Avaaz: Targetting ‘Sex Segregation’ is Islamophobic

Monday, 25th November 2013 at 16:44 UTC 4 comments

Petition site Avaaz are running asking people to condemn Universities UK’s statement on sex segregation in events held on campus. Please DON’T sign it. It might use intellectual language, but its both factually dubious and distinctly Islamphobic.

First, its worth pointing out that the lectures and visiting lecturers being talked about are student-organised speaking events. They are not course lectures. Allowing such meetings to take place on campus is an important part of encouraging debate and widening participation in Higher Education. Furthermore, it allows Muslim women to meet and discuss their issues.

Second, I should add that I’m a graduate of the University of Bradford – I have attended lectures that were segregated. It was done in a very simple and largely organic way – I knew it was not appropriate to sit next to women, so I sat on the side of the central aisle where the men were congregating. We didn’t actually have curtains or anything, and in a culture where people socialise amongst their own sex, its not surprising that friends sitting together looks pretty segregated right away. Its not stopped women from asking questions or making their points – if anything it makes it more obvious that women are being ignored if only one side is speaking.

In allowing its website to be used to petition against the right of Islamic Societies to determine the running of their own meetings, Avaaz is endorsing cultural imperialism and side-lining of an entire culture within our Universities. The petition represents an attempt to force Western culture into the meetings and events of women and men who subscribe to another culture. This is not tolerance, freedom or any other form of positive. Never underestimate the ability of White Men to use Women of Colour as a means to espouse racism and cultural superiority.

It feels very much like a protest against ‘creeping Islamisation’ – that idea that, having been the dominant culture and continuing to be the dominant culture, we should fear a bit of diversity round the edges. The sense of cultural superiority and the right to dictate to members of minorities, and especially the women within them, how to live their lives, is far more worrying than having men and women sit on opposite sides of an aisle.

Looking down the list of initial signatories, it is clear that this is an attempt at religion bashing by some of the most reactionary pupils of ‘Western Enlightenment’ thinking. I shan’t begin to rehearse the case against Dawkins for his Islamophobia as it is available in great lengths elsewhere on the internet.

I’m ashamed that Avaaz are allowing themselves to be align with such a reactionary campaign against minority cultural freedoms. I hope they will strongly consider taking it down and issuing an apology to the Islamic Societies who this petition was designed to condemn.


This post has obviously caused fury amongst a small number of people, including the author of the original blog. Its become obvious that some of what I wrote wasn’t particularly clear. or perhaps some of the attacks on twitter might have been more accurate. Here are some points that I feel a need to add:

  1. At no point did I intend this to be read as “all Muslims segregate meetings”. Clearly, not all Muslims segregate meetings. Not all Christian Unions ban women from giving talks, or have separate bible study groups for men and women – a few do. Only a couple of forms of Judaism keep men and others separate, also. Some Churches will give communion to non-members and others won’t. Most Orthodox Churches celebrate communion behind a screen, out of site of non-Priests; why isn’t that segregation?
  2. I do not believe that governments have a right to adjudicate the beliefs or practices of religions. Governments are terrible arbitors of taste. That way lies registration of religions (China) and the recasting of religions in the image of the government (more starkly in modern Russia, but something I wrestle with constantly as a member of the Church of England).
  3. University belongs to the whole staff and student community, and if a lecture theatre is booked to a group with specific cultural rules, I respect them. Certain responders appear to see the University as the sole domain of one set of values (a very exclusivist secularism). Some even appear to set the Mosque and the University as opposite poles. Few Universities are solely secular institutions – Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are very religious institutions. All our academia is rooted in culture, and the culture most of us grew up in was Christian, even if not religiously so. Students of faith are not somehow guests in the University, nor are secularist students totally objective and without emotion or bias.
  4. University should be a time and space for people to encounter radically opposing views without judgement – our feeble attempts at objectivity rely on it. UUK have not said that all Muslim meetings should be segregated – they’ve given guidance to allow students hosting events to set the rules of engagement. What next? Opposing lecturers to balance debate in all student-run activities? Students have a right to organise on campus, whether they are Christians, Communists, Muslims, etc. ‘No police on campus’ is a cry from here to Athens, and it doesn’t stop when its religion and not politics that the police object to.
  5. Nowhere have I stated my feelings about segregating men and women at events, only that groups have a right to design their own spaces. Personally, I found it a bit weird. But when I visit a Buddhist Temple, I avoid pointing my feet at the Buddha out of courtesy – I don’t want to insult the hospitality I’m being shown. That said, I know women who quite like segregated spaces – it keeps the lecherous men away from them. I want women bishops in the Church of England, but I don’t want to throw out those who disagree. I want inter- and intra-faith dialogue, and that means talking to radical as well as integrationist groups within faiths.
  6. I defend the right of Pakistani Christians to assemble, worship and evangelise, and to do it well or badly. Therefore, I am consistent when I say that Muslims have the right to assemble, worship and evangelise on campus.
  7. The petitions author may. in fact, be a Muslim woman. That she would therefore effectively call for fellow members of her religion to be outlawed and marginalised like this is atrocious. Richard Dawkins, to whom the ‘White Western’ comment was addressed, however, has taken to twitter several times in the weeks before I write, with Islamophobic statements that should be relegated to the gutter press. I’ve also received all-out racism on Twitter – people wanting to confine segregation to ‘tribal Pakistan’. Is Maryam Namazie really trying to stir up this sentiment? If so, she’s playing into the hands of the right. My enemy’s enemy is not always my friend!

Entry filed under: Activism, Free Space, Freedom, Islam, University.

Toynbee is wrong: votes can be ripped away We need wins, not losses

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Tuesday, 26th November 2013 at 0:58 UTC

    The UUK document wasn’t even about audience segregation – that was just something buried in there. The document was far more general guidance on how to handle external speakers booked by members of the university.

    Of course, segregation is only bad when the religionists or the toffs do it. Segregated ISoc meeting: right out. Single sex school: barely acceptable. Female only bike ride: an empowering and forward-thinking move to encourage women to exercise more. Gotta love the consistency.

  • 2. bridestones  |  Saturday, 14th December 2013 at 19:35 UTC

    I understand your reasoning re the Avaaz petition, Graham, and acknowledge what seem to be your good intentions, but here’s why I think you’re wrong.

    I believe that everyone – from the Naked Rambler to a Muslim woman wearing the niqab – has the right to dress their own body in whatever way they please. I also think that people should be able to select their own seats in a room, & if Muslim women want to sit together, they have that right (however, they may reasonably be asked questions about why they expect to be included in other groups if they firmly reject members from those same groups being included in theirs).

    But this is not what the current furore is about. At UCL, students who wanted a gender-neutral area where both men & women could sit were man-handled out of the lecture room by the Islamic Soc security – ironically, this at a university which was founded specifically for people who refused to be restricted by religious belief! ‘That godless place on Gower St’ has a fine tradition of free thinking & it should not be betrayed. It goes against the very principles on which it was founded – UCL is not like Oxbridge in having developed modern secularism out of a Christian tradition.

    At the LSE Freshers’ Fair, the Atheist, Secular & Humanist Soc students had material removed from their stall, & were told to leave because their T-shirts were potentially offensive to religious believers. They were forced to go. The same thing recurred the following day, even though their T-shirt slogans were covered by labels saying ‘Censored’. Again, the LSE used to be a place where people could freely discuss and debate.

    You seem to think that Muslims are somehow an oppressed minority, Worldwide, there are many more Muslims, united in the umma, and increasingly struggling for political power, than there are Western liberals. It took 500 years of sustained struggle in England for our present level of liberty to be attained and enshrined in law: this is a precious thing, & rare, and late-come to human history. Women have only been regarded as equal for a very few decades, and the levels of institutionalised misogyny in society are still unacceptably high. This is not going to get better in the future if the Middle Eastern oils sheikhs are permitted to continue to establish academic Chairs at Western universities, over which they then exert permanent control, or if men and women are segregated as they are at Muslim universities.

    As in apartheid Black people may well have ‘chosen’ to be segregated because it was made so uncomfortable for them if they refused, so Muslim women – who are now speaking out about this – suffer penalties such as complete ostracism by their families if they mingle with Westerners. Others are subjected to ‘honour’ killings and high levels of domestic violence which the Crown Prosecutor for NW England, Naziir Afsal, has highlighted as something which should greatly concern the Muslim community. Muslim women who do not cover their faces have had acid thrown in them. In such a context, how free are women to ‘choose’ to sit separately?

    Further, if we examine the reason for men & women sitting apart, it is because it is believed that men cannot be expected to restrain from sexual attacks upon women if the said women have uncovered hair or the shape of their bodies is visible. Don’t you as a man find that profoundly insulting? Why can we not simply say to Muslim men that it is time they grew up, but if they really cannot control themselves, they should be curfewed – only allowed out if an accompanying woman vouches for their good behaviour? Instead, we are pandering to their childish menaces, always underpinned by threats of actual violence, by appeasing them instead of standing up for a better way. When you align yourself with them, you are putting me, as a woman, in greater danger, because you are reinforcing the notion that if a woman is raped, it is her own fault because she didn’t keep to the narrow space assigned her by people who – ridiculously – assert that God Said So, So It Must Be Right. I refer you to a Muslim cleric’s recent, infamous statement that if a cat jumps on a plate of meat, who can blame it if the meat wasn’t covered?

    When you align yourself with cultural relativists, you thereby disable yourself intellectually. If every culture is as good as every other, then we have no means of discriminating between ideas & practices which promote health & wellbeing, & those which are pernicious & perpetuate oppression This is precisely what has crippled the Left, for example with regard to the issue of female genital mutilation – something banned by the WHO, campaigned against by African women, but defended by the white male Left because it cannot recognise grotesque child abuse if that abuse is carried out by people whose skin is browner than its own.

    You also state that the university is a place where anyone can evangelise. I would argue that it is precisely not so: rather, the whole point of a university is that it is a place for rational critical evaluation of everything, including religious beliefs and cultural values. The university should never be a place in which religious ideology takes precedence over reason and the principles of freedom, equality and justice.

    I think your attitude proceeds from a good heart, but you appear to have little sense of historical perspective, or you would understand why ‘creeping Shari’a’ is genuinely to be feared by people who desire a liberal, open society in which people are free to hold any religious beliefs they choose, but not free to impose them on the rest of us. This issue is one about power, ultimately – who controls British public space, whose rules dominate, what principles are validated in practice?

    Here’s my final point: a recent survey showed that Pakistan published around 500 research papers, China 75,000, the USA 205,000. The research completed by 46 Muslim countries, added together, totalled less than that carried out in Spain. Who do you think should be running our universities? When I lectured at Arab universities,I was often told that Muslims only need one book. Personally, I find that my mental development requires rather more than that, & Western universities provide more.

    Would you like The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to dictate what we can think & say? In case you’re not aware of the OIC, it’s the body, supported by 57 Muslim countries, which is currently trying to pressure Europe to make the criticism of Islam illegal within its borders. University Islamic Societies support the replacement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the Cairo Declaration (of rights accorded by Islam).

    For all these reasons,I am signing the Avaaz petition. And I hope many people will join me.

  • 3. Greg  |  Saturday, 28th December 2013 at 11:31 UTC

    Bridestones said:

    “You seem to think that Muslims are somehow an oppressed minority, Worldwide, there are many more Muslims, united in the umma, and increasingly struggling for political power, than there are Western liberals.”

    I’ve heard lots of similar arguments to this, that a minority group are actually not a minority and oppression of them is okay, because they’ve got lots of supporters elsewhere in time and space. The arguments are all wrong: just because there are lots of Muslims in the world but that doesn’t excuse British universities oppressing what is locally a minority religion, any more than it’s okay for a bunch of women to mock a lone guy because men have historically been more powerful, or to engage in the long British tradition of oppressing Catholics (because the pope’s quite powerful over in Rome), or for people in the Muslim world to beat up a westerner (because America is the great Satan) … pick your own example.

    Someone may have a lot of supporters a long way away but still be a local minority. Reference to some abstract power balance does not justify being a bully in the here and now.

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 28th December 2013 at 17:46 UTC

      Help! I’m agreeing with Greg’s every word. Must be Christmas!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

My Twitter Updates

Blog Stats

  • 77,922 visits

Copyright Info