Students in the UK are demonstrating against university guidelines allegedly backing gender segregation. Channel 4 News looks at what sparked the debate in the UK’s biggest universities.
Campaigners are targeting Universities UK (UUK) offices in Tavistock Square, London, after the organisation published a report last month saying universities could segregate by gender during talks from external speakers.
In the report, UUK claimed that universities faced a complex balance of promoting freedom of speech without breaking equality and discrimination laws.
The report presented some hypothetical case studies which come up on campuses, including whether a speaker from an ultra-orthodox religious group requests an audience is segregated by gender.
Chris Moos, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, who is attending the protest, told Channel 4 News: “What we want to achieve is for Universities UK to immediately rescind their guidelines condoning gender segregation, and issue guidelines that clearly lay out that any kind of segregation, whether under racist, cultural, religious, nationalistic or sexist pretences, is wrong and has no place in the public space.”
Erin Marie Saltman, research project officer at Quilliam and PhD researcher at UCL (University College London), told Channel 4 News: “This is a bigger issue of racism of lower expectations, of avoidance.
“There is a fear of offending the Muslim community but there are a lot of modern Muslims that would never allow gender segregation.”
In a statement, UUK said: “The guidance was approved by senior legal counsel as properly reflecting the law. It is not prescriptive. Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions on a case by case basis.
“The guidance does not promote gender segregation. It includes a hypothetical case study involving an external speaker talking about his orthodox religious faith who had requested segregated seating areas for men and women.
“The case study considered the facts, the relevant law and the questions that the university should ask, and concluded that if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area also provided, a university could decide it is appropriate to agree to the request.
“It is very hard to see any university agreeing to a request for segregation that was not voluntary and did not have the broad support of those attending. As the guidance explains, there may be many other reasons why a university might refuse a request for segregation.”
Jo Attwooll, policy adviser at the organisation, added: “The case studies themselves have been designed around some of the bigger issues that people highlighted.
“In relation to segregation there have been a few publicised cases where segregation has either been requested or has actually happened.
“There was a recent one at UCL where the speaker wanted there to be enforced segregation.
“What that case demonstrated was the need to be clear when you’re making external speaker bookings around what the environment will be for that speaker to be given a platform. In that case it only became apparent when the speaker turned up that was what the speaker wanted and the university then took very strong action.”
Protest against uuk at Woburn house, Tavistock square pic.twitter.com/aovjwNCbuC
— Gavin Lingiah (@armadillos) December 10, 2013
According to the protest Facebook group, the demo has been organised after 8,000 people signed a petition against the guidelines.
Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of One Law for All and Fitnah, Movement for Women’s Liberation, said: “Today, International Human Rights Day, we rally outside of the office of Universities UK to condemn their endorsement of segregation of the sexes.
“Their new guidance to universities on external speakers states that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as both men and women are segregated side by side rather than women being made to sit in the back.
“Would racial apartheid have been non-discriminatory if white and black people had been segregated in the same manner? In fact that is the very argument the apartheid regime of South Africa used when faced with criticism: separate but equal.”
Earlier this year, a student equality group claimed that preaching by extremists and discrimination through segregation at student events has become a “widespread” trend at many UK universities.
Student Rights, which carried out the research, found that radical preachers spoke at 180 events at universities including Cardiff and UCL between March 2012 and March 2013.
Segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of the events, at 21 separate institutions.
Among the events highlighted in the Student Rights report was a gender-segregated event at UCL on 9 March.
The lecture, Islam vs Atheism, was organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), and pitted writer Hamza Tzortzis against Prof Laurence Krauss in a debate.
The IERA suggested a sexual segregation policy, and it was enforced at the event.
Men and women had separate entrances – although couples were allowed to enter together – and segregated seating. Organisers’ security tried to physically remove members of the audience who would not comply, Student Rights said.
A UCL spokesman said that the institution does not permit segregation at meetings and the university has a “clear policy” of allowing speakers on campus freely, as long as they remain within the law.
The UUK report
The latest UUK report, which builds on its previous guidance on freedom of speech on campus, states that university officials must consider both freedom of speech obligations and discrimination and equality laws when considering such a request.
It says that if officials decide to proceed with an event with segregation, they must consider whether a seating plan would be discriminatory to one gender.
For instance if women were forced to sit at the back of the room it could prove harder for them to participate in the debate and could be discriminatory for the female attendees.
The report adds: "Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way."
But it goes on to say that if side-by-side seating was enforced without offering an alternative non-segregated seating area, it could be deemed as discriminatory against men or women who hold feminist beliefs.
It adds: "Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.
"Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully."