It’s voluntary, but don’t you dare

Chris Moos pointed me to an article in the Guardian yesterday on the complications of trying to make policy on gender segregation.

Following the March event that upset some students at UCL, the university banned the IERA from campus. The vice-provost, Rex Knight, points to the form of words agreed by UCL that is now sent to anyone wishing to book rooms on campus. While enforced segregation will not be permitted, UCL states that “it is acceptable for individuals attending  events to choose to sit with members of their own gender. If individuals attending an event wish to segregate themselves on a voluntary basis, it is not acceptable for other members of the audience to compel them to mix, and to do so may constitute harassment.”

But that is enforced segregation. It means that other members of the audience are not allowed to sit in a segregated area, so hey presto, there is your enforced segregation again. You can’t do both. You can’t say it’s voluntary but then in the next breath say that other members of the audience have to stay away. The statement tries to pretend otherwise by phrasing that as “to compel them to mix” but that’s not honest. It’s not about grabbing someone’s arm to try to compel her to sit elsewhere, it’s about sitting in a “segregated” area. Naughty UCL to be so cagey about it.

There’s also the social pressure aspect, as Muslim student Razana Abdul makes clear.

This might sound like a reasonable compromise, but Abdul points out that voluntary self-segregation has serious limitations, most importantly for Muslim women like herself who may feel it is impossible to go against the flow. “If you don’t want to be segregated, there’s social pressure. I do actually regret not standing up and going and sitting in the men’s section as a form of protest.” For mixed groups [at the UCL event] there were just two rows in a huge auditorium made available for “couples”. Abdul says anyone choosing to sit there would have been very obviously rejecting the “norm” being imposed. “We’d look like the evil ones, choosing to sit there in the middle,” she explains.

Universities, she says, are anxious not to “discriminate against Muslim people’s practices, but this is a minority of Muslims. I’m a Muslim, an Asian woman, and I felt intimidated.”

But then the Islamists come back with the opposite objection.

It’s a good point, agrees Knight, but it is a view that university senior management has to hold in balance with others. “I was contacted by other female Muslim students who said they’d felt very upset that some male students had tried to sit with them,” he says. “One would hope that common sense and good behaviour would prevail. We are making our view clear to organisers that no pressure should be made to ‘voluntarily’ segregate.”

I think that upsetness is bullshit. Those students are at a university. They must have to sit with men all the time. London isn’t Jeddah, and women in London and at a major London university just don’t have the ability to stay away from men at all times. Making a fuss about it at one event looks like bullshit; theocratic bullshit.


  1. deepak shetty says

    I was contacted by other female Muslim students who said they’d felt very upset that some male students had tried to sit with them,
    Looks like these people never use public transport either

  2. Jean says

    What’s the rule for regular classes? If there is no segregation there (and I do hope there isn’t) then that should not be an issue for other events.

  3. Eristae says

    The fuck? If someone says to me, “You can’t go there; that’s for [X group] only, and any attempt to go there will be counted as harassment,” that is enforced segregation. I mean, come on. “We won’t tolerate enforced racial segregation of drinking fountains, but if people choose to voluntarily segregate drinking fountain use based on race, that is their right, and any attempt to compel the mixing of drinking fountain use may constitute harassment.” WTF? That doesn’t even make any sense! Either anyone can use whatever bloody drinking fountain or they can’t.

  4. JoeBuddha says

    Makes me wish I was in college again. I missed all of the protests and direct action; would’ve been fun to go to one of these “voluntary” segregation places and sit in the wrong place.

  5. medivh says

    The admittedly optimistic reading I got from that policy is exactly what I’d expect to be the unwritten rules of holding a lecture at a university: if you sit in a group of friends and tell someone that they are not welcome to sit with you or your group then it would be harassment for them to sit by you and your group. If people decide to “self-segregate” in such a way that they don’t want men sitting near them, then this is antisocial behaviour, but just this side of intolerable in my view. As soon as the group tries to move into seats and declare the people already there verboten, that would meet my definition of “using anti-harassment rules to harass”.

    I see, though, that the more common reading is that it’s not an extension of barring people from sitting near you, but rather audience members declaring a protected “segregated zone” with the backing and power of the university security forces. From that start-point, I’m in full agreement that it’s bad policy and am disgusted with such and outcome.

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