Via Helen Dale* on Facebook, Priyamvada Gopal on gender segregation and the politics of same.
Ours is not an easy moment at which to practice a simultaneous commitment to anti-racism, equality and social justice. It’s a particularly testing time for progressive people who affiliate in some way to Britain’s ethnic and religious minority communities, among whom Muslims are under unprecedented attack. For us, it is especially difficult to practise a commitment to gender equality and social change in a context so heavily shaped by an intolerant Western ‘liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.
That doesn’t bode well.
In the wake of Student Rights’ aggressive campaign, which clearly targeted Islamic student groups, Universities UK – not a body known for championing social justice – issued guidance indicating that voluntary gender segregation of an audience at the request of a speaker at guest lectures was acceptable. The advice was withdrawn when the Equalities and Human Rights Commission deemed this advice discriminatory. The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.
I’m not a deeply conservative white male. I’m white, but not the rest of it. Maryam isn’t a deeply conservative white male. Chris and Abhishek aren’t what I understand by “deeply conservative” – in fact, the reality is that people who are deeply conservative approve of gender segregation. One of the ways to be deeply conservative is to oppose all the advances in women’s rights over the past century or two. That’s just a bit of rhetorical bullying.
And then “the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices” – is she really standing up for the the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practice of segregating women from men? Is she really blind to the fact that “minorities” are no more monolithic than any other group, and that people within minorities and communities and all the other buzzwords themselves disagree about customary or traditional practices?
As a matter of fact that last line is far more “deeply conservative” than anything Maryam or I or anyone else said in criticism of gender segregation. On the one hand conservatism is bad when it’s a stick to beat liberals with, on the other hand it’s good when it belongs to imaginary monolithic “minorities.”
I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common and ostensibly voluntary but far from making me comfortable with custom, it caused me and others concern. It did not take the proverbial ‘decent, nice, liberal’ Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant in both ideological and institutional terms. Many Muslim women and men, individuals and organisations, have also long queried such practices and, regrettably, such voices are often pushed to the side.
No kidding, and we never said it did take the proverbial ‘decent, nice, liberal’ Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant. We didn’t say that at all. On the contrary, we kept pointing out that many Muslims want nothing to do with gender segregation and that UUK was trying to appease a reactionary faction of Muslims at the expense of more liberal and/or relaxed ones.
To be continued.
*Helen is not a fan of Gopal’s article.