Some gender segregation in Islamic talks may meet ‘balance of interests’

Universities UK warns rights of religious speakers could be “curtailed unlawfully” if institutions insist on mixed seating

November 22, 2013

Over the past year universities have been confronted by a number of events run by Islamic groups on their premises where attendees have allegedly been segregated by gender.

Now new guidance issued by Universities UK has suggested that a “balance of interests is most likely to be achieved” if such events offer both segregated and non-segregated seating.

External speakers in higher education institutions, released today, seeks to guide institutions through the multiple laws and obligations surrounding freedom of speech on campus.

The issue of segregation flared up in the spring after the University of Leicester launched an investigation in April into whether an Islamic society had forced men and women to sit separately at a debate about the existence of God.

University College London banned a group, the Islamic Education and Research Academy, after it organised a supposedly segregated event the month before. 

The UUK guidance runs through the issues in a case study where a speaker representing an “ultra-orthodox religious group” has demanded his audience be segregated by gender.

The event could fall foul of equalities legislation if one gender has to sit at the back of the room, it says.

This issue “could be overcome” if there is segregation from left to right, it adds, because “there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating”.

Yet it is “arguable” that this arrangement could discriminate against feminists who objected to segregation, unless non-segregated seating was also provided.

But the guidance continues that an area of unsegregated seating could contravene the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the group hosting the event or the speaker, whose freedom of speech should not be “curtailed unlawfully”.

“In practice, a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas,” it says.

“Although if the speak is unwilling to accept this, the institution will need to consider the speaker’s reasons under equalities legislation.”

The guidance, which also covers other issues including protests on campus in response to controversial speakers, comes in the same week as reports that Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood protesters chased away a speaker from Soas, University of London.

On 19 November a group of demonstrators, who were not students, reportedly began chanting at guest speaker Mohamed El-Nabawy, an opponent of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, and he was forced to leave the venue.

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