Can the subaltern segregate? Space for sexual apartheid

Secularism emerged in part to prevent religious majorities from politically enforcing their norms on others

Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
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The ISOC is not an aborted Apple product; it is, instead, the British version of America’s “Muslim Student Association,” or MSA.

I was approached by one of the latter to address the very issue that’s got ISOCs in the news: Gender segregation. This MSA was about to inaugurate a new prayer space, you see, and had a question.

Men and women would pray separately, as Islam commands, in their new prayer space. But, they wondered, must an actual barrier be introduced as well, some kind of tangible representation of separation? “Who cares what I think?” I didn’t just think, but went ahead and said.

Since I was being paid for my ruminations, this was not met with amusement (amazingly, I still get paid to do this). So I proposed polling women, whether students or alumni. (It should be obvious why we thusly restricted this exercise.) “Should there be a physical partition between where men and women prayed,” voters were asked, “or should the prayer space be left open?”

Nearly one hundred women ended up casting ballots.

Most religious Muslims, like religious Sikhs or Jews, believe that religion is embodied as much as it is internalized

Haroon Moghul

I bet the results would surprise David Cameron. Because they surprised me.

Britain’s Prime Minister recently added his voice to what had been a purely university debate, weighing in against the right of ISOCs—and I presume comparable voluntary associations—to enforce gender segregation at voluntarily attended events.

Too bad ISOCs aren’t financial institutions; otherwise they could discriminate on Tory grounds. But that wouldn’t change the dangerousness and wrongness of Cameron’s view, which was that such segregation should be banned.

I say this not as a Muslim, but as a Westerner, secularist, and small-d (social) democrat. Once more to the same breach: European (and lately Quebecois) politicians imposing in neutrality’s name the majority’s norms on already marginalized minorities. Speaking of which, are Jewish student groups to be similarly circumscribed?

A silent problem

Someone needs to say what is going unsaid in this debate; namely, that it is not about “freedom” or “sexual apartheid.” This is much less about religious imposition and more about secular imposition. But we lack the language to describe the discrimination being dealt out.

Political secularism has become a blunt object by which the culturally secular berate (and then legislate against) those they view with distaste, for of course the mark of a great democracy is its ability to enforce the majority’s views against ethnic, racial and other minorities.

Perhaps next Cameron can demand women must shake hands with men, or else, who voluntary organizations ask voluntary attendees to sit next to is none of Cameron’s business. It would equally be none of his business who someone does or does not dance with at a student-sponsored party. But that’s the difference; Cameron weighs in only when certain people pursue policies that offend certain people’s sensibilities. To say this is a slippery slope is to be laughably restrained.

In Europe, political secularism is dying, and the culturally secular have its blood on their hands. The culturally secular have veiled their preferences behind a political ideology, preventing us from realizing that, with a change in culture—away from religiosity to cultural secularism—perhaps we are called to build a (eternal) wall of separation between the state and the secular.

Allow me to explain what I mean.

How secularism Invented Itself

Secularism emerged in part to prevent religious majorities from politically enforcing their norms on others (how we define minorities is, of course, half the battle—notice the circuitousness of the causality). I call the resulting ideology “political secularism,” born in religious societies—largely so Catholic and Protestant might stop butchering one another enough to make space for a(ny) civil society.

Political secularism therefore preceded and then midwifed cultural secularism. If, after all, European societies were culturally secular, what need would there be to ban religious imposition? (What we legislate against is deeply revealing).

The logic of political secularism is therefore thrown out the window when a majority, culturally secular, can enforce its preferences on a minority, constructed by religious difference.

It’s just as wrong, in other words, when nonreligious folk tell religious folk when, how, and where they can be religious as it is when religious folk do. Why, after all, does a secular majority get to define where religion ends and begins? (This applies equally to culturally secular Muslims.) This is why Cameron’s exemption for houses of worship—where gender segregation is apparently still okay—is not a silver living, but so many more thunderclouds.

The distinction of what counts as religiosity continues to be remanded to a post-Christian majority. Why? Religions after all vary not only internally but also from one another. Most religious Muslims, like religious Sikhs or Jews, believe that religion is embodied as much as it is internalized; this is why banning Christians from wearing visible crosses is not to equivalent to denying the Muslim woman her headscarf—the nature of the expression of faith must be kept in mind when we protect the freedom to so express.

You can believe God commands you to cover your hair, for example, while equally believing that the state cannot command (or forbid) that. (When I said I was a secularist, I meant I was a political secularist.)

As Europe becomes more religiously diverse, political secularism must evolve to meet new mindsets and understand new populations. Cultural secularism must, therefore, be kept in check, as equally the worst impulses of the religious. Rather than buy into the bogeyman of rising, or creeping, Shariah law, I’m suggesting we pay more attention to the more dangerous conflation of culturally secular norms with legal and illegal.

How’s that for multiculturalism?

Somewhere in America

Of course, one might protest: What about all the Muslims who oppose mandatory segregation at, say, something so benign as a lecture, as has been alleged in this recent British controversy? I say, are they not citizens of a democracy?

If they do not like it, they can and more so I believe they must produce alternatives. Cameron is not helping them do that; to frustrate a religious preference, you could do worse than have the government endorse it. In other words, why must there be only one ISOC? (Apply that logic to politics and you’d find yourself very quickly under a dictatorship).

American Muslims have become more thoughtful and resourceful due to America’s marketplace of religions. There is a value not just to what we fight for, but in so fighting. Rather than simply decreeing from on high.

When I came to college I jumped into the MSA fray; I joined with likeminded students and fought hard to improve things. Some of our decisions were unpopular at the time, though less so today. We made space for Shi’a students; some Sunnis didn’t like this. (And some Shi’a students preferred to pray behind Shi’a Muslims, and so didn’t like that, either.) Those who did not like our brand of big-tent Islam went elsewhere.

And you know what? Good for them.

All Muslims not only do not have to agree, but should not. If Muslims do not want to be in communities that exile our mothers, daughters and sisters to the basement, literally and metaphysically and in every other way, then they will fight back. They already are. We already are.

Many Muslim men stand shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot with Muslim women in such battles. We don’t need David Cameron to rescue us, dictate to us, or define us; neither do we need states to interpret our religion for us. Just as we would not like the same done to anyone else.

Heaven and democracy forbid it

Unexpectedly, at least for my forecast, some sixty women wanted a physical barrier. Imagine that: women of all backgrounds and professions and of various ages preferred a greater degree of privacy. Because the results were reasonably close, however, that MSA did more: compromise.

Roughly three-fifths of the prayer space was divided by stylish partitions that reached partway to the ceiling; how the vote played out could be seen in the way space was experienced. It was an attractive, reasonable, and wise compromise.

Women and men were not otherwise kept apart, I must add, and that too by consensus and remains so, as far as I know, by preference. When this MSA held religious classes, for example, in its prayer space, there was no hard-and-fast segregation either. Most men and women chose to sit apart. Several didn’t.

The following academic year, this MSA elected a woman its president. She, who incidentally did not wear a headscarf (which did not matter to them) but not incidentally was hands down the best candidate (which was what mattered to them) won almost unanimously.

At no point did the university interfere.

Let alone the head of our government.


Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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