On Saturday March 9th, an extraordinary incident threatened to mar UCL’s reputation as a university with a proud tradition of secularism and free thinking.
At a debate between renowned physicist and atheist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Islamic lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, hosted by the “Islamic Education and Research Academy”, women and men were made to sit apart in the audience. Before the debate began, women were asked to sit at the back of the audience, while men and “couples” sat in their own sections. An eyewitness account can be found here.
Despite being told that no gender segregation was to take place, as the debate began women were told that they had to sit away from any men unless they were in a “couple”. Krauss threatened to leave the debate if the room was to continue to be segregated but the organisers managed to pacify him by relaxing the restrictions
This incident was immediately responded to by many groups including the UCL Islamic Society, who professed not to have been involved in the debate, as well as prominent atheist Professor Richard Dawkins (see here).
Dawkins’ article was criticised by some as having an air of smugness and western superiority about it. Commentators discussed the fact that gender segregation was not necessarily an Islamic tradition but in fact a “cultural tradition” that was perhaps overzealously used for this debate.
Richard Dawkins is perhaps not the best spokesperson against sexism, as in 2011 he wrote a heavily criticised response to a woman who discussed the sexism that was apparent in some atheist activist organisations. His response was seen as highly patronising and an attempt to imply that because women in “Islamic countries” were treated very harshly, that anyone who thought that misogyny was an important problem in the West simply needed to grow some “thicker skin”. In light of Dawkins’ past comments, and of his overlooking of sexism within his own atheist ranks, one can’t help but see this current response as a tad hypocritical.
However, outrage at Dawkins and mild annoyance at the idea of the first university in the UK to admit female students on the same basis as their male counterparts playing host to a quasi-segregated event is simply not a good enough reaction. Any attempt to forcibly divide an audience at a secular institution such as a university, or anywhere else for that matter, must be thoroughly denounced.
Though most Muslims see gender segregation as archaic and pointless (including many of those living in “Muslim” countries), the phenomenon still persists in many mosques and events even in Britain. This thoroughly backward practice cannot be accepted for fear of being thought intolerant and offensive to Muslims and socialists and secularists must condemn it, whether or not Richard Dawkins happens to agree with us.
UCL has now banned the Islamic Education and Research Academy from holding any more events at the university.
The tradition of marginalising religion from the public sphere is a proud one that socialists used to uphold. Let us continue to uphold it.