Topless protesters will gather together on Tuesday to demonstrate against "forced" gender segregation at universities, following a controversial report by a leading education organisation.
The protest taking place outside the offices of Universities UK on Tuesday has already recruited more than 100 demonstrators, with many planning to attend topless, following the organisation's contentious guidelines on segregation.
The demonstration is part of a petition, which has reached nearly 8,000 signatures, urging Universities UK (UUK) to rescind its endorsement of sex segregation.
Last month, the organisation which represents the UK's universities published a report saying universities could segregate by gender during talks from external speakers, as long as men and women are sat side by side and not one in front of the other.
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Universities UK warned not offering a mixed seating area might be discriminatory against other beliefs but said steps to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should "not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system".
Now, a demonstration has been organised to protest against the guidelines, with students arguing they set a 'dangerous precendent'.
Chris Moos, one of the protest organisers and a student at the London School of Economics, told the Huffington Post UK: "In a public space, everyone, no matter what gender, has the freedom to sit where they choose, with no one having the right to impose a discriminatory seating order. This counts all the more for protected characteristics such as gender, race, or sexual orientation.
"By alleging that "genuinely held religious beliefs" trump basic human rights and considerations of equality, Universities UK's guidelines set a dangerous precedent. If they were implemented, it would mean that university staff would have the legal obligation to partially and even fully segregate audiences forcibly by gender if these are the expressed wishes of the speaker or event organiser."
Moos says he was personally subjected to gender segregation when he attended a talk at University College, London. The event, held last March, hit headlines after a leading academic refused to walk out after he said he saw three students ejected for sitting "in the wrong place".
Women were reportedly told by organisers to sit separately from men and couples.
Moos, who says some of the protesters had announced they would be attending topless, added: "I think there is an obvious connection between challenging a proposal that condones the forceful segregation by alleged gender, and a form of protest that challenges the patriarchal norms that lead to a construction of the body along a male/female dichotomy with different rights and representations.
"Whether some people are going to go topless or not is not the central point of the protest, but the fact that gender segregation is discrimination, as those who are segregated are never considered equal.
"The protest will show that students, academics, and civil society are firmly opposed against any form of segregation, be it under racist, cultural or religious pretences. We hope that Universities UK will come to reason and immediately retract their discriminatory guidelines."
UUK said it was aware of the protest and petition but would not be commenting.
However following the publication of UUK's guidance, chief executive Nicola Dandridge blogged in defence of the advice, writing:
"Much of the discussion has reduced our practical advice on what is a highly complex issue to a debate about the rights or wrongs of gender segregation. The guidance is not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender. Instead, it highlights the legal and other factors that universities must consider.
"The guidance does not promote gender segregation.
"Universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate. This practical guidance has been developed to ensure that as many debates as possible on sensitive and emotive issues can continue to take place."
The British Humanist Association however, disagreed, condemning the report. BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal said: "Universities are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.
"It would be completely unacceptable if a visiting speaker tried to segregate an audience along racial lines, so sex segregation should be equally unacceptable.
"A visiting speaker’s right to freedom of speech entitles them to express their political and religious views, but not to impose these views on the audience."
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