… issue. UD has read pretty much everything, and continues to read pretty much everything, that’s being published. So far, the best bit of writing about it is by Matthew d’Ancona in the Telegraph.

d’Ancona rightly begins and ends his piece by recalling Christopher Hitchens, because if Hitchens were alive he’d be writing the best bit. In this enlightenment-warrior’s absence, it’s right to recall him and imagine what he would say.

d’Ancona writes:

[T]his is a test case about much more than fringe events on provincial campuses. It is about the very basis of a pluralist society and what philosophers call “value incommensurability” – the clash between principles, and the dilemmas that such conflicts pose. As a ferocious opponent of theocratic creep, Hitchens argued that secular society was becoming far too emollient and unwilling to defend Enlightenment values against attack. Diplomatic immunity, equality before the law, the right of the novelist to free expression: all are now weighed against the risk of upsetting the theological apple cart.

The segregation row has forced us to confront the friction between religious sensitivities and core aspects of our common citizenship. The heart of the matter is the word “freedom” and its abuse. The original [UUK] guidance claimed that forbidding segregation by gender on campus might infringe “the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker”. This is babble, but it is dangerous babble. It implies that upsetting the religious sensibilities of an individual or congregation – and it is possible to take offence at anything – is a form of censorship.

… Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of UUK, has said that “where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear”. Voluntary segregation? Pull the other one. Hobbes teaches us that fear and liberty are consistent – but only in the sense that “as when a man throweth his goods into the Sea for Feare the ship should sink, he doth it neverthelesse very willingly, and may refuse to doe it if he will.”

I do not believe that the gender segregation under discussion is freely practised in any meaningful sense. It is an expression of theocratic patriarchy that a free society leaves alone in the home and the place of worship – as long as the law is observed – but cannot possibly countenance in the public square.

The crucial thing here is d’Ancona’s disbelief that “the gender segregation under discussion is freely practised in any meaningful sense.”


When you see an eight-year-old girl in full burqa, do you think her behavior is freely practised? I don’t. When you see an eighteen-year-old woman in full burqa – what about that? In what sense is this physically self-destructive behavior (studies show what is obvious: depriving your body of sunlight does irreparable harm) which radically diminishes a person’s capacity for speech, touch, unrestricted movement, and the fundamental human experience of being recognized as fully and equally human by other human beings, of being identified as an individual – in what sense is this freely practiced in any meaningful sense? I have no trouble understanding it in Hobbes’s terms – throwing your human goods into the sea because if you don’t your husband will drown you. I can also make it sort of meaningful in psychological terms, as a subset of masochism. But in social terms I can never make it anything other than a nihilistic challenge to “core aspects of our common citizenship.”

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4 Responses to “EVERYONE in England is weighing in on the gender apartheid at universities…”

  1. Farah Mendlesohn Says:

    “When you see an eight year old girl in high heels – what about that? In what sense is this physically self-destructive behavior (studies show what is obvious: high heels harm your arches) which radically diminishes a person’s capacity for unrestricted movement, and the fundamental human experience of being recognized as fully and equally human by other human beings…in what sense is this freely practiced in any meaningful sense? ”

    Talk about a massive derail there. And whopping great cultural assumptions.

    I’ve grown up around Muslim girls all my life. I went to a Jewish school where Muslims made up a third of the class. None of them wear burqas. Most of them dislike burqas the way I dislike fanatic Evangelical families. The debate about the burqa in the Muslim community is not that different from the debate about Quiverful families in the Christian one. But in both cases talking to people one to one rather than treating them as symbols of your fears is a much more productive approach.

    You have jumped on the bandwagon of a nasty piece of trivia that was whipped up to make a tiny minority seem representative of the whole.

  2. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Farah Mendlesohn, could you explain what your comment has to do with the UUK policy on gender apartheid?

  3. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    This, too, is admittedly a bit tangential to the UK gender-segregation debate (it’s probably more relevant to the French debate on covering/religious symbols), but, since it answers a question in the post (i.e. what do I think when I see an 18-year-old young woman in a full burqua):

    I’ve taught one c. 20-year-old woman who was fully covered except for her eyes. It impeded conversation a bit (as did the fact that English was at least her second language), but she did the work of the class, and I ended up thinking that, although I found the situation a bit uncomfortable, I much preferred it to her not being in the class (i.e. not getting an education that would open up possibilities for her, including the possibility of being able to support herself, which in turn would make it more likely that choices she made about dress were fully her own). When I see other fully-covered young women on campus, I have similar feelings. It’s worth noting that the students I see are attending a co-ed public university, with no gender segregation in the classrooms or at any other formal public event (there’s some ongoing debate about how to handle matters in the on-campus “meditation room” that is mostly used for Muslim prayer; ideally, I’d like to see the creation of the equivalent of a Hillel or Catholic Student Center just off campus for this purpose, but local real estate prices and zoning, combined with the frequency of Muslim prayers, make that solution difficult). In many cases, I suspect that these students being covered in a way that their families (and, at least in some cases, the students themselves) feel preserves their modesty allows them to have a whole range of experiences that would otherwise be forbidden.

    I also suspect that many of these young women are more independent thinkers than you might imagine. My sample of fully-covered students is very small, but I regularly teach students who cover their hair and/or limbs in varying ways as a matter of Muslim religious practice. As long as the student’s full face is visible, I don’t find that covering makes any difference in my interactions with her, nor have I observed such students to be markedly different from my other students, especially those who are also from conservative religious and/or first-generation immigrant households. My general impression is that young Muslim women who wear headscarves are about as varied as the rest of my students, and are at least as independent thinkers as their non-covering peers. They also, as a group, usually have clear professional ambitions and a desire to find work that also serves the larger community in some way. The most thoroughly-covered female student I had this term — full headscarf, traditional flowing robe-type garments from shoulders to wrists and ankles — chose to write a paper on female genital mutilation, focusing on how health care practitioners can be educated about how to deal with patients who have undergone the procedure. It was a well-thought out paper, with a practical, humane, culturally-sensitive approach, much more useful than the “isn’t this terrible!” approach many students would take to the subject. We didn’t get into whether she or any of her female relatives had undergone the procedure, but it was quite clear that she had no desire to see it perpetuated, just a desire for those who were living with the results to be treated well, with a desire to maximize their health, and without shock, disgust, horror, or other potentially-shaming reactions.

    I guess my reaction to the issue of covering is somewhat similar: I’m concerned that young women who have either made the choice to cover, in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, and/or who may have had the choice foisted upon them (perhaps in some cases in exchange for other freedoms, such as attending school or moving around more widely and independently than would traditionally be the case) not be reduced to symbols of religious repression, and I worry that this conversation is headed in that direction.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Contingent Cassandra: Many thanks for that thoughtful account.

    My point, first of all, is exclusively about the full burqa – including gloves so your hands and fingers are invisible, and including fabric over your mouth, which “speaks” powerfully to many people (if you will) of a person being silenced, her very breath restricted.

    It’s not surprising that you felt uncomfortable with a fully veiled woman in your class. But discomfort is subjective. In this matter, I have in mind specific and significant political trends in a growing number of countries. The growing phenomenon of rejection of the burqa to the point of voting in favor of a ban is more solid ground for any discussion of the issue.

    The highest-profile among these countries is France, whose socialist government fully supports that country’s ban. People love to characterize opposition to the burqa as a species of rightwing reactionary belief, but the right has no monopoly on opposition, and indeed the most eloquent critics of the burqa in most European countries tend to be lefties. Here are the general population numbers in 2010 as to opposition to the burqa.

    82 per cent of French respondents supported a ban. The poll found 71 per cent support in Germany, 62 per cent in Britain and 59 per cent in Spain.

    Much higher numbers in England and the other countries support partial bans – in public places, in schools.

    Emotionalizing this issue, as Farah does by saying people oppose the burqa out of fear, gets us nowhere. People vote against the burqa because it offends democratic values and undermines civic life. It imprisons women, and democratic cultures who rightly pride themselves on hard-fought individual freedoms are always going to trend in the direction of opposition to extreme restrictions on personal freedom. Indeed, the huge dust-up just now over gender segregation in British universities should alert apologists even for seemingly mild, “gateway” restrictions of equality that democracies really do not take well even to the suggestion of infringement of personal liberties.

    The burqa is not, as you say, a symbol of religious repression. However wearers of it may explain it to themselves, there is no religious ground for burqa-wearing in Islam. The burqa is a symbol of crushing social repression.

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