“A context so heavily shaped by an intolerant Western ‘liberalism’”

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 The advice was withdrawn when the Equalities and Human Rights Commission deemed this advice discriminatory.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.


  1. rnilsson says

    Where there’s a will, there’s a lie. For God, of course.
    Or for one’s own subsistence in some cases.

    (Disclaimer: Not meaning you, OB, obviously. Have no inclination to access Libretto Faciale, quite enough drama watching the moon through misty clouds. Once in a while.)

  2. Maureen Brian says

    That piece was a disgrace. You can’t be serious that the author teaches at a university.

    Students Rights may have done some of the counting up of incidents but many of us were aware of them anyway and campaigning anyway. Among the people I saw in the front line were Ophelia Benson, here, plus Maryam Namazie, Iranian and brought up a Muslim, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a practicing Muslim, Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos whose freedom of thought speech and action have already been seriously curtailed elsewhere and I haven’t finished yet.

    Add to that list Jack Straw and Chuka Umunna, neither conservative and neither of “white right back to William the Conqueror” heritage. And let’s add in Lawrence Krauss and Nick Cohen, both atheists but each close enough to his Jewish roots to recognise that segregation can be – sometimes is – stage one on the road to genocide.

    These are people who, between them, actually know about all those things it it claimed they do not understand. And more!

    The only conservatives I see are David Cameron and Nicola Dandridge and – amazingly – they are on different sides of this argument. What does that tell you?

    So, Priyamvada Gopal, if you really want to be an intellectual and you find yourself being criticised your first and most important task is to understand your critic’s argument. Your second is to stop the crocodile tears.

    Then in this case it might be useful to recognise that these attempts at segregation are part of a political project, clearly enunciated by both Hiizb-ut-Tahrir and iERA, and that the political propositions they offer have little to offer us. They also make no sense in the light of the history of this country and the different histories of the many people who have chosen this place as home.

    Above all, please recognise that this has very little to do with religion. It is quasi-religious theatre in the service of power politics. We reject it, as we are perfectly entitled and thus far free to do.

  3. says

    Ah, that old song and dance. No, kiddos. Rejecting intolerance is not incompatible with valuing tolerance. I know it sounds tricky, but that’s because you’re not thinking very hard. In order to be truly tolerant, you cannot tolerate intolerance. Not a paradox! Not evidence of hypocrisy! Now run along.

  4. peterh says

    Are Britain’s Muslims “under attack”? Or have they brought attack (real and/or imagined) upon themselves?

  5. says

    The only reason Gopal & the creatures at Loonwatch can think of that this segregation should have been attacked is hatred of Islam. They also claim deep-seated pain at liberals attacking religious practices. There’s no attempt to feel the liberals’ pain at hearing of a gross violation of a cultural practice or a liberal principle. This to me was not the anger that I feel when I hear that yet another repulsive theocrat is spouting murderous garbage at the invitation of a university society. That’s speech – and with the usual caveats of incitement etc – you just have to put up with it. But when the UUK was actually enabling them to enact their repugnant ideas in a public institution, that was as painful to me as a personal insult- the same claim that Muslims make about insults to their prophet. Can’t they try to get into our heads, our culture, our principles for any purpose other than pushing their own agendas?

  6. Pen says

    I think the quoted article fails to address the fact that the ‘decent, nice, liberal’ Europeans(and the scare quotes are indeed well deserved) held the status quo in this situation for perfectly valid historical reasons. It’s a silly re-use of the kind of argument made to criticise Westerners who are trying to intervene in the affairs of other regions. Here, in the West, the status quo is that gender segregation is not usual at public meetings – and these are public meetings which are being discussed, not meetings reserved for Islamic religious groups. On top of this, it can be argued that this status quo involves a default – random seating with no particular rules or interventions required.

    Those are two reasons why those asking for change in a direction requiring greater effort and restriction should be required to provide a strong argument in its favour. Change is possible but it’s their task to persuade and convince others it should be adopted. In this case, the argument is rejected. The same process holds true, of course, when the group asking for change are native Europeans.

    A third argument is worth mentioning. The cost to speakers who want to address gender segregated groups and audiences who want to be segregated is minimal. There are many mosques, Muslim community centres and spaces hireable for private functions where these talks can be held if desired without impinging on public university space.

  7. RJW says

    (1) “Muslims are under unprecedented attack”—- Muslims have their own unique definition of “under attack”, most infidels would describe it as “resistance to Islamisation”–the ‘Muslim as victim’ ploy started with Mohammed.

    (2) ” ….generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best)”

    The remark is more than “rhetorical bullying”, it’s racist rhetorical bullying.

    “Loonwatch” is nothing more than a very ineptly disguised Islamist propaganda site, with a resident chorus of anti-Western ‘commenters’. I was banned after pointing out the site’s double standards and racism.

    “Western ‘liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.” Well, actually it is.

    It’s difficult to understand with the author’s banalities, sophistry and general verbal diarrhea, what point is being argued. Apparently liberal democracy is inimical to “gender equality and social change”, are we, in the West supposed to leave progress in the hands of a singularly torpid totalitarian theocracy which has oppressed women, minorities and infidels for 1400 years?

  8. moarscienceplz says


    I still don’t know what ‘voluntary segregation’ means. It makes no sense to me.

    Oh, that’s easy! “We, freely and of our own volition, do agree to occupy the best seats in the theater, the choicest tables at restaurants, and the nicest neighborhoods. And the people who are not like us volunteer to occupy what’s left.”


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