Even if you're suspicious of the campaign against gender segregation in universities, that's no reason to keep silent
It's possible to challenge both sexism and racism at once. In fact, we have been doing it for years, writes Priyamvada Gopal
The headline on this piece has been amended, because the original did not accurately reflect the argument below.
Ours is not an easy moment at which to practice a simultaneous commitment to anti-racism, equality and social justice. It’s a particularly testing time for progressive people who affiliate in some way to Britain’s ethnic and religious minority communities, among whom Muslims are under unprecedented attack. For us, it is especially difficult to practise a commitment to gender equality and social change in a context so heavily shaped by an intolerant Western 'liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.
I want to raise this because of the deft way in which Student Rights, an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, has managed to bring ‘gender segregation’ at some campus events to national attention despite evidence that events in which the audience is so segregated are not numerous. As others have noted, the group has not addressed greater gendered problems on campus, such as the pay gap or sexual violence. At my own university, where most colleges were male-only until quite recently, less than 10% of full professors are female, surely a disconcerting instance of institutional segregation.
In the wake of Student Rights’ aggressive campaign, which clearly targeted Islamic student groups, Universities UK - not a body known for championing social justice - issued guidance indicating that gender segregation of an audience at the request of a speaker at guest lectures was acceptable. The advice was withdrawn when the Equalities and Human Rights Commission deemed this advice discriminatory. The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.
Those of us committed to both anti-racism and feminism must ask, however, whether we are really constrained to make our choices within this exhausted binary. We can note that Student Rights is a reactionary and opportunistic formation - silent about far more widespread forms of gender and economic segregation including the private, often single-gender schools for the wealthy - while at the same time examine whether gender segregation in certain contexts is not problematic or, at the very least, worthy of scrutiny. The fact that the issue was hijacked by conservative newspapers and politicians does not mean that the issue itself is irrelevant or cannot be addressed through nuanced and historically informed debate.
I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common and ostensibly voluntary but far from making me comfortable with custom, it caused me and others concern. It did not take the proverbial ‘decent, nice, liberal’ Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant in both ideological and institutional terms. Many Muslim women and men, individuals and organisations, have also long queried such practices and, regrettably, such voices are often pushed to the side.
The fact is that challenging traditions and questioning authority are practices common to all societies; changing in response to circumstances is a human capacity and not one limited to a particular culture. It is at our peril that we, particularly women who come from non-European communities, cede or suppress that capacity in the cause of anti-racism, vital though the latter is. It’s a capacity that allows us to ask whether, say, women’s colleges are a useful defence against a wider institutional sexism contexts while simultaneously debating whether there’s anything to be maintained or gained by men and women sitting apart when addressed by religious speakers who demand it, even if voluntarily and non-hierarchically. Are such arrangements always just ‘harmless symbols’ of community identity? Selective attacks on our communities make the job of self-analysis more difficult but we should not let our thoughts and actions be entirely determined by those we oppose. Student Rights has only recently, cynically, seized on the issue, but gender segregation has long been a topic of debate in so many nations and religious communities, including Islamic ones. Why are some women pilloried as traitors or ‘Useful Idiots’ if they express a dissenting view from that of traditionalists on such matters?
There is no doubt that both racism and xenophobia is on the rise, with Muslims and Islam singled out for attack. It is essential to fight back. But we must also ask ourselves whether, because the evocation of issues of misogyny or gendered oppression within minority communities often plays into the wrong hands, we should let go of our own traditions and histories of self-criticism, internal dissent and change. If we do so, ironically, we play into the falsest imperialist stereotype of them all - the notion that non-European communities are static and unchanging until the West comes along to teach us progress. Polarised in this way, the discussion simply reinforces the notion that only the West can survive change and reinvention, while minority groups must stick to familiar cultural patterns. The result is what the liberation theorist Frantz Fanon, referred to as the ‘tragic lie of the colonial situation’ whereby two opposed sides obstinately 'refuse to pay tribute' to the same value at the same moment in time. It‘s up to us to avert this outcome.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge