On November 22, Universities UK issued new guidelines on external speakers in higher education institutions which granted permission for visiting university speakers to separate male and female audience members during debates.
The document stated that ‘assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating’.
It added that ‘an act of indirect discrimination can be “objectively justified” if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.
The ‘legitimate end’ in this instance is soothing the feelings of visiting religious speakers, who apparently find the prospect of men and women seated together too abhorrent to stomach.
To be clear, we are not talking about men and women voluntarily choosing to sit apart (which is of course up to them), but about granting visiting speakers permission to *impose* segregated seating on their audience.
As long as neither gender is put at a disadvantage by imposed segregated seating – i.e. men and women will be ‘separate but equal’ – Universities UK don’t see any problem with it.
To get an idea of just how absurd this is, imagine for a minute the justified furore there would be if racial segregation were permitted on campus on the basis that black and white people were ‘different but equal’. Imagine if gay people were separated out from their straight friends on the basis that they were ‘difference but equal’, with those refusing to move booted out of the lecture hall for no other reason than their sexuality.
You know this would not be permitted, and yet it is with women. Why?
The Universities UK guidelines state that:
‘Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.’
Fine, except that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. It also surely matters what the ‘belief system’ in question stipulates. Does anything go so long as it is in accordance with a supernatural ‘belief system’? And isn’t our secular democratic belief system, whereby women aren’t treated as distinct alien entities but are valued on the same basis as men, just as important?
On the one hand this is an issue of fundamental freedom: people should be permitted to sit with whom they like in a publically funded university. But it’s also a question of politics: one shouldn’t pretend that those who wish to impose segregated seating view men and women as equals. They don’t, otherwise it’s completely unnecessary. As Yasmin Alibhai Brown put it in an excellent article yesterday:
“Such guidelines, in effect, endorse the most offensive prejudices about women: that they are a social and moral peril and if they sit with men, pornographic fantasies or molestations will make it impossible for anyone to concentrate on lectures, say, on Plato or the Life of the Prophet.”
Separate but equal is never equal, and the decision to allow gender segregation on campus is a shocking betrayal of any notion of equality between the sexes, let alone democracy or socialism. That’s why we’ll be protesting against it tonight. You should too.
The protest against gender segregation in our universities will meet in Tavistock Square this evening at 5pm to start the protest at 5.30pm. More information can be found here.