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Written by Student Rights on 11 December 2013 at 10am

Channel 4 News: Gender segregation: protests against university guidelines

10th December 2013

Campaigners are targeting Universities UK (UUK) offices in Tavistock Square, London, after the organisation published a report last month saying universities could segregate by gender during talks from external speakers.

In the report, UUK claimed that universities faced a complex balance of promoting freedom of speech without breaking equality and discrimination laws.

The report presented some hypothetical case studies which come up on campuses, including whether a speaker from an ultra-orthodox religious group requests an audience is segregated by gender.

'Racism of lower expectations'

Chris Moos, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, who is attending the protest, told Channel 4 News: "What we want to achieve is for Universities UK to immediately rescind their guidelines condoning gender segregation, and issue guidelines that clearly lay out that any kind of segregation, whether under racist, cultural, religious, nationalistic or sexist pretences, is wrong and has no place in the public space."

Erin Marie Saltman, research project officer at Quilliam and PhD researcher at UCL (University College London), told Channel 4 News: "This is a bigger issue of racism of lower expectations, of avoidance.

"There is a fear of offending the Muslim community but there are a lot of modern Muslims that would never allow gender segregation."

In a statement, UUK said: "The guidance was approved by senior legal counsel as properly reflecting the law. It is not prescriptive. Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions on a case by case basis.

"The guidance does not promote gender segregation. It includes a hypothetical case study involving an external speaker talking about his orthodox religious faith who had requested segregated seating areas for men and women.

"The case study considered the facts, the relevant law and the questions that the university should ask, and concluded that if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area also provided, a university could decide it is appropriate to agree to the request.

"It is very hard to see any university agreeing to a request for segregation that was not voluntary and did not have the broad support of those attending. As the guidance explains, there may be many other reasons why a university might refuse a request for segregation."

'Enforced'

Jo Attwooll, policy adviser at the organisation, added: "The case studies themselves have been designed around some of the bigger issues that people highlighted.

"In relation to segregation there have been a few publicised cases where segregation has either been requested or has actually happened. 

“There was a recent one at UCL where the speaker wanted there to be enforced segregation.

"What that case demonstrated was the need to be clear when you're making external speaker bookings around what the environment will be for that speaker to be given a platform. In that case it only became apparent when the speaker turned up that was what the speaker wanted and the university then took very strong action."

According to the protest Facebook group, the demo has been organised after 8,000 people signed a petition against the guidelines.

Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of One Law for All and Fitnah, Movement for Women’s Liberation, said: "Today, International Human Rights Day, we rally outside of the office of Universities UK to condemn their endorsement of segregation of the sexes.

"Their new guidance to universities on external speakers states that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as both men and women are segregated side by side rather than women being made to sit in the back.

"Would racial apartheid have been non-discriminatory if white and black people had been segregated in the same manner? In fact that is the very argument the apartheid regime of South Africa used when faced with criticism: separate but equal."

'Widespread'

Earlier this year, a student equality group claimed that preaching by extremists and discrimination through segregation at student events has become a "widespread" trend at many UK universities.

Student Rights, which carried out the research, found that radical preachers spoke at 180 events at universities including Cardiff and UCL between March 2012 and March 2013. 

Segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of the events, at 21 separate institutions.

Among the events highlighted in the Student Rights report was a gender-segregated event at UCL on 9 March.

Segregation policy

The lecture, Islam vs Atheism, was organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), and pitted writer Hamza Tzortzis against Prof Laurence Krauss in a debate.

The IERA suggested a sexual segregation policy, and it was enforced at the event.

Men and women had separate entrances - although couples were allowed to enter together - and segregated seating. Organisers' security tried to physically remove members of the audience who would not comply, Student Rights said.

A UCL spokesman said that the institution does not permit segregation at meetings and the university has a "clear policy" of allowing speakers on campus freely, as long as they remain within the law.

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