Separate but equal rears it ugly head in the UK

Universities UK, the umbrella organization of universities in the United Kingdom, has published a report saying that it is acceptable for universities to segregate audiences by gender in order to accommodate the sensibilities of external speakers who have ‘genuinely held’ religious beliefs that prevent them speaking to mixed gender groups.

In a case study on pages 27 and 28 of the document, it lays out a possible scenario that organizers of events may be confronted with.

A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world…. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender.

My reaction would be to say, “Go to hell”. But the UUK says, remarkably, that it all depends on how the people are segregated. Separate front and back areas are not acceptable but side-by-side is fine since then both genders have equal access to the stage and other facilities.

On the face of the case study, 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. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.

The UUK report says that even a request that there be an unsegregated area in addition to the segregated areas can be rejected if the speaker objects.

Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief.

I frankly am tired of people’s bigoted and hateful beliefs being respected just because they are ‘genuinely held’. I don’t care. You want to speak only to segregated audiences? Fine. Go and hire your own building and do it on your own. Don’t expect universities, which are expected to behave according to the highest ideals of the enlightenment, to accommodate your backward views.

There is a reason that the doctrine of providing separate but equal services was outlawed in the US. It is because it was realized that it was based on a pretense in that it enabled unequal treatment to be hidden under a façade of equality. The issue was unequivocally decided in the US in the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his unanimous opinion that it did not really matter if the two systems were equal in the tangible measures. It was the enforced act of separation that created the inequality.

In the instant cases, that question is directly presented. Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter, there are findings below that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other “tangible” factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs: Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. [My italics-MS]

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. [My italics-MS]

This reasoning applies equally strongly in this case. Can anyone seriously argue that the member of the ‘ultra-orthodox religious group’ who wants this separation thinks that women are equal to men? Of course not. Keeping them segregated is part of the overall strategy of keeping them subjugated. When people are herded into separate areas, is there any doubt in anyone’s mind about who is considered superior and who is considered inferior?

It is interesting that there was no case study in the UUK report involving a speaker whose ‘genuinely held’ beliefs required the audience to be separated by race, as used to be the case in apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow US. I would have liked to see how the UUK would reason its way on that one. I agree totally with Polly Toynbee who writes:

My own view is that religion is like any other opinion and deserves to be subjected to the same challenge or mockery as anyone’s political views, with no special respect or forbearance. Universities are the anvils for hammering out these ideas, not for setting religious sensibilities above women’s rights, and beyond challenge, trumping all other argument.

The UUK should be ashamed of itself. The Jesus and Mo cartoonist has a clear-eyed view of what is really at issue.

J&M sex discrimination


  1. says

    I have a ‘genuinely held’ religious belief that when I speak, the audience shouldn’t just be imagined to be naked, but should actually be so.

    When will the yukky UUK support my deeply held beliefs?

    Why are they persecuting me?

  2. says

    Those who want segregation by gender should be made to sit in “gender free zones”, similar to Bush’s “free speech zones”.

    Yes, that means they should be outside the building in a fenced off area when the event takes place.

    If they want to be treated as equals, they’re going to have to accept that women will be treated like equals. But if they think women will give them cooties, then it’s probably better that the seg-rape-ationists not be present nor take part in the discussion.

    Small wonder they don’t want women and men together, they act like five year old children.

  3. jamessweet says

    If I allow myself to bend over backwards entirely to be charitable…

    I could see an argument that, if they felt it was very important to allow a particular speaker to be heard despite that speaker’s patently bigoted beliefs, it might be acceptable to make this accommodation — only if they unequivocally and unambiguously condemn it at the same time.

    It doesn’t really look like either is happening in this case. In other words, I don’t think this made them say, “Do we really need this speaker?”, and then they tried to be nice about it when accommodating his hateful beliefs.

  4. Mano Singham says

    If the sight of mixed groups offends the speaker but you yet want to hear his views, then he can sit behind a curtain or in another room or in another location entirely and his speech transmitted.

    The point is that there is no reason why others should be accommodating when he is the one with the problem. If he wants to get his message out, then he should be the one doing the accommodating.

  5. machintelligence says

    The UUK is being too polite about this. Sometimes it is necessary to step on people’s toes until they apologize for putting them there.

  6. colnago80 says

    Re machintelligence @ #4

    Or, as I would put it, sometimes a knee to the groin approach is appropriate.

  7. says

    One small, and slightly consoling, point – Universities UK likes to present itself as the umbrella organization of universities in the UK, but the great David Colquhoun firmly pointed out in a comment on Nicola Dandridge’s infamous blog post last week that they are no such thing. They are the org of UK vice-chancellors, period. They do NOT speak for universities. They posture as if they do, but they do not.

  8. Chiroptera says

    On the face of the case study, 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.

    Since the subject of entrenching cultural norms of inferiority and superiority has come up, who wants to be whether such a speaker spends most of his (its a “his,” right?) talk facing one group over the other? Or that the tone of voice changes or the analogies come more moronically simplistic when he turns to face the other group?

  9. Al Dente says

    If speakers wish to argue for gender segregation then let them do so. But until they have proven their case then segregation should not be happening.

  10. Chiroptera says

    Remind me again: why is it an outrage when a segregation policy separates, say, white people from black people but it suddenly becomes acceptable to keep men separated from women?

  11. Mark Rogers says

    It raises the question of where the transgender members of the audience are meant to sit.
    I guess in their own section in the middle?

  12. Mano Singham says

    I think the increased visibility of the transgender community is going to pose a real problem for religious people like these who tend to see things in binary terms.

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