Freedom of expression and gender segregation in British universities
Advice from Universities UK on the issue of gender segregation in British universities – specifically at Islamic Society events – has been met with protests, claiming that it panders to religious extremists and condones sexism. But while these concerns are forceful and serious, a number of commentators have pointed out that the kinds of meetings under discussion are not mandatory; anybody objecting to this particular requirement can simply not attend.
Now, there are a number of competing rights and considerations at play, some serious and some spurious. Here is one: might freedom of speech be compromised if gender segregation is forbidden because a religiously orthodox speaker refuses to address an audience that is not segregated? But what kind of freedom is being discussed here? The freedom to have your eccentric demands met before you will treat a roomful of people to a lecture on the tenth century Muslim philosopher Avicenna is not a freedom I recognise. I would not consider myself a victim of censorship if I were forbidden from giving a talk because I insisted on being naked while I spoke. And the comparison is not merely a flippant one: whether or not our speaker claims that his religious beliefs mandate a particular seating arrangement should make no difference at all. The refusal of a university to seat an audience according to a speaker’s liking should not be dressed up as an attack on his freedom.
But of course, freedom of expression is not the only freedom. It is much more plausible to claim that the right to free assembly is undermined by universities preventing segregation in their institutions, rather than freedom of expression. After all, wouldn’t it be ridiculous for universities to enforce a rule – or for government to introduce legislation – stipulating where people may sit at a student event? It might be argued that both men and women attending segregated lectures or events want to sit separately – or, at least, that they are prepared to.
But this objection – while appearing more serious and legitimate – misses the point for two reasons. Firstly, if a girl has been raised in a conservative Muslim community then it is likely that the separation of the genders is normal to her. She may say that she prefers sitting at the back of the room with the other girls while her brothers and fellow male students sit at the front. But that does not mean that the practice of segregation by gender does not have its roots in sexism and a suspicion of the intellectually disruptive effects of the presence of women on the distracted and pliable male mind. True, it is not the place of the university management to second-guess whether or not a student really wants to sit in segregated seating but we should not be blind to the fact that the sexism that underpins such a practice can become internalised. Secondly, if a university disallows the practice of gender segregation it is not concocting silly and pedantic, or even oppressive, rules. Rather, it is fighting the influence of religious extremists and literalists on university campuses.
We find ourselves with a complex problem: most of us disapprove of this kind of segregation in universities – and are not persuaded that it is much like single-sex schools or toilets – but are cautious about appearing to curb individuals’ rights to organise meetings as they wish. There is a simpler way of looking at the issue though. We can ask ourselves “should speakers invited to address an audience at a British university have their request for a segregated audience respected?” I think it is quite easy to reply “no” to that question without fearing that we are compromising anybody’s rights.