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.


The Wise Monkey

The Wise Monkey (aka The Attorney General)

Seasoned watchers of Islamophobia may or may not have been surprised to read in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 23 November, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve’s assertion that ‘Corruption is rife in the Pakistani Community’. In a wide-ranging interview, Grieve identified the main threat of corruption in public life coming from ‘minority communities’ that operate a ‘favour culture’. Moreover, he was at pains to trace this specifically to Pakistanis and ‘not the Indian community’, while generously conceding that corruption may still be found in the ‘white, Anglo-Saxon community’.

Grieve’s comments drew swift denunciation from a number of quarters, causing the Attorney General to issue an apology the following day. However, the unusual step of tarring one specific group might give us pause, as might the language in which the attack was couched. I have heard Dominic Grieve speak and he is always measured and articulate, with a precise choice of words as befits a lawyer. So the notion that his outburst might have been unpremeditated seems unlikely.


Can we trust Muslim faith Schools?


‘Discriminatory’, ‘dysfunctional’, ‘inadequate ‘ and ‘in chaos’ are some of the adjectives that were leaked from the Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah Muslim school in Derby. Now that the furore over the compulsory veiling of female teachers and the outrage over the ‘forced’ segregation of girls and boys in the media reportage has simmered down there is further damning news for the school about inadequate accounting, mismanagement of funds, poor teaching standards.

Media outrage has predictably centred on the headline grabbing dress code for women and the practice of segregation, reinforcing the negative image that Muslim communities already enjoy in the press. The more mundane ‘procedural’ failings recently identified merely add salt to the wounds. The parents of the children in Al- Madinah Muslim school have been left wondering about the application procedure for this free school and whether they can trust the state with its new venture. Was the School simply given the go-ahead because it made a case for providing a suitable home for Muslim children in Derby? What were the checks and balances that were put into place to scrutinise the business set up of the school, the make up of its Governing Body and its delivery standards? The school’s placement under special measures by Ofsted has galvanised community action and a joint statement by local Muslim groups, including the Derby Jamia Mosque, the Pakistan Community Centre, the Derby Islamic Centre and Charity Jet, has been issued asking the School trustees to resign as the ‘vision and principles on which they “sold” the school has been a false representation. They feel that the ‘Muslim community of Derby has been thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons’.

The failure of Al-Madinah school has put the Free Schools strategy devised by the current government in the limelight too. David Cameron felt the heat from the failure of the school and said that ‘the Al-Madinah school situation should not be used as a stick with which to beat the whole free school movement’. More recently, the Education Secretary Michael Gove, in a House of Commons debate defending the free school experiment, has named and shamed the local authority in Derby for a poor record of ‘helping to challenge underperforming schools’.

Be that as it may, one of the parents from Al-Madinah School, who felt that the school had let the parents down gave a frustrated response, ‘Why should I pull my daughter out of the school? Why can’t they pull their socks up and fix everything?’ Who can the parents trust in this scenario when the ‘business’ is more or less facing closure and the government has abdicated responsibility as it is a free school.

Instead of ‘Free Schools’ perhaps this increasingly compromised experiment ought to be renamed ‘Free-for-All’ schools, since it is clear that anything goes in the Brave New World of decentralized, ‘customer-driven’, education. When trustees can’t be trusted, the government passes the buck, and communities get the national spotlight for the wrong reasons, it seems the lived experience of a fraught multiculturalism and intercultural exchange is brought into sharp focus.


Is the Niqab a Muslim or British issue?


Why does the niqab generate such heated debate in the UK? The choice of what to wear in British society seems subservient to an orthodox secular agenda in society.  This agenda is at loggerheads with faith based values and from time to time a tussle between the two will be witnessed and presented for judgement and legal justice to ensure that all women living in British society are liberated from the shackles of veiling? Most recently we heard of the ruling given by Judge Murphy at London’s BlackFriars Crown Court that a niqab would not be permissible while the defendant gave evidence. If this controversy was not enough, another niqab headline was unfolding at Birmingham Metropolitan College where the college authorities did a U-turn on their niqab ban for students.

The very specific diasporic context of the niqab debate is not particularly studied in the immediate reportage but instead becomes a synecdoche for a group of people who can never reach modernity. It is not an issue that is representative of most Muslims but it takes on the guise of just that and requires a politics of positionality from those in representative positions to speak on behalf of their communities. Women’s liberation and/or lack of it seems to be the driving force behind the media investigations. It reignites a comparison between secular politics and its engagement with religion in Britain and France, their respective models of integration and multiculturalism. For the viewing and listening public in Britain the niqab confirms the extremities that Muslim women occupy  in the public sphere, they are depicted as the subaltern victims of oppressive religious practice. They bring to our minds the horrors that have been experienced by a Mukhtaran Mai or a Malala Yousafzai, marked targets whom the west has rescued from oppressive Islamist practices. The niqab wearer unsettles us as she is a minority within a minority, yet her dress code has the power to mobilise political and public opinion from national debates to newspaper polls. She inspires an outdated feminist practice to save her from oppression, and there are practical reasons of national security as she disturbs the state’s security agenda.


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