Keeping Sexes Separate

If a student or group requests a gender-segregated setup for religious reasons, does the university have a responsibility to accommodate? 

January 31, 2014

J. Paul Grayson, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s York University, received what he described as an unusual request from a student in his online research methods class last fall. The student requested that he be exempt from an assignment requiring him to meet in-person with a group of his peers, writing to Grayson,

One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women... It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.

Grayson ultimately refused the student’s request for an accommodation, believing that to grant it would be to render him, and the university, “an accessory to sexism.” Grayson said that the student, whom he surmised is either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish – his identity has not been revealed for privacy reasons – graciously accepted the decision. He has since completed the assignment in question.

It would seem to be a case in which a sensitive situation was resolved satisfactorily enough. However, Grayson’s denial of the student’s request came over and above the objections of York administrators, including the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Martin Singer, who, in email correspondence shared by Grayson, said that the university had a legal obligation to accommodate the student’s religious beliefs and argued that to exempt him from group work would “in no way have ‘substantial impact’ on the experience or human rights of other students in the class.” Although, in what Grayson described as a tacit acknowledgement of a potential impact, the dean also wrote to Grayson, “It is particularly important, especially as you are concerned about the course experience of our female students, that other students in 2030.60B are not made aware of the accommodation” (a directive that Grayson said he is currently challenging through the York faculty union as a violation of his academic freedom).

A York spokeswoman declined to make university administrators available for interviews about the details of the student case, referring a reporter to written statements from York President
Mamdouh Shoukri
  and Provost Rhonda Lenton, the latter of which states that any accommodations request is reviewed “in consideration of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the individual circumstances, the requirements of the law, any competing rights and the academic requirements of the course. A deciding factor in this case was that it was an online course where another student had previously been given permission to complete the course requirement off-campus.”

It’s true that a student who lives overseas was given an alternative assignment, but in an interview Grayson said that was neither here nor there. He likened it to a case in which two students request an extension on a Monday morning: one because his father died, the second because he spent the weekend partying. “The dean’s logic is because I granted the first I have to grant the second: it’s absolutely crazy,” Grayson said.

A survey Grayson conducted of students in a separate class suggests that some female students would indeed believe their educational experience to be negatively impacted if they knew the professor had exempted a male student from group work because of his religious beliefs about interacting with female classmates. “I would be outraged,” one student wrote. “I would be so angry and would make sure that I informed the public of such nonsense.”

“I would feel very angry just because I would feel that I am not ‘good enough’ to work with and I would feel discriminated,” another wrote in response to the survey. “I would not only feel discriminated but also would feel there is a sort of favoritism going on,” wrote another.

Grayson said he has received hundreds of emails of support for his position.

Meanwhile the stance of the York administration has been strongly criticized in the press. Marina Nemat, the author of the autobiography, Prisoner of Tehran, wrote in The Globe and Mail that in a secular university a student must put his religious beliefs aside: “What if a student had said he could not work with those who have a different skin color, with gays, or with other minorities or majorities, visible or not so visible? Then what? We would accommodate that, too?” she asked. In The Huffington Post, the president of the local Muslims for Progressive Values chapter, Shahla Khan Salter wrote, “By demanding the male student have no interaction with female students didn't the university administration disregard the right of female students to full and equal status at York University?” 

“I think that there’s a fundamental problem that’s occurring in Canada and elsewhere, and that is an intrusion of religion into realms that it should not enter into,” Grayson said. “When this impacts on the rights in this case of women then I think you have to speak out.”

The Experience Across the Pond

The issue of religiously motivated gender segregation in higher education has gained increasing attention in the past year following a series of controversies involving lectures with separate male and female seating sponsored by Islamic societies at the University of Leicester and University College London. In the latter case, a guest speaker who came for a debate on Islam or atheism, the theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, threatened to walk out unless the audience was mixed. “Either there’s no segregation or I’m out of here,” he said, as seen in a video available on YouTube. The organizers of the event complied and the event proceeded as planned.

In November, the association that represents the leaders of British universities, Universities UK, waded into the subject, issuing guidance indicating that universities have a legal obligation to respect an external speaker’s request to address a gender-segregated audience. The guidance was presented in the form of a hypothetical case study involving an “ultra-orthodox” religious speaker and was intended to help universities balance their competing obligations to comply with gender equality legislation and protect student, staff, and speakers’ rights to freedom of speech and religious expression. It suggested that in cases where there is a request for separate seating, segregation from left to right is preferable than front to back and that “a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved” if both segregated and nonsegregated seating areas can be arranged.

“It should therefore be borne in mind ... that in these circumstances, concerns 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,” the guidance stated. “Ultimately, 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 those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

The reaction was immense. More than 9,000 people signed a petition asking that the guidance be rescinded. Commentators and columnists, again, took aim: “Separate but equal; where have we heard that before?” wrote Polly Toynbee for The Guardian. “Sitting on one side of a hall because of your gender feels, to me, not too far from sitting at the back of a bus because of your color,” wrote Louisa Peacock for The Telegraph. In The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai Brown described the guidance as “a disaster for feminism, for university life, for modernism, for progressive ideals and for Muslims most of all.” 

Universities UK initially stood by the guidance, issuing a legal opinion defending it on Dec 12. But after Prime Minister David Cameron entered the fray the next day, saying through a spokesman that he believed “very strongly” that speakers shouldn’t be allowed to address gender-segregated audiences at universities, the association withdrew the offending case study pending further legal review.

“Universities UK has always maintained that enforced gender segregation at university events is wrong,” a spokesman said in a statement. “However, where gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are currently working with senior legal counsel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to clarify the position for both universities and students.”

In a statement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has indicated that it believes gender segregation to be lawful when university spaces are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of organized religion, but it does not believe it to be legally permissible in the case of academic meetings or lectures open to the public (as was the case with the Leicester and University College London events).

Omar Ali, the president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, has, on his Twitter account, described the backlash against gender segregation in Britain as “a cover to push anti-Muslim sentiment”: “There are single-sex schools, male/female sports teams, drinking clubs etc[.] who all voluntarily segregate. Is that gender apartheid?” he asked.

“With regard to Islamic societies, some do and don’t provide separate spaces for males and females, but it’s really important for me to stress that this is something that is not forced at all and it’s something that is almost self-organizing [in nature] and happens out of total choice,” Ali said in an interview. “The Islamic societies that choose to create these kinds of spaces at religious events are ones that do so because that’s what their membership likes.”

Asked what would happen if a student walked into a lecture sponsored by an Islamic society and did not want to sit in a male-only or female-only section, he responded, “I think that happens a few times and to be honest with you I think they’re allowed to sit wherever they want.” But he added that tolerance is an important value in British society and it would seem to him selfish and intolerant for an individual to walk into an event sponsored by a group that caters to a particular membership and demand that the group change its ways.

It would be different, Ali said, if the gender segregation were happening in the classroom, but “a university is a place where beyond your formal education people of every political, religious or cultural belief can get together with like-minded people and behave in ways they want to behave and organize events that serve them. I think that’s one of the best things about universities.”

Yet Radha Bhatt, a first-year undergraduate student in history at the University of Cambridge who has sent a legal letter to Universities UK objecting to its original guidance, said that universities “are secular, neutral, publicly-funded bodies. They shouldn’t have religious values, especially discriminatory values, imposed on them.” 

She worries that the Universities UK guidance, if it ultimately stands, “would have disproportionate impact on Muslim and other minority background women. Lots of them already have backgrounds where they struggle to assert their right to education. The choice, quote, unquote, to sit in segregated seating would be made under duress.”

“I think that this whole controversy with gender segregation at the request of external speakers is symptomatic of a wider struggle, which is the rise of the religious right, which we’re seeing across the board; it’s not just a Muslim issue,” Bhatt said, noting for example a recent controversy at the University of Bristol involving the Christian Union’s ban on female speakers. "Bodies like the Universities UK which should be defending secular, progressive values are so scared of these religious fundamentalists that they’re appeasing them and fueling their growth.”


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