Outrage is being voiced in Britain after reports have emerged of women being forced to sit separately from men at events held by Muslim groups on British campuses, a phenomenon some have termed “gender apartheid.”
Britain’s Sunday Times reported that not only were women forced to sit in the back of the hall at a seminar organized by the Queen Mary Islamic Society at Queen Mary University of London last month, they were not allowed to speak and had to enter via a “sisters only” entrance. Men – who were seated in front – were allowed to ask questions orally while women wrote their questions on paper.
The event, called Deception of the Dunya (world), featured a speaker Ustadh Abu Abdillah who spoke about living morally, the British paper reported.
One female student who attended told the Sunday Times she thought the experience was degrading. “It’s not just about segregation but also about how they’re treating women,” the student told the paper, adding she didn’t want her name used for fear she might be attacked.
“It’s one thing to be segregated but a whole other thing being told we are not allowed to speak and men being told not to look at woman,” the student who is a devout Muslim herself said.
“You just want to shake them and say ‘Why are you being so disrespectful?’” she added.
A university spokesman was quoted by the Daily Mail, saying “Segregated events are not in line with Queen Mary’s values or equality policy. We will be raising this with our students’ union as this should extend to student society-organized events with external speakers such as this one.”
Last month’s event followed a similar incident earlier this year at the University of Leicester during which women were seated rows behind men during a lecture organized by the University of Leicester Islamic Society.
Photographs were posted online of the Islamic Awareness Week event, at which signs were put up directing “brothers” and “sisters” to use different doors to enter the room.
The Guardian was given this photograph in April of the signs directing men and women to their assigned doors:
The Daily Mail posted this photograph showing the men in the front of the room:
“Separate seating for men and women is not something we ever enforce. It happens naturally and if Muslim women were disadvantaged they would be the first to complain,” Saleem Chagtai of the Islamic Education and Research Academy said according to the Daily Mail.
Last month, Universities UK (UUK) established guidelines which allowed religious groups to segregate men and women at public meetings on campus, as long as the segregation was based on “genuinely held religious beliefs.”
Catherine Bennett, a columnist for the Observer, termed the sex segregation practice “gender apartheid.” In the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog, she wrote “It may or may not be lawful, depending on future lawsuits and revised advice from Universities UK, for academic institutions to compel submission to speaker demands for gender apartheid where this is the outcome of ‘genuinely held religious beliefs.’”
“All we can know for sure, at the time of writing, is that those with phony or inadequately fanatical religious beliefs are unlikely to be granted the privilege of segregation in our universities. Unless they are very good liars,” she added.
Rupert Sutton of Student Rights, a group that combats extremism on British campuses, was quoted in the Daily Mail reacting to the Leicester incident: “The obvious discrimination in this picture is what segregated seating can mean in practice – women pushed to the back of the hall, while men are given the best seats to see and hear the speaker.”
The watchdog group found that of the visits by Islamic speakers to British campuses, over one quarter resulted in segregated meetings.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Sky News on Friday, “I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain.”
“That is not the right approach. The guidance should not say that, universities should not allow this. I’m very clear about this,” Cameron added.
Appearing to backtrack on the earlier directive, Universities UK chief Nicola Dandridge said in a statement: “Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers.”
This story has been updated.