'Sexual apartheid?' UK universities embroiled in segregation row

British PM hits out at universities who segregate men and women during events involving guest speakers

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

British universities have this week pulled back from endorsing gender segregation at public meetings on campus after British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped into the row.

On Friday, Cameron hit out at universities who segregate men and women during events involving guest speakers.

For the first time, the British PM intervened in the row to warn universities this was unacceptable.

Cameron told Sky News on Friday: “I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain.

“That is not the right approach. The guidance should not say that, universities should not allow this. I’m very clear about this.”

His remarks came after guidelines were set out last month by Universities UK (UUK) which said orthodox groups, including Muslim societies, were entitled to practice gender segregation at public meetings on campus.

The UUK report advised that if the segregation represented the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the hosts, separate seating could be upheld.

“What Universities UK came up with was a fair compromise in my opinion,” Shehroze Khan, a former Islamic Society president at a UK university, told Al Arabiya News on Sunday.

“Having interacted with various Islamic Societies during my time as President, I know that from ISoc to ISoc (Islamic societies), there are differences in how events are conducted.” Khan added.

But appearing to buckle under political pressure, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said in a statement: "Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers.

In a statement to Al Arabiya News on Sunday, Ian Morton, a UUK spokesman said: “We’re in discussions and working with our lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify the legal position on the case study in question.”

"Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review," Morton added.

Segregated seating

The case study which sparked the debate was contained in a document which disclosed that the EHRC had ruled the type of segregation proposed by the vice-chancellors’ body was “not permissible” under gender equality laws, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The case study set out “how sex segregation could be acceptable as long as men and women were seated side by side rather than with women at the back,” the newspaper reported.

“It also said that any meeting where some segregation took place for religious reasons should also provide a separate, non-segregated area,” the report added.

The new approach to segregated seating was hailed by Khan.

“I am very happy to condemn an action where anyone is left disadvantaged due to their gender. However, Universities UK advised left-right seating rather than front-back to avoid disadvantaging any gender; moreover, they stated that a mixed facility must be provided to cater for those that want to sit together and avoid offending feminist/humanist groups.

“I don't see anyone's freedom being impinged upon here. It seems a worthy compromise. I think the attack that Universities UK got was unwarranted, particularly from senior politicians in this country,” Khan added.

In April this year, the University of Leicester launched an investigation into a public lecture held by its student Islamic society after pictures of signs at the event suggested that men and women were encouraged to sit separately.

Two sheets of A4 paper were reportedly attached to the door of the lecture – one read “Brothers (males)” and the other

“Sisters (females)”, with arrows pointing in opposite directions. The images were spread across social media.

While the university said in a statement it was not aware of people being forced to sit separately, on their website, the University of Leicester Islamic Society states: “All our lectures are, as we believe should be, free and open to the public … Islamic classes are for both brothers and sisters and will be fully segregated.”

'Sexist eccentricities' and Britain’s attitudinal shift

Now, the case has trigged a nationwide debate on segregation and free speech, with some columnists labeling the initial UUK guidance as “sexual apartheid.”

“Secular neutrality is a pillar of higher education. We can't cave in to faith groups in our institutions – even if it causes offence,” wrote Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee.

But such language is mired with negativity, said Khan.

“I think it says something alarming about the attitudinal shift in Britain … When you can use words like 'apartheid' to describe such a situation, you are immediately relating an issue of religious choice, to that of racial discrimination. Even the use of the word 'segregation' brings problematic connotations. We don't say that we have 'segregated' toilets, or 'segregated schools;' rather, we just say single sex facilities.

“As British citizens, Muslims and non Muslims, we stand for values like freedom of expression and freedom of speech and tolerance; these seem to have been temporarily suspended from the equation,” Khan said.

Meanwhile, other journalists decried that “the sexist eccentricities of some religions” were being given “priority over women's rights.”

But the UUK spokesman insists the guidance “isn’t about gender segregation.”

“It provides guidance to institutions in managing the process for inviting external speakers onto campus, both in terms of upholding principles of free speech, and also complying with the law,” Morton said.

“It was produced with significant input from a range of organizations and individuals (referenced in the full report) as well as extensive legal advice. The guidance is available on our website,” he added.

Muslims have also spoken out against gender segregation in the British press.

“As a Muslim, I oppose gender segregation in universities. But its advocates have every right to their opinion,” wrote The Independent columnist Myriam Francois Cerrah.

“Separate seating can reflect an idealization of a Saudi-style system where men and women hardly interact outside of a familial setting. This de-facto disempowers women who are reduced to existing in a male universe. This is neither desirable, nor Islamic,” she added.

But even in Saudi Arabia, there are universities which do not segregate the genders, such as the King Saud Medical School and the Al Faisal University, where students of both sexes are encouraged to work together and communicate with each other.

Still in the UK, more worrying to Cerrah was the current “kerfuffle” over segregation.

“[It] actually masks far more concerning issues, namely the erosion of freedom of expression and the policing of political and religious expression on British campuses,” wrote Cerrah.