The below Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas has been published in the January 2014 issue of Unveiled, Fitnah’s Monthly Publication.
Maryam Namazie: What is the nature of the recent sex segregation scandal at Universities UK where the representative body issued guidance saying side by side sex segregation was permissible? Why does it occur and by whom is it imposed? Also, it’s more than just a question of physical separation isn’t it?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Just like with the niqab, it’s an extreme-Right political organisation working under the cover of religion to promote sex segregation as a pawn in the political landscape and using all possible means to make itself visible and impose its mores and laws. The idea is to permanently demonstrate that the law of god (as interpreted by them) supersedes the law of the people. It is a blatant attack on the very principle of democracy and one woman/man, one vote, particularly relevant in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death.
The UK has laws for gender equity; therefore, the government should be clear that these laws are the only ones applicable in the UK. However we know that this is not the case as it has already accepted a parallel legal system [what’s known as Sharia Courts or Muslim Arbitration Tribunals] which does not grant women the same rights as the law of the land does. This is a major setback.
Às long as all these attempts by Muslim fundamentalists – whether in the form of different rights for different categories of citizens, veiling, sex segregation and so on – is not analysed in political terms – as the expression of an anti-democratic programme, but rather in terms of religion or culture, the British government will not limit the rise of this extreme-Right movement, which will be increasingly difficult to control.
Those of us who clearly see the rise of a new form of fascism – mostly because we come from situations in which we have had to live under the boot of fundamentalists – are left to our own devices to struggle against it. It is not very different from the situation of anti-Nazi Germans who were not listened to, for far too long, until a bloody war was inevitable.
Maryam Namazie: Universities UK’s guidance first said (though it has now been withdrawn as a result of pressure) if women are not made to sit at the back of the room but are segregated alongside men, since none are disadvantaged, then there is no discrimination. Your views?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Whether at the back or on the side, the old argument is always that this is done to protect women – for their own good, of course, and by doing so to restrict their freedom of movement. By the same logic, some twenty years ago, Bangladesh suddenly restricted women from leaving the country as there was a lot of trafficking of women in the region. What appeared to be their solution was NOT to arrest pimps-protectors, but to prevent women from travelling without a wali (a male guardian from their family). Please note that Bangladesh does not even abide by the Maliki School, in which the institution of wali is legal.
What is discriminatory is to assign a place to somebody, whatever that place may be. It says: keep to your place; to women’s place!
Universities have no business pandering to such requests, and if they do, what’s next? Fundamentalist speakers will only address audiences where females are fully covered?
It seems we are already witnessing some of the next steps. According to media reports, in one instance at a UK university, women were not only segregated but had to give their questions in writing to the speaker, whilst men could raise theirs. As one knows, their voices are sexually attractive and fundamentalists plug their ears against temptation – hence the ban on singing in the areas the Taliban control…
What is sure is that fundamentalists will not stop here and will produce more and more demands, since the aim is not to get satisfaction for a specific demand, but to gain political ground.
Maryam Namazie: Omar Ali, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, says ‘segregation’ is ‘an emotive use of language’. ‘If a society is set up to cater for religious needs on campus, why shouldn’t they? ‘A lot of people would find it insulting to say this is something discriminatory against women.’
Marieme Helie Lucas: Why should religious needs be catered to on campus? If we launch a society for the rights of naturists, should universities cater to our need to organise healthy debates in the nude (in summer only), and to exclude or seclude those who do not adhere to putting our philosophy in practice? Or is Mr Omar Ali’s religious ideology considered by university authorities more valuable than my naturist philosophy? In that case, I could take the authorities to court for discrimination against my philosophy, for creating a hierarchy of rights amongst different views and beliefs.
What is to be allowed on campus? What is in keeping with a university’s general mission of expanding knowledge and reasoning? I presume that my naturist philosophy could be and should be of interest to all to debate about on campus, but that my insistence to put my beliefs in practice may not be considered as indispensable to the exchange of ideas.
Maryam Namazie: Separating men and women isn’t necessarily discriminatory and can reflect personal preferences, such as women-only gyms on women-only refuges. The head of Universities UK which issued the guidance endorsing segregation of the sexes says: “It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment. It’s not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation, which is totally different and it’s unlawful and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.” Are racial and gender segregation incomparable? Why is it that everyone can see the distinction between a black university and racial apartheid but when it comes to gender, it’s not as obvious?
Marieme Helie Lucas: This is a very crucial question that I have debated a lot, including more than twenty years ago with feminist friends in the USA. While sex segregation was rapidly expanding in Algeria under the heavy weight of the first fundamentalist preachers and religious groups, I was trying to warn them about the potential backlash of their gender segregation policy in the name of feminism.
Many of our feminist weapons have been turned against us along the years… and I have come to this very sad conclusion that we were not smart enough to think, as thinkers and philosophers should, about all the facets of the concepts we were grappling with. Just think of our feminist praise for diversity, whilst all along we knew that difference was used to legitimise the racist South African apartheid regime, or the segregationist states of the USA. This concept is now used to legitimise the imposition of differences on women that make them unequal in the name of religion, ethnicity or culture.
I think we should urgently question the present trend to regroup with ‘the same’ in order to protect ourselves from ‘the other’. It seems to me that this is a general trend, from the creation of Israel to the dismantling of the former Yugoslavia, to the creation of ghettos – whether for Blacks – or increasingly for wealthy Whites, Asians, Muslims, Sikhs… you name it.
We are slowly returning to the ethnic/racial/religious/gender purity which induces us to stay amongst ‘the sames’. Decades ago, I wrote a chapter entitled ‘What is your tribe? The construction of Muslimness’ in which I discussed the fear of the other to discover that the other is the same…
Mixing is the future of humanity. [Read more…]