23 July 2014
One Law for All, Southall Black Sisters, the Centre for Secular Space, and the LSESU Atheist Secularist Society have welcomed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ruling against gender segregation in universities and students’ unions.
On 17 July, the EHRC published its guidance on gender segregation, stating that: “Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.”
The EHRC’s ruling came after a campaign of a broad coalition of women’s rights and secular activists who have opposed Universities UK’s guidelines on external speakers in universities, which said that: “Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”
The campaign saw a petition signed by almost 10,000, an open letter co-signed by renowned human rights activists and secularists like AC Grayling, Peter Tatchell, Polly Toynbee, Fatou Sow, Richard Dawkins and Yasmin Rehman as well as support from political leaders like Labour shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna MP and Stewart Maxwell SMP. It culminated in a letter sent to UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights Farida Shaheed, and a protest attended by more than 100 activists in front of the office of Universities UK, which received media coverage from major national and international news outlets. As a result, the UUK withdrew its guidance.
Maryam Namazie, one of the main organisers of the campaign, commented: “The EHRC ruling is good news indeed. Finally common sense has prevailed with equality trumping religious beliefs and the religious-Right, which is really what the demand for gender segregation is. It’s an Islamist demand to gain access and institutionalise its values whilst limiting civil rights and equality under the guise of the ‘right to religion’. A victory here is a triumph for equality between women and men but also against Islamism.”
Chris Moos of LSESU ASH said: “This is a great victory for gender equality in the UK. It is great to see that the EHRC has found a clear answer to the claims of the proponents of segregation, specifically that segregation is a ‘religious right’ whose denial amounts to discrimination, that ‘voluntary’ segregation can be reasonably practised in an educational setting and that the provision of a ‘mixed’ seating area makes segregation somehow less discriminatory. Hopefully, universities and students union will now live up to their responsibilities and prevent segregation.” He added: “However, the exemptions that the ruling provides, legitimising gender segregation in religious settings, leave a bitter aftertaste. Equality is a human right that cannot be ‘exempted away’ – it is therefore saddening that British legislation still puts religion above considerations of equality.”
Gita Sahgal, Director of the Centre for Secular Space said: “The Centre for Secular Space would like to congratulate all the students who opposed gender segregation at some risk to themselves. Their stand resulted in a campaign which has lead to the ruling by the EHRC. Universities UK and university authorities should be ashamed of themselves. Rather than stopping gender segregation they endorsed it or did nothing about it.”
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, commented: “We welcome the ruling. Had the UUK guidance endorsing gender segregation gone unchallenged, it would have had a profoundly detrimental impact on black and minority women who already struggle to assert their fundamental rights to education, freedom and independence. The whole sorry affair is symptomatic of a bigger battle waged by the religious-Right (aided and abetted by public bodies like the UUK) to control women’s minds and bodies. We must remain alert to the dangers of religious fundamentalism in all religions because its very goal is to use public spaces to gain power and to destroy the very principles of democracy and the universality of women’s human rights.”
You can read a full analysis of the ruling of the EHRC and its likely impact here.
For further enquiries please contact:
One Law for All and Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation
077 1916 6731
Southall Black Sisters
LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society
074 2872 0599