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Dec 15 2013

Who sits where

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.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    And, if they succeed, setting a useful precedent for racist groups, anti-Semitic groups, the WBC…Oh yes, that should work out really well.

    I actually have zero fears that this would happen. They are generally pretty good.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    I was more poking at the logic of the appeal than worrying about the outcome, if you see what I mean.

  3. 3
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Yes. I feel so much better knowing that the people who would segregate me for being a woman (or for being trans?) would not segregate me for being Jewish or Atheist or White.*

    Ugh.

    There simply is no good at all to any of this, no upside to any of the arguments, no good-and-honest rhetorical points to consider.

    I extend an invitation to you b/c I wish to understand your perspective. You say, only if you’re in the back, away from the men, filthy woman. I take it to my admin who then asks, “Did you really mean we can’t sit a little bit where we want and only a lot of bit segregated?” You say, “No, I want the women away from the men or the men will get cooties that will then be passed on to me when I, all unsuspecting, interact with men I believe to be cootie-free.” My admin comes back to me and says, “In my wisdom, I’ve decided the just thing is to deny the speaker’s request and put you on the left, away from the men, filthy woman.”

    I am so heartened. I can see nothing but light and education and new mutual understanding coming from UUK and their wise “guidance”.
    ======
    *contempt is not aimed at you, Ophelia.

  4. 4
    yahweh

    Glad to see the ECHR weighing in and stating the obvious. Letting the vice chancellor’s save face (‘working with them’ – my arse!) is pragmatic but you have to wonder at the second rate minds running our universities (The law is unclear is it? My arse again. The law is perfectly clear).

  5. 5
    yahweh

    And a test case to the European Court of Human Rights to allow segregation by sex wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance either.

  6. 6
    Dave Ricks

    Maryam wisely saved a copy of the original UUK report that we can still read here.  Kate Maltby’s article points out the original UUK link now takes you to a copy of the report, missing pages 27-28, but still dated November 2013.

    I might write the UUK president Christopher Snowden a letter about the irony: The UUK report says its purpose is to support public discussion of controversial issues, but the UUK sent the controversial report itself down the Memory Hole.

  7. 7
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Kate Maltby’s article points out the original UUK link now takes you to a copy of the report, missing pages 27-28, but still dated November 2013.

    The Vice Chancellors believe in neither intellectual honesty nor preserving sources for use by scholars articulating understandings of the development of ideas or thoughts even when the primary information within goes out of date?

    I’m shocked! Shocked I am that anti-Enlightenment values are enacted in this establishment.

    ===
    I downloaded the report in its original form to prevent losing access from just this type of shenanigan.

    James Randi, I want my million bucks.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    I hope you do write that letter, Dave.

  9. 9
    rnilsson

    @ Crip: Well, as long as we believe in magic ;-) Good luck.

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