The latest entry into the tragic chronology of gender segregation at British universities is the unsettling incident at London School of Economics (LSE). The LSESU Islamic Society decided to hold a segregated event (with cleverly personalised invites to “brothers” and “sisters”) for their members and unsurprisingly some LSESU officers happily joined in this sordid affair. The General Secretary of the LSESU Nona Buckley-Irvine was very pleased about the event and declared that as a feminist she saw no problem with this gender segregation. I mean, I guess if brown Muslim women want to have their rights reduced, why should she care? As a privileged white feminist she clearly has no concern in this matter – for her it was a simply colourful cultural exchange where cute Muslims sit separately in case some lustful event take place between the opposite genders. Inequality against brown women is not a concern. Anyways, this is another incident in the long list of gender segregated events held at universities with the blessing of the NUS or its Officers.
The scores of gender segregated events by ISOCs at British Universities is a national disgrace. Campaigners have fought hard and gained some victories such as the over-turning of the ridiculous gender segregation guidelines once set by Universities UK. However, evidently there is more to be done. This isn’t a case of only the culture set by the leaders and administrators of the institutions, but also about the culture and mind-set of the young people at universities in UK. It is depressing to see so-called liberal and lefty feminists, such as Nona Buckley-Irvine, support gender segregation and really seem aghast that someone would complain against that. She is an example of the illness that has creeped into the minds of many young people at university. Any criticism of discriminatory religious traditions (such as gender segregation) are vilified as Islamophobia. This is dangerous because it sets a precedence that one cannot criticise a religion separate without it being conflated as attacking the follower of the religion. It also alienates many people of Muslim heritage who do not adhere to and frankly find it disgusting to segregate people on the basis of their gender. When non-Muslim students at universities support discriminatory behaviour they highlight the weakness in their understanding of the nuances within the cultures they claim to support. What they perceive as a fun cultural exchange is the trauma and subjugation of many from the colourful cultures. It is frustrating to see this happening.
However, maybe it’s not all gloom and doom. Thinking about gender segregation reminds me of my own experience with this. Today we are in a fortunate place where at least some are speaking up against it. The culture is changing in that some are able to see that it is gender apartheid and that it mustn’t be accepted. I guess with all the frustration it is sometimes easy to forget that change IS happening in comparison to how it was 15 years ago. I give you a snippet of my experience with gender segregation. When I was a young impressionable 15 year old, my exposure to the world of universities was through my HT (Hizb ut-Tahrir) sister who took me to ISOC & HT events held at university lecture halls. Obviously they were gender segregated as well. Mostly the “sisters” would sit at the back, and if you’re lucky, on the left side. I found it odd, but also I thought something like “oh wow look they are accommodating us and my, my, one day the glorious Khilafah will be here and we can be like this everywhere!” It was fascinating for me to see the marriage of young aspirational Muslim students being all political and engaging on this platform in an “Islamic” way. But I also remember it made me feel uncomfortable in that why was being a woman so lustful? I felt ashamed of my body and thought this was God’s way of reminding me of my potential fitnah. This was back in 2000. Now you may wonder why I went along with it back then. Well a) I was quite a radicalised and Islamist young girl, b) this was my first exposure to the intellectual world of university, c) in my strict Islamist eyes gender segregation was obligatory to maintain lest we become lustful. I remember the sexual tension palpable in the air as “brothers” and “sisters” gaze at each other a split second and look away. Back then no one at the institution thought this was wrong or spoke up against it. I wonder if there were older women there who felt the way I do today? Such gender discrimination was able to go on unnoticed and unchallenged.
Anyways that was at university. At home I was intent on making this go as Islamically as possible too. Never mind it was undermining my rights – but hey we do what God askes of us slaves. At my sister’s wedding that year I created a big fuss at home over gender segregation at her wedding. My sister and I went to lengths to hire a hall which would accommodate our gender segregation aims. On the wedding day we managed to upset most of our uncles (with whom we had grown up with and known since childhood) because we didn’t let them enter into the “sisters” area to see the bride. Our uncles (non-mahram kind) were cultural Muslims and found our new fundamentalism astonishing and disrespectful. They were so upset they decided to boycott the wedding! Back then I thought how awful and rude of them. But thinking about it now – perhaps they were onto something. Again as a young kid following my sister to uphold the banner of Islam felt like a mighty privilege.
Thankfully I grew up and wanted full equality as a woman. Today, I stand firmly against gender segregation because it is discriminatory. While I once participated in it and enforced it, my personal journey has led me to now reject it. I was a child when I did such things. When I left Islam, this was one of the associated beliefs that I also happily let go of. The UCL debate between Laurence Krauss and Hamza Tzortzis was the first time since I left Islam that I gone to a debate at a university and I was faced with enforced gender segregated seating. That day my feelings were so mixed. Here I was 12 years later and I didn’t want to sit in the “sisters” area. I didn’t want to be discriminated against for being a female. I wanted to sit with my partner and friends. The events of that day will be etched in my mind forever. I remember I wanted to get up and move to the men’s area, in Rosa Park’s style, but I felt crippled and afraid. I was afraid of the stigma attached to this act. At that point it was so vividly clear to me that all those years ago when I went to HT talks at universities perhaps there were woman there like me today, who didn’t want to be discriminated but felt ashamed to speak up against it on the day.
Times have now changed and I will speak up. I will speak up against it at home, in public and most definitely to the non-Muslim women and men at British universities who make it their business to support gender segregation. To them I say: You are not part of this community, you have no understanding, so please mind your business. Either help us reform our communities and spaces or refrain from making it worse. It is not islamophobic to criticise human rights violations promoted by the Islamist ideology. It is not an attack on Muslims. You either help us or quit being part of the problem.