Universities UK says that British universities can segregate by gender in talks from external speakers, as long as men and women are sat side by side and not one in front of the other.
The advocacy organisation for British universities issued the guidance after several reports emerged of segregated seating events at universities.
In March a row erupted at University College, London (UCL) after atheist Professor Lawrence Krauss threatened to walk out of a debate against Islamic lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis over organisers reportedly attempting to segregate the audience.
The guidance said: “If the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees.
“This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).”
The advice also tackled the issue of non-segregated seating within a segregated event. Universities UK warned not offering a mixed seating area might be discriminatory against other beliefs, such as the belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, or, as the publication suggests, the belief in feminism.
But, it seems there is no straight answer to the issue; Universities UK says steps to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should “not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system”.
“Ultimately,” the report continues, “if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or the those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.
“Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stiﬂe a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief.”
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in terms of encouraging students to think for themselves, challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions.
“Although most speakers are uncontroversial, some will express contentious, even inflammatory or offensive views. Universities have to balance their obligation to encourage free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed, the safety and security of staff, students and visitors secured, and good campus relations promoted. In practice, achieving this balance is not always easy….
“The easy route would be to ban and boycott discussions on controversial subjects. But universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate.”
Meanwhile, The Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) has welcomed the report by Universities UK.
Saqib Sattar, Vice-Chairman of iERA, said: “Immense pressure from anti-Islamic groups before the event made it impossible for UCL and iERA to have a sensible discussion about the practicalities of catering for the seating needs of all attendees.
“We believe UCL acted rashly under pressure and without studying the facts or the law. They refused to co-operate with us in our investigation. The Universities UK guidance vindicates our policies and also our own investigation”
Jahangir Mohammed, Chief Executive of Communica which is an independent consultancy which advised iERA on policy formation and compliance stated: “The whole furore over gender separation shows that it is important for public authorities to have clear policies, to get unbiased advice, to talk to organisers and not be railroaded into making rash decisions because of anti-Muslim propaganda”
And Abdurraheem Green, Chairman of iERA, stated: “With a growing number of Muslims countries seeing a revival in adherence to normative Islamic practices, the idea of being forced to sit with people of the opposite sex and observing the adoption of anti-Islamic policies by British Universities might well lead many to avoid choosing this country to further their education.
“Such behaviour is not in the economic interests of universities or indeed the country as a whole. iERA as an organisation is known and respected throughout the Muslim world for its work in inviting people to Islam. Hearing of iERA being banned from UCL and other universities certainly does not send a positive message about how welcome they will be to study in this country.”