Polly Toynbee also objects to UUK’s separate-but-equal policy.
Separate but equal; where have we heard that before? Apartheid South Africa is no metaphor for anything else, but women of my generation and all those before were told over and over again that the sexes are different “but equal”, as an excuse for excluding them from places they didn’t belong: they should be doing “separate but equal” in the kitchen, bedroom and nursery. Whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal.
And not just our generation and older, but younger generations too; women are still told that. That is still official Vatican dogma – women are equal but “complementary” – women are equal but different, and they must not try to abandon their True Nature™.
Universities once barred women altogether. Now they strive to be emblems of enlightenment, temples to reason, equality, free speech and freedom of thought. But it’s not easy to balance conflicting freedoms. Universities UK, their representative body, has just published 40 pages of guidelines on External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions, wriggling and writhing over competing freedoms for women versus not causing religious offence: it ends up with excruciating nonsense.
Some students may want a “no platform” policy for speakers they find obnoxious – the BNP or members of unsavoury governments. Demonstrating opposition is a freedom, but banning or yelling down free expression within the law is a denial of freedom. However, Universities UK’s guidelines give the sexist eccentricities of some religions priority over women’s rights, by allowing religious speakers the right to demand women and men are segregated in the lecture hall.
The right to demand and have their demand satisfied.
The compromise is that women can’t be put at the back: “The room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back.” Depressingly, the National Union of Students has endorsed this. What’s wrong with “side by side” segregation? Just ask how that would look if universities allowed speakers to demand separation by race.
Muslim speakers demand segregation to make a very public point about their belief in women’s “separate” role in the universe, one step behind a man, even in a place of learning. After all, as Maryam Namazie, head of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, says, the speakers and the audience have all travelled there on trains and buses that are not segregated. Mosques and synagogues may hide women out of sight, but by agreeing not to “offend”, the universities condone what they should confront.
And so far, at least, there’s no sign that they’re listening to the objections.