You’ve no doubt read by now of the much-maligned support of Universities UK for gender-segregated seating at campus events like those of the so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy, an organisation banned from several universities in Britain whose leaders explicitly oppose feminism and endorse violence against women and whose website doctors out photographs of female speakers offered only ‘to deliver talks, lectures and presentations to and for women‘. (The IERA and groups like it observe a strict taboo on women speaking publicly in front of men, as do a worrying number of Christian groups.) The recent withdrawal of UUK’s position, prompted by cross-party condemnation in Westminster and protests by people on this network, has encouragingly been welcomed and praised.
While their stance officially is under review, it seems unlikely now that anything but prohibition will follow. A more interesting question is how (or whether) it gets enforced – seating practices like this, and a post on the subject is in the works, are more prevalent among student Islamic groups than coverage has acknowledged, and likely to be difficult to police. (It’s important to stress that Islamic Societies aren’t necessarily representative of Muslim students at large – more on this below.) In the mean time, there’s a separate canard I think should be addressed.
The Observer‘s editorial applauding UUK’s retraction, topped with a twinkly-eyed photograph of Richard Dawkins from the Guardian site’s go-to album for any secularist story, states ‘it has been suggested that segregated meetings appeal to overseas Muslim students vital for university finances’ – referring, I think, to the statement by members of Reading University’s (banned) atheist society that authorities feared anti-segregation action ‘might eventually reduce the university’s intake of international students‘, specifically Muslims from ‘hardline religious countries’ whose higher tuition fees education bodies need.
The idea seems to spring from the assumption political Islam is a product of immigration, alien to Britain and imported from Sharia states; the reality is that British Islamism is largely a second or third generation phenomenon among the (grand)children of immigrants for whom fundamentalism is partly a misguided attempt at anti-Western cultural authenticity. (This why people like Alom Shaha are regularly smeared as ‘coconuts’, ‘brown on the outside, but white on the inside’, when they leave Islam, and why clash-of-civilisation arguments that portray Islam as essential to particular cultures and in conflict with ‘Western values’ only make things worse – that’s exactly Islamism’s selling point.)
The Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think tank now integrated into the Henry Jackson Society which (not) coincidentally funds anti-extremist group Student Rights, major players in the anti-segregation campaign, commissioned a YouGov poll of 632 Muslim students in 2008. I’ve referred to it before because it contained questions on atheists, gay people and sharia – to my knowledge, it’s the only poll specifically of Muslim students that’s been done. 80 of those surveyed self-identified as ‘Not British'; it seems reasonable to assume for the purposes of this post that these were the international students being talked about, since a ‘Partially British’ category (of 125) also existed, and was probably more likely to include immigrants to Britain or those of dual nationality.
What does the data tell us about Muslim international students’ attitudes to segregation, then? Specifically, does it back up the idea a clampdown would stifle numbers and starve universities of funds?
The first thing to say, of course, is that the idea prima facie is implausible. According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the number of international students on UK campuses in 2011-12 was 435,230, of whom 177,880 came either from EU countries or China. Of the top ten ‘sending countries’ outside the EU, only four (Nigeria, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) had double-digit Muslim populations, providing between them 50,845 students, less than 12 percent of the total. Even assuming all of them to be segregation-supporters – moreover, segregation-supporters who wouldn’t study in Britain if it were banned – the hole left by their absence would hardly be gaping or irreparable.
Moving specifically to the findings of the CSC’s YouGov poll, only 21 percent of non-British Muslims were members of their university’s Islamic Society, compared with 26 percent of their British (and partially British) counterparts. 65 percent of British Muslim students weren’t members, rising to 71 percent for non-Britons.
This is striking both because it suggests practices in Islamic Societies aren’t at all a good barometer of Muslim student opinion generally and because they’re almost always where gender segregation happens. Of the fifth of non-British Muslims who do belong to one, 15 percent – that is, three percent of the total – were committee members, while only 31 percent went to most or all of its meetings and events (6.5 percent of the total). This compares with a third of ISoc members among British Muslim students (8.6 percent of the total) who attended most or all events, and 61 percent who attended either none or not many (15.9 percent of the total).
In summary: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally likely to be loyal ISoc members. Only 21-26 percent of either were members at all.
One thing that should be noted at this point is that the total of 81 non-British participants probably has a higher than usual error margin – perhaps ten percentage points or more. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about this: no other data exists for comparison as far as I know (please tell me in the comments if it does), and true figures could be either higher or lower than those shown here: we can’t second guess them. It’s probably a good idea not to put huge amounts of stock in this data, particular where smaller differentials appear, but there’s nothing else to go on currently.
While levels of religious observance aren’t necessarily a predictor of ‘radicalism’ – they can be the opposite – it’s worth pointing out non-British Muslims were again about equal in their use of campus prayer rooms and attendance of Friday prayer, with non-Britons slightly more observant over all in each case but numbers well within each other’s error margins.
28 percent of British Muslims used the campus prayer room between twice a week and daily, compared with 45 percent who’d never visited at all (37 percent) or went less than once a month (8 percent); among non-British Muslim students, a third used the prayer room twice a week to daily, whereas 44 percent had never used it (31 percent) or did so less than monthly (13 percent). 28 percent of British Muslims always attended Friday prayer while 27 percent never did, with intermediate frequencies also near-symmetrical; 34 of non-British Muslims always attended compared with 25 who never did.
These differences aren’t really statistically significant: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally observant, and both are somewhat polarised.
38 percent of British Muslim students said ‘Islam is a religion whilst Islamism is a political ideology’ while 14 percent said ‘They are both part of the same thing – politics is a big part of Islam’. This compares with 33 percent of non-British Muslims who distinguished the two and 25 who didn’t, a difference which seems significant if still small. Equal numbers in both groups (24 of British Muslims, 23 percent of non-British ones) agreed with neither of these statements, while 24 percent of the British and 20 percent of the non-British group said they weren’t sure.
So non-British Muslim students may be slightly more likely to be Islamists than their British counterparts, but the difference is slight and the figure still only one in four.
Finally, when questioned specifically about women…
61 percent of non-British Muslims thought women wearing ‘the hijab’ (this may have been ambiguous) fairly (28 percent) or very (33 percent) important to Islam, while 33 percent thought it not at all important (18 percent) or not very (15 percent). Among their British peers, 62 percent called it important (30 percent very important, 32 fairly important) compared 30 percent who disagreed (18 percent not very important, 12 percent not at all).
Non-British Muslims were somewhat less supportive of the statement ‘It is up to the individual Muslim woman as to whether or not she chooses to wear the hijab’, with 59 percent agreeing compared with 65 of British Muslim students. Notably, the opposing answer ‘Women should wear the hijab – female modesty is an important part of Islam’ (supported by 30 percent of British participants and 38 percent of non-British ones) isn’t necessarily contradictory, but in any case, the differential is again a fairly small one.
Interestingly, no obvious difference can be seen in male and female response to these questions across the sample group as a whole. Of course, we don’t have crossbreaks for how gender and nationality correlate here, and if we did the groups would be too small to interpret usefully. British Muslim students are more likely than non-British ones to say wearing ’the hijab’ is a woman’s choice, but only by 59 to 65 percent. This is quite a useful question, since groups and events where segregated seating is practised tend to require all women present to wear headscarves.
On the direct question of how acceptable it is ‘for men and women to associate freely in Muslim society’, 49 percent of non-British Muslim students said it was very (21 percent) or fairly (28 percent) acceptable, while 33 percent called it ‘not very acceptable’ and 12 percent ‘not at all acceptable’. British Muslim response was ambivalent, with 62 percent saying either ‘not very‘ (30 percent) or ‘fairly’ (32 percent), with extreme stances less popular (16 percent for ‘very acceptable’ and 11 percent for ‘not at all acceptable’).
One question that followed (emphasis YouGov’s) was ‘Do you believe that men and women should be treated equally?’ I haven’t bothered to include it here because, as more or less whenever pollsters ask this question, almost everyone said yes – over 90 percent in each national subgroup. It’s almost never a useful question: almost everyone thinks men and women should be equal, but disagree about what this entails. (Asking people if they’re feminists, for example, gets very different results.)
A similar problem may on some level exist with men and women ‘associat[ing] freely’. Exactly what does and doesn’t this describe? Most Muslims, I suspect, would support mosques separating men and women for prayer, and presumably those who called association unacceptable here oppose, say, unmarried men and women socialising together, but would all of them oppose mixed or unregulated seating at public events?
I don’t know. I’m somewhat inclined to think so, though, because the position stated here is so blunt: if believers are willing to say free association of men and women is unacceptable without qualification, it seems likely their views are fairly all-encompassing. We can probably assume, at least, that everyone who said association was ‘not at all acceptable’ is pro-segregation – otherwise, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. The answers can at any rate be summarised thus:
Aggregate support for and opposition to male-female association are roughly equal in both groups, ranging from 41 to 49 percent. Support, however, was more moderate among British Muslims – among non-British Muslims finding it acceptable, opinions were more evenly split between ‘very’ and ‘fairly’ answers, where British Muslim students strongly favoured ‘fairly’. Students opposed to free association in both groups found it ‘fairly’ unacceptable close to three times as often as ‘very’.
The long and short of it? Educators can relax: Muslim students from abroad won’t flee Britain en masse if segregation’s banned. Nor would much change if they did: they’re only a small fraction of the UK’s international fee-payers, as well as of its campus Islamists and fundamentalists.