Universities UK’s recent report on external speakers has ignited a fierce debate about the permissibility of segregating by gender at events held on campuses. In this personal response to the report and its fallout, Stephen H. Jones explains why he does not agree with Universities UK’s position, but also feels alienated by the campaign to get the organisation to withdraw its guidance.
Over the last few days a debate that has been going on for many months in higher education about whether there is any place in universities for events that are divided by gender has exploded into a highly public and unpleasant row. Protests have been mobilised outside universities, letters of condemnation have been published in Times Higher Education and similar journals, and the usual suspects from Britain’s commentariat have been firing pot-shots at one another on Twitter. Such episodes are, for me, never enjoyable, but this case has been especially dispiriting: on a personal level, I work in a university and research Islam in Britain, so I have good friends on both sides of this argument who presently seem a long way from being able to talk amicably with one another; and professionally, I have written advice for universities on similar issues (though mercifully, not this one), and it seems to me that both sides are, on this, wide of the mark.
The catalyst for all of this has been guidance recently issued by Universities UK (UUK) on external speakers in higher education institutions, which suggested, in a section discussing a hypothetical ‘ultra-orthodox’ visiting speaker, that gender-segregated seating might be in some circumstances accommodated – much to the annoyance of many secularists and feminists in the academy and beyond. At the time of writing, more than 9,000 people have signed a protest calling on UUK to rescind its guidance. In many ways, it is strange that this report has acted as the touchpaper for this dispute: far from being a diktat to which universities must adhere, the section in question (p.27-28) is simply a discussion of issues universities need to consider in light of the Equality Act 2010. The authors have thus defended themselves against the onslaught of criticism by saying that all they were seeking to do is highlight universities’ legal obligations.
But though this is true, it is easy to see why people have found the report frustrating. The language used in the report is not helpful. It seems not to fully get to grips with the issues at hand, while trying (and spectacularly failing) not to offend anyone. More seriously, though it rules out ‘front to back’ segregation on the basis that it implies the lesser status of women, the report suggests that when genders are separated ‘side to side’ they ‘are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way’. There is nothing in the report to indicate that this ‘separate but equal’ stance is problematic. This was a serious error, and the report’s critics have been right to take its authors to task for it.
Yet what is really frustrating about the report is that it never once tries to distinguish religious events from political debates. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, have any of the commentators on either side of the debate highlighted this as an important distinction – and this, I can’t help but think, is one of the reasons why that debate has been so ill-tempered. Outside of the academy, this is a familiar distinction and one that is widely accepted. While most people (including me) are opposed in general to the idea of segregation along lines of gender, the idea of the state forcibly intervening in the organisation of liturgical practices in places of worship is much less popular. A law prohibiting gender segregation in churches, synagogues or mosques, say, would meet with firm opposition even among those who are uneasy with the practice. Yet by the same token, only the tiniest of minorities in any religious tradition would accept differential treatment in wider public life.
The problem is that universities – being places where students live, work and worship – are religious and political places. Of course, they host political debates and I don’t find arguments in favour of separating these at all convincing. The UUK report seems to indicate that failing to accommodate a speaker who refuses to address a mixed audience in a political debate could violate his (or, less likely, her) freedom of expression. This strikes me as highly unpersuasive and seems to stretch current equalities law. On the subject of debates about political questions (such as voting rights) or adversarial debates across faith traditions (such as Islam vs. Atheism) the UUK’s report should surely have been more emphatic. For this reason, I sympathise with Lawrence Krauss, the theoretical physicist and atheist activist who objected when he found himself facing a segregated audience in a debate between Muslims and atheists at UCL.
But on the other hand, a student at a university relies on it not just as a workplace but also as a place of study, socialising and, at times, residence. There has therefore to be some kind of institutional accommodation made for people’s religious lives – something the law as it stands rightly recognises. There are people who regard congregating for religious discussion and practice as a matter intimate enough to be treated in the same way that leisure centres treat getting changed – and not all of these people are ‘Islamists’ seeking to use religious accommodations to accumulate political power. To treat them all as such is highly unhelpful. If a university allows students to separate a prayer space, which many do, this is not an egregious violation of secularism. There may be occasions, too, where religious groups want to put on ‘discovery events’ which are open to all but which are still separated along lines of gender. (I have attended such events.) As long as no-one is coerced into attending, allowing these does not strike me as a ‘capitulation to the Muslim far-right’, as some commentators have claimed.
This is why I find it hard to support an across-the-board ban on any kind of event that separates between genders, and also why I find it hard to give my full support to groups like Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and the BHA who are campaigning on this matter – in spite of the fact that I am in broad agreement with both. Certainly, the UUK report doesn’t emphasise strongly enough the point that open political events should not be segregated (something the EHRC’s excellent response seems to recognise). Religious groups would also benefit from arguing more clearly against segregating events that aim to debate across religious lines. But by the same token, these secular groups do not in my view fully appreciate the diversity of religious organisation in UK universities. In particular, SBS’s claim that it is campaigning against ‘gender apartheid’ strikes me as hyperbolic. My grandparents lived in South Africa, and one of my clearest memories from when I visited in the early 1990s is of being shocked by the rows of shanty towns, the black servants working for whites, and the systematised racial inequality. Universities in Britain are not comparable to this, and contrasted to my early memories the use of this term feels in bad taste.
No-one is saying, of course, this distinction between religious events and the public, political events is easy to work through in practice. In my writing, I find myself questioning the distinction more often than I find myself affirming it. There will always be difficult cases, and politicised groups trying to push boundaries. But this is a complex topic. Before his untimely death earlier this year, Robert Bellah – perhaps the most influential sociologist of religion active in the last fifty years – used to complain that, while academics are generally good at accepting complexity, religion is the one subject they happily make overarching generalisations about. Ultimately I still don’t agree with him on this, but after the last few days it feels like we are in need of a plea for difficulty.
Stephen H. Jones is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain. He is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He writes here in a personal capacity.
 For one example see Robert N. Bellah, ‘Reading and Misreading Habits of the Heart’, Sociology of Religion 68, no. 2 (2007): 189–193.
 On this, and wider debates about multiculturalism and feminism see Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘A Plea for Difficulty’, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 105–114.
The cover image to this article is included courtesy of Chris Brown and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.