The debate on 'segregation' has returned, and once again figures from across the spectrum have focused their lenses on Muslim students and Islamic societies. Universities UK recently published a guidance document, outlining the management of external speakers on campuses and have been heckled for coming to the rather simple conclusion, amongst many others, that side-by-side gender based seating is not against the law. The focus on this single case-study, buried amidst the document's 42-pages, has been extremely disproportionate and led to sensationalist comments, vilifying Islamic societies and Muslim students. It is encouraging to see that Universities UK have chosen to remain firm on their objective and measured stance, acknowledging the nuances that exist with different theological perspectives.
Firstly, the term segregation itself is highly problematic and acts to conflate the reality further. As Saussure theorised on syntagmatic relations, 'within speech, words are subject to a kind of relation that is independent of the first and based on their linkage,' and segregation connotes various forms of separation and oppression - it is a word loaded with modern history, drawing back to the belligerent injustices of the slave trade, apartheid, and the Holocaust. It blows the discussion out of proportion and acts to politicise it further. Segregation implies a hierarchy- a form of discrimination which asserts the dominance of one group over another- which is a very different reality to a voluntary seating arrangement which impacts both males and females equally. Thus, the current discourse is creating new imagined problems rather than solving existing ones.
The discourse surrounding this issue must change if our campuses are to continue placing student interests at the forefront, broadening their view to a more diverse perspective. Much of this debate is centred on women, and how we are the ones who are disadvantaged by such an arrangement, a sort of pseudo-feminist calling. As a female Muslim leader I find this problematic and deeply worrying - allow us to have our own voice.
One day the Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) wife questioned him, "Why is it that we are not mentioned in the Qur'an as the men are?" Later, she stood combing her hair, and she suddenly heard the Prophet at the pulpit, reciting the following verses of the Qur'an:
"Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their chastity and the women who do so, and the men who remember God often and the women who do so - for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward." [Qur'an 33:35]
This is exemplary of equality on every level: the syntactic, the spiritual and the physical. The same requirements are outlined for both men and women as a recipe for success - which is ultimately the pleasure of God; This was His way of showing her that success isn't measured by sameness with men, it lays ultimately in salvation through good deeds. As with life, Islam acknowledges that we form different groups who occupy various intellectual and social spaces. Diversity is celebrated with spirituality at the forefront, forming a broad frame of reference which is not always easily comprehensible to those outside of it. The men and women's rows in the Prophet's mosque were separate, yet it formed the basis for a social model which empowered women to become scholars, businesswomen, military personnel and doctors. It was within this spiritual framework that a woman would come to be considered the greatest scholar of her time, empowering women to become politically and religiously aware of their rights. Hence, when separate seating in a religious gathering is equated with the inability of a Muslim female to lead her fellow students, the Prophetic example and entire frame of reference of a Muslim are being completely ignored.
Through FOSIS, we work to represent and empower Muslim students and Islamic societies, and this does not exclude women. In fact, just a fortnight ago, I teamed up with the NUS to deliver the third instalment of the annual 'I Will Lead' training to equip Muslim female students with the tools to become leaders - not just of Islamic societies, but also Student Unions. We work with women who want to set up Islamic societies at their universities and colleges, and who go on to become Presidents and Vice-Presidents. Islamic societies around the country often adhere to this seating principle, but recognise its context - and the most successful Islamic societies are always the ones with both active males and females in the leadership committee who also contribute to their SU with the aim of bettering the condition of all students. I myself come from an Islamic society committee where we worked cohesively and successfully to serve the needs of Muslim students regardless of gender, and engaged with the women's committee, the black students committee and other faith societies. In short, a simple seating arrangement has not hindered me in any way - rather I embrace it as part of my faith.
The term 'segregation' denotes discrimination and isolation - and this couldn't be further from the general reality. There needs to be a linguistic shift in the discourse - but more importantly, the shift must be an ideological one which accepts that there exist differences based on sound spirituality, and these need to be embraced, led by brave and nuanced organisations such as Universities UK. Male and female seating is a simple religious manifestation that has been established for multiple millennia and is one that is still actively implemented today by many churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious communities. Taking away the basic freedom to choose a room arrangement from mature and democratically elected student groups such as Islamic societies will only seek to alienate Muslim students from social engagement by denying their right to religious freedom.