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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 11-Dec-13 13:55:40

Gender segregation in British universities - religious extremists aren't the only misogynists out there

Latest guidelines from Universities UK say British universities should segregate lecture audiences by gender, if the religious beliefs of external speakers require it.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations have provoked outrage: a petition has been launched, and the media has been universally critical. But Mumsnet blogger Victoria Smith warns that, when it comes to misogyny in our educational institutions, we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Read the blog, and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Victoria Smith

Blogger, Glosswatch

Posted on: Wed 11-Dec-13 13:55:40


Lead photo

Protestors against gender segregation in British univerisities

When is it okay to give blatantly obvious sexism the official stamp of approval? When, under the guise of liberalism, religion is allowed to trump gender equality.

That at least seems to be the message we’re getting from Universities UK, who have agreed to the segregation of male and female students in situations where an academic, due to religious beliefs, would otherwise be unwilling to speak. The press are up in arms. "The segregation of women and the appeasement of bigotry" cries The Spectator, while The Telegraph tells us that "allowing university speakers to segregate genders is outrageous". I look at headlines like this and I’ll be honest: I feel torn.

I’m a feminist. My feminism means I don’t think institutions should ever require men and women to sit apart while receiving an education. However, my feminism also means that I wouldn’t trust the 'feminism' of The Telegraph or The Spectator as far as I could throw it (and feminism, being an abstract concept, can't be thrown at all).

Let's be honest here. The right-wing press rarely concerns itself with issues of gender equality unless it can be proven that funny foreigners, religious extremists or vaguely defined 'minorities' are to blame. The pay gap is just a fact of life, reproductive rights don't matter so much - but men and women sitting in separate sections of the same room? Outrageous! l don't think it takes a huge leap of imagination to find this rather suspicious.

I look back on my own university days and remember astonishing amounts of cultural separation... Women were belittled when they spoke up in seminars. Women were mocked for their body shape and clothing when they entered the “male” space of the college bar.

According to Nick Cohen in The Spectator, the decision by Universities UK means it could be "a denial of the rights of a woman hater" – or "representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group", as our finest institutes of higher learning put it – to allow men and women to sit where they please.

The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate.

Academics and scientists, responding on the University UK site, have rightly seen this as a significant and shameful moment in contemporary history; an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles.

I agree with him insofar as this is wrong and personal conviction cannot justify it (after all, doesn’t most oppression stem from personal conviction?). Moreover, gender segregation in education matters not just as an abstract limitation placed on freedom of choice, or as a potential insult to women within an unequal university system, but because it has the power to affect how we learn. Being made aware of one's 'maleness' or 'femaleness' in an educational environment can contribute to stereotype threat, leading men and women to limit their own potential by acting out gender stereotypical behaviours ("I can’t do maths!" or "I'm no good with words!"). Forcing people to be, not learners first and foremost, but pink and blue representatives from the moment they enter the lecture hall, is bad for individuals but it's bad for education, too.

However, the more I consider this, the more I am convinced we have to cast the net wider than Cohen suggests. I look back on my own university days in the 1990s and I remember astonishing amounts of cultural separation between men and women. They weren’t officially sanctioned by Universities UK, but they still existed. Women were belittled when they spoke up in seminars. Women were mocked for their body shape and clothing when they entered the 'male' space of the college bar. Posters advertising events around campus always showed scantily clad women, no matter the event, just to make sure we all knew who the 'real' students were. We didn't campaign because this was normality. We didn’t think it was changing the way we understood ourselves, the way we learned and the opportunities we felt were available to us. But it was.

We should be outraged at the Universities UK decision. Nevertheless, we should also be more alert to the cultural and social segregation that is going on around us all the time (for instance, see the relentless belittling of women in the media evidenced in this video). The way men and women live right now is not simply some great state of normality that is being threatened by the weird religious people and their funny ideas. We condition ourselves and our children to accept all sorts of gender-based disparities that we could, if we had the courage, reject. Why not seize this moment to start challenging it wherever we find it?

By Victoria Smith

Twitter: @Glosswitch

dollius Thu 12-Dec-13 10:13:12

Spectator man is talking bolleaux anyway (quelle surprise). I live in a Muslim country and men and women/boys and girls are not segregated for learning. Nor are they in the prominent Jewish country which is nearby. The right-wing press never ignore a chance to jump on the old stereotyping bandwagon, do they?

ButThereAgain Thu 12-Dec-13 10:53:23

If segregation occurs only in entirely extra-curricular events on university property -- meetings of religious societies that aren't in any way entwined with the courses offered by the university -- and if there is a flourishing pluralism in the extra-curricular organizations on offer (including an atmosphere in which dissenting religious practitioners can organise events which challenge and supercede misogynistic practices in conservative religious societies), then I don't see it as wrongful of a university to allow segregated seating in conservative religious events. The ideal would be an arrangement in which both sexes could choose segregated or non-segregated seating, but even if that ideal isn't present, there is still choice when one can authentically choose not to attend a segregated meeting without any consequent loss of the secular good of education, and without loss of the opportunity to innovate and practice a non-segregated version of one's faith.

That is the same as the solution that we are reaching with regard to marriage. The secular good of marriage has been disentangled from its religious incarnation and the former is available on equal terms to gay/lesbian and straight. The religious element of marriage is left for religious practitioners themselves to sort out, with dissenting religious organisations making it available on equal terms while conservative ones are left to their own devices.

Wider society only has the task of ensuring that religious discrimination doesn't impact on the availability of secular goods. Specifically religious goods (or sometimes alleged-goods) are often intrinsically discriminatory, and the battle to reinterpret them is one that can only be fought from within religion and is not for larger society to take a stand on. Wider society only has the task of establishing the pluralist context in which dissenting religious organisations and viewpoints are facilitated. So a university that preserved the secular good of education and encouraged a pluralist atmosphere in extra-curricular religious offerings needn't be failing women or liberalism even if it also allowed the existence of conservative, segregated events.

ButThereAgain Thu 12-Dec-13 10:56:33

(Is it just my browser [Firefox] or is it true for others that guest blog threads are completely garbled in the way that they display? The final post on thread is always absent, replaced with a duplication of the OP. Makes discussion v hard!)

Zra Thu 12-Dec-13 12:06:36

How different is this to girls schools, boys schools, men only golf clubs and the WI? Should a consistent rule apply across the board?

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 12:39:24

I agree with ButThereAgain

If the OP is interested in what a radical approach to dealing with cultural segregation is like at universities, there is an excellent article on HBS's approach [[ here]].

Dollius & ILoveAFullFridge - you are quite wrong on this. Madrasas are typically male-only, as are yeshivot - this is a much more common sight than this. ILove - I'm Jewish too, and I can assure you that a Haredi (ultra-orthodox) rabbi would be very reluctant to address a mixed-gender crowd, whether the event was religious or not. My cousins are ultra-orthodox and had a mechitza (separation screen) down the middle of the room at their engagement. That said, I can't imagine a Haredi rabbi addressing a group of students at a secular learning institution in the first place.

Dollius - it really doesn't make sense to categorise Nick Cohen as right-wing. He writes for the spectator, yes, but his main focus for the past several years has been the oppression of people by religious groups. He also writes for the Observer. I think it'd be fairer to call him an old-school liberal and advocate of the rights of each human.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 12:40:43

Ooopsies, forgot to include the HBS article link.

Really good, really thorough.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 12:48:38

Zra, I don't see there should be a consistent rule, because the context is different. You have to think about power:
1. Girls' schools and women-only colleges allow girls and women to learn in a place where they are not at risk of being automatically made second-best. It's not problem-free, but the alternative is not obviously better. My DS is probably better off learning in a coed school, as it softens the rough edges of boys and helps him learn to socialise with girls; my DD is probably better off learning in a single sex school, where she can pursue physics and shout loudly without being subject to misogyny. Obviously, that is a contradiction....
2. Men only golf clubs are places where, frankly, rich business men make a lot of deals. Excluding women from the clubs keeps them away from the deals
3. The WI is not really a source of power for women. I've no idea how many men are keen to join, but I'd be surprised if it's that many.

Manchesterhistorygirl Thu 12-Dec-13 13:02:17

Allow me to indulge you with a little anecdote.

Many years ago I worked on check in for an airline and was the lead agent for a particular afternoon. We were all women on that shift as it happened and we had a large group due to travel. I said I would deal with them as I thought they might be tricky.

They were indeed tricky. The party was a large group of British Orthodox Rabbis and they point blank refused to acknowledge the existence of me or my colleagues. I asked one of my colleagues would they mind fetching security. I explained that as a woman I was being completely ignored by the passengers and as couldn't process the passengers onto the flight.

The security officer, being northern and to the point, said look gentlemen you either deal with the lady here or you don't fly. They did and they did. There was no need for their Arsiness, just that they saw me as someone who was beneath their contempt. Sadly that wasn't the only example of mysoginy encountered by me or my colleagues at work, luckily our male colleagues wouldn't put up with it either and always made sure that we were treated with the same courtesy and respect they received.

So my point is in order to access the same services as others they had to put aside their gender bias and, to coin a phrase, get over themselves. I think universities should have the same attitude.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 13:14:39

Manchesterhistorygirl, I'm sure those rabbis will have been Haredi - ultraorthodox - not merely orthodox. There's a huge difference between the two.

Manchesterhistorygirl Thu 12-Dec-13 13:16:38

You're quite right, I'm sure they were. Like I said I was many years ago, but the point remains.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 13:47:48

I agree with your underlying point!

Incidentally, the Haredim have become more devout over time, rather than less. This causes increasing problems as they try to navigate the world around them. It's sort of an Amishification process

fuzzywuzzy Thu 12-Dec-13 13:53:39

HomehelmeGawd Madrassas are co-ed, then when the children are older the boys and girls classes are split by sex.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 14:20:15

fuzzywuzzy, that is true of only a small number of Madrasas. Look at this picture of a Madrassa from wikipedia, for example: no girls.

It's not been chosen by Wikipedia as an example of Islamist practice.

ErrolTheDragon Thu 12-Dec-13 14:40:53

I just took a look at the actual document which is at the root of this discussion ... I think its been a bit misrepresented (well, there's a surprise). It is guidelines based on interpreting the laws relevant to the issue of external speakers, not really liberals bending over to accommodate the intolerant. In the case study which discussed the segregation issue, a proposed solution would be for there to be unsegregated as well as segregated seating - so it's more about what people attending the talk would be comfortable with - which the speaker might find acceptable.

fuzzywuzzy Thu 12-Dec-13 14:45:19

That picture is different to my knowledge and personal experience and that of my family and friends.

Also those madrasas may have only been pictured on the boys side there may well be a girls side where the girls are learning.

Segregating older children is normal.

At our Madrasas the girls repeatedly outdid the boys during exams and the overall Madrasa prize winning pupil was a girl in my class for several years running.

DecorKateTheXmasTreeMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 12-Dec-13 15:20:19

Sorry to hijack the thread folks - just wondering if anyone else is having formatting issues with the Guest Blogs? If you are let us know as

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 15:24:01

There are tens of thousands of Madrassas around the world; some are co-educational, but the majority are not.

Re: your explanation of the picture ... the poster I was replying to had said: "I live in a Muslim country and men and women/boys and girls are not segregated for learning."

If the boys and girls are educated in the same building but in separate rooms, then they are segregated for learning, contrary to what that poster had said.

ButThereAgain Thu 12-Dec-13 15:45:04

I agree with that Errol. Its been extraordinarily misrepresented (see Guardian today).

This whole issue seems to have almost as little substance as the earlier panic about full-face coverings in public institutions like the NHS. In both cases the actual problem is relatively slight and one which the affected institutions can and do handle in a nuanced and appropriate way, only for the press to kick up some caricature presenting a big bogeyman threat -- and politicians to come blustering in with talk of legal bans (Chuka Umunna today). Great way for politicians to appeal to racist anxieties. without seeming to dirty their hands too much.

ILoveAFullFridge Thu 12-Dec-13 15:52:06

HomeHelpMeGawd we have very similar backgrounds smile

Yes, yeshivot are single sex, but note that I was referring to an Orthodox speaker addressing a mixed audience on a secular subject. I can't see an Orthodox speaker giving a guest lecture on, say, Kabbalah, to a non-Jewish audience at all, so the issue of gender would not arise. AFAIAC, the sort of ultra-Orthodox who ignored a PP at check-in are fundamentalist extremists, and IMO freedom of speech does not give a platform to extremists.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 15:58:20

I'm not sure it's quite as simple as all that. There are some recent incidents that suggest universities are weakening on important issues of liberalism. They include the recent incident at LSE and the arrests and alleged assault at student protests in London. The latter is just one instance of a wider set of attacks on student protests.

So people are a little bit twitchy about what appears to be a trend of wing-clipping going on at the moment, at the behest of authorities and authoritarian figures, political and religious.

HomeHelpMeGawd Thu 12-Dec-13 16:09:04

ILoveAFullFridge, we should compare notes one day. My cousin has ten kids - takes p'ru u'rv'oo very seriously. I on the other hand happily eat treyf and my DCs sing carols at school but still we go to shul lots and are active. I think that side of my family would be completely befuddled by our approach, if they knew the details.

Anyway, I can't see a frum Rabbi give a lecture to a non-Jewish audience on Kabbalah, either! Well, not until someone creates LimmudForNonJews wink

But in all seriousness, I could imagine some frum Rabbis give a lecture on Jewish medical ethics to an audience of both non-Jewish and Jewish doctors. That said, the Rabbis that would say yes would also not be the type to worry about gender segregation.

ButThereAgain Thu 12-Dec-13 16:20:22

To clarify, I don't think that all -- or most -- of the anxiety about segregation is racist. Of course there are real concerns there. But I do think there is a dynamic in British politics at the moment of certain issues getting picked up on and exaggerated, and then spoken about in terms of possible legislation by politicians who are very twitchy indeed about the need to appeal to voters who are restless about immigration. So reasonable anxieties are a pretext for a certain sort of display from politicians. Veiling was the clearest example recently. And this university segregation issue does have something of the same air about it.

(Agree that universities are also facing excessive suppression of political protest at the moment.)

JoannWDean Sat 14-Dec-13 11:32:30

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

NumptyNameChange Sat 14-Dec-13 19:53:43

it is perfectly legitimate to be concerned about cultural practices that clash with hard won freedoms and rights. i personally think the implying of racism is misused by politicians and others as a silencing technique and when one expresses concerns about a specific practice only to be told that's because you're racist it's actually a form of gaslighting.

we can't afford to allow women's rights and equality aims to be trumped by cultural sensitivity which is essentially men saying oh no we wouldn't want to interfere with the cultural practices of those men and deep down i suspect an unacknowledged belief that men shouldn't be telling other men what to do with 'their women'.

NumptyNameChange Sat 14-Dec-13 19:55:16

ergo the human rights of women come second to the rights of men to their cultural practices because in reality the ruling men still believe women are property therefore muslim women for example are muslim men's wives and daughters over british citizens. it needs to change.

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