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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