Segregated lectures at UK universities approved

Sign of things to come? Male and female students kept apart for religious reasons.

Visiting speakers will be able to ask that male and female students sit apart at British universities. Are the new guidelines rightly sensitive or are academics scared to defend equality?

When he arrived at University College London to give a talk, Professor Lawrence Krauss was appalled to discover that the audience for the event, a debate about atheism and Islam, had been segregated into separate seating for males and females at the request of the other speaker.

Professor Krauss objected and started to pack up as if to leave: the organisers backed down, abandoning the arrangement requested by his opponent. But several attendees had already been offended, for different reasons. One woman complained of being told to ‘file to the back of the room, while couples and men walked freely to the front’, and a spokesman for a Muslim group said two men insisted on trying to sit among observant females ‘with a view to offending their religious beliefs’.

The incident sparked a storm of protest on both sides – from those who felt that Krauss and his fellow trenchant atheists were insensitive, or even Islamophobic, and those who, like the commentator David Aaronovitch, felt too much notice was being paid to religious dictates: ‘there are lines that we cannot allow ourselves to cross. A small meeting in a London college tells us where one of the most important of those lines is to be found.’

But he seems to have lost the argument: a few days ago the association which speaks for British universities issued new guidelines saying it is right to allow visiting speakers to insist on separating male and female members of an audience, even if ‘feminists’ are upset.

The guidelines say: ‘Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.’

A clever compromise, to some at least, has been reached: no one, the document insists, should be allowed to put the female students at the back, where they might not have such good access, sight or hearing of a lecture or debate; instead, any segregation must be side-by-side.

Secular temples?

Sensitivity to different cultures is a crucial part of a society that embraces multiple faiths and multiple nationalities, according to some. Even if not all adherents to a particular religion insist on particular rules, it shows a warm-hearted and welcoming attitude to make the occasional compromise – even if it is about a principle as important as ensuring that men and women can learn and debate alongside one another.

Nonsense, others cry. It would be clearly unacceptable to allow a visiting white supremacist to insist on a racially segregated audience. Allowing a religious fundamentalist to dictate their terms and undermine the principle of equality on the soil of any British university is a step too far.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree that visiting speakers should set conditions like this?
  2. ‘A university should be a place that challenges all beliefs fearlessly.’ Discuss.

Activities

  1. In groups, decide on which adaptations to another person’s religious views are appropriate: do you find it easy to draw a line?
  2. Write a letter to the head office of Universities UK expressing your view about its new guidelines, and whether you are in favour.

Some People Say...

“No one has a right not to be offended.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is petty.
There is a great tradition of university campus rows about visiting speakers. But whereas in the past the controversy was usually about who was invited to lecture, with student protesters arguing there should be ‘no platform’ for those with certain views, now the rows are all about the student audience! If you go to college, you might be caught up in a similar debate, especially if you join a university society.
And why the wider interest?
Both sides feel a principle is at stake. And the row comes on the back of controversy about whether Western institutions are doing too much to accommodate religious points of view. Women’s rights are a flashpoint, whether the issue is wearing the veil, marriage customs or the extreme and illegal practice of female genital mutilation.

Word Watch

Lawrence Krauss
A prominent American theoretical physicist and cosmologist and also a committed atheist.
Opponent
Hamza Andreas Tzortzis was speaking in favour of Islam as a more credible belief system than atheism in the debate, which was organised by a group that has since been banned from holding meetings at UCL.
Secular
Non-religious. Universities are also sometimes revered as ‘temples of learning’, or even ‘temples of rational thought’. But originally, most European universities were religious foundations peopled by monks.
Female genital mutilation
This practice has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but no prosecution has ever been made. An estimated 20,000 young girls in the country are thought to be at risk and 60,000 have already been subjected to the procedure.

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