Letter to the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights

A letter to Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, from Radha Bhatt, Marieme Helie Lucas, Nahla Mahmoud, Chris Moos, Maryam Namazie, Pragna Patel, Abhishek Phadnis, and Fatou Sow. They write to draw her attention to the increasing incidence of gender segregation on public university campuses in the United Kingdom, and to seek her intervention in the 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.

Speaking of that…it’s very damn unfortunate that the only women from Muslim backgrounds the BBC saw fit to invite to participate in that Big Questions on gender segregation were there to defend it. There were plenty of people there to oppose it, good, but they were all men. It’s right that Chris and Abhishek were there because they’ve been way out front on this, but it’s a great pity that Maryam or Pragna or Nahla or Radha couldn’t have been there too, to disrupt that very strong visual in which the two shrouded women were right smack in the middle.

(There was also Tina Beattie, ironically. I say “ironically” because I think she talks awful guff about religion, but she was right on this. She interrupted David Lammy when he was talking about how he respects his constituents, he doesn’t shake hands with women when he goes to a Jewish Orthodox temple. I scowled at that and asked “you respect whom?” so I was glad that Beattie interrupted him to say the same thing and then point out that the reason for not shaking hands is in case the woman is “polluted.” Menstrual blood you know; ew ick filthy women.) (But then, he wasn’t clear about what he meant – whether it was refusal to shake hands with a woman who offered, or not offering to shake hands with a woman after shaking hands with the men. There are degrees of disrespect there.)

The letter, minus the paragraph of background that you already know:

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
Abhishek Phadnis, President of LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society
Fatou Sow, International Director of Women Living Under Muslim Laws





  1. says

    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.

    I think that is especially well-put! Bravo!

  2. Katherine Woo says

    I think the notion of a religion or culture having rights is extremely dangerous. The right is articulated not by an individual who usually can speak for themselves, but by the loudest voice or person capable of controlling a group power dynamic.

  3. LSESUASH says

    Hi Ophelia,

    I absolutely agree with you, we suggested to them to invite Maryam, Pragna, Tehmina Kazi, Sara Khan, Yasmin-Alibhai Brown, Lejla Kuric etc but they didn’t want to. You know, here in Britain only so called ‘authentic Muslim women’ are usually invited to speak on matters like these.

  4. says

    LSESUASH – [tears hair in speechless rage]

    [speech regained] I realized later that it’s even worse than that: that all the women there were religious and all the non-religious were men. They were also…er…gender segregated. This arrangement just repeats that stupid stereotype that being intellectually active about atheism, speaking and writing about it, is “more of a guy thing.”

    Drat you BBC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *