Gender segregation: equality trumps freedom

A student rally that was held in Tavistock Square in London on Monday night has been getting a lot of attention. According to the demonstrators, ‘gender apartheid’ is being instituted in UK universities. The protests were sparked by a new set of guidelines issued by the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK (UUK). The guidelines recommend that debates and events held by university Islamic societies should be allowed to provide separate seating for men and women.

Despite the hyperbole about ‘apartheid’, pandering to the demands of organisations that wish to segregate people at public meetings certainly deserves criticism, and the campaigners’ intention to disrupt such public meetings by defying their gender-assigned seating is not necessarily a bad move.

The new guidelines state that separating people by gender at meetings may be permissible as long women do not have to sit behind men and the separate seating is arranged side by side. The campaigners have pointed out this is similar to the idea of ‘separate but equal’ enshrined by the Jim Crow laws, which turned racial segregation in many places in the US from a de facto practice into one backed up by legal force. Comparing the plight of black people in the American South during segregation with how seating is arranged at a student meeting today is an overstatement which cheapens the arguments of campaigners, but in principle they have a point. 

However, the campaign which claims to champion equality and freedom for women does not seem as concerned about the equally important issue of freedom of association. While disrupting public meetings may be a legitimate avenue of protest, calling for outside intervention into how a private organisation runs its internal affairs, no matter how reactionary that group may be, is an unwarranted infringement into the activities of student societies.

Student politics today is rooted in the idea that what is in the interests of an often degraded understanding of equality should always trump what is in the interests of freedom. This has recently been seen in universities with renewed debates about ‘no platform’ policies, speech codes and the banning of pop songs deemed misogynistic. One LSE student, who has proposed a ballot to introduce a ‘no platform’ policy, recently said of her fellow students: ‘I don’t trust them not to spread the ideology.’

One might imagine that students would see these developments as more worrying than the tiny number of meetings where religious fundamentalists get to dictate the seating arrangements. No-platform policies, speech codes and son bans all make university campuses superficially more equal places yet also make them less free. The campaign against gender segregation is likely to have the same effect. Yet the sweeping limitations on freedoms in university life have not been met with anything approaching the anger stirred up by one set of poorly thought-out guidelines by UUK. It would be refreshing to see students express as much interest in preserving the freedoms which affect them all as they do in how meetings are conducted at their university’s Islamic society.

Rossa Minogue is a documentary maker based in London.

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