Barring student societies from separating the sexes won't stop them wanting to do soby Elizabeth Oldfield / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
This post was originally published on the Theos blog.
Poor old Universities UK. After months of consultation, handwringing and drafting, they have managed to produce guidelines on gender segregation for events held by university societies that both Guardian and Telegraph columnists think are terrible. This is no mean feat.
It doesn’t stop there. There is a rapidly growing petition and angry protesters gathering (mostly, according to these Daily Mail photos, middle-aged ones) and some of them might be about to get topless. Twitter is awash with righteous indignation and there is a very clear consensus: gender segregation in any university event should be banned. We have seen this paroxysm of anxiety over another “Muslim women” issue recently, niqabs. Banning in that case feels too far for most people. Gender segregation seems a more open and shut case.
Before I take (some, limited) issue with this orthodoxy, it’s important to say what I don’t think. I’m happy to call myself a feminist, and am no fan of gender segregation. Indeed, I find it fairly repulsive and would swiftly walk out of any event where I was asked to sit separately from my male colleagues and friends. I don’t like the underlying understanding of gender, I don’t buy the ‘seperate buy the equal line’, I don’t think speakers should be requesting it nor societies agreeing to it. Gender segregated events should have no place in 21st century university campuses.
Neither, however do I think that banning it is a productive way forward. If I thought that a ban might help change hearts and minds on this, and challenge the troubling underlying assumptions, or have any real effect in changing things long term, I’d probably be in favour. I’m not a libertarian, opposed to all bans in principle. But this one wouldn’t really change anything. We all know what happens when you ban things, especially what when you ban things that teenagers, or very young adults, are particularly keen on. It adds to their glamour. It creates a sense of self righteousness, and it can often harden those attitudes which might naturally have passed. There is interesting parallel with university Christian unions who do not allow female speakers. I’m not very keen on that either, although I think the motivation is more often…