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University Challenge: secular neutrality or religious privilege?

UK universities appear to be elevating the right to manifest religion and religious freedom over other rights, including freedom of expression and gender equality.  Students need to resist this tide of religious privilege in the interests of a secular and progressive university education, says Radha Bhatt

We are in danger of entering an era in which religious sensibilities take precedence over basic equality laws and universal human rights principles. Disturbingly, it appears to be universities – which should otherwise be pillars of reason and secular neutrality – that are paving the way.

In January 2014 the general universities’ governing body (UUK) received legal submissions on my behalf concerning their stance in relation to guidance they released in November 2013. Apparently in the name of respecting religious rights, and out of fear of offending religious sensibilities, this guidance appeared to allow and even encourage compliance with demands from visiting speakers for ‘voluntary separation’ of men and women – gender segregation in all but name – at events such as lectures. After a flurry of public criticism and advice by the EHRC that segregation by gender is never permissible in academic meetings or public lectures, the UUK was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn, and it withdrew the controversial guidance in December 2013. Yet it continued (and continues) to display a very telling reluctance to acknowledge its own wrongdoing or to stand up for the secular, progressive values that form the foundation of the British university system and are respected the world over.

There remains a common misconception about this practice of gender segregation, encouraged by the casual and frequent use of the term ‘voluntary’ by UUK, as a prefix and qualifier for the gender segregation their guidelines were condoning. As a concept, ‘voluntary segregation’ is oxymoronic, and in practice, it is beyond dispute that for many women, particularly those from ethnic minorities and backgrounds in which they already struggle to assert their rights to education, the ‘choice’ of mixed or segregated seating would be made under duress: women would be expected to sit in specific zones or face eviction from the outset.

Nicola Dandridge of the UUK may be ‘unclear’ about the idea of ‘voluntary segregation’, but we cannot afford such luxury:  through my letter, I’m looking for confirmation that the concerns raised by me - and women’s organisations and other bodies across the country – will be taken on board. And it’s for this reason that an additional open letter has been sent to the UN’s special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights: the signatories – including myself, Southall Black Sisters, the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society and Maryam Namazie of One Law for All – are hoping to ensure that all UK universities explicitly ban segregation of any kind altogether.

The matter of religious based gender segregation is a feminist issue, rather than a Muslim issue.  For the rise of the religious right – of which the gender segregation issue is just a symptom – can be seen across the board. Instances of gender segregation occurred at UCL and Queen Mary University in 2013 at the behest of Islamic speakers and societies; but in 2012 it was the Bristol University Christian Union that was forced to make a U-turn on its own discriminatory practice. They were forced to overturn a policy that prohibited women from teaching at its weekly meetings. Rapidly gaining power on all fronts, the forces of the religious right and religious fundamentalism are on the ascendant: they seek to control women’s lives, bodies and sexuality through the means of democracy itself, often colonising the secular spaces of education in particular to clamp down on all dissent.

Like the UUK, the LSE was also caught up in controversy for this same reason in December 2013: two students - Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos - had been forced to cover up satirical t-shirts depicting a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed on the grounds that they were “offensive” to religious sensibilities. And like the UUK (and indeed the Bristol Christian Union), the LSE also had to beat a hasty retreat. In a public apology to the students, the LSE’s director, Professor Craig Calhoun, acknowledged the disproportionate actions of the LSE: he confirmed that the students did no wrong, and that the t-shirts did not contravene the law or any LSE policy.

The apology was welcome, but it took 79 days and the threat of legal action to elicit it. Even more worrying is the fact that the LSE has failed to recognise it was curtailing free speech. The university was unable to produce evidence as to the number and substance of ‘complaints’ it allegedly received over the t-shirts, and the apology itself acknowledged that wearing the t-shirts did not constitute harassment of any religious group. More importantly, the university could not explain why the (real or imagined) potential of these t-shirts to ‘offend’ outranked the rights of Phadnis and Moos to such freedom of expression as is afforded to any religious persons who choose to bear images pertaining to their beliefs.

The common factor in both cases – the LSE’s attempts to censor its students and the UUK’s guidance on gender segregation – is an overriding fear of offending religious sensibilities. This fear is serving to aid and abet the alarming growth of religious fundamentalism. The UUK and LSE both appeared to capitulate to the view that the right to manifest religion and religious freedom takes precedence over other rights, including freedom of expression and gender equality. Of course religious freedom is important. But it does not mean that adherents of any faith can impose their values at the expense of liberty and human rights: there is no practice or tradition that can trump universal human rights. In the words of Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Secular and Humanist Student Societies, our universities need to remember that their duty is to their students, not to their students’ beliefs.

The bottom line is in danger of becoming a cliché, but perhaps that is because it’s becoming more and more relevant: being offended doesn’t make you right. Surely the risk of being offended now and again is a small price to pay for living in a free society.


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