Sexual apartheid: is there any room for gender segregation?
Universities UK sparks fierce row over gender segregation at higher education speaker events
LABOUR MP Chuka Umunna has waded in to the row about "sexual apartheid" at universities, pledging to ban gender segregation if his party was in government.
Universities UK has been accused of legitimising gender segregation after issuing guidelines about the laws affecting external speaker events.
It states that gender segregation is not necessarily discriminatory as long as "both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way".
It continues: "Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system."
Critics claim that the new guidance will allow "ultra-orthodox religious groups" to separate men from women at events.
Umunna (pictured above), the shadow business secretary, told Radio 4's Today programme that he was "horrified" and said a "future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities".
His comments come after around 100 people attended a rally against UUK in central London on Tuesday night. Protesters carried banners with slogans such as "separate is never equal" and "no gender apartheid".
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of UUK, has rejected the comparison to racial apartheid and insisted that institutions would not enforce segregation. If participants are happy to sit in separate groups that would be permitted as long as there was no disadvantage, she said.
But Maryam Namazie, an organiser of the rally and spokesperson for Fitnah, which champions women's liberation in Islam, told The Independent that "any form of separation can never be equal as segregation is a restriction of equality and freedom".
The Guardian's Polly Toynbee says the UUK guidelines "give the sexist eccentricities of some religions priority over women's rights".
Academics are using "a perverse notion of freedom", says Nick Cohen in The Spectator. "In normal language, you restrict my freedom if you stop me from speaking or writing. According to Universities UK, you are restricting the freedom of an extreme religious believer if you sit next to someone from the opposite sex."
But is gender segregation in universities always wrong? "In my view, yes it is," says Brendan O'Neill in the Daily Telegraph, but that does not mean segregation should always be outlawed by university management.
For example, he says, in private meetings on campus it should be allowed. "A key part of the freedom of association is the right to mix with whomever you choose, according to your beliefs and morals," he says. "There are instances when, in the name of a greater freedom – specifically, the freedom of association – we must tolerate gender segregation, however awful we find it."