When segregation is acceptable

Recent media reports have focused on instances of gender segregation at events arranged by Islamic societies at British universities.

One concerned University College London, the "godless" establishment founded in 1826, when no one who was not, at least on paper, a communicant member of the Church of England, could enter Oxford or Cambridge. UCL, by contrast, advertised that it would admit students without any religious test.

In March, this godless college was the setting for a debate ("Islam or Atheism? Which makes more sense?"). Speaking in favour of atheism was the eminent American cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who features in Wikipedia's list of "Jewish American physicists".

I'd always imagined men of science to be tolerant and open-minded. Not so Professor Krauss. On observing that the seating arrangements provided separate places for men, for women and for a mixed crowd, the good, godless professor threatened a walk-out, and could be prevailed upon to desist only when the voluntary seating arrangements were abandoned.

No one would argue against separate toilets

A week later, at the University of East London, a meeting featuring controversial Islamist presenters was suppressed by the university authorities. Although the major grounds for this appear to have been the unashamedly extreme, public, past utterances of the speakers, it seems that the organiser's apparent insistence on gender segregation at the event was also a concern - with claims that this contravened its equal opportunities policy.

Meanwhile, the University of Leicester has launched an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a public lecture last February organised by the university's Islamic society and featuring a popular speaker who addressed a packed meeting on the subject of whether God existed. Segregated seating was certainly offered at the event (part of Islamic Awareness Week); there were in fact separate entrances signposted. But a university spokesperson explained: "[We] will not interfere with people's right to choose where to sit. If some people choose to sit in a segregated manner because of their religious convictions, then they are free to do so. By the same token, if people attending do not wish to sit in a segregated manner, they are free to do so. To our knowledge, no one was forced to sit in any particular seat. If there is evidence of enforced segregation, that would be a matter the university and students' union would investigate." These sentiments strike me as admirable, reflecting as they do a balanced view of an issue that it is vital not to get out of proportion.

In 1954, the US Supreme Court held that, "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This celebrated judgment struck at the heart of the so-called "Jim Crow" laws, manufactured by bigoted politicians in America's Deep South so as to confer legal status on policies designed to perpetuate mandatory racial segregation.

I do not believe that separate educational facilities are always - necessarily - unequal (if I did, I would oppose faith-based education). Be that as it may, however, it is vital in a liberal democracy to uphold freedom of choice. If, at the events I've described, attendees were compelled to segregate themselves by gender, that was clearly wrong. But if the opportunity was merely offered to segregate themselves by gender on a purely voluntary basis, it seems to me that the organisers were behaving entirely properly.

And we must differentiate between equality of opportunity and identity of opportunity. No sensible person would argue (surely?) that the provision of separate public toilets for women and men is a breach of "equal opportunities". In our public hospitals, the wards are generally - and by public demand - segregated by gender. Public pools frequently offer women-only sessions. Gender segregation in sport is of course widespread.

In matters of gender segregation, as in so many other matters, a test of reasonableness has to be applied. If male and female students at any of my lectures wish to sit separately, I am certainly not going to stop them. Neither am I going to blackmail them into sitting together by threatening to down tools.

Last updated: 9:45am, April 30 2013