The voice of the British Universities, Universities UK, has produced an information guide (pdf) about external speakers at universities. The kind of speakers who don't teach full courses but who come to give a speech or a small number of speeches. Page 27 of that guidebook offers a case study of a religious speaker who wants the audience for his (the pronoun used there) speech to be segregated by gender. The setting is a university with an active feminist group (why does this matter?) and the planned speech is near the International Women's Day in time (why does that matter?)
Universities are given the following advice:
...under the Equality Act 2010, the first
question is whether the segregation is discriminatory
on the grounds of a protected characteristic within
the definition of the Act. 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.
It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider
the seating plan for any segregation. 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. 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).
Consideration will also need to be given to whether
imposing segregation on everyone attending the
event is required (see below). If it is required, this
may amount to less favourable treatment of other
attendees because of a protected characteristic. 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.
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 withi
the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This
would in turn mean that applying a segregated
seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a non-
segregated 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. Further, an act of indirect
discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a
proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim,
meaning the institution should also have regard to
its other obligations under the Equality Act and the
s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.
It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account
of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human
Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances,
concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of
those opposed to segregation should not result in a
religious group being prevented from having a debate
in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if
imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition
to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-
held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event,
or those of the speaker, the institution should be
mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the
religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.
Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage
in lawful protest against segregation, and could
be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the
issues, but their views do not require an institution
to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate
where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held
religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution
to secure freedom of speech within the law.
I have bolded the part which contains the main conclusions here: British Universities can have outside religious speakers (most likely Muslim or ultra-orthodox Jews) and the university must abide by their religious beliefs, irrespective of the religious beliefs of those who come to the event!
The whole thing is fascinating, and so are reactions to it. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian:
Separate but equal; where have we heard that before? Apartheid South Africa is no metaphor for anything else, but women of my generation and all those before were told over and over again that the sexes are different "but equal", as an excuse for excluding them from places they didn't belong: they should be doing "separate but equal" in the kitchen, bedroom and nursery. Whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal.
Universities once barred women altogether. Now they strive to be emblems of enlightenment, temples to reason, equality, free speech and freedom of thought. But it's not easy to balance conflicting freedoms. Universities UK, their representative body, has just published 40 pages of guidelines on External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions, wriggling and writhing over competing freedoms for women versus not causing religious offence: it ends up with excruciating nonsense.
Here is the opinion piece of Sara Khan, a British Muslim, who disagrees with the idea:
Malcolm X once said; “America preaches integration and practices segregation.” I believe Universities UK preaches equality but promotes segregation.
As a university student I once recall walking down the street when I noticed the president of my Islamic society (Isoc) walking towards me. When he saw me, a look of panic glazed over his eyes and he hurriedly crossed the road and continued walking. That was 13 years ago, yet little has changed. This week, a student told me how wanting to pray Friday prayers, she approached one of the “brothers” at her Isoc to ask which room prayers were being held in. His response? He turned his back to her and faced the wall. These experiences of misogyny stem from the belief that women are immoral and the ‘solution’ to this is gender segregation as proponents advocate.
There has been much controversy about the legal status of university events allowing gender segregated events. Universities UK’s new published guidelines suggest side to side segregated seating is acceptable as “both men and women are being treated equally” and therefore women would not experience “less favourable treatment.”In ordinary comments about this recommendation the vast majority of reactions were unhappy. I read that old-time feminists would turn in their graves (rise up like frightening zombies?) if they were told that the battles they once fought and won in Britain must now be fought all over again. I read that the privileging of religion in public spaces (such as in British universities which get government funding) violates the rights of non-believers. I read that this is multiculturalism in a form where beliefs held by a small minority are now allowed to influence the lives of the majority, not cultures living peacefully side-by-side (the British model).
Universities UK clearly cannot see the wood for the trees. The idea that both men and women are equally segregated and therefore treated equally is highly erroneous. Perhaps one could argue such a point if so many Isocs weren’t such patriarchal constructions; shaped, structured and led by men.
The far fewer comments supporting the idea of letting the speakers decide where men and women are to sit in the room consisted of the following types of comments: Britain already has gender-segregated toilets, sports facilities and hospitals, so how is this situation any different? Or: This matter is trivial, the universities are going down the corporate toilet and you wussies can only moan about where men and women sit. Or: If these events are not gender-segregated, then devout Muslim women and men cannot attend.
The most interesting argument in this camp was probably the one which explained the Islamic rules about gender segregation: Segregating men and women is supposed to protect women from sexual harassment and men from getting sexually aroused by the proximity of women. Peace is held by keeping the sexes separate.
I'm in the camp which dislikes the whole idea and sees it as a clear step backwards in a European country. My reasons are several, but the gist of them was expressed by Sara Khan in the above quote. My take on it is this:
Separate Cannot Be Equal If The Sexes Already Aren't Completely Equal.
By "completely equal" in that sentence I mean as if we were two countries, side-by-side, one for women and one for men, each with its own leaders, own institutions and own laws, and no power differences between the rulers of the countries. If one country is the vassal of the other country, separate can never be equal. And that is the case in (extreme interpretations of) Islam and also, in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
To give you a very simple example of the problems the segregation of genders can cause, consider a story I once read about the customer waiting lines in an Iranian bakery. These lines were segregated by gender. When the lines were long, the men's line moved much faster than the women's line.
The reasons are pretty obvious: Complaints by men would have much more power in a system where men have more power, and gender norms would also prioritize men's needs for faster service.
For a second (trivial) example, the times at the ice rink at my school were not allocated equally between boys and girls. Boys got the best times and the rink was never repaired until right before their game times. I learned to skate on horrible cracked ice and have the scars to prove it.
More generally, whenever resources or spaces cannot be absolutely equally divided it is pretty likely that the dominant gender gets the better deal.
All that is based on the idea that what this proposal is about is like giving the devil the little finger (followed by him taking the whole hand) or like the camel's nose under the tent's wall (followed by the camel standing inside the tent). In short, if this is the first tentative feeler to see how much gender segregation might be acceptable in the UK universities, I'm all for squashing it in the bud. Because wide-spread gender segregation, just as wide-spread racial segregation, always harms the less powerful group by depriving it of equal resources.
But suppose that this is about something much more minor, about letting, say, a radical Jewish, Christian or Islamic preacher speak to the general population of students at a British University, and suppose that this practice will get no more prevalent than that.
I would still have theoretical problems with it. It seems odd to me, as an outsider, to think that the speaker can demand that the audience in a room behaves according to his or her religious views. If this is about religious rights, it seems to privilege the speaker's rights over everybody else's rights in the room. It's as if an invited guest at the dinner would not only demand a vegan or halal or kosher meal for himself or herself but would refuse the invitation unless everyone else at the dinner consent to eat what the speaker eats.
The guide notes that the justification for this is freedom of speech, the idea that the speaker will refuse the invitation if he or she cannot have a gender segregated audience, and that this refusal reduces meaningful speech at the university. But by removing the hurdle of gender-integrated audiences from the speaker, a reverse hurdle will face all students who find gender segregation obnoxious: For them to participate in the speech they must accept the speaker's rule. Indeed, they must enter the speaker's culture.
All this is an application of the problems which appear when multicultural values or religious values conflict with equality values. In every possible configuration of the room someone's beliefs could be insulted. I have some sympathy with the argument I read that very devout Muslim women and men could not attend an event without gender-segregated seating Or I would have had, were they not living in a gender-integrated country, where they might arrive at the event via public transportation or at least by walking down a busy side-walk in close proximity to both women and men.
Ultimately this case is about symbolic segregation of men and women. I'm not sure whether it would satisfy a speaker bent on a particular world-view. For example, side-by-side segregation still lets men see the women, and the option of having a third, integrated section is unlikely to be acceptable to a fervent segregationist.
One final question concerns the nature of the event itself. An event organized by one religious group to only its own members might choose to have segregated seating to stop any sexual harassment or lewd thoughts the mingling of the sexes is believed to cause. But I don't find anything in the Universities guide which limits the audience in such a manner, and I'm not sure why the British universities would subsidize such private-seeming religious group events. Perhaps they do?