Universities UK says separating men and women is not discriminatory as long as neither gender loses out – for example by being made to sit at the back of the event venue.
The advocacy organisation said it considered a hypothetical case study involving an external speaker talking about his orthodox religious faith who had requested separate seating.
“The case study considered the facts, the relevant law and the questions that the university should ask, and concluded that if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area also provided, a university could decide it is appropriate to agree to the request. It is very hard to see any university agreeing to a request for segregation that was not voluntary and did not have the broad support of those attending.”
But opponents say the very act of separating men and women constitutes discrimination regardless of who gets to sit where.
Maryam Namazie is an activist for the groups One Law for All and Fitnah, Movement for Women’s Liberation, and opposes segregated events on campus.
She says the desire to separate men and women stems from a belief that women are inferior. And she adds that it wouldn’t be acceptable for a speaker to request black and white people sit apart and the same should apply to gender.
The organisation Student Rights, which monitors extremist activity on British campuses, says segregation has become a “widespread trend” on British campuses.
It says around a quarter of the 180 events it monitored over the course of a year either had explicit segregation policies or implied segregation by publishing different phone numbers for tickets for men and women.
Omar Ali is president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. He says some Islamic societies do separate men and women at their events.
But he says the religion itself does not discriminate against women. He says some members of Islamic societies – including women – feel more comfortable sitting among their own gender and says many female members have requested this.
Omar Ali says Universities UK’s stance also respects the principle of freedom of religion in the UK, even though discussions held by religious societies are not the same as religious services held in a place of worship.
However, Maryam Namazie says allowing segregation in the UK will deal a blow to women’s liberation movements in countries, where women have fewer rights.
She says the desire to separate men and women stems from the rise of global Islamism, which she says should be opposed everywhere.
Namazie and other activists say they plan to target gender-segregated events at British universities with ‘sex apartheid busters’ – women or men who will sit among members of the opposite gender.
Earlier this year, an American professor walked out of a debate entitled Islam vs Atheism at University College London organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy at which the audience was segregated.