The media emphasise hypothetical and occasional gender segregation at British universities but roundly ignore the real sexism faced by students every day. Adam Ramsay reports

FHMChukka Umunna said yesterday morning that he would outlaw gender segregation at universities. It would be interesting to see him try. You might assume that the first place he would start would be sports teams. After all, it is in rugby and football clubs that so much of the rise in lad culture on campus is born.

Or, when I was a student, there used to be occasional use of the union buildings by students who were taking part in the gender-segregated half of the traditional British marriage ceremony: the stag/hen do. More often, there were “girls nights out” and “boys nights out”. I have a mental image of the would be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills standing at the front door of a student union, telling drunken revellers of uniform gender that they are not allowed to enter. But I don’t think this is what he had in mind. Nor was he talking about the three remaining women only colleges at Cambridge.

Maybe he meant the Bullingdon club? Or any one of Oxford and Cambridge’s various women only and men only drinking groups? Of course not. Because, as is all too often the case, when politicians talk about sexism, they mean the sexism they notice in cultures other than that which dominates Britain. Their sexism is different, horrific. Our sexism is normal, to be expected.

There is a significant problem with misogyny on British campuses. Earlier this year, Kelley Temple, the NUS Women’s Officer, commissioned research from the Gender Studies Institute at the University of Sussex into student lad culture. The resulting report “that’s what she said” is pretty worrying. It outlines traditions which have grown up at various campuses which amount to cultures of sexual harassment. Whether it’s “seal clubbing” (older male students going out at freshers’ week to find a drunk new arrival to take advantage of) “slut dropping” (offering a female student a lift home, but then leaving her in the middle of nowhere), there are real problems.

And all of this is hard to escape from. “The research established that socialising and nightlife are a key part of campus culture. Given this, the extent to which ‘lad culture’ shapes students’ experiences on nights out is particularly disturbing. It does not seem to be possible to go on a night out without encountering ‘lad culture’ and the sexism and misogyny associated with it, both verbal and physical”.

In this context, it is, of course, good to see that the shadow minister with responsibility for universities is talking about gender issues on British campuses. But it is also important to ask a different question. Why is it this part of university sexism – gender segregation at talks by religious speakers – which has gained so much media attention? Let’s go back a bit.

This whole furore exploded when Universities UK – the Vice Chancellors’ group – released a report entitled “external speakers in Higher Education institutions”. In it, they lay out the various legal matters and issues which may arise from inviting guests to talk to an audience at a university. At one stage in the report, they give various hypothetical scenarios, and then assess the relevant questions an organiser ought to consider if each respective situation arises. One such case study is a talk from an imagined orthodox religious speaker. In the example, it is a public lecture – ie, advertised for anyone to attend, not a compulsory part of any student’s course. The fictional guest has requested, after the event has been advertised, that the audience be divided by gender.

The report lists a number of laws which might apply to this situation, and discusses various ways to navigate them. One option discussed is whether it might be acceptable to divide by gender left-to-right, so that neither women or men have to sit at the back, though it goes on to point out that it may be possible, in doing so, to allow discrimination against one group, and that this ought to be considered too. It also suggests that a good compromise might be having a women only section, a men only section, and a mixed gender section, so that the audience can choose how to sit.

It is this advice which has come into such heavy scrutiny, with the debate raising its head again yesterday as Labour’s rising star said:

“I was horrified by what I heard … let me be absolutely clear, a future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities. It offends basic norms in our society. Of course people should be free to practise their religion privately in places of worship and at religious events. But universities are publicly funded places of research, learning and teaching and, as such, there is no place in my view for state-sponsored segregation.”

And this is where it all gets difficult. No one is saying that in the core business of a university, gender segregation ought to be tolerated. Of course it shouldn’t be. If a university lecturer asked their students to choose their seating according to gender, then outcry would be the right response.

But it’s perfectly normal for a university chaplaincy to have a space which is used for prayers by various religious groups, some of whom divide themselves by gender. And this is really important. Without such spaces, how many people would have been pushed away from education? And of those, how many would be women, from minority ethnic groups, working class? Sometimes, places of worship are universities.

And what if, once in a while, this group invites students of all faiths and none to come and join them? Wouldn’t this ecumenical gesture be a good thing? It’s not a far leap from here to the imagined scenario described by Universities UK. When does a temporary faith space stop being a temporary faith space? Of course we should, in general, be against gender segregation. And, of course, if the gender apartheid some of the tabloids seem to be predicting were around the corner, we should fight it. But where does that principle sit alongside the desire to include women from faith traditions who segregate by gender?

But it’s easy to get bogged down in arguments about where we ought to draw the line in an hypothetical scenario posed in a legalistic report. This would miss the point. Because the interesting thing about this phenomenon is not that one page of one piece of advice from Universities UK imagined a fictional event, but how much it was repeated by the media, with the Daily Mail screaming gender apartheid, and Channel 4 News asking “should modern day students be segregated?”.

Contrast this with the coverage of the NUS lad culture report (the only comment piece I can find in the national media is a Telegraph blog entitled “The prudes of the NUS hate boozy, popular ‘lads’. So what do they do? Smear them as rapists”) and you soon find what this is really about. This whole hoo-haa has nothing to do with the actual sexism which women face on university campuses every day. It’s just another excuse for the media to write stories about one of their favourite tropes: Islamist extremists going after our young people.

Should we allow gender segregation on university campuses? Well, that’s complex – with loos and sports teams and women only safe spaces and prayer spaces, certainly. With other kinds of voluntary activities, it’s not simple. I’d certainly rather our gender divided pre-nuptual rituals were consigned to history, but I probably wouldn’t ban them. I hope those Muslims who argue against segregation win their battle, but until they do, I’d not want to exclude them, but stand with them – including when they are smeared for their faith rather than their gender.

Free speech doesn’t mean everyone gets a platform – if it did, there would be no one in the audience. Those organising events at universities should do there best to ensure that the most silenced voices are heard, that the powerless get a chance to make their case, and that the discussion doesn’t exclude anyone. But that will sometimes mean difficult balancing acts, and tricky negotiations between different types of oppression. With complex, and intersecting power hierarchies in play in any situation, it is impossible to apply universal rules. The right course of action in these situations is about context and timing and relationships and conversation, and understanding that oppression is a multi-bladed weapon. And always, it’s about understanding that it’s the powerful who drive public debate, and they will seek to turn the oppressed on each other. If a speaker wants the audience to be gender segregated at an event I was organising, would I like it? No. Ought I to allow it? It depends.

The fight against sexism on campus is a vital one. It’s good that the man who may well take control of Britain’s universities in 2015 is up for it. But it shouldn’t side with Islamophobia and the racism that comes with it, and it should start with the genuine misogyny experienced every day by women at our universities, not a fictional case study in a bureaucrat’s handbook.

From OurKingdom