Some thoughts on gender segregation

A guest post by Sarah AB

The issue of gender segregation has been in the news again recently.  It’s a topic to which people often react quite emotionally – both ‘sides’ are likely to feel their cherished values are under attack.   I want to try to think through some of the implications of the recent disputes over gender segregation in the context of ideas such secularism, liberalism, pluralism, relativism and consistency.

In the UK, and other similar countries, we accept a certain degree of gender segregation pretty unquestioningly – public toilets and changing rooms are the most obvious example, as well as hospital wards.  Women’s only exercise classes, swimming sessions for example, are fairly common. Although most segregation relates to contexts where sexual modesty is an issue, single sex schools are neither unusual nor particularly controversial. 

Sexual modesty is of course also a significant factor in the preference, on the part of some (mostly Muslims), to segregate in more general social contexts.  The threshold for gender segregation is set much lower, as it is felt desirable to separate even when attending a debate.

At recent events on campuses sexual segregation has been implemented.  There is some dispute as to whether, on various occasions, the segregation was enforced or whether people could choose to mix freely if they preferred.  It is my understanding that both options were available at this event, though I believe at other events complete segregation has been maintained.

Some compare this to apartheid – if conservative Muslims argue that they freely choose to segregate themselves by sex, they are asked in return how they would feel if people chose to segregate themselves by race.  But as people already segregate by sex in other contexts (e.g. toilets) this does not seem fully fair. 

In the context of another sensitive topic, male circumcision, one of the best arguments I’ve heard against those who want to ban the practice relates to unacknowledged inconsistencies on the part of the dominant culture.  Most people don’t want to ban alcohol and tobacco even though, objectively, they could be seen as harmful enough to warrant a ban – that’s because they are part of our culture so we sidestep logic.  But if circumcision isn’t part of one’s culture – then one has no reason to be anything other than coolly rational about the issue and may conclude the practice should be outlawed. 

I tried to think of another activity people might voluntarily decide to engage in at university (like partially gender segregated events) but which was harmful. The first example I came up with was boxing, which the BMA wants to ban.  There are many boxing clubs at British universities. Is it so much more shocking to allow voluntary, partial segregation at a debate or lecture?

This is one reason why I wonder whether it is completely rational to react with end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it level horror to an event at which one can choose either to sit in a single sex or a mixed group.  In the context of dress it is common for people to argue that women should be allowed to be as modest or immodest as they choose, and that headscarves should neither be banned nor mandated. It is fairly widely accepted (though not of course by all) that it is illiberal to force a woman to remove a garment she has freely chosen to wear without good reason.  Might the same argument not be applied to women (and men) who want to sit apart but have no wish to enforce that preference on others? 

Another reason for pausing and reflecting on one’s responses to gender segregation relates to attitudes towards different groups in society.  Although antisemitism is certainly a very serious problem it does not generally, certainly not so often as anti-Muslim bigotry does, focus on religious practice.  That is just possibly one reason why stories of gender segregation within the context of Judaism don’t seem to press buttons in the same way such stories do when they involve Muslims, stories such as this one about (limited) segregated seating at a concert (for the benefit of Orthodox Jews).  Muslim segregation, by contrast, has attracted the ire not just of atheists and secularists (including Muslim secularists) but also more threatening groups

There are various reasons against being phlegmatic about gender segregation. One is that although the choice may seem free to some, for others ‘voluntary’ gender segregation is no such thing – if the option is there they may feel expected to avail themselves of it or be seen as morally lax. (This argument is also used in support of veil bans.)  Although I think this is a very important issue I’m never sure how far one can legislate for coercion.  In countering one sort of possible coercion one is formally, and more decidedly, instating coercion the other way – against those who want to segregate or veil.

Another reason is that sexual segregation is seen as inherently discriminatory against women.  It is certainly the case that segregation often fits this pattern – women’s seats generally seem to be at the back of such events.  It is also the case that arguments in favour of sexual modesty from a religious perspective can seem discriminatory against women.  They tend to frame women as objects of temptation and desire, and it is inaccurately implied that keeping covered up will protect against harassment.  Of course such arguments are also very insulting to men.  But for some, religiously motivated sexual modesty may not be conceived in this way, but as part of a more equally shared burden of virtuous behaviour – and recently in fact Saudi Arabia has expelled three men for being too handsome

Another factor which is at least implicit in arguments against segregation is that it is viscerally offensive, it seems to strike at the core of our values and beliefs. But – have we the right not to be offended?

Finally – I’m still not sure what I think about this issue – but it’s important to remember that just because we say something shouldn’t be banned doesn’t need to imply approval.  I certainly don’t welcome the influence of groups such as iERA on campus, or the conservative views on sexuality and gender which provide the impulse behind segregation.


PetraMB said…
I can also think of examples when I was very happy about gender segregation: the rush hour train from Mumbai... You're squeezed into the women surrounding you in ways you can't even fathom, and when people get off/on, you're getting squeezed even more -- all this on a train that's endlessly long.

So yes, I was grateful that these were "women only" trains.

But in most other situations, there's a very simple rule for me: oppose gender segregation demanded by people who insist on gender segregation in pretty much all circumstances.

Torquil Macneil said…
The difference betweeen the examples of acceptable gender segrgation that you cite and the controversial kind being attempted by Muslim groups, is that using lavatories, or getting changed is not a group activity, whereas attending a conference is. It is something that you are doing together. Segregation in that context says: there is no 'together' for men and women, and that challenges something very fundamental to a liberal society's self-conception.
Flesh said…
"oppose gender segregation demanded by people who insist on gender segregation in pretty much all circumstances"

"there is no together for men and women"

That's great!

Also, allow sexual segregation if not having it will lead to self-exclusion in ways which deny something important that you can't get anywhere else to those affected. I very angrily tolerate women-only swimming, but only just. My immobile neighbour won't let my other half in the house - that also makes me angry and prevents us from sharing the responsibility, but I'm not about to ignore her when she needs something.

It's important not to soften on this - sexual segregation is shameful. My mum grew up in that kind of family (Jewish) so we had it a bit when I was younger. I am full of rage when I go to religious events and suffer the indignity of 5 year old boys freely wandering between where I am and somewhere I'm not allowed. They already know they're superior to the women at the margins. I come close to hating the men in the airy upstairs rooms (the last Muslim wedding I went to), and with the good downstairs view and the clique at the front (the last bar mitzvah). For me, it's a betrayal and a real set-back to gender relations. I think all feminists - especially if they are men - should refuse to attend such events, let alone with their children. They are harmful.
Matthew Smith said…
The problem here is that the media is acting as a conduit for PR, relaying press releases as if they were news, without questioning how large or representative the groups involved are. In this case there's no clamour from within the Muslim community to end separate seating; it has been normal practice in Islamic society events for decades. The agitation is coming from people with a long history of attacking Islam, such as members of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (who dominate One Law for All) and another small but vocal minority of Asian secularists. The demonstrations have happened, but they were filmed close-up so you could not see how tiny they were.

Another problem is that the media have framed this very simply in terms of "segregation on campus" as if it were the norm, and sought response from politicians on that basis, when in fact nothing that students have to go to is segregated - normal lectures and indeed anything that isn't run by one or two religious societies.