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Gender Segregated Seating: Why the Uproar?

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Placard reading "we reject gender apartheid" waved at a winter evening protest. Fiery discussions about the imposition of medieval practices in Universities, unleashed in the media, as yet again another Muslim practice is in the firing line. The report issued by Universities UK which has allowed Islamic societies to practice voluntary gender separated seating in their events, has created uproar. Allowing this Islamic practice in UK Universities would be a travesty for women's rights. Apparently.

First let's be clear that this voluntary gender separated seating, takes place in events that are specifically designed for Muslim students, for whom this practice is an integral part of their faith. If anything I remember from my days at university, is that the very purpose of these societies are to meet the extra curricular needs and interests of University students. Therefore if Muslim students attend Islamic society activities for this very reason, why on earth is this a problem? Especially when they are not the only University society to distinguish by gender - Just search University all male rugby unions on the net and see what comes up.

So what is all the hoo ha about? The placard which flashed across my TV screen from the protest against this report evoked the analogy of apartheid. In a time following the death of Mandela when the world is remembering the oppression of those denied basic human value and rights in the apartheid, such a claim is a bold one. It accuses this Islamic practice as denying women value, the ability to participate and have themselves heard.

Really? Why not ask the opinion of those Muslim women who organise and attend these events, rather than ask those hurling the accusations with no real standing in the Muslim community - Did they feel denied of an ability to participate? Did they feel stripped of respect and value in such events? A good few years ago now, being one of those women myself whose intellectual and spiritual development flourished through such events, I could give you a single word answer to that.

Then the fact that segregation is being facilitated between men and women, by men and women in Islamic societies, shows the commitment to cater for both genders. Discriminating against women would mean denying women entry, or any participation in the venue. Neither of these takes place. And what is forgotten is that women are also part of these societies, co-organising if not leading activities. We are talking about separated seating, not patriarchy.

Finally the very idea that anything that distinguishes between the sexes is somehow synonymous with discrimination, arises not from the experience of Islam but from the experience of the women's movement in the liberal secular West. The last time men and women were treated differently, was a time when men were perceived to be better than women, or of more value than women. It was Rousseau in the 18th century who claimed that the education of women should be shaped by what is useful to men. And how did the women's movement get out of that? Become gender blind. To distinguish by gender became a source of discrimination. But gender difference in Islam has nothing to do with the superiority of one gender over another.

Rather the concept of separating men and women in public spaces in Islam, is part of a wider objective. Islam has a societal view that the intimate relationship between a man and a woman is for the committed private sphere of marriage, and should not be allowed to spill outside of this sphere. This is because in society, men and women need to cooperate to achieve things in society whether in the work place, in education, in interactions across the public space. Islam firmly believes if the sexual instinct is let loose in this public sphere, it can taint and complicate these relationships. Therefore Islam promotes ideas such as honouring women which are upheld in society, but alongside such ideas specific rules and laws are implemented to help maintain the atmosphere of healthy interaction between the sexes. These rules aim to minimise the presence of this instinct in public life. So minimising the mixing the interaction of the sexes in the public sphere unless necessary, the covering up of women and men through the Islamic dresscode, the prohibition of exploiting the sexuality of women in any profession, modelling to pornography, are all laws to help maintain an atmosphere in public life, where focus is not on the sexual element of women and men, but on the contributions they make. The impact this has, and had in the history of the Islamic state, was that women were actually valued for their intellectual capability and what they could contribute regardless of gender, such as Fatima Al Fihri who founded the world's first university in Morocco. Of course we are not in an Islamic state, but such background can provide an understanding of what such Islamic rules seek to achieve. A far cry from the apparent removal of the participation of women in public.

Finally the notion that a mixed gender setting maintains women's rights, opportunities, enabling her to have a greater participation as would be advocated by gender equality, I would argue has not proved to be true. 2009 EHRC study concluded that one of the reasons so few FTSE directors are women, is because women are not adequately listened to or taken seriously by men to be able to progress to these positions. Research firm Catalyst studied the reasons why women fall behind men in careers and they found that men stereotyping about the commitment of women stopped workplaces from enabling them to move up higher. The mixed setting, where relationships between men and women run freely, where liberal values have allowed men to think of women however they desire from the page 3 poster girl to someone not man enough for the boardroom, appears to have taken us not very far from Rousseau and his 18th century views.

So instead of waging a war on Islam as taking away the voice and participation of women, perhaps the question should be asked more openly about what can enshrine real participation in life for women. As if it is this that we are talking about, at least Islam actually has a means to ensure the voice of women is protected and encouraged through mechanisms such as segregation of the sexes. As for the liberal culture and equality rhetoric, set as the standard for women's liberation today - I'm not sure the same can be said.