will ask for segregation comes primarily from those who do not share our values, who have not sufficiently integrated, and we all know who they are.

The controversy has seen the unfortunate Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK performing rhetorical cartwheels to insist that the advice is reasoned but that she agrees entirely with politicians who oppose segregation. UUK has now written to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission asking it to provide a steer and, if necessary, to have the matter clarified in the High Court.

So, something that has not happened is to be adjudicated upon for all the world as if it had. This rather ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ scenario does, however, have a precedent in the hysteria around perceived or likely ‘Muslim practices’ when, not so long ago, ministers in Iceland discussed the possibility of banning the burqa despite the fact that no one could be found in the country who actually wore one!

The concern that alien practices may infect our culture, diluting the right to free and equal assembly is couched in the same terms as that other running sore, the debate over veiling. Taken alongside recent controversies where that public/private divide appears under threat – such as the Al Madinah school fiasco – this latest affair serves forcibly to illustrate the distrust with which collective Muslim forays into the public arena are viewed. Where religious identity of a certain kind might seek to assert itself, our guardians are pre-emptively vigilant. The larger concern is about the radicalisation of student Islamic Societies and the kinds of speaker they might invite. This view takes no account of the complexity of debate about this and any other issue within Muslim societies themselves. In any case, the message is clear: Muslims cannot be trusted to behave responsibly in ‘our’ public spaces. As a result they must be controlled, restrained and to that extent treated with kid gloves: in a word, ‘segregated’.

Last Updated on 13 July 2014
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