Catching up with Catherine Bennett on gender segregation in the Observer on Saturday.
Naturally, much speculation, not all of it fanciful, has addressed the further privileges that intolerant faiths might soon, with the support of UUK’s useful idiots, be extracting from academe. Some speakers, for example, feel equally incapacitated by the prospect of women’s faces in a university audience, or “congregation” as a Muslim chaplain, Saleem Chagtai, referred to it last week on the Today programme. Can they, too – lawfully, and with the continued backing of Fenella Morris QC – demand that women cover up, be screened from sight, or evicted altogether, supposing, of course, this is consonant with genuinely held religious beliefs?
The answer is probably no, but then the question is why not? The question is why the one and not the other? Why is a comparatively minor form of gender inequality treated as acceptable when more major ones are not? Why is an incremental approach to gender inequality countenanced at all?
As much as this episode promised to endear our universities to certain clients, there must be reputational fears when their representative body, having considered all the evidence, concludes that sexual regulation by a controlling, all-male religious elite has nothing to do with sex discrimination. Like the Saudi driving ban, it just looks that way. “There does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating,” the report concluded, instantly facilitating further religious appropriation of publicly owned university spaces.
It’s so rich, that “merely” – especially coupled with that “imposing” and that “segregated seating.” There does not, does there? I beg to differ. There does.
…as Dandridge says, fetters were in use long after 1911, after the vote, even after 1920, when women were first allowed to graduate. In the 70s, her interview reminded me, it was still legal for the five newly co-ed Oxbridge colleges to impose limits (usually about 20), on the intake of female students, whose reception was apt to be guarded, when not overtly resented.
Prior to our rebellion, young women joining my – notionally co-ed – institution, many of us from mixed comprehensives, were herded off on our first night as undergraduates to be lectured by the resident cleric and doctor on our responsibility not to get impregnated. At least, back in the institutionally sexist day, we did not face intervention by a 70s version of Nicola Dandridge, drawing on her considerable legal education to argue, on behalf of the college, that treating women like brainless temptresses was a traditional feature of the academic culture.
I never got a lecture like that. I didn’t even realize I was fortunate not to.
If a cleric such as Saleem Chagtai, whose Islamic Education and Research Academy blanks out female faces on its website, can assure BBC and Channel 4 audiences that separate seating is justified by “psychological studies” as well as equalities legislation, presumably he is open to a change of heart when scientists such as the physicist Lawrence Krauss (who walked out of a segregated lecture) and advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission dictate the exact opposite?
Less promising, being inexplicable and beyond rational argument, is the matching enthusiasm on the part of British universities to find space for “genuine belief” and the supernaturally ordained. Although UUK has promised to review its guidance, it is not legal advice it needs at this stage so much as complete religious deprogramming.
We’re doing our best.