To UN: UK Public institutions continue to fail to uphold an environment free of discrimination

CAMPAIGNS-protests-against-universities-uk-guidelines-on-gender-segregation_347312114 January 2014

Ms. Farida Shaheed
Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

Dear Ms. Shaheed,

We write to draw your attention to the increasing incidence of gender segregation on public university campuses in the United Kingdom, and to seek your intervention in this matter.

Gender segregation reinforces negative views about women, undermines their right to participate in public life on equal terms with men and disproportionately impedes women from ethnic and religious minorities, whose rights to education and gender equality are already imperilled.

The practice first came to light after two men were forcibly removed from the ‘Women’s’ section and several students were refused entrance to the ‘female only’ section at a public debate at University College London (UCL) on 9 March 2013 between the Islamist Hamza Tzortzis and the American cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, organised by Tzortzis’s Islamic Education and Research Academy. Seating at the event was divided such that men were seated at the front of the lecture theatre and women at the back. The two men were readmitted only after Lawrence Krauss threatened to pull out of the debate (video) if segregation was enforced. Following an internal investigation, UCL banned the organisers from conducting events on their campus in future and reaffirmed its Policy on Gender Segregation.

We are compelled to seek your intercession in this matter after Universities UK (UUK), the representative body of British universities, issued, on 22 November 2013, Guidance for universities on ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’. The Guidance featured a hypothetical case study (of a visiting speaker who insisted that the audience be segregated by gender) which concluded that “assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating”. The case study triggered a protest by students and women’s rights campaigners outside the London offices of UUK on 10 December 2013, and, following sustained criticism, was withdrawn on 13 December, pending further legal advice. (The original guidance is attached: ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions.)

UUK has claimed that the case study was merely ‘hypothetical’. However, besides UCL, there have been several cases of students complaining about gender segregation, for example at Leicester University and Queen Mary University London. A poll by the Times Higher Education revealed that out of 46 universities that responded, 29 do not have prohibitions against gender segregation in place. The Federation of Islamic Students Societies, for example, has issued guidelines on how to run a successful Islamic student society. These prescribe to “maintain segregation between brothers and sisters, keeping interaction between them at a minimum”.

Universities UK claims that it has still not abandoned the case study, which is merely pending “review”. Instead, a number of public statements made by their Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, and by the organisation itself, give us reason to fear that the case study may quietly be reintroduced to the report, with purely cosmetic alterations that do not neutralise the danger it poses to gender equality and women’s rights.

We hope you will appreciate that it is difficult enough resisting gender-segregation in public spaces even with equality and human rights legislation demonstrably in our favour, and that a recurrence of this Guidance will irretrievably damage the cause of gender equality and women’s rights in Britain by emboldening the apologists of this practice.

Should you wish to investigate these incidents, we would like to forewarn you of a common misconception that has been encouraged by apologists for this practice, namely that it is “voluntary”. It is not, inasmuch as it is beyond dispute that attendees at these events are expected to sit in specific zones, on pain of eviction. The prefix “voluntary” merely implies that such events will sometimes have three sections – men’s, women’s and mixed. We hope you will agree that this token concession does little to address our principal objection to this practice, which is that it amounts to the appropriation of a public space in the name of religion or culture, in a manner that undermines the dignity of both men and women and creates a hostile, degrading and humiliating environment for women. We also hope you will concur that, for many women, particularly those from ethnic minorities, the ‘choice’ of mixed/segregated seating is often made under considerable duress.

Finally, we would also like to draw your attention to a legal note submitted to UUK by Radha Bhatt, an undergraduate student of the University of Cambridge, which provides a succinct illustration of the manifest illegality of gender segregation under Britain’s Equality Act 2010 and the European Convention on Human Rights, and reminds UUK of its Public Sector Equality Duty towards the imperatives of eliminating discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations between those who share protected characteristics.

We are concerned that beyond the cases we have brought to your attention, there is a persistent issue of discrimination through gender segregation at public universities in the UK and also elsewhere. Recently, for example, a professor at York University in Canada faced reprimand for upholding gender equality in his classroom. Gender segregation is often done in the name of respecting cultural and religious rights with culture, religion and ethnicity often presented as inextricably intertwined and seen to supersede women’s rights and equality in the hierarchy of rights.

Even though the UK is a signatory to CEDAW and despite the fact that the issue has been brought to the attention of university administrators and policy makers, public institutions in the United Kingdom continue to fail to uphold an environment free of discrimination.

We thank you for your consideration, and look forward to your intercession on this pressing human rights issue.

Yours Sincerely,
Radha Bhatt, undergraduate student of the University of Cambridge
Marieme Helie Lucas, Founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Nahla Mahmoud, Spokesperson of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Chris Moos, Secretary of LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson of One Law for All and Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
Abishek Phandis, President of LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society
Fatou Sow, International Director of Women Living Under Muslim Laws

For further enquiries please contact:

Maryam Namazie
One Law for All and Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation
maryamnamazie@gmail.com
077 1916 6731
@maryamNamazie

Pragna Patel
Southall Black Sisters
Pragna@southallblacksisters.co.uk
02085719595
@SBSisters

Chris Moos
LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society
c.m.moos@lse.ac.uk
074 2872 0599
@LSESUASH

Sex segregation in UK universities – a step forward for the Muslim religious-right

Here’s an article by Marieme Helie Lucas in support of the 10 December rally in London against gender apartheid. DATE: Tuesday 10 December 2013. TIME: 5:00-6:30pm. AT: Universities UK, Woburn House, 20 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HQ (Closest Underground Stations: Euston or Russell Square)

segregationA battle that concerns us all is being waged in the UK right now and has surprisingly very little echo outside Britain: Universities UK- a body that officially represents universities – made public their new guidance, according to which sex segregation could be practised in the universities at the request of guest speakers representing religious groups. (To see the guidance in full: ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions)

While protests flew in and an international petition ‘Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK Universities’ was posted on November 23, 2013, UUK published a response that pretended that they were only envisaging a theoretical case, a mere ‘hypothetical case study (p.27) in which an external speaker on faith in the modern world requests that the audience is segregated according to gender’.

They also pretended that there were only trying to apply ‘ a wide range of legislation from equalities law through to criminal law and the duty to protect the safety of university staff, students and visitors’, with the aim of ‘accommodating everyone’s views’ and ‘ensur (ing) that no one is unlawfully excluded from the event’.

This was a blatant lie, as a brief search in the media clearly shows. And it was only one among the many lies that were uttered by UUK authorities on the issue of sex segregation, secularism, higher education and the pervasive political importance of religious organisations in the UK.

Facts

In short, here are some facts: in March 2013 a Prof made the local news, when he started walking out of a debate in which he was one of the two speakers at University College London, if sex segregation was enforced on the audience, as was the case. A video shows him saying “quit the segregation or I’m out of here” after security staff tried to throw out three men who had gone to sit in the women’s section of the audience. Prof Krauss added “You are in a public arena and not in a mosque, not in a private event.”
Not surprisingly, women were seated at the back of the room: according to a student, ‘females were allocated seats at the back corner of the auditorium to view the debate from a disadvantaged position‘. Dana Sondergaard who attended the event, wrote on her Facebook page: “After having been told the event would NOT be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front”.

The debate entitled Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense? was organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy: Prof Krauss, a theoretical physicist and director of the Origins project, was to debate on the question of science vs religion with Mr Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a lecturer and iERA member.

Interestingly, rumours had been spreading beforehand that sex segregation will be the rule during this debate, and Prof. Krauss had approached the authorities, making it clear that he would not speak to a segregated audience; he was assured in advance that this would not be the case. (Video: Krauss, stating that he had been promised no such segregation would take place.

In the week before the event, word of a segregated seating arrangement began circulating. On Friday, Dr. Krauss posted the following status on Facebook: ‘News update: Have now been informed that the event in London will NOT be gender segregated.’

However, one of the organisers said that the segregation had been agreed with the University and suggested more than once that the men should be refused entry.

Similarly, students alerted their unions and the authorities and were given similar re-assurance. However segregation signs were posted on doors in advance.

In a statement by concerned students, it is made clear that ‘Separate entrances were in place for women and men’, and that ‘A policy of sexual segregation was enforced at an event at University College London on Saturday, with the organisers’ security trying to physically remove members of the audience who would not comply’, and that ‘A policy of segregation was suggested by IERA in a statement before the event’.

This was raised by students with UCL, who gave assurances that no segregation would be allowed. ‘Several attendees approached UCL’s security personnel to alert them to the situation, but found that the staff were unwilling to intervene, and were instructed to comply with the organisers’ policy of segregation’.

Interestingly UUK first denied that enforced segregation took place, then argued that sexes were separated left and right, and not front and bottom, and finally said that, as a last minute arrangement, there was provision for a mixed area for married couples! UUK went on stating that segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as “both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”

Students speaking to different media after the event used strong words to describe the situation and their reactions: ‘shocked’, ‘intimidating’, ‘threatening and divisive’, ‘genuinely fearful of the repercussions’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘insulting’, ‘a scandal’, ‘a violation’, ‘disappointed at UCL (which) did not keep its promise’ …

So much for the ‘hypothetical case study’ that UUK pretends to have addressed in its guidance document. Moreover, UUK lied to Prof Krauss as well as to students about not allowing segregation. It also pretended to ban in future religious groups that would request sex segregation, while they were in fact preparing the infamous guidance document that justifies this very segregation.

On the occasion of this incident, and thanks to Prof Krauss making his dissent public, one learnt with dismay that sex segregation had been enforced for over a year – at least – in many public debates or conferences, at the initiative of vocal Muslim fundamentalist organizations.

In Leicester university in a segregated event entitled Does God Exist?, organized by the same group and with the same guest speaker, Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a message on the group’s website says: “In all our events, [the society] operate a strict policy of segregated seating between males and females.” The statement was removed after the Guardian contacted the society. A photograph passed to the Guardian shows signs put up in a university building, directing the segregation.

Leicester University denied enforced segregation. But a Leicester student told the Guardian he believed segregation was common practice at the society’s events to avoid offending those with strong religious beliefs.

More recently, in an article written on November 24, the author states that sex segregation openly continues elsewhere: ‘One recent example of an event held by the Islamic Society at the University of Northampton described seating arrangements as “open to both Brothers and Sisters, with segregation adhered-to” ‘.

In a report written by Student Rights on 13 May 2013, entitled ‘Unequal Opportunity – Gender Segregation on UK University Campuses’, one learns that those are far from being isolated incidents. According to the report, ‘180 events logged in the period March 2012 to March 2013 were investigated for evidence of segregation; 46 of these events (25.5%) at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender, or implied that this would be the case, with six of these cancelled before taking place’. The report concludes that ‘As all 21 of these institutions have equality and diversity policies which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, as well as a legal responsibility to do so under the Equality Act 2010, this briefing uncovers potential failings in these duties’.

Meanwhile, UUK wrote in their guidance document that universities should bear in mind that “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system” and that if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

If we understand correctly, it creates a hierarchy of rights, in which the rights of religious groups supersede the rights of others?

UUK ‘s choice of partners

Not all Muslims –far from that – nor all people from Muslim descent, nor all faith based Muslim organizations hold that genders should be segregated. In fact two extremely important women’s organisations joined the protest against sex segregation, by signing the on line petition and by additionally writing separate letters to UUK, stating their dismay at and opposition to sex segregation in universities under religious pretexts: those are the international solidarity network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws – a non-confessional organization – and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women – a faith based organization -. Moreover, among the initiators (and among later signatories as well) of the online petition are numerous men and women of Muslim descent.

Who are then the religious groups that UUK see fit to invite to organize their events in the premises of universities – rather than other groups?

According to Stand for Peace, they are far from being ordinary religiously minded people; they are fundamentalists and very organized. ‘Tzortzis has previously been associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization that campaigns for a global Islamist caliphate’. ‘He is on record condemning democratic principles and advocating for a Sharia state and advocating for a Sharia state: “We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom. We see under the Khilafa (caliphate), when people used to engage in a positive way, this idea of freedom was redundant, it was unnecessary, because the society understood under the education system of the Khilafa state, and under the political framework of Islam, that people must engage with each other in a positive and productive way to produce results, as the Qur’an says, to get to know one another.” Stand for Peace also says that ‘IERA’s staff includes Islamist hate preachers such as Abdurraheem Green, Hamza Tzortzis (the opposing speaker at the debate) and Yusuf Chambers.’ The article goes on to give various examples of such hate speech: ‘Tzortzis wants to criminalize homosexuality.’‘Yusuf Chambers is a founding member of the iERA. In a recorded conversation conducted with Dr. Zakir Naik (who has been banned from entering Britain), Chambers specifically asks what the punishment for homosexuality should be (the answer is “Death”), and then asks Naik to refute suggestions that homosexuality has any natural or genetic origins. In the same interview, Chambers agrees that adulterous women should be stoned to death. [Read more…]

25 July 2012: Protest against the Olympics Committee’s failure to implement principles of equality and neutrality

On 25 July 2012 in conjunction with the opening of the London Olympics, ‘London 2012: Justice for Women’ is organising a protest against the Olympics Committee’s failure to implement principles of equality and neutrality. The group’s concerns include the banning of female athletes in contravention of principles of equality by Saudi Arabia and the inclusion of veiled women in contravention to neutrality principles. The group is also calling for homage to women pioneers in sports, amongst other demands.

The protest begins with a public meeting on the Hispaniola (moored near Embankment tube station) from 10.30am-13.00pm, focusing on the concepts of neutrality versus politico-religious symbols, and how women’s rights to equality and universalism are being ignored and denied by the Olympics Committee. Speakers at the public meeting include representatives of the European Women’s Lobby, secularists and women’s rights defenders, including from countries under Islamic laws.

Drinks, sandwiches and a New-Orleans jazz band will be made available at the meeting. [Read more…]