"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 29 November 2013

Gender Segregation is never O.K

You would think that in a modern democratic country in the 21st century the idea that an institution of higher learning might consider segregating men from women at a public event would be laughable: Not so… Universities UK has just published a 40 page guidance document to universities hosting visiting speakers which contains the following advice on speakers requesting that their audience should be segregated by gender. Firstly it is presented as a case study
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 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.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but are they suggesting that this would be completely uncontroversial if the student’s union did not have an active feminist society? Do we really have to shake a bunch of feminists out of abject apathy before we consider the ethics of gender apartheid? Anyway, just in case the feminists are awake…
Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees[…]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.
Yes because there is an absolutely equal chance that our speaker would insist on males sitting at the back. Not.
This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities)[...] 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.
There are some people, including unfortunately the NUS, who appear to think this is a reasonable compromise. But it is nonsense to suppose that in any enforced segregation people are being treated in anyway equally. Just because the women are not sent to the back does not mean they are not the object of discrimination or that their views and participation will not be stifled. It is a way of saying this group of people are not fit to be seated with this other group of people. Let’s see how this works if we insist that people of colour sit on the left and whites sit on the right, or let’s put Jews on the right and Christians on the left. In what way is this not discriminatory?
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.
I’m not sure why feminism is in scare quotes here, but it seems to me that whether or not it falls within the definition of belief according to legislation it is as valid a belief system as religion and religion should not be privileged above any other world view.
This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling.
O.K, let’s be clear what is being proposed here. 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. Even if non segregated seating is also available (which the advice does not insist upon) there will be the inevitable coercion of some women from whichever culture to use only the segregated section. 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.
A petition to Universities UK has been started by Mariam Namazie and the Council of Ex Muslims is staging a demonstration on 10 December 2013, International Human Rights Day, to oppose sex segregation.