Hate to self-publicize, but the follow-up programme “Any Answers?” has a brief comment of mine exposing a common misunderstanding about the odious document on gender segregation on UK campuses and criticizing Shami Chakrabarti for not taking UUK to task (24:10 into the broadcast). For a longer comment, read on.
What is wrong with “voluntary” gender segregation?
The recent debacle by Universities UK, who had to withdraw their odious document on gender segregation on British campuses, has highlighted a number of interesting issues on the relationship between universities and the public sphere. Before addressing the issue of “voluntary” gender segregation, a few comments on the governance of British Universities are in order.
British academics and especially University vice-chancellors have not covered themselves in glory during this incident. I have not seen a single public statement by any vice-chancellor denouncing the document, issued on their own behalf by UUK, as contrary to the ethos of British Universities. The opposition to gender segregation was not started by academics (Nick Cohen and Polly Toynbee having played a major role) and some lonely open letters to vice-chancellors asking them to take a stance received no replies and little support.
The way in which the UUK document was prepared gives an illuminating insight into the mind set of the new class of bureaucrats ruling British Universities, who manage to combine illiberal values with practical incompetence, free, as they are, from any form of effective monitoring and accountability.
Who could have predicted that a document mandating compulsory gender segregation on UK campuses would have generated widespread opposition? Not Nicola Dandridge who apparently did not submit the draft of her guidance document to UUK board members for prior approval. Who could have predicted that such inflammatory recommendation as compulsory gender segregation would require scrupulously careful legal advice? Not Nicola Dandridge who consulted a senior legal counsel (Fenella Morris QC, who must be busy clearing egg from her face) after the eruption of public outrage. Who, when consulting on a major policy document on freedom of speech, thought that it would not be appropriate to approach the leading human rights organization, namely Liberty (formerly the Council for Civil Liberties)? Not Nicola Dandridge, who, on the other hand, sought the opinions of the Church of England, of the Union of Jewish Students, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, even of the obscure Lokahi Foundation. Not a mention either of the National Secular Society which, one might have thought, could have had something to contribute on freedom of, and from, religion.
Following such a humiliating defeat, that has resonated on a worldwide basis, the resignations of the CEO of UUK, Nicola Dandridge, should have been demanded as a matter of course.
In a sense Ms Dandridge should be thanked for her incompetence and lack of sensitivity because by recommending mandatory gender segregation she has managed to create a much wider front of opposition than would have been the case had she merely advocated “voluntary” gender apartheid.
So what is wrong with “voluntary” gender segregation? The debate on this matter in the last couple of weeks has, in my opinion, missed the main point at stake, in so far as it has centred on whether women who endorse gender segregation are truly free or whether they display “false consciousness”.
My contention is that gender equality in civil society is not optional, to be adhered to or not depending on one’s religious belief. Whereas the choice of following any one religion (with its own particular customs which may include gender segregation, special clothing requirements, dietary restrictions, etc.) is, obviously, a matter of personal choice and free from any state interference (in a secular state), dispensing with gender equality is not open to any individuals as citizens, i.e., as members of civil and political society. When attending an event organized on a non-religious basis, individuals cannot demand that their refusal to behave as citizens be respected by other citizens. I may want and indeed desire to be humiliated and treated as a sexual object in the confines of my private life, but this does not give me the right to be so treated in the public sphere. Gender equality is not a gift from god, indeed it is an ideal that had to be fought for against almost every religion. Gender equality is a constituent right of individuals as citizens, who may decide not to avail themselves of it in their private relationship but cannot be divested from in civil and political society.