24/05/2013 08:34 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 06:12 BST

Defending the Right of - Muslim - Students


A briefing on the issue of forced gender segregation on university campuses has created a considerable amount of controversy. Last week, Student Rights published a report that in the last 12 months alone, there were more than 40 events held by student societies on UK university campuses with a gender segregated seating order.

While there should be agreement on the fact that it is the right of students to voluntarily self-segregate, it is also clear there is no right of any campus group to force students to segregate, either by creating social pressure on students by advertising the events as "strictly segregated", signposting "male" and "female" entrances and seating areas, or by verbally and physically enforcing segregation on the audience, as it occurred at UCL in March, as reported by the Guardian. Worryingly, this widely publicised case where students were refused entry through the "female entrance", and subsequently intimidated and manhandled when they refused to comply is omitted from the discussion.

Protecting students, not fringe groups

Naturally, one could speculate that UCL is an isolated and extreme case, and hopefully it is. But Student Rights' research shows that it is not. By any measure and sampling technique, 40 events with non-voluntary gender segregation are 40 events too many. But instead of taking these alarming numbers seriously, attempts are made to conflate the criticism of Islamic Student Societies with "demonising Muslims students". This is dubious, as not Muslims, but Islamic Student Societies are criticised. And arguably, these represent only a minority of Muslim students: FOSIS, the umbrella organisation of Islamic Student Societies represents only a fraction of Muslim UK students.

Others claim that gender segregation "is an inherent aspect of the lifestyle of Muslim communities, a core Islamic value", and thus by conclusion, all Muslims would want to segregate. Shockingly, this stereotyping of Muslims as a uniform bloc is very similar to "painting a monolithic picture of Muslims" that is so viciously promoted by the anti-Muslim right, but rightfully deplored by the same who then advocate segregation. Of course, this depiction flies in the face of reality, as many prominent Muslims like Myriam Francois-Cerrah or Adam Deen have clarified that gender segregation in public places is neither sanctioned by the Qur'an nor the Hadiths and that in fact the majority of faithful Muslims do not adhere to gender segregation in their lives.

By the same token, attempts are being made to conflate the use of gender segregated toilets, hospital wards and prisons with the issue of enforced gender segregation at universities. This confounding of the segregation of private access spaces with the issue of public shared spaces confuses clearly limited legal exceptions, as discriminatory as they are for example for transgender people, with a mandate to extend private religious sensibilities to the public space. It might also come to the great surprise of some that in the UK there is actually no right to gender segregated toilets.

The failure of the Left

On the other hand, it is necessary to clarify that the issue of forced gender segregation has little to do with extremism per se. The assertions made by The Times and other newspapers do thus indeed seem taken out of context. Also, there is merit in mentioning that Student Rights is affiliated to the Henry Jackson Society. It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should, and often pretends to do. The reason this issue is being led by Student Rights is that the National Union of Students and other traditional left-wing dominated organisations are refusing to do their job of protecting students, pretending that the "NUS was not aware of any complaints [...] about gender segregation", terming the Students Rights briefing a "witch hunt" and refusing to merely acknowledge the issue. It seems that the only organisation that is taking the experience of students of forced gender segregation seriously is from the anti-racist right.

However, this issue should be taken up by the emancipatory left, and not by the right. In this context, it seems alarming that the NUS's stance on this issue does not seem far from the position of the Women's Media Representative of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Britain, an organisation which is banned by the very same National Union of Students as well as countries like Germany because of its anti-democratic, misogynist and anti-Semitic agitation.

Right to self-segregate, not to impose

Whether or not students want to segregate, in a liberal and democratic society the right to practising one's faith stops where one starts imposing it on others. Contrary to what some assert, there is no right of the religiously observant to impose their sensibilities on others. For those who agree to segregate voluntarily, there is no need for advertisement, signposting, social pressure, intimidation or violence. Of course, if the segregation in these 40 cases had indeed been voluntary and agreed-upon by all attendees, the organisers would not have needed to promote or enforce it in the first place.

Thus, while some of the criticism of the briefing is understandable, ignoring and belittling a problem that should be of great concern to those that pledge to defend the rights of students is not. Tellingly, no one has spoken up to condemn the fact that there is a great number of Muslim and non-Muslim students who have been forced to comply with a gender segregated seating order on campus, whether they agreed with it or not. Student organisations and universities have a duty of care towards students and should not buy into the narrative that the reputational protection of imposing fringe groups is more important than the welfare of students.

As campuses already are unfortunate places of the reproduction of race and class segregation, universities and student unions should step up to defend the rights of Muslims and those who are working to make university campuses less segregated and more inclusive. For those who still want to exercise their right to self-segregate despite of that; they should do so, but without imposing segregation on others.