London, United Kingdom – British philosopher Jeremy Bentham was such an ardent supporter of the University College London and its goal of establishing a secular alternative to the church-dominated colleges of the 19th century that he donated his body to it.
To this day, those wandering around the winding corridors of the main building can find Bentham’s preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, displayed ghoulishly in a cabinet for all to see.
Last year at the UCL, the forces of religion and secularism clashed on campus after a debate hosted by the university’s Islamic Society between Muslim lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis and noted atheist Lawrence Krauss after it was claimed the organisers had segregated the audience by gender in the same way that is practised in mosques. Krauss threatened to walk out and the event was condemned by fellow atheist Richard Dawkins as “gender apartheid”.
Sitting in the UCL university café, Saad Butt, Amina Lunat and Aishah Azri, all second-year students and members of the Islamic Society, expressed frustration about how the issue has been misinterpreted by the media.
“The reactions from the women that I have spoken to, they do feel silenced by the media. Why isn’t anyone asking us what we want or what our opinion on the stories are?” Aishah said. “I feel a bit insulted by the insinuation that it’s just men. We are all intelligent women at one of the top universities in the world. If there is patriarchy, don’t you think we can speak up against it?”
One of London's great praises is that it is a multicultural place. I might be going to a secular university, but all I am asking for is a little bit of accommodation, keep an open mind.
Amina said the debate can be viewed positively.
“One of London’s great praises is that it is a multicultural place. I might be going to a secular university, but all I am asking for is a little bit of accommodation, keep an open mind. Living here we have such a wonderful opportunity to look at other cultures, to see people in a displaced situation and how they are adapting and that’s interesting. It doesn’t need to be ‘an issue’.”
In December, Universities UK, the representative body for British universities, published guidelines that contained a case study allowing for respect of the rights of a visiting orthodox religious speaker to segregate an audience by gender. Separate seating provisions for men and women is common in Islam, Judaism and other faiths, supposedly for reasons of comfort and focus.
But its practice at the public events of religious societies on British campuses prompted a nationwide debate on the rights of religious expression, versus the sanctity of the secular institution. Perhaps predictably, the issue developed further into an argument about women’s rights within Islam. Universities UK subsequently withdrew the case study.
“Universities UK has always maintained that enforced gender segregation at university events is wrong,” Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said in a statement. “However, where gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are currently working with senior legal counsel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to clarify the position.”
‘Discrimination in society’
Maryam Namazie is a spokeswoman for the “Fitnah! Movement for Women’s Liberation“ and “One Law for All“, a group opposing Sharia law. On the issue of gender separation, she has no sympathy for those who enact it.
“This reminds me of someone saying that there are separate Black universities in the US, therefore racial apartheid is fine. The reasons that there are separate Black universities or separate women only colleges very often is a result and response to discrimination in society.”
Maryam goes further and suggests that separation is a slippery slope that sets a dangerous precedent.
“There is an assumption that this is what all Muslims believe and that is not the case. There are a lot of Muslims who freely mix and actually fight against segregation in countries, like Iran. This is not so much a Muslim demand rather an Islamist demand, it’s far-right politics and it’s not so much about that specific demand, it’s about a whole set of demands which are stepping stones for it to get access and influence.”
According to the 2011 British census, Britain is home to 2.7 million Muslims. Critics have argued that as some mosques in the UK are funded and influenced by Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia, a more socially conservative interpretation of Islam is taking root.
Speaking from his office at the Goodge Street mosque in central London, the broadcaster and Imam Ajmal Masroor – one of a number of prominent British Muslims whose life was threatened recently in a video made by Somalia-based militia group al-Shabab – expresses confusion over the furore.
“If you went to a nudist club in the university, you wouldn’t be expected to be naked, but you wouldn’t bat an eyelid with others walking around naked. So why are we having a discussion about Muslims deciding to choose whether they should sit together or separately? You come to an event which is organised by a particular society, you abide by their status quo. Why question it? Don’t come.”
|Atheist Lawrence Krauss threatened to walk out of a UCL debate after women were allegedly separated from men [EPA]|
Omar Ali, president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, responded similarly to Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s accusations that the practice amounted to “state-sponsored segregation”.
“There are non-religious events and organisations that provide a separate provision for different genders: colleges at Oxford and Cambridge university, sports teams, hospitals, single-sex education in primary and secondary school. There are communist societies at university. Is this state-sponsored communism?” Ali asked.
There have been several allegations of gender-segregated events held by Islamic societies around the country, but whether this is being driven by men is difficult to prove. Last year, it was claimed the Islamic society of Queen Mary University in East London forced women to walk through a “sisters only” entrance, were made to sit at the back of the room, and could only ask a question of the speaker in writing.
QMU Islamic Society, like all other societies contacted by Al Jazeera except UCL, did not respond for requests to comment.
Sara Khan is the director of Inspire, a counter-extremist and human rights organisation. As a Muslim, she said women are drastically under-represented within Islamic organisations in the UK.
“The problem is that in Britain we have a dominance of very socially conservative interpretations of Islam, and sometimes people don’t base their views on a more contextualised understanding which is more respectable to women,” said Khan.
When these stories happen it makes us feel kind of rejected, and people will paint it as us having rejected society. But it's not like that.
“A lot of the legal rulings have been around for thousands of years and the respected scholars lived in a pre-modern era where the idea of gender equality was not normalised. Those rulings are still applied today regardless of whether they are suitable for the context, regardless of whether they are causing injustice to women.”
The event at UCL that sparked the debate was organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), an organisation that puts emphasis on dawah, proselytising the word of Islam around the world. Among its members is Fatima Barkatulla, who is visualised on the IERA website speakers bureau only as an avatar, despite the fact the men’s photos appear, something that Fatima admits might be “culturally insensitive”.
“Sometimes it feels like no matter how much you say something as a Muslim woman, you won’t be believed because there is always a narrative that ‘you’re a Muslim woman, you’re brainwashed’. If you are sticking up for [gender separation], you are brainwashed. If you are not sticking up for it then we love you, and we are going to put you on TV and applaud you because you are like us,” she said.
Wearing the full burqa, Fatima sits with her husband Saleem while their young daughter sleeps nearby. Saleem said he has been reading to his children about Galileo.
“If I put myself in a scientist’s shoes and the religion of my society was persecuting me, of course I would want to do away with it. We appreciate why atheists feel this way, but we just ask them to realise we have a different history and value system,” he said.
Fatima’s disappointment over how the issue is being perceived is clear.
“I personally feel very much British. There is no other country which I can call home, and so when these stories happen it makes us feel kind of rejected, and people will paint it as us having rejected society. But it’s not like that,” she said.
Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew