It is astounding how quickly we forget or wilfully ignore that human rights are there to protect people – not beliefs. At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, of which I’m president, we increasingly see this confused notion of rights being applied on UK campuses. Whether it’s our student groups intimidated for “blasphemy”, as at LSE and Reading, or religious societies refusing unmarried women permission to speak, as at Bristol, this trumping of individual rights by the supposed rights of “beliefs” is increasingly common.
This Friday saw the publication of a report from Universities UK, the body representing university Vice Chancellors across the UK, on external speakers on campus. The report tackled the kind of issues you might expect – how to handle far-right speakers, what kind of speech might fall foul of hate-speech laws and what groups are banned under anti-terror legislation. But nestled in the report was a bizarre and backward recommendation; universities should be willing to enforce sex segregation between male and female audience members if a speaker requests it.
The report’s peculiar logic ran as follows: speakers have the right to free speech but if their demands for sex segregation are not met they will refuse to speak. Therefore to not enforce sex segregation is to deny the speakers’ freedom of speech. The report is careful only to endorse the ‘nice’ kind of segregation with men and women split on the left and right hand sides of a lecture theatre rather than front and back, the logic here being that men and women are being treated ‘equally separately’, whatever that means.
This logic has echoes of the old racially segregated Deep South of the United States; separate but equal. To argue that segregation is not inherently unequal is to fail to see just why men and women are being kept apart in the first place; this drive for segregation stems from ideologies that view women as very much inferior to men. To allow these ideologies power in UK universities is to betray hard-won individual rights and the principle that in public spaces all must be treated equally. Separate is never equal.
The Universities UK report treats the ideology driving the segregation as if it were something inherent to the speaker that he (and it will always be he) can’t help, as if requiring him to speak to a mixed sex room would be like asking him to levitate. The reality is that ideologies are chosen and speakers alone are responsible for them, not their audience.
Many religious student societies will hold their own events, such as collective worship, at which students will choose to separate themselves by sex in accordance with their beliefs. Insofar as this is voluntary, this is acceptable. What Universities UK have called for, however, is enforced segregation, with students told where to sit, according to their sex, or they can leave. The report then goes on to consider having a third, mixed sex section of the audience as well as a male and a female section. Incredibly, this apparent compromise is then rejected by the report, which warns that to insist on a third mixed sex section is still infringing on the rights of the speaker to have a segregated audience. The report goes as far as to say that non-religious beliefs, such as feminism, should take second place to “sincerely held” religious beliefs. That’s right; the mere fact that they are religious makes some beliefs more important than others because, of course, Feminist can’t be sincere in their beliefs.
The Universities UK report focuses on sex because it’s an issue that has come up before but there is no reason for its logic to stop there. If a racist is invited to speak – should he not have the audience forcibly segregated into whites and non-whites? What if his beliefs are really “sincerely held”? Could the EDL insist on all Muslim students sitting separately? Of course Universities UK would never support this.
In advocating for enforced sex segregation they are cowardly capitulating to religious extremists in a way they surely never would to political extremists. In bending to these extremists, universities betray the moderate majority in religious groups who do not wish to see segregation or, at least, would not want it to be forced on others. Men and women should sit where they wish. Universities have a duty to protect the rights of their students, they do not have a duty to protect their beliefs.