The issue of gender segregation has risen again recently in the media following Universities UK’s report allowing separate seating for men and women in universities under specific conditions. There has been mass outcry at this decision and many people in the media have labelled the act of keeping men and women separate discriminatory, sexist and even more strongly, an act of apartheid and violation of human rights. These accusations form part of broader generalisations regarding the role of women in Islam. They can often stem from a xenophobic point of view that clumsily bunches all supposedly ‘backwards’ Islamic practises together as one big negative reason why Islam is ‘bad’. If we step out of the negative discourse on Islam and anti-Islamic agendas when looking at this practice, what do we see? How is gender segregation rationalised in Islam? To what extent is it universally accepted? And is it really a women’s issue?
Gender segregation, as stated earlier, is the separation of men and women in particular environments such as places of worship. The separation can be carried out via separate rooms, separate buildings or separate seating areas in one room. It is practiced today by many followers of the world’s largest religions including Judaism and Islam (as it is specifically endorsed within their religious texts), and it is also seen in many sex schools, gyms, spas and salons. Religious supporters of gender segregation have put forward maintaining modesty and respect as reasons for the separation, while some feminists have argued that it allows women to have their own space in which they can be free to be themselves. Educators of the past have stressed that separating the sexes in a learning environment allows both genders to achieve higher results academically because of the resultant difference in atmosphere. These examples show us that gender segregation is not something that is just now being introduced into the British system by individuals with ‘medieval’ and ‘barbaric’ ideologies.
Many groups of people have chosen to make the assumption that when it comes to gender segregation, the woman is the only oppressed party. Why is this? In environments where gender segregation is enforced BOTH men and women are expected to comply with the ruling. In an attempt to empower women by speaking out for them, these individuals have in actual fact ended up doing the complete opposite. Women, particularly Muslim, women who are at the centre of this recent gender segregation debacle, are once again being painted as a meek and frail species who cannot think for themselves or do what it is that they want to do. Similarly, some Muslims have put forward ‘comfort’ and ‘taming the desires of men’ as THE reasons for gender segregation within the Islamic community. These are wholly incorrect notions and again paint the Muslim woman as an oppressed, mindless and silent individual who constantly needs to be fussed over as she cannot possibly do anything for herself or stop tempting ‘poor’ men. This particular reason also reinforces the idea that women should be kept in the back and out of sight so that they do not harm men or themselves but Islamic history has proven that women are capable and should not be restricted from participating within society and evidence shows that they have contributed towards its betterment in countless ways.
Islamic justifications for gender-segregation do not have misogynistic roots. Problems arise in some patriarchal communities, however, where men confuse its neutral justifications as a (misogynistic) excuse to assert their perceived superiority over women. In a similar way, certain xenophobic narratives confuse its neutral justifications as an excuse to assert their perceived superiority over Islam and particular cultures that adopt this practice.
The bottom line is this, men and women have the right to sit where they want to sit and the university report itself highlighted that gender segregated seating would be an option for those who wanted it NOT a replacement for the current system in place. Those who do not like the practice of separating people on the basis of gender have a right to disagree with it but they must also show respect for those who do want to have the option in place.
At the JAN Trust, the women in our centre specifically request a women’s-only environment and many women attending academic lectures, including the women from the UCL iSoc, which is where this debate began, requested separate seating. It is a valid practice that many have chosen to adopt for their own personal reasons, religious or otherwise and we believe that people, especially women should be allowed to make their own decisions and to request that option for themselves if they choose to.
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