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Students elected to represent women and diversity issues are divided about whether gender-segregated events should be allowed on campus, a Times Higher Education survey suggests.
Asked if they would support student societies asking for segregation based on a variety of factors, including gender, less than half of the 17 respondents said that such requests should always be refused.
The issue came to the fore recently when Universities UK published advice suggesting that a religious speaker’s freedom of expression might be infringed if a request for gender segregation were not accommodated.
Some respondents to the THE survey expressed concern that criticism of gender segregation could be oppressive to minority groups.
Joe Killen, welfare and diversity officer at the students’ union for Goldsmiths, University of London, cited segregation’s importance in political movements. “It would be inappropriate of us to say that our students do not have the right to draw the parameters of the spaces they need,” he said. “Further, it is dangerous to civil liberties in the UK to deny right to assembly for certain campus groups based on their members’ shared minority status.”
Replying to the survey on behalf of the women’s officer at King’s College London Students’ Union, Shaheen Sattar, a National Union of Students delegate, said the “stench of Islamophobia” had been “masked with feminism” in politicians’ criticisms of gender segregation.
“The fact is, gender segregation is firm to the principles of Islam, and should be respected, if not tolerated, in institutes of higher education,” she said.
However, Danielle Garrett, women’s officer at Glasgow Caledonian University Students’ Association, was among those who felt that any request for segregation would be hard to justify: “A society represents a university, and as a public institution it should treat everyone equally and give everyone the same opportunities.”
Alice Phillips, women’s officer for the University of Bristol Students’ Union, agreed. “If men or women voluntarily choose to segregate themselves, that is different…but societies should not have a formalised policy of segregation,” she said.
Many respondents were also keen to point out non-religious scenarios in which they felt segregation was necessary.
“Our feminist society, whose committee I sat on last year, sometimes holds women-only events, and I feel this is a really important right…as there are issues women may only feel comfortable raising in the presence of other women,” said Clopin Meehan, gender equality officer at the University of Glasgow Students’ Representative Council.
An NUS spokesman said it “supports the rights of groups to self-organise” but “certainly” did not endorse enforced segregation.