As a society we separate the genders all the time. (Well, we separate two genders and pretend any variations don’t exist, but whatever.) Bathrooms, sports, clothing, razors. There are men’s and women’s everything. Thankfully, we’ve at least progressed enough as a society that it’s acceptable for men and women to share a room together without it getting weird. Or have we?
The representative body for universities in the United Kingdom recently came out with a report that said that the genders could be segregated during a debate as long as the seating arrangement doesn’t give one gender an advantage over another. For example, side-by-side segregation might be acceptable while seating women in the back would not be because it would hinder the women’s opportunity to participate. It’s not discriminatory, they say, because the genders are segregated in the same way.
Um… I’m not sure they know what discriminatory means.
Universities UK is trying to please everyone, but in doing so they are prioritizing religious sensibilities over equality. Would this type of thing be OK if a speaker believed that people of different races shouldn’t mix? Nope. Of course not. The fact that a speaker even requested that their event be segregated in that way would get them laughed out of the room, and rightly so.
What Universities UK is trying to do is to bring a variety of different world views to as many people as possible, which is a worthy goal. What are universities for if not expanding one’s horizons and becoming familiar with issues from a different point of view. However, sacrificing gender equality is not the way to do this.
Polly Toynbee at The Guardian makes the point that misogynistic attitudes held by religions are exactly the kind of thing that universities should be challenging:
Muslim speakers demand segregation to make a very public point about their belief in women’s “separate” role in the universe, one step behind a man, even in a place of learning. After all, as Maryam Namazie, head of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, says, the speakers and the audience have all traveled there on trains and buses that are not segregated. Mosques and synagogues may hide women out of sight, but by agreeing not to “offend”, the universities condone what they should confront.
If universities want to be considered places of enlightenment, they simply cannot cave to the type of old-fashioned thinking that demands that men and women be separated. Perhaps segregating men and women side-by-side won’t technically impede anyone’s access to debates, but it does send a message. It endorses the idea that men and women can and should operate in different domains and that mingling is somehow inappropriate. That cannot be the message institutions of higher learning would want to send.
This is an unacceptable compromise. How long and hard do women have to fight to be considered fully human and to not have our rights sacrificed so another group isn’t offended? If someone doesn’t like that women exist in the world, that’s their problem. It’s not up to women to make everyone feel comfortable. If that means some controversial speakers refuse to speak at some universities, then I say good riddance.
Photo Credit: Hugo Pardo Kuklinski via Flickr