Kate Maltby on the gender segregation dispute.
I spent much of Tuesday afternoon shivering outside the offices of Universities UK. I was there to protest their publication of guidelines which suggest segregated seating of men and women may be legally required where guest speakers demand it. It’s reassuring to learn that protest sometimes works: by Friday, the beleaguered body had shifted their position twice within 24 hours, thanks in part to criticism by Michael Gove and David Cameron.
It is reassuring, isn’t it. I’m still surprised at the speed with which it happened.
But for all their fair words, I’m told the Cabinet have no plans for legislation to clarify the law. And I hear some members of the Islamic Education and Research Association, the group behind most confrontations over this issue, are agitating to launch a test case, heading to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, to argue that their Islamist speakers do not enjoy freedom of speech unless they can speak to audiences segregated exactly how they like.
And, if they succeed, setting a useful precedent for racist groups, anti-Semitic groups, the WBC…Oh yes, that should work out really well.
… this isn’t some hypothetical we can forget about: as Nick Cohen notes, a notorious incident occurred earlier this year at my university, UCL. Meanwhile, the University of Leicester’s Islamic Society has been in the spotlight for routinely running segregated events, including several with the iERA.
Most such Islamic societies are affiliated to the student union, receiving funding and support. As I told Radio 4 yesterday, as a member of the same student union, I have a right to engage fully with the intellectual life of the campus. The ECHR protects my right to education regardless of sex – and as a woman, even if I’m allowed the privilege of a seat, I don’t engage intellectually on equal terms at an event whose organisers think I need to be kept away from men in public.
And the union of university vice-chancellors doesn’t get to impose such a situation on students who have the bad taste to be female.