Gender segregation, and a clash of ideologies

‘Segregation’ is quite an emotive word, especially now with thoughts of Nelson Mandela and apartheid fresh in our minds. But segregation in practice isn’t such a simple issue as many people make out.

A report from Universities UK offering guidance on how to deal with external speakers has ignited quite a storm over the issue of segregation, specifically over a hypothetical case study example of  a religious speaker wishing for his event to be segregated according to gender.

It’s probably worth quoting the scenario (not quite in full):

“A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender. The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high.” 

The report goes on to consider the different legal and moral dilemmas involved (see p29-30) and the issues that university authorities need to bear in mind. One of its concluding remarks is: “In practice, a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas, although if the speaker is unwilling to accept this, the institution will need to consider the speaker’s reasons under equalities legislation.”

This seems reasonable to me, as long as the speaker’s record of speaking and their explanations for wanting segregation get proper consideration.

However Nick Cohen among others has written about this in outrage, in his case in two articles for the Spectator. Cohen is a fine writer for whom I generally have a lot of time. His book ‘What’s Left? How the Left Lost Its Way’ is an excellent and much-welcome primer on leftist idiocies from a left-wing perspective.

He says of the report and its authors: “They insist that the wishes of the misogynist cleric must be paramount. If he wants sexual segregation, he must have it, regardless of the views of the audience. It would be an attack on his human rights to refuse him.”

In this case, Cohen falls right down into the sort of identity politics which he is often so good at attacking. He attacks sexual segregation for the fact of a ‘misogynist cleric’ wanting it, rather than for any specific inequality being practised by segregation of this sort. In other words, he is privileging the supposed identity of the speaker and their supposed misogyny rather than the actual practice of segregation.

The Universities UK report made the correct point that, in this case study example, “Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” This is crucial, for we can see that inequality is not necessarily being practised. The report added that if for example women were seated at the back and men at the front, then there would be a problem, with women potentially being disadvantaged by being further away and thereby potentially less involved in debate and questions. This would be an example of discrimination being practised against women, rather than just simple discrimination between men and women.

I think we should pick our battles based on principles which do not discriminate against people for who they are (or, more accurately, who we perceive them to be – because we don’t have access to the real person), but rather for what they say and do. In that view, we should not exclude or reject from our universities an Islamist preacher for being an Islamist preacher. But we should reject someone who lambasts women’s equality as a crime and calls for the slaying of non-Muslims (or Muslims for that matter).

What people say and do should be paramount, rather than our assumptions and suppositions about what they think based on a practice which is strange to us and which we don’t like. Something may indicate misogyny to us, but if it is not itself misogyny, as is the case with males and females being divided into separate areas of a lecture theatre, we are practising prejudice.

Myself, I have already been subjected to strong criticism and abuse in expressing these views in the comment section of Nick Cohen’s second article, and also in Twitter exchanges.

As I see it, this is largely about the clash of different ideologies: in this case Islamism and the mainstream liberal-left’s ‘equalities agenda’ (with feminism at its forefront). These have been on a collision course for some time, but the classic liberal-left reluctance to engage with problematic issues has maintained an uneasy distance between the parties.

On the liberal-left side this often sees the effective ‘outlawing’ in discourse of certain forms of discrimination, calling them out as examples of inequality.

However, as a principle, opposition to discrimination falls apart upon even cursory examination, for we discriminate/make choices all the time in our lives, and so do our public authorities, without imposing any sort of inequality. We have gender separation in the provision of changing rooms, toilets, education through single-sex schools, on our sports teams and in organisations set up around ethnic and gender groupings (like different BAME groups and women’s networks). These are all forms of discrimination and segregation, but there is nothing necessarily wrong about them.

To take the point to its ultimate, absurdist, conclusion, we actually discriminate between men and women by calling them men and women. We discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims by calling them Muslims and non-Muslims (something I was actually attacked as ‘racist’ for saying by one charming individual on the Cohen comment thread). However, if we called women inferior or non-Muslims ‘infidels’, that is a discrimination against those groupings – and that is wrong.

There are wider issues here about the clash of ideologies and the intensifying Culture Wars taking place in Britain (on the North American model). As a liberal-lefty myself (albeit not in the mainstream), I hold the conventional liberal-left ideology as vastly preferable to any Islamism or other religious ideology that seeks to separate men and women in lecture theatres and that has hostile and even violent attitudes to non-believers.

But in the closing off of avenues for conversation and reconciliation by condemning practices which we don’t like but could easily tolerate, I think we make a mistake and cause unnecessary antagonism.

We should condemn and ban people only when clear, real harm is being done. 

Otherwise we are simply asserting our own cultural dominance: which isn’t very liberal, or egalitarian.

Postscript: Universities UK released a further statement clarifying its position, but then withdrew its guidance after criticisms from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, from whom it is now seeking advice about how to proceed.

Postscript 2: A Muslim woman, Myriam Francois Cerrah has published this piece in the Independent giving some background to this issue in terms of concrete circumstances at University College London in March. She says she opposes segregation but also opposes banning it.


  1. So it's OK to demand seating for whites only.

    1. If a group came along that wanted white people and black people to sit separately in a lecture theatre while showing both of them respect and not making it a matter of inequality, I'd be uncomfortable and find it profoundly odd, but I couldn't on principle call it 'wrong'. Voluntary racial and religious segregation happens widely in our secondary schools and to an extent in our universities. I don't like that, but I'm not going to go around getting hot and heavy with all those people telling them how they're somehow practising evil wrongdoing by separating themselves like that.

      As it happens though, the UUK document says that separating along racial lines would contravene the Equality Act.

    2. Re: "discriminate between men and women by calling them men and women", you are confusing the term "discriminate against" with "differentiate". These have very different meanings.

  2. The examples on your blog (ethnic/national sports groups/toilets/changing rooms), are not fair analogies because the people using them all want it to be exclusively for their group. For someone who doesn't fit the criteria to be allowed to do the activity with them would defy the purpose why they created or joined the group (e.g. competitive sport between immigrant or social communities, showering with less risk of sexual harrassment; If instead the purpose of an exclusive group was a dislike of outsiders, then people may well have a problem with it). At a lecture/debate in a public institution, the facilities were created for men and women to attend doing the same thing, with those who do not wish to be segregated being able to sit where they wish.

    If everyone at an event is against free mixing of the genders (the main Islamic reason for segregation), it would be truely voluntary, no enforcement needed, and I've no problem at all (I don't understand why, but some people are against even that). The problem is that many Muslims are against segregation, or may wish to sit with their friends, or (since the legal advice paragraph specifically refered to "debates") non-Muslims might wish to attend. That's why at very least there must be a mixed area. The legal advice said that in some cases segregation with no mixed area should be considered, which is why I and many people had a problem with it. In practise, even with a mixed area it may not work well and descend into forced segregation for late comers (with the infamous UCL debate it was too small, so a couple of guys were removed when they resisted being forced segregated).

    I fear that "voluntary" segregation (using segregated and mixed zones) that actually worked in keeping separate those who want it, would in practise often require forced segregation for those with a different preference. I'd rather just let the students try their best to sit according to their preferences, and at most, politely request that others don't sit near them, without appealing to an authority to enforce anything. It won't work perfectly, but that's as far as I would countenance. I guess you could call that voluntary, best effort, but far from perfect "segregation".

    1. Interesting and mostly good thoughts Anonymous - certainly the best opposition argument to the guidance that I've read, and I've read a lot.

      The issue seems to boil down to what is private and what is public. However if an Islamic Society for example decided to ticket an event (something UUK mentioned as a possibility) on the basis of ticket holders accepting segregation, that would probably overcome the practical difficulties which you correctly identify. But also, UUK did advise asking speakers to justify segregation with the institution referring to equalities legislation.

      As for the comparisons of different types of segregation, I don't see how it is somehow better for a grouping to exclude as part of their reason for being than segregating in a specific context as part of what is meaningful to them. Discrimination is happening in both cases; only in the first exclusion and inequality is being practised while it isn't in the latter.

  3. I was rereading Myriam FC's article again and thought she made some valid points, some less good ones. I do think the point about single sex schooling is worth attending to. The point about distraction is explicitly invoked as one reason to segregate the sexes until they are 18, not just in a single session, but for their whole educational experience. I think my views are quite close to those of 'Anonymous', and I signed the petition against the guidelines. But I can understand why some people find some of the rhetoric used against segregation a little over the top, or feel there is some selective/disproportionate scrutiny of the issue. I find some of the speakers hosted at these events more concerning than the seating arrangements.

    1. It's a powerful article, for me largely because of its moderation, sanity and sober treatment of the issues. She addresses issues that I skirted around in my articles, on the *effects* of any banning of segregation - it will achieve nothing except driving some Muslim groups away from the mainstream and undermining intelligent engagement with them. If universities are about anything, it is surely not that.

    2. If banning gender segregation will drive some Muslim groups away, then that is their choice. Analogy: Oh dear, if we ban "white people only" meetings, it might drive away the EDL.


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