Southall Black Sisters is rallying support for a demonstration to take place this week outside the the Court of Appeal in London where a Muslim school’s practice of gender segregation will be heard.
The hearing is scheduled for tomorrow and on Wednesday – July 11 and 12. In calling for support, SBS say here:
This is a significant and potentially precedent-setting case about sex discrimination and equality. Ultra-conservative and fundamentalist gender norms are seeping into the everyday life of minority communities. Education has become a gendered ideological terrain upon which the potential of women and girls together with their hopes, aspirations and dreams are extinguished.
Gender segregation in school X is part of a wider political project that is ideologically linked to the creation of a regime of ‘gendered modesty’: one that promotes an infantilised and dehumanised notion of womanhood and, ultimately, amounts to sexual apartheid.
School X – a co-educational, Muslim voluntary aided school in the UK – segregates its pupils based on their gender. From the age of 9 to 16, boys and girls from Muslim parents are segregated for everything – during lessons and all breaks, activities and school trips.
In June of last year the school was inspected by the regulatory body, Ofsted, which raised concerns about a number of leadership failings including those involving gender segregation, the absence of effective safeguarding procedures, and an unchallenged culture of gender stereotyping and homophobia.
Offensive books promoting rape, violence against women and misogyny were discovered in the school library. Some girls also complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society. As a result of what it found during the inspection, Ofsted judged the school to be inadequate and placed it in special measures.
The school took legal action to stop Ofsted from publishing its report. They argued that, among other things, the report was biased and that gender segregation does not amount to sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
On November 8, 2016, following a High Court hearing, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Jay, found that there was no sex discrimination because of his reading of the law and the lack of evidence before him.
He found that gender segregation did not amount to sex discrimination since both boys and girls were “separated equally”. He noted that although women hold minority power in society generally, there was no evidence before him that girls suffered specifically as a result of the segregation in this school.
Mr Justice Jay noted the differences between segregation on the grounds of race in the USA and South Africa in previous decades and gender segregation in the UK today, concluding that he had not heard evidence that gender segregation made girls feel disadvantaged or inferior.
Ofsted appealed against the ruling of the High Court, and Southall Black Sisters and Inspire are intervening in the case:
Because of its great public importance – especially for minority women and girls. Although, gender segregation and its implications are not specific to School X, but apply equally to a number of other faith schools, the point of our intervention is two-fold:
First, to show how the growing practice of gender segregation in education is not a benign development: Gender segregation within Black and Minority Ethnic communities in the UK has a social, and political history that can be traced back to the Rushdie Affair when religious fundamentalists sensed an opportunity to seize education as a battleground and a site on which to expand their influence.
Since then, we have seen emboldened fundamentalists in South Asian communities attempting to impose gender segregation in schools and universities. Mr Justice Jay did not look into the wider social and political context in which gender segregation is practiced in minority communities. Had he done so, he would have seen its broad-ranging and long-lasting effect on all areas of women’s lives: that gender segregation is a political choice and that the struggle against it mirrors the struggle against racial segregation.
Second, we want to ensure that gender equality is placed at the heart of Ofsted inspections in all schools, irrespective of their status and composition. We recognise that gender segregation can sometimes be educationally beneficial. But in the hands of ultra-conservatives and fundamentalists, it has an entirely different intent and consequence which is to mount a wholesale assault on women’s rights: socially, culturally and politically.
School X’s approach is consistent with Muslim fundamentalist ideologies that strive to create a fundamentalist vision of education in the UK: one that discourages mixed-gender activities as ‘Un-Islamic’ and ultimately legitimises patriarchal power structures. Their aim is to reinforce the different spaces – private and public – that men and women must occupy, and their respective stereotyped roles, which accord them differential and unequal status.
This approach constitutes direct discrimination under the UK’s Equality Act 2010. It also violates International human rights laws, standards and principles on equality and non-discrimination. Women’s rights must take priority over intolerant beliefs that are used to justify sex discrimination.
Maryam Namazie, from One Law for All added:
Islamists have become adept at using rights language to impose rights restrictions. Islamist projects like the niqab or Sharia courts are deceptively promoted as ‘rights’ and ‘choices’ when in fact their aim is to control and restrict women and girls.
Girls in Islamic schools are segregated not in order to enable them to flourish but because they are seen to be the source of fitnah and male arousal from puberty onwards. Which is why they must be veiled, segregated, and prevented from many activities that are essential to child development. The court would do well to remember that when it comes to children in particular, there is a duty of care to ensure that the girl child has access to a level playing field and is able to flourish – sometimes despite the wishes of parents and fundamentalists.