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University segregation need not be a divisive issue

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UK Prime Minister David Cameron has another bee in his bonnet – sorry: deeply held conviction. This time it is segregation of women from men in talks given by Muslims or in an Islamic context on university premises.

He found guidance issued by Universities UK on this issue (that segregation should only be voluntary and mixed areas be allowed if people want them) to be inadequate given his own passionate belief in human rights especially for Muslim women.

Segregation on grounds of sex is naturally anathema to this product of Eton (where boys all learn together whatever their gender) and the Bullingdon club (girls always welcome in some capacity).

We can’t be sure what Cameron’s exact views are since he has not spoken publicly, but it looks as if he is so opposed to segregation that he rejects UUK’s voluntarist approach and would seem to want to force those attending these talks to sit boy-girl-boy-girl whether they like it or not. Maybe he will draft in some of the police currently suppressing student protests to enforce his emphatic liberal position?

It’s a matter of free speech, according to a Downing Street spokesperson, and Cameron feels very strongly about it. Certainly universities are governed by the 1986 Education (No 2) Act, Section 43(1)  on free speech, which says:

“Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”

This was Tory legislation to curb students’ “anti-Zionist” and “No platform for fascists” movements. Paradoxically it is now protecting fundamentalist Muslims. But it is very unclear what the segregation issue has to do with free speech as such. Is Cameron suggesting that women in general and Muslim women of western leanings will be put off from going to important talks by ultra-orthodox Muslim speakers? Does “free speech” extend to “free listening to speech”? The talks can go ahead without those women (thus protecting the S.43 rights of “visiting speakers”) and one can’t believe that Cameron really thinks those talks are of such vital significance that the women who opt to boycott them will be missing very much.

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