Right of reply: Rupert Sutton
Since the publication of guidance by Universities UK (UUK) excusing gender segregation, stating that students could be kept ‘separate but equal’, and placing the expression of religious intolerance above the rights of women, there have been those on the left who have failed to speak out for fear of being seen to drive anti-Muslim feeling. On Monday this website ran an article by the Cambridge-based academic Priyamvada Gopal which addressed this very issue, arguing that it was possible to challenge sexism and racism simultaneously, and that those identifying with minority communities should not cease self-criticism for fear of providing ammunition to be used against these groups.
Unfortunately, this attempt to persuade greater numbers of people to criticise reactionary religious practice was marred by a number of inaccurate attacks on my organisation, Student Rights, which seeks to highlight political and religious extremism on university campuses regardless of provenance. This included claims that we had brought the issue to national attention despite a lack of evidence for its occurrence, and presented the campaign as part of a running battle between white conservatives intent on imposing their views on others, and the beleaguered representatives of minority communities standing against this. This is simply not the case, and both misrepresents Student Rights and the campaign itself.
Perhaps the most baffling of the attacks was the pointed claim that Student Rights has never focused on other gender related issues, such as on-campus sexual violence or gender pay gaps; things that are desperately in need of remedy but are clearly outside the remit of a counter-extremism organisation such as ours. Despite these claims though, Student Rights has often reported on gender-related issues that do fall within our area of expertise, such as the aggressive tactics of on-campus anti-abortion campaigners, the misogyny of Bristol University’s Christian Union, and the invitation of speakers who excuse marital rape.
Placed alongside the claims that Student Rights is a “reactionary and opportunistic” group which has “cynically” chosen to focus on segregation, it is clear that these criticisms were a veiled suggestion that we use issues such as this to malevolently target the Muslim community. This disregards our focus on far-right groups like the BNP and French Front National. Whilst it is true that we cover events featuring Islamist speakers more frequently than we cover the far-right, this is by no means an attempt to stigmatise Muslims, but instead reflects the fact that thankfully the far-right are an increasingly rare sight on our campuses these days.
But the most disappointing element of the article was the way in which the voices of ethnic and religious minorities were sidelined. This placed Ms Gopal in the odd position of arguing that progressives affiliating to ethnic or religious minorities should not disregard this issue, whilst ignoring those from these communities who have been the most vocal campaigners. Last week’s rally outside the offices of UUK gave a prominent voice to women and was dominated by Maryam Namazie and Pragna Patel, two leftist activists who have driven gender segregation to the forefront of the news agenda and been instrumental in ensuring cross-party political consensus against it.
As we highlighted following UUK’s withdrawal of its guidance, the campaign drew together a broad church of students, equality groups, and human rights activists from across the political spectrum. Presenting it instead as an opportunistic attack on Muslims overlooks this, and risks furthering claims of groups like the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) that criticism of gender segregation amounts to “anti-Muslim propaganda”. IERA, whose members have excused domestic violence and supported the return of execution for fornication, (a ‘crime’ which is disproportionally used to repress women), are not representative of the UK’s Muslim community and must not be allowed to claim as such.
Ultimately, rather than being a campaign ‘hijacked’ by a cabal of ‘deeply conservative white males’, this was instead an example of an inclusive movement which showed that challenging reactionary tradition is not limited to any particular culture or community far more effectively than Ms Gopal’s article did. Had she been at the rally last week she would have seen many of the UK’s progressive activists and organisations protesting together against gender segregation regardless of race, religion, community, or political affiliation, and it is unfortunate that she has allowed her perception of the work my organisation does to blind her to that.
Rupert Sutton is head researcher at Student Rights