Voluntary Segregation and Gender Apartheid

I’d heard a couple of months ago about an event at UCL London sponsored by the Islamic group Islamic Education and Research Academy. The event was a debate on Islam and atheism, but what made the headlines was the fact that the audience was separated by gender: men and mixed couples in the front, women in the back. This wasn’t forced – it was deemed “voluntary”. If you wanted to sit in mixed seating, you could; if you wanted to sit in women-only seating, you could. (I’m not sure where the men who didn’t want to sit with women went).

At the time, I shook my head and put it down to over-zealous students a little too fond of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan’s way of doing things. It’s both illegal and impossible to carry out that level of gender segregation in the UK, but this group and others like it were striking a little symbolic blow for the type of strict gender separation that they admire so much. Perhaps a little nostalgia for the way things are done in these countries, or “back home”; or some non-existant pinnacle of Islamic civilization to which we all belong whether we know it or not.

Yesterday, I saw someone called Mohammed Ansar, a British commentator on Islam, talking to British columnists David Aaronovitch and Sunder Katwala on Twitter about “voluntary segregation”. He was telling them about a summer BBQ he’d attended where it was “groovy” because it was all “voluntary” – “chaps talking to chaps and chapesses talking to chapesses” were his words. “It wasn’t scary at all! No monster under the bed!”

I have been told before that I should learn how to keep my mouth shut. I’m afraid I’m a bad student. I butted into the conversation and told all of them that I had grown up in a conservative Sindhi family (extended) where segregated social events were the norm. And that gender segregation is a travesty in all its forms.  I followed it up with a rant about the hideousness of gender segregation, the end result of what is usually women herded off into separate schools, hospitals, public transport, prayer areas at mosques. Their facilities are usually awful, neglected, and dirty, never given as much money or maintenance or quality as men’s only facilities. “The Quran tells believing men to lower their gaze, not put women in a box so that they don’t have to struggle with self-control,” I tweeted. “Segregating women usually means ‘out of sight, out of existence’.”

Mo reared back and said that he had never grown up in or was in favor of “hard” segregation, but that there was nothing wrong with “voluntary” segregation. “Your experience sounds bad but it isn’t the only one!” he tweeted. Or words to that effect. We went back and forth like this for a while, and I asked him to read my essay on the niqab and the illusion of free choice, but he refused, stating that I was “rude”. Now where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, we uppity women, who don’t present our views with the appropriate respect and deference…

Well, I’m sorry, but this is nonsense, pure and simple. Because like the niqab, “voluntary” segregation, or the freedom of choice surrounding it, is also an illusion. Perhaps the segregated weddings I went to, the ladies’ bus compartments 1/4 the size of men’s, the one ladies’ compartment on the Dubai Metro, the mosques from Hong Kong to Northern Virginia where either women are not welcome or there’s one stinky room upstairs where women lie on the floor to nap or to eat their lunches, were my “poor” experiences, forced upon me rather than of my choice. And that “groovy” summer barbecue was the epitome of Muslim chic where everyone just automatically drifted apart (like many of my parents’ generations’ dinner parties where the men sat one one side drinking whiskey discussing politics and the women sat on the other and talked about servants and children).

But what proponents of “voluntary” segregation are so disingenuous about is that the “choice” comes about because of social coercion, as this followup article about UK university gender segregation so beautifully illustrates. The spoken and unspoken assumption is that a good Muslim woman would never want to mix with men: she will automatically want to remove herself from their presence and put herself in the back of the room. Any woman who doesn’t “choose” this for herself is cheaper, less moral, or even a slut. We Muslim women have absorbed this message and our own thinking has become warped, so now, we are quick to demonstrate our chastity to the men and women of our community before they can accuse us of having loose morals.

This results in what you see happening on PIA flights, where women will sometimes object if they’re seated next to a man and ask for the “chap” to be moved. It happened once at a segregated wedding I attended in the Memon community, where all the ladies were chatting and laughing. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and grabbed their dupattas and chadars, covering themselves up because a twelve year old boy had entered the room. He didn’t even have any hair on his upper lip, but I was informed that he had reached the age of puberty and so everyone had to veil themselves in front of him.

I’ll never forget a religious lecture I attended: the sheikh was young, hip, had been born and raised in New York. All the women were so excited to see him; I too fixed a dupatta on my head and entered the room where he was to address all of us. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a curtain erected in the middle of the room and two speakers on either side. The sheikh did not want to be in the same room as the women, so he was going to speak from behind the curtain, on a microphone. Even though each one of us was dressed in the proper Islamic attire, heads covered, arms and legs covered, some even with their faces covered, the sheikh deemed his presence amongst us too sinful to submit us to even a glimpse of him! And in the end everyone raved about how “good” he was instead of how silly the whole exercise had been.

There are people who think that if you veil yourself or segregate yourself out of choice, that’s fine and dandy. I wonder what happens when you decide you don’t want to sit with black people, or Jewish people out of choice too. Someone on Twitter told me that was a very offensive comparison, and perhaps it is, but gender apartheid is as real a concept as racial apartheid. I’ve heard the term “separate but equal” before – from people in America who opposed the civil rights movement and the integration of blacks into white schools. Funny how that same term is used to describe how women and men should be treated.

What on earth happened to our beautiful way of moderation, the Islam of the Middle Path? As John Lennon said, “Woman is the nigger of the world”. I’ll remember that the next time someone tells me I’m supposed to be honored and respected that nobody wants to sit next to me.

PS. Please don’t waste my time asking me if I believe in separate bathrooms or changing rooms for men and women.

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