Debates on Gender Segregation Have Ignored Muslim Women

While important, gender segregation on British campuses, while important, has been poorly debated on. There has been far less discussion, particularly from female viewpoints, on the values of choice, liberty, religious identity and legitimate boundaries of self-expression.

It turns out that British universities are further bowing to Shariah Law (at least according to some bloggers) by 'enabling' gender segregation. The issue comes in light of a recent report by Universities UK (now retracted) suggesting that 'gender separation is not alien to our culture'.

There's been enough columns denouncing forced separation by gender; pretty much every national newspaper, magazine and digital news outlet have argued that such requests are akin to coercion, demean freedom and equality, and may even suggest that religious sensitivities have taken precedence in secular institutions.

Generally I agree with the sentiments; I personally don't believe segregation achieves what it is designed for, nor is it particularly great for the purposes of public intellectual inquiry. I also feel that a lot of Islamic societies across the country will bear the brunt of rash accusations; my own university's Islamic Society (ISOC) didn't do segregation in public debates, and neither did the others I attended as a guest.

But I do believe that Muslim women have been short-changed in this highly publicised debate- particularly when it came to media reporting. For while representatives of LSE's atheist & secular society, Student Rights and IERA were given air time- the opinions of ISOC attendees- particularly Muslim women, were given much less attention. And if we are to seriously have a debate or impose terms like 'patriarchy', 'misogyny' and 'medieval', then it's probably not the best idea to shut out the people who have been portrayed as the victims in all of this.

I decided to speak to three Muslim women over the weekend. All, who wish to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, are students at London universities, where they play active roles in their Islamic societies.

During the interviews, what surprised me was how they viewed the separation by gender, an Islamic custom that is observed by pretty much all mosques across the world. Soumaiya, a 20-year-old engineering student said to me : "I'm uncomfortable with the term 'segregation' because it implies force. None of us were forced to sit away from males, it was a choice that we made - one that we're actually more comfortable with."

Over the course of our correspondence, we talked further about Islam and feminism, where she went on to say: "This whole debate is a lot like the issues regarding the hijab (headscarf) and the niqab (veil). One the one hand you have a group of people arguing that it suppresses women into acceptance and submission. On the other, a growing wave of feminist Muslims are using it to empower themselves, and to build gender identities on their own terms.

"To me this is the same thing. I don't agree that people should be forced to do anything, but if I feel more comfortable sitting alone, or with fellow women, then why should I be told it's wrong? Isn't it all a bit counter-intuitive?"

Halima agrees. A 19-year-old mathematics student and former treasurer of her Islamic society, she says: "A lot of the arguments flung around talk about how sitting separated reinforces patriarchy and male superiority, but no-one really asks what the females think. It's ironic really- they complain that girls in Islam are ignored and unrecognised, and then they completely ignore them when discussing gender rights!"

That's not to say that all Muslim women- or even men- find the current system of segregation to be perfect. Indeed, as young, liberally-educated Muslims go to UK universities, they often have a mindset which is at odds with old-school preachers and culturally dogmatic ways of thinking. Noor, a chemistry student from my alma mater tells me: "Segregation the way that it's currently done might not work as intended, because the disparity between the Isoc and the outside world are polar opposites.

"How can you be in an environment where you have total separation in Islamic events, and then you're forced to mix and interact with the opposite gender outside? Sitting at the back of a room won't improve the way that anyone interacts with the opposite sex- in some cases it might make it even worse."

Noor also tells me that ISOCs do need to develop in order to address the key issues surrounding gender segregation suggesting that they need to create a space where "boundaries exist, because they are part of a wider principles that we believe in and are embedded within us and not because they are enforced by a sign that says "brothers left and sisters right".

This leaves the question of whether gender segregation is 'legitimate' in British universities. I'd argue that while I don't believe an external speaker should be able to dictate terms of a public event (and this would apply whether it's race, socio-economic disposition or political affiliation) and nor should people be forced into arrangements without their consent, there is also something to be said about respecting choices regardless of how distasteful we might find them. Such is the libertarian position of Legal theorist David Bernstein, who explains in his paper ["Sex Discrimination Laws Versus Civil Liberties"] that "guarding the freedom of choice for men and women is more important than preventing such sex segregation since methods of prevention can often cause more harm than good for both sexes."

While important, gender segregation on British campuses, while important, has been poorly debated on. There has been far less discussion, particularly from female viewpoints, on the values of choice, liberty, religious identity and legitimate boundaries of self-expression. Instead, we've heard far more misogynistic assumptions from Islamic groups who have been given a platform to speak on gender rights, and commentators that have fallen into the same trap of pushing forward a dogmatic and incorruptible strand of liberalism.

It's unfortunate, for even if campaigners ultimately succeed in preventing societies from holding events where segregation is permitted, I fear that it will, do little to advance the gender equality of female Muslim students.

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