Laurie Penny does Not Get The Problem With Gender Segregation

Laurie Penny’s article on the fight against segregation gives me an ample opportunity to take on the issue of segregation. I disagree with her. Her statement that the entire atheist community is filled with “White Men” and that the argument has been co-opted by racists is rather problematic since it actually ignores all the people who are not White Men or indeed not racist but have sincere misgivings about the utilisation of Unviersity Property to behave in a manner that is against the ideals of the University.

I missed the arguments on segregation as I was trying to deal with racism aimed at me for complaining about racism in the gaming community. I know. It’s daft.

But the issue is something that’s tearing up both feminists and secular societies. Many groups think acceptance of gender segregation is acceptable. Many groups have a euphemistic attitude to segregation. And both sides are filled with strawmen.

Let’s be clear. I do not think gender segregation is appropriate. I think that on public land and with societies sponsored with taxpayer money from Student Unions, the emphasis should NOT be on segregation. Now there are defences that people have made against this and I will deal with them in short order.

I don’t write about women’s issues alone. I lack the education in the field. I just write what I know and what I see. I write from the perspective of a man. A non-white man. I am Asian. Like the majority of Muslims in the UK. Our culture is relatively similar with few differences in religious behaviour. The issue with criticising Islam is that any criticism of Islam is fraught with two problems. The dialogue is poisoned by extremists on both sides. On the one side you have people who issue death threats.

“Say that to the angels on your grave”

As death threats go (Considering the Gamer Racists have threatened to rape my bitch cunt and the Animal Lib have theatened to scoop my eyes out with pens, this ranks rather mildly) this is pretty tame. But I got that one for simply saying that women should sit where they want to rather than in segregated seating. If women want to go sit by themselves in a corner then it’s fine. That’s their choice.

“You defend Muslims a lot, I don’t think you are a real atheist. Taqqiiyah allows you to lie and pretend”.

Yes because I am brown I cannot be an atheist. I am one of those secret Muslims for speaking a middle path of discourse. Never mind the issue with Taqqiyah being that you can only use to protect yourself or someone else from harm. Never to kill or hurt. It’s explicit in it’s usage.

No I am afraid the real problem with discussing Islam is that any criticism of Islam is seen as Islamophobia no matter how genuine. When we say “I don’t agree with zionists who constantly derail the Israeli peace process”, that is genuine criticism. “I hate Jews because they make Matzoh with the blood of children” is anti-semitic hate speech.

Legitimate criticism is not hate speech. And Islam has a legitimate problem with the rights of women. It may claim to be more progressive than Christianity but the reality of application is more important than scriptural claims. So for Penny to declare the sort of criticism I have aimed at the segregation (and indeed the Honour Crime, Burkha and Female Genital Mutilation issues) as the rhetoric and language of feminism that’s been co-opted by an Islamophobe.

This is not anthropology but an analysis of the harm something causes and how its applications work in practice rather than theory. At no point has any segregation resulted in a happy outcome.

Penny downplays segregation. She downplays the fact that segregation has been occurring for some time now. In the words of a Muslim defending segregation “Why are you so irritated about it now? This has been how it has been done for decades”. And the segregation was designed to treat women as secondary to men. In most cases women sat at the back and were often moved around to fit men in.

To Penny it’s a non-controversy. It’s not a controversy, the rules are clear. No discrimination based on gender and that means no segregation no matter what your religious belief is. It’s not Islamophobia, it’s the rules.

To dismiss such criticism as “the actions of someone who is not involved with women or indeed women of colour ” is frankly foolish.

Penny has a problem with her argument and that the only way to argue with her is from a position of weaker privilege. Hence her trashing of the PM and the MPs who stated their explicit disapproval of segregation. What do privileged people understand of the underprivileged?

I also disagree with her stance that this is a case of “back of the queue”. That she’s taking the lofty stance by condemning rape culture and does not have the time to fight gender segregation. That should wait until rape culture is destroyed. Never mind the fact that segregation is part of the dialogue that creates gender discrimination. And it is not a zero sum game, rape culture will not run rampant because you take a few hours to criticise gender discrimination.

She then goes into the hypocrisy of men claiming to stand for women’s rights and appropriating her language for a small minded agenda. One can oppose  radical Islamic preachers, Islamicists, the EDL and the BNP without being a hypocrite. The language is open to all and surely if a man makes a sensible point the correct response is not to go “You are stealing our words” but to go “good point”. This is not engaging in the debate this is demanding we stop playing ball. What list of qualifications must a man  demonstrate in order to be called feminist?

Hence the joke. I am not a feminist. I just pretend to be one online.

So what’s the arguments made for gender discrimination? The ones aimed at me are listed here.

You are just a white saviour trying to save our Muslim sisters from things you do not understand.

These Muslim women  seem to manage just fine in every single other walk of life. If we were to see them in that lecture hall without a Muslim Stamp to the meet up they would have no qualms in sitting in non-gender segregated spaces. We look at buses, planes and cinemas where women sit next to men in close proximity and no where do we see any Issues. This means that they have no issue dealing with men in a society where we have minimal gender segregation.

This is to keep them safe

Wait what? Women have to be segregated to be kept safe? That’s not an argument for segregating women that’s an argument for looking at the problem that makes women so unsafe.

This is traditional

Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it’ deserves to be respected. Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it is good and productive.

You just want to impose your ideology on our Muslim Sisters! Facist

I specifically pointed out that the debate started out around the Lawrence Krauss event where non-Muslim women were told to sit in specific seats if they came without a male member.

All your examples are biased! They are atheists and so have an agenda

Because atheist women don’t count!

Our Women have the freedom to sit how they want

Yes. Yes they do. I am not telling women where to sit. The non-reservation of seats doesn’t mean we will force all women to sit next to a man, it just means that they can sit wherever they  want irrespective of their gender. That’s what freedom means. Now if they want to sit away from men then by all means let them. But if they want to sit at the front or on the left or right that’s entirely up to them.

You are marginalising an already marginalised group

No we are not. If your religion cannot survive in a gender mixed environment then clearly the problem is your religious view. Plenty of Muslims have no problems with a mixed seating arrangement.

The orthodoxy requires it

The orthodoxy has caused Islam a lot of problems. Do not pander to fundamentalists. It legitimises their belief and gives them a platform.

If you don’t like the seating plan don’t attend

If you don’t like the rules of the University and indeed the principles for which our education system stands for then please go rent a private hall, not utilise the infrastructure while holding a stance that is against our ethos of equality. I don’t honestly care what you do at home as long as it doesn’t break the law. I don’t care what you do in the Mosque or the Synagogue or in the Temple. All these places are known to discriminate by gender. But in our secular Universities, there is no gender discrimination.

They deserve to sit separately to protect them from scum like you

Sure. I am scum but that’s their choice. Not the choice that has to be foisted onto all women.

You don’t know anything about Islam

I know more than the other people making criticisms and I know enough to know that Islam has a problem dealing with criticism and has a big problem with fundamentalism and the ideas of it sneaking into normal discourse causing a warped sense of ideas such s the notion that gender discrimination works.

Gender segregated seating works

Except for every other place where it does not work.  It has not worked in every Muslim country where such is present, so why should it work here? It hasn’t worked in India where it’s present and it certainly has not worked in many Jewish and Christian communities where segregation is present. So why must we think it will work here?

You just are comparing 3rd World Countries to the UK.

No. I am comparing places where Gender Discrimination has fallen flat. That Includes India where places like Rajasthan have had discrimination in education for young girls by making them sit on the floor rather than desks. There is gender discrimination in many orthodox Jewish communities with similar problems in the agency of women.

No movement for equality has ever been fought using seating arrangements.

And this is why we need to keep Universities secular.

The irony is the person who said that was Asian. Asians have a “Rosa Parks” of their own who sat somewhere where he was not supposed to sit and sparked a massive revolution. If we consider Rosa Parks to be a revolutionary, we must remember a young lawyer from Porbandhar who sat in a White’s only section on a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Gandhi’s heavy lifting  created the dialogue for independence of both India and Pakistan. And Gandhi like Rosa Parks, started out by sitting in the White Only Areas as an Asian.

It shows how  poisoned the dialogue is. Not one of these was made by a woman defending her right to sit in a segregated space. There literally is no voices from Muslim women on the pro-segregation side but there are a number of Muslim women on the anti-segregation side who don’t think pandering to orthodox Muslim whims is acceptable.

To say that we are trading one sexism for another is simply daft. What most of us want is that they simply not have to sit in specific areas and can choose to sit wherever they want. Penny doesn’t get the problem. We are not stopping Muslims from having meetings, we are just stopping them from setting aside specific seating where women have to sit and perpetrating a system of gender segregation that leads to the systematic exclusion of women through clothes, education, culture and control from public life.

You may think this is harsh. You may think this is Islamophobic. That’s your right to think those things. However most people will remember I have a long history of looking at Islamic issues with greater objectivity, even defending Muslim culture and pointing out why the dialogue with Islam is so broken. The arguments for gender segregated seating basically boiled down to “It’s our culture, we don’t want to change how we deal with this. I do not see what the big fuss is, you are a islamophobe”.

And here is the thing. I had one point to make and no one answered it.

If gender segregation was fine and dandy why is it that there is no case where an Islamic Society practised gender discrimination  by making men sit at the the back rather than women?

Laurie Penny’s article seems more irritated that we aren’t discussing what she thinks is important with regards to Islam, Feminism and University Life.


  1. Onamission5 says

    No movement for equality has ever been fought using seating arrangements.

    Which is why Rosa Parks gladly sat at the back of the bus, and there was never any sort of boycotting of public transportation in the US due to discriminatory seating “arrangements.” Oh wait.

  2. Holms says

    And Islam has a legitimate problem with the rights of women. It may claim to be more progressive than Christianity…

    Wow, that’s a new one to me.

    There literally is no voices from Muslim women on the pro-segregation side

    This is, unfortunately, not true. Just the same as with any system that indoctrinates, there are plenty of defenders even from those that are being kept down. She may not have been talking specifically about seating segregation, but the blindness to Islamic sexism was certainly there.

    Anyway, more broadly, there is a fairly easy way to determine if gender segregation is reasonable or not: flip or change the segregation and see how it looks. Avicenna touched one of those – flipping the segregation bias to favour women. Strange that no culture came up with that one, and I doubt the muslim men will be too keen on it! Another way is to change it from gender to, say, race. Maybe we should have segregated seating according to skin colour? White skin gets best seating, arabic gets shitty seating. Still find segregation agreeable?

  3. Pen says

    Whenever I hear gender segregation discussed as though it were a women’s issue or as if it were the segregation of women rather than the segregation of men and women from each other, I know its defenders have a problem.

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