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Topless Protests Are Not the Answer

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The recent decision by Universities UK (UUK) to allow gender segregation at University events, on the condition that women are to sit next to (rather than behind) men, has apparently outraged some students so deeply that they plan to, quite literally, bare all in the name of abolishing gender segregation, and stage a topless protest before the UUK headquarters.

Now, don't get me wrong. I will readily concur that there are many issues with the implementation of gender segregation in our universities; from my experience it is seldom done in a way which does not, be it subtly or explicitly, imply that women are unwanted, inferior, or somehow a burden on the event. All too often, what only needs to be a case of women to one side, men to the other, is instead marked by a superfluous curtain, splitting the room entirely (lest one side becomes aware that another gender but their own exists!) and effectively isolating females from any inclusion or participation in the event.

I also happen to agree with the protesters' concerns that a mixed gender seating arrangement should be provided for anybody who objects to being segregated - be they Muslim or not. Universities are public and pluralistic environments, and we must ensure that our events are welcoming to anybody who may be interested in attending; forcing segregation upon anyone who may not believe in it does very little for our unfortunate image as a non-inclusive, unwelcoming or harsh religion.

Having said this, it remains an undeniable fact that many Muslim women simply want to attend segregated events: their religious conviction is such that they would prefer to not 'free mix'. Therefore, short of brainwashing the Muslim population, logistics of event organising often mean that to host a non-segregated event is to deter many potential attendees. Whilst I personally think that we are perfectly capable of sitting side by side in a lecture hall without mass promiscuity ensuing, it is neither my place - nor anyone else's - to demand otherwise. And it is certainly not in-keeping with the tenants of feminism to demand that women must transcend their own comfort zone or beliefs, in order to adhere to an arbitrarily decided definition of how they should act. I, for one, favour a feminism that encourages and celebrates a woman's own prerogative (regardless of whether one agrees with it) over the elementary and inflammatory attitude displayed by the student protesters.

Indeed, the very concept of a topless protest to save us passive and oppressed Muslim women from being victims of patriarchy is totally antithetical to feminist ideals. Feminism is not exclusively what the likes of FEMEN, and the protesters in question (both of whom share the ironic paradox of males organising a female topless protest, all in the name of female equality) deem to be liberating. Muslim women do not need such reactionary and sensationalist media stunts to provide us with a cue for when and why we should be outraged. Many of us already are angered, thank you very much, and we certainly were long before pseudo-liberal feminist movements told us to be.

The truth of the matter is such protests are not built on, or fuelled by, any genuine feminist spirit. If they were, there would be no need for the protesters to be topless, thus reducing themselves to nothing more than their anatomy in order to air their views. Or, perhaps they worry that their protest will lack attention unless they provide the media with half naked women to ogle at - very feminist indeed.

Rather, they are fuelled by the creeping perception that feminism is now somehow owned and monopolised by the white, secular, western paradigm, and its unwavering, implicit issue with Islam.

In short, thanks but no thanks. If topless protesting is your answer to the age-old issue of patriarchy (which exceeds global, social and religious boundaries) then you clearly know little of our plight. By all means offer support to those of us who voice concerns. And by all means, be angered if segregation is ever forced upon anybody who does not believe in it (because I am too). But, please, do not dictate how Muslim women should feel based on your own limited and intrinsically biased worldview. Don't attempt to remould our entire paradigm. And especially, don't insult all that it means to be a feminist by implying that women need to show their bare chest in order to be heard.

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