The Solution to Gender-Based Segregation is Not More Gender-Based Segregation

Earlier this year, physicist Lawrence Krauss was scheduled to debate Islam lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis on the question of whether atheism or Islam made more sense. Just as the debate was about to begin, though, Krauss decided he wanted no part of it. He saw that women were being forced to sit in the back while men (and couples) were given seats up front:

Lawrence Krauss grabs his coat and walks out of the debate

When Krauss saw people being moved from their seats, he said he would not speak at an event that was segregated and walked out to cheers and boos from the audience. An organiser pursued him and said segregation would be abandoned.

Dana Sondergaard who attended the event, wrote on her Facebook page: “After having been told the event would NOT be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front.

“After watching three people be kicked out of the auditorium for not following this seating plan, Dr Krauss bravely defended his beliefs of gender equality and informed event staff that he would not participate unless they removed the segregated seating.

“Needless to say, the staff got their shit together pretty quickly and the event (thankfully) continued.”

In this particular case, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (a sponsor of the event) denied the enforced segregation but was banned from participating in future events at the college.

Now, Universities UK, an advocacy group for universities in the United Kingdom, has published a guide for how to deal with controversial speakers.

So what are you supposed to do if a Muslim speaker at a public event asks that the audience be segregated? Let’s see what the guide says:

A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender. The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high.

The segregation request is not yet in the public domain but the students’ union has an active feminist society which is likely to protest against the segregation request. Other societies are likely to express similar concerns. The event is also due to take place a few days after a number of campus-based activities to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Why’s it gotta be a feminist group…? Wouldn’t any self-respecting group be opposed to such segregation?

Anyway, let’s see what they suggest:

It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back

… the hell?

The solution to segregation is… more segregation?

Then they double-down on that “solution”:

On the face of the case study, 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. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act.

Again with the feminism…?

In any case, it’s just an awful suggestion. The simpler solution would be to say that no segregation of any sort will be allowed at the school regardless of the speakers’ demands.

Steve Bowen summarizes this well:

In order to accommodate the sexist and misogynistic views of a religious speaker universities are being advised to acquiesce to demands that conflict with fundamental rights of freedom of association and movement… The mere possibility of the provision of such a seating arrangement should be resisted by any secular institution and especially by universities which are supposed to be repositories of free thought and enlightenment. If speakers want to argue for gender or racial segregation at an event they can do so, that is freedom of speech. But they cannot insist on imposing those views as a condition of exercising that freedom.

Maryam Namazie has started a petition condemning this policy guide and I would encourage everyone to sign it:

We, the undersigned, condemn the endorsement of gender apartheid by Universities UK. Any form of segregation, whether by race, sex or otherwise is discriminatory. Separate is never equal and segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal. By justifying segregation, Universities UK sides with Islamist values at the expense of the many Muslims and others who oppose sex apartheid and demand equality between women and men.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.