Avaaz: Targetting ‘Sex Segregation’ is Islamophobic
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:
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!