As Channel 4 reported last week the sudden furore over gender segregation in universities, which eventually saw the Prime Minister call for segregation to be banned even when it is voluntary, was sparked by a report produced by an organisation called 'Student Rights'.
At the time the report was released I criticised it as methodologically flawed and sensationalist and argued that Student Rights was contributing to a climate of Islamophobia. Whatever one's views on the segregation issue, it is important to understand the agenda of the actors who instigated the debate.
As Channel 4 reported, Student Rights 'shares an office with' a right wing think tank called the Henry Jackson Society (HJS). This is euphemistic double-speak for 'front group'. As far back as 2010 the London Student newspaper had reported that Student Rights also receives money from the think tank.
However, up until that Channel 4 report, Student Rights had almost never been linked to the Henry Jackson Society in the mainstream media. Instead the press generally presents it as an independent anti-extremism group, or more recently an 'equality group'. It even gets labelled a student group (though, despite its name, it seems to have no student members or links to student unions).
The link to HJS is significant because key HJS personnel, notably associate director Douglas Murray, have made numerous statements that have led to accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry - including from former staff members. Dig a little deeper and we find that the director of Student Rights, Raheem Kassam also has a worrying track record of promoting paranoid counter-jihad style material and laughing it off when confronted.
Now pointing this out does not automatically negate all criticisms of the practice of gender segregation that have come from various parties. Nor does it even necessarily render Student Rights' criticism entirely illegitimate. However, it is vital to situate the origin of such a controversy and origins like this should, I think, lead us to pause and consider whether the narrow framing of this issue is problematic. Is the current discussion, provoked by Student Rights' report, more about feminism or Islamophobia?
Several commentators believe it is largely about the latter, and so do many students. Apart from being busy fighting to keep their campuses cop-free, a growing number are also giving their support to a campaign called 'Real Student Rights' (RSR), founded to expose and oppose 'Student Rights' (far more, I should add, than the turned out for the demo outside Universities UK, which despite what some media reports suggest, was very small and not attended by many actual students - though it was able to compensate for this thanks to a handful of vocal journalists).
It is probably largely thanks to Real Student Rights, a grassroots, independent student campaign, that Student Rights was forced, on national television, to deny students' allegations that it is Islamophobic.
Despite its denial, the evidence demonstrating how its discourse and activities fuel Islamophobia, even to the point of endangering students' welfare by - inadvertently or not - attracting far-right groups on to campus, has convinced most students so far.
In the space of two weeks this month students at the London School of Economics, Goldsmiths and Birkbeck, University of London all passed a Real Student Rights motion criticising Student Rights for its counter-productive activities which only serve to marginalise Muslim students. Channel 4 took notice and gave LSE SU President Jay Stoll the chance to point out why Student Rights undue and unexplained focus on monitoring Muslim students was highly problematic.
The Real Student Rights motion - which we encourage all students to put forward at their union - also heavily criticises Student Rights' lack of transparency. Before the Channel 4 report, it appears that the only previous public admission by the group of a link to the Henry Jackson Society was tucked away on a thread in the Facebook group off the LSE student Atheist, Humanist and Secularist society.
It also came about only because Real Student Rights had forced the issue. Student Rights' researcher Rupert Sutton had taken to social media to try (unsuccessfully) to drum up opposition to the Real Student Rights motion which passed overwhelmingly earlier this month at LSE. He appears to have been targeting the Conservative Society and the Atheist and Humanist Society (ironically, Jason Wong, himself accused of misogyny, was asked to enlist the support of LSE student Tories).
Because Student Rights had never previously admitted the link, one apparently confused and exasperated student asked Sutton via this Facebook thread to address the Henry Jackson Society issue 'once and for all'.
Sutton responded: 'We have never denied that we are a project of HJS though we fund-raise independently and set our own research agenda.' There followed an awkward silence. And little wonder. Sutton's answer is totally inadequate.
Why, up till now, has Student Rights hidden the fact that it is a Henry Jackson Society project from students and the media? The fact that it has 'never denied' the link hardly smacks of transparency or accountability. It should not be down to students to start a campaign to point out the affiliations or funding of an organisation operating in the public sphere.
Student Rights should also explain why it referred to itself here and in emails to universities obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as 'independent'? If it is, in Sutton's words 'a project of the HJS' and receives money from the think tank, as well as sharing its office, precisely what definition of independent is being deployed here?
If it fundraises independently why does it not register with Companies House or the Charity Commission? Why does it not publish its own financial accounts to reveal its income levels and the identities of its major donors, so we know exactly how independent - or not - it really is from the HJS.
The whole shady business also raises questions of the Henry Jackson Society itself. Why does a think tank ostensibly concerned with weighty foreign policy issues, want a vehicle to monitor UK university campuses? And why set up a non-transparent front group to do so?
I want to reiterate that I'm not suggesting that everyone who has expressed concerns about gender segregation is Islamophobic. Nor should it be taken to imply that segregation is always a complete non-issue and Real Student Rights is not voicing a collective position on it given the complexity and nuance required.
However, since one of the key actors driving the debate seems to have highly questionable motives and has used rather covert methods, I do think we need to readjust the lens with which we look at this issue. The evidence here suggests that there is an overlooked racial dimension to the way the current debate on gender is panning out in the public sphere, and that it may have been grossly sensationalised for dubious reasons.
Real Student Rights will continue to oppose Student Rights until it stops demonising Muslim students in what last year's NUS Vice President for Welfare called a 'witch hunt' (and stops undermining student Palestine solidarity activism.) RSR calls on as many students unions as possible to pass this motion, sign and circulate this petition and follow the campaign on Twitter and Facebook.
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