Sex segregation on campus
There has been a rumbling news story over the last week or so, which has bubbled up in newspapers and the radio and the web: about sex segration on campuses. At first I thought this was to do with me -- being at a single sex college and all that.
But it turned out to be not about that at all. It was all about forced or unforced segregration at meetings (especially Islamic ones) on campus. This was what Yasmin Alibhai Brown had to say:
"This capitulation is a disaster for feminism. , progressive ideals and above all Muslims."
And most of the rest of the coverage was along the same lines. And the villain was UniversitiesUK (again thanks to Alibhai Brown): " this august body <which> has published guidelines on gender segregation at universities."
Now, I dont think you'll need me to tell you what I feel about segregrated meetings (and in case you're wondering, that isn't what a single-sex college is all about -- but that's for another occasion). But I was curious whether UniversitiesUK really had recommended gender segregation, as claimed.
No it hadn't.
This had all come from a UUK briefing document, which aimed to explain to university authorities what their obligations were under the law to freedom of speech for outside speakers on campus. It is a trickier area than you might think, and this was a short pamphlet trying to lay out the legal guidelines.
And it gave a few hypothetical university examples to illustrate the points, and for university authorities to get their teeth into.
The first was about the invitation to a BNP spokesperson by the Politics department, to give a seminar in the run up to a General Election -- when the students' union has a "no platform" policy in respect of the BNP. The third was about a Law Faculty event intended to explore different cultural attitudes to law and punishments -- and how should you deal with a radical spokesman for Sharia law, which some members of the university said was anti-democratic and would endanger the university's statis as a charity. The fourth concerned a meeting of the Palestinian Society, with a radical pro-Palestinian speaker -- which is being attacked by the local rabbi (violence is threatened and the proposed student chair of the meeting is very inexperienced). The fifth was about the hiring of a hall to a local Pentecostal church, whose pastor had "expressed negative views on homosexuality".
It was the second case study that caused all the outcry. It was the case of the spokesperson of an "ultra-orthodox" group (nothing was said about his partticular faith), who insisted on speaking to a group of student segregated by sex (and it just happened to coincide wth campus celebration of International Woman's Day).
The UUK document was trying to give advice about the law in these circumstances, and to give a few guidelines about practical handling. Who is to chair the event? Is the segregation to be "voluntary"? Can you make sure the women are not at the back, but that the different groups are side by side.
I'm not sure that all the practical advice was that acute. Voluntary segregation is a tricky concept (all the men are sitting on one side, and the women on the other... and I go and sit with the men, on the grounds that the segregation is voluntary?) But the last thing that UUL was doing was "promoting segregation by gender".
Just read the document, folks.