If we fail to defend the rights of all women, we will only empower sexists

Segregation is an immoral concept designed to force one group of people into a separate, subordinate existence.

Left Foot Forward has been at the forefront of the campaign against gender segregation at our Universities and rightly so. Segregation is an immoral concept designed to force one group of people into a separate, subordinate existence.

The ‘Separate but equal’ argument was (and is) never anything more than propaganda used to justify discrimination. In United States, it was a legal doctrine that justified racial segregation until it was ended by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

‘Separate but equal’ was also the official policy of the South African apartheid regime until its fall. So it is particularly shameful for anyone in 21st century Britain to invoke it.

Muslim women living in countries where gender segregation is enforced are severely held back in every aspect of life, from finding employment to not being able to participate in politics and decision-making. In this way, women’s social, political and economic power and development is deliberately stunted.

Gender segregation embodies a view that the world is not made for girls and women. It is a charter for bullying and the psychological conditioning of inferiority, the effects of which are catastrophic in emotional, spiritual and cultural terms.

A Saudi female professor, Bayan Perazzo, describes the harm it causes:

“I often find myself uncomfortable in my own skin, battling a feeling of inferiority within my own community. It literally feels as though men have ‘marked their territory’ in public spaces, and that I simply do not belong.”

This is oppression in its most basic, fundamental form. And it is why we must oppose gender segregation, and the attitudes that midwife it.

Gender segregation is a pre-Islamic cultural norm produced by societies in which woman were the possessions of men. Thus the value of a woman was determined by her sexual ‘purity’ and by her obedience to patriarchal authority. Those who promote gender segregation today continue to define women in these terms.

This is a rationale behind izzat (honour) codes, which exist as a manifestation of the misogynist culture of ‘shame’, that regulates and polices the freedoms of women and which inevitably leads to violence against them when honour codes are transgressed.

Reactionaries like to evoke ‘religious modesty’ as a pro-segregation argument. They will claim they are simply defending women’s ‘right’ to be segregated, as ‘women feel uncomfortable around men’. This is the language of honour and shaming, a passive-aggressive attempt to recast bullying and the oppressive ‘logic’ of segregation as normative and benign.

‘Voluntary’ segregation is simply disingenuous nonsense. How and why did women become so uncomfortable in the presence of men in the first place? Their ‘choice’ is the result of social coercion, itself based on a false premise that men cannot control their sexual thoughts or behaviour in the presence of women; thus women must be kept separate and hidden.

Bina Shah, a writer from Pakistan, discusses this very issue in her excellent blog post:

“The spoken and unspoken assumption is that a good Muslim woman would never want to mix with men: she will automatically want to remove herself from their presence and put herself in the back of the room. Any woman who doesn’t “choose” this for herself is cheaper, less moral, or even a slut.”

It should be of little surprise then that Muslim women, who speak publicly against gender segregation, become targets of slut-shaming and other forms of vile misogynist abuse, often from the same men who claim to defend woman’s right to  ‘voluntary’ segregation.

Sara Khan, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and other women who spoke publicly against gender segregation (including me), found themselves the target of exactly this kind of abuse.

The recent row over gender segregation in the UK is a clash between male supremacism underpinned by religious privilege on one side, and egalitarian universalism that elevates rights of individuals, on the other. If we fail to support and defend the rights of all women – irrespective of religion, culture or tradition – to liberty and equality, we will only empower those men who feel it is their right to discriminate against and subjugate women in the name of their ‘sincerely held beliefs’.

A society based on equality must resist gender segregation with the same vehemence reserved for racial segregation. The provision of separate entrances for ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’ to a University meeting is no less repulsive than the provision of separate entrances for ‘Whites’ and ‘Coloureds’.

Religious freedom does not mean that adherents of any faith have carte blanche to enforce their sensibilities in contravention of contemporary concepts of liberty and human rights.

Promoting segregation as a ‘right’ also prevents debate within the Muslim community and silences liberals, secularists and feminists who wish to challenge it. It tries to present as normative a conception of Islam that is misogynist and reactionary, and it seeks to marginalise those who disagree by attacking their authenticity as ‘real’ Muslims.

Progressives are made to look like fools of when they indulge this kind of behaviour. Instead, we must take ownership of the issues like these and refuse to succumb to reactionary attitudes peddled by those who deceitfully appropriate the progressive rhetoric of pluralism.

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29 Responses to “If we fail to defend the rights of all women, we will only empower sexists”

  1. Chesney Chips

    I’ve read and heard on the radio many women saying they prefer to be at the back, not just for religious reasons (which you addressed), but because of a hypersensitivity to being near, standing up to ask questions next to, or even walking past men if they need the loo! Of course, we’ve also heard from women who feel pressure to “voluntarily” sit at the back. Personally I am very happy with women choosing to sit away from men if they want, though it’s a pity they feel like that. But I don’t think they should be directed or encouraged by anyone to do so, nor be able to appeal to enforcers to prevent men who arrive after them sitting nearby. I’m sure everyone prefers to have their friends next to them, but it doesnt always work out like that.

  2. Chesney Chips

    On a related note, I discovered something interesting which I posted somewhere else:

    Since IERA people were claiming on the radio, twitter etc. certain things about the UCL debate in March, basically saying that it was a controversy contrived by atheists harrassing Muslim women at the back of the hall, I’m posting their own video of the seating before the debate started. What IERA probably haven’t noticed is that at the 1 minute point in their video, a guy comes in the back door on the right and sits in the 2nd row from the back near the end of the isle, with empty seats around him. He is then removed by an IERA staff member. Notice also that the two rows designated for non-segregation at the front had long since been full up at this point. So whatever happened afterwards (I wasn’t there, and the video ends before showing anything of the incidents IERA claim to have happened), there clearly was some enforcement of segregation once the rows were filled, at least.


  3. Suada

    A good article, Lejla, I agree. To be honest, I’m surprised that something like this is even becoming an issue in the UK.

  4. swatnan

    I would suggest to these women that they leave islam, altogether. There is no future in that religion, or for that religion. Their clerics are not listening; their fellow Muslims are not listening; their families are not listening. No amount of condemnation of that religion is going to make them change. They continue to make excuses. There comes a point when enough is enough.

  5. ThisIsTheEnd

    It’s depressing how many liberal progressives brought into the idea that official gender segregation is okay, so long as it’s a “voluntary choice”. And yet they’d be the first to be up in arms if whites were to voluntarily choose to separate themselves from blacks. Choice is only exercised by those who can wield it.

    Good article as always from Lejla

  6. Mike Bushman

    Very well considered and well written. You are exactly right that segregation has to be battled. I wrote about this recently on my blog (mbushman), but really appreciate how you have framed the issue. Universities UK backed off their misguided pro-segregation direction recently, but I doubt this is the end of pressure to support gender segregation. Some are so afraid of appearing intolerant that they willingly tolerate and support intolerance from minority communities they would certainly actively oppose if perpetuated by the majority. This is no better than majority communities supporting behavior by others in their community they would never accept from a minority group.

  7. Mike Bushman

    To those who might agree with your comment, I would suggest Irshad Manji’s book “Allah, Liberty and Love”. Irshad does an excellent job in the book of explaining the hope for Islam without sugarcoating any of the challenges.

  8. swatnan

    Mike, you have to give up making excuses for these people. Listen to an interview on Sky with the brother of the killer of Lee Rigby. There is something fundamentally rotten in Islam and Sharia, and the world is going to have to come to grips with dealing with that religion. I never thought we’ed be back to the Religious Wars in the Middle Ages; but that is the major conflict for the next 30 years. Its that bad. We have a Fifth Column of Jihadists in every continent of the World. The fight has to be taken to them, and we have to win.

  9. Philo

    How big a problem is this among non-Muslims? Presumably these are the ‘fashion lefties’?

  10. TM

    Mike, you wrote: ‘Some are so afraid of appearing intolerant that they willingly tolerate and support intolerance from minority communities they would certainly actively oppose if perpetuated by the majority.’ I consider this a manifestation of white Middle class guilt. And certainly white guilt in general. It also goes with the idea that Black and Asian people cannot be racist, and the Left goes along with this. The fact that it is an absurd notion that someone can’t be racist seems to bypass the critical faculty of some people, but because the liberal Middle class are pathologically loathe to be seen as racist, they go along with it. I take note that class prejudice seems to be ok though, especially towards white Working class people, from both the Left and the Right.
    But, to get back to your statement, it is true; there seems to be an acceptance of intolerance from minorities doesn’t there? In that case why aren’t the EDL and the BNP, generally in a minority of people at the best of times, accepted? Is it because they are white? My view is this: if you appease one load of bigotry, however eloquently put and whatever deep set of beliefs it may come from, you end up appeasing them all. In other words, if you allow one group to be a special case and have special rights, every other group sooner or later will demand the same. The very act of appeasing ethnic minorities, rather than curtailing problems, just makes things infinitely worse.

  11. Mike Bushman

    There’s certainly reason to be frustrated and worried about those in the bureaucratic cleric class in Islam who find the worst parts of the Quran and hadith to emphasize, while ignoring the aspects that preach tolerance, service and cooperation. Unfortunately, these clerics have attracted too many violent followers and others who believe they can force non-believers into adopting their practices. But giving up on supporting those trying to transform the faith from within means giving up on the second largest faith in the world. I don’t believe we can afford to do that, just as I don’t believe we can afford to give in to practices that western society has long found abhorrent.

  12. swatnan

    Just who are ‘those that are trying to transform the faith from within’?
    There’s precious little evidence of who theyb are and what they are doing and what they have achieved. Lets see some action from them, and let thnem take on the cancer within their midst. But the neoliberals and the moderates are afraid to put their heads over the paprpet.These islamic fanatics have put back race relations 20 years. These Islamofacists have created tensions within our multiracial, multicultural communities; these evil men have created the EDL and given fuel to the BNP. And its little to do with the West intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan; or foreign troops killing Muslims. The fact is its Muslims killing Muslims in Iraq and Kenya and Lybia nad Syria. It simply won’t do. No more excuses.

  13. TM

    ‘And yet they’d be the first to be up in arms if whites were to voluntarily choose to separate themselves from blacks.’ I wonder if they’d be up in arms if Black people or Muslims wanted to voluntarily separate from white people or just greater society at large? Do you know what the major problem with much of this? The fact that there is precious little genuine frank and open debate on it. The immigration argument is the same. Anyone expressing the merest hint of criticism is immediately branded a ‘racist’ ending any debate. Same as any talk of equality in the US is automatically branded ‘socialism’ thereby ending any meaningful debate. Is this a genuine reaction? Of course it is isn’t, it is utterly calculated and completely cynical. It is a way of keeping things as they way are, rich get richer, the Middle class get all the affluent jobs and best housing and education and the majority of us get to struggle on whether in work or not, and all of this in a very wealthy country. The politics of colonialism have been reborn and are now being foisted on Britain. Divide and conquer in short.
    Yes, choice is always the privilege of those who have that option. The rest of us have to put up and shut up and accept it all. The whole system needs changing as it only works for the rich and privileged and the affluent. Things like this, as important as they are, are just diversions in the end.

  14. ThisIsTheEnd

    I’ve genuinely no idea what you are talking about.

  15. ThisIsTheEnd

    Lejla is muslim. Do you think there’s something rotten about the Islam that she practices?

  16. TM

    Mike, I stand somewhere between you and swatnan. It is not that Muslims or people of any religion offend me, I am dyed in the wool Christian myself, it is that you are suggesting non Muslims should go out of their way to read up on Islam. Would you say the same for Christianity, Buddhism or any other religion? And swatnan may be an Atheist and could care less anyway. Here’s my view. By all means practice your faith, whatever that is, or don’t practice any faith, we are supposed to live in a secular pluralist democracy, but please don’t put your beliefs and ideals on those who do not share your views or ideals. I am surrounded by Atheists, friends and family, it is there choice. If they choose to not believe, that is their prerogative. And likewise it is my prerogative to believe. No one should be able to push their private faith on others in a way that demeans them, in any way. Any intelligent person realises that if people are allowed to create disharmony between others and it is tolerated, although goodness knows why, then sooner or later it will lead to greater disharmony and a general backlash. The toleration of Qatada, Choudary, Bakri and many other lesser known hate preachers by the establishment and the liberal left has led directly to the creation of the EDL and each time one of them opened their mouths they acted as recruiting sergeants for the EDL. Why was the EDL hounded for just being the same prejudiced, bigoted and intolerant individuals as the extremists aforementioned? Again, if genuine fears of extremism are dismissed if they come from one source, and tolerated from another source, this will sooner or later lead to greater problems in the future. The IRA where not allowed to preach hatred for years, and yet extremist Muslim preachers have been given a free ride. Nobody ever asked why that is? To create division and problems between dispossessed communities? You all need to open your eyes a little and stop being so PC. There are problems on all sides, and platitudes solve nothing. Open, frank and honest debate on ALL sides will begin to solve problems.

  17. TM

    Shall I explain it point by point for you then? It will be tedious, as I think much of what I have written is fairly easy to comprehend, but I will if you want me to. Please ask me what you don’t understand and I will happily try to explain to you!

  18. ThisIsTheEnd

    No please don’t.

  19. TM

    So dismiss someone’s POV, however much you cannot understand or perhaps disagree with, and then shut them up?! You sound like a typical Middle class liberal lefty. where no debate is allowed only accepted soundbites. And don’t bother to reply to this!!!

  20. Mike Bushman

    I agree with your views on how to treat others and the danger of tolerating the intolerable. I do suggest that reading about other faiths and people who have faced different lives is an important part of making an integrated society work. In the case of swatnan, I only suggested reading Irshad’s book because it helps explain the wide discrepancies in how the Quran and hadith are interpreted and, to me, provides hope that the dangerous elements in Islam could be marginalized if moderate Muslims took their responsibility to police their own faith seriously. There have been times when Christian faiths expressed their disagreements with others violently, but the frequency and death toll from these battles has been far less than from the Muslim world for nearly 800 years. I’m not sure if this service will let me, but I’m attaching a link to a blog post on the troubles that occur when religion and government become too intertwined, or when faith disappears from a society altogether. http://www.mbushman.com/2013/08/egypt-deadly-lessons-religion-diversity/

  21. swatnan

    Good point. But she is banging her head against a brick wall because the vast majority of Muslims aren’t prepared to get off their backsides and support her openly and bring about much needed reform. But the question has to be asked, how much reform does Lejla want does it include banning burlkas, education of poor girls, and equal opportunities for good jobs.

  22. ThisIsTheEnd

    ” But the question has to be asked, how much reform does Lejla want does it include banning burlkas, education of poor girls, and equal opportunities for good jobs.”

    Are you being serious? What makes you think that Lejla would be against education for poor girls and equal opportunities for good jobs? Can you honestly not work out the answers to those questions?

  23. TM

    Mike, my view is an open faced one; I do not side with the Left or the Right, and I find that politics in some way has taken the place of religion, religion itself often being a force for control, power, justifying all kinds of oppression and exploitation but somehow because ‘God wills it’ everything and anything becomes acceptable, and that is the same for most, if not all, major world religions. Politics and religion combined is indeed, or can be, a very heady, intoxicating and dangerous brew. Islam in the Middle East and various brands of Christianity in the US are such beasts I think. And when faith and politics and power and empire building coalesce, very dangerous ideologies can be brought into play. You even see it in this present Tory government where certain individuals claim to be devout Christians.
    I watched the program about the Lee Rigby killing the other night and Omar Bakri said that his interpretation of the Koran was the correct one and hinted that it couldn’t be taken out of context. How do you deal with that exactly? Do you think that ‘moderate’ Muslims will take the ‘extremists’ to task, and what constitutes moderation and extremism in a holy book or faith anyway? Extremists in the USA of the Christian variety may just say they are not compromising their faith and likewise with some Muslims. They may not be extreme in the notion we tend to think they are, but merely strict adherents of their faith. Trying then to appeal to a mindset that appears completely acceptable and normal to the holder of those views may be a very hard task indeed. And in my limited experience of extreme Christian fundamentalism in the US, the more you try to convince someone they may be wrong or muddleheaded in their thinking, the more right they tend to think they are and the more likely they are to dismiss any attempt to water down the ‘truth’ they have found. The Phelps family in the US are Christians who hold very extreme and very strange views and do all sorts of incredibly offensive things, but at least in the US they are completely vilified and taken to task for the dingbats and oddballs they undoubtedly are. I feel that in the Islamic world, people are simply scared to speak out against violence and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion because of the very real fear of being attacked or murdered. Little Malala from Pakistan makes my point here exactly. Grown men trying to murder a 15 year old girl for bringing teaching to girls. If we condemn repression there, why not here? We all need to drop the platitudes and start talking frankly and openly, stop worrying about being offensive, but merely being honest. That would be a start. That is the great problem Mike. There is no genuine and open debate in the mainstream media about virtually anything, and when people even suggest an openness and frankness, most people just can’t deal with it. We are so used to platitudes and being nicey nicey that we don’t even know how to debate anymore.

  24. TM

    Ok, apologies are in order! I did waffle on didn’t I, so I apologise for that. I wasn’t disagreeing with you incidentally, I did agree with your POV and sentiment, I was merely trying to expand in my own rather laboured way on what you had said, not so successfully!

  25. ThisIsTheEnd

    No worries mate, we all fly off the handle from time to time.

  26. Suada

    I’ve supported her openly on numerous occasions. And I don’t know a single Muslim who is against education of poor girls. In fact, Lejla has posted in support of Malala on numerous occasions.

  27. Mike Bushman

    Believe me, I understand the depth of your concern. Even if just one percent of Muslims choose the most radical, terrorist-supporting sects of Islam, they will be equal in number at 15 million to all of the Jews in the world. Is it any wonder that Israel fears for its existence? I also believe that radical terrorists inside Islam aren’t going away anytime soon. In my novels “Melting Point 2040” and “Secession 2041”, Islamic terrorists take part in an alliance with drug cartels and American-hating nations to try to destroy the “Great Satan.” I wrote these stories of a future I hope we can avoid in part because strong evidence suggests these alliances are already developing and in part because, like you suggest, I don’t think most people understand or are even discussing the very real threat from extremist Islam to the survival of millions of people, and perhaps far more. I believe the best ways to counter these threats are clear military superiority combined with working to help those inside of Islam trying to turn the faith toward the portions of the Quran that are consistent with peaceful coexistence and respect for fundamental human rights. The latter is likely to be a slow process, requiring committed effort well beyond my lifetime. I appreciate your understanding of the severity of the risk.

  28. Mark

    The big difference from some years ago is that Andrew Neil, on the BBC, could directly ask a potential Parliamentary Candidate about this, in terms of of it being a “bad thing”. Some years ago, they would have avoided tackling that.

  29. namanama

    well said. This filthy ideology of sexist discrimination is now spreading in Australia at the University of Western Sydney

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