Written by Student Rights on 10 February 2014 at 11am

The Telegraph: Islamic preachers: the pied pipers of sexual apartheid?

By Joe Shute

9th February 2014

A young man called Ishmael, with a wispy black beard and a slight blemish in one eye, is telling me why women should be covered up and kept apart.

“If I had two sweets – one wrapped and one unwrapped – and threw them in a bin, which one would you pick out and eat?” He grins, the amateur philosopher pleased with his analogy, and breaks off to shake the hand of a young man walking past the makeshift London Metropolitan University Islamic Society stall set up in the student canteen.

Ishmael, who says he is a former head of the society (something the current president later denies) appears to know a lot of the students passing through. “Women are man’s great temptation,” he turns back to face me. “They should be covered up.”

Later that evening, in the windowless lecture room GC1-08, which juts out silver and angular over north London’s Holloway Road, the members of the Islamic Society file in. Through a side door come the men, occupying the seats at the front. Through another door come the women, sitting as far back as possible.

There are no signs in place, and the society insists it has no policy of segregation, and yet on more than one occasion, a female late arrival is directed to sit at the back.

The talk is called “The Effects of Sins” by an external lecturer called Ustadh Abu Ibrahim. He appears to be no firebrand, espousing moderate views that wouldn’t sound out of place in any mosque, church or temple. At the end, he stresses that the women at the back should be allowed to ask questions. “You have to be fair to the sisters,” he tells his audience.

With the lecture finished, a white woman who slipped in midway through the talk and sat, unchallenged, near the men, rushes first to the door. Outside in the street, she explains she is a concerned member of the university’s staff. “I just think somebody should be monitoring these meetings,” she tells me. She is not alone.

Spring term 2014 was supposed to bring an end to gender segregation at British universities. In December, the Prime Minister himself intervened over the issue, emphasising through a spokesman that he wanted it banned even where men and women voluntarily separate themselves (although not in places of worship).

Mr Cameron – backed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove – made his comments after Universities UK (UUK), the body that represents vice-chancellors, published new guidelines endorsing segregation which, according to some student groups and human-rights organisations, were tantamount to “sexual apartheid”.

UUK’s controversial guidance, set out in a case study detailing how external speakers from “ultra-orthodox religious groups” could request that men and women sit separately, has now been withdrawn. It continues to work with senior legal counsel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify its position.

Yet, while hands wring over the latest furore, inside Britain’s universities nothing seems to have changed. In Islamic societies dominated by more traditional elements, segregated seating – be it enforced, implicit or otherwise – continues unchallenged. Hard-line speakers, who espouse the sorts of views I heard from Ishmael in the canteen, are meanwhile still being invited on a weekly basis.

The equality group Student Rights, which monitors preaching by extremists and discrimination through segregation at student events, says separated seating has become a widespread trend at many British universities...