The universities were breaking the Equalities Act of 2010

Nick Cohen talks about the confusion of people who think equality and diversity come in one package like fish and chips.

If you need me to rehearse the argument again after all these years, here it is, one more time. In a free society you are or should be free to believe what you want. But your freedom to ‘celebrate your diversity’ does not extend to the freedom to force your beliefs on others, unless you can secure a democratic change in the law compatible with the rights of minorities. For instance, you may be a doctor with ethical or religious objections to abortion. No one should force you to abort a fetus. You also have every right to denounce abortion at public meetings or refuse to vote for candidates who support abortion. But you do not have the right to bomb abortion clinics. 

Ah well Nick conceded too much there. If you’re a doctor and you work at a hospital? Yes, someone should force you to abort a fetus if that’s part of your job. That is to say, if abortions are part of a doctor’s job, that doctor should perform the abortions. That’s the deal with jobs – you’re supposed to do them. If you don’t want to do parts of them, you’re in the wrong field, and should get out of it.

I used to think it was ok to let doctors refuse to do abortions, but then I saw the way that was spreading and spreading like mold, and I realized I was wrong. All this refusing just means it’s getting harder and harder for women to get abortions in the US.

Hardly anyone has noticed, but last week the [Equality and Human Rights] commission ruled on an argument that filled the airwaves earlier this year: could Universities UK, a quango, which represents the vice-chancellors of 132 universities and assorted higher education institutes, endorse gender segregation at public events. In a sign of the times, the universities had dressed up their assault on the rights of women in the language of liberalism. They ruled that if allowing men and women to sit where they wished contravened ‘the genuinely held religious beliefs’ of the speaker – who let’s face it will be a religious reactionary addressing a student Islamic Society nine times out of ten – or of the group hosting the event, then women must be segregated. Universities must ‘be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully,’ it announced.

As I said, it is a novel view of freedom of speech that a speaker has the right to impose his views on his audience. But it fits with the totalitarian religious mind. If women can be segregated inside the mosque or orthodox synagogue, they should be segregated outside too. A stern god’s commands recognise no boundaries.

Mark Hammond, the chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, had no time for that or for Britain’s sinister academics. It was not against the law to prevent segregation, he said, but against the law to allow it. The universities were breaking the Equalities Act of 2010 – a useful measure passed in the dying days of the last Labour government, which requires public bodies to oppose discrimination. Religious organisations remain exempt – barring the usual exceptions for human sacrifice – but as the commission said:

‘once an event goes beyond religious worship or practice, equality law applies and the courts are likely to consider any gender segregation to be unlawful…A woman who is not permitted to occupy a particular area of the lecture hall because it is reserved for men is disadvantaged because she cannot sit wherever she chooses.’

That’s good, although Chris Moos tells me that there are nevertheless some worrying passages about gender segregation in the ruling.

While supporting the religious right, the ‘liberal’ bureaucracy turns its back on genuine liberals from the ethnic minorities, as I found when I spoke to Sara Khan who runs a campaign group, Inspire, which fights for the rights of British Muslim women. When she publicly opposed Universities UK, Islamists threatened her so violently she had to call the police. To compound her misery, she had to endure lectures from white feminists telling her that she was ‘promoting anti-Muslim prejudice’, when she was a Muslim who had experienced anti-Muslim prejudice and they were not; and articles from the ‘left-wing’ Laurie Penny,  maintaining that Asians who wanted the rights she enjoyed, were the tools of ‘right-wing commentators’.

‘Diversity,’ it appears, does not protect women like Khan. They must do as their ‘community leaders’ tell them. Instead it allows whichever gobby god-botherer is first to make it through the quango’s doors to impose his prejudices as he pleases.

Sara Khan is nobody’s tool.



  1. Gerard O says

    One thing to note is that any “ethnic community leader” is usually self-appointed, wealthy, old and male. These people are however the go-to for any politician, while other members of these communities are mere spectators. Diversity indeed.

  2. hoary puccoon says

    I assume Muslim speakers are allowed to insist on segregated audiences within mosques in Britain. If Muslim leaders want to speak in a segregated venue, they have one available. If they want to speak to non-Muslims in a segregated venue, they can invite the non-Muslims to a Mosque.

    There is no way that refusing to let Muslim leaders come onto a university campus and force segregation on the general public is interfering with the leaders’ rights. The only thing they are being prevented from doing is imposing their discriminatory practices on someone else’s venue.

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