Revelation of gender segregation at public events in British universities should make Americans that much more vigilant about threats to equality in their own universities. We are not yet where the British are - we do not yet have official university bodies counseling gender apartheid - but we could certainly get there.
How to avoid the upheaval on the subject in England (in which the prime minister has had to step in to remind that country's universities what separate but equal means), the general outrage with the practice of making women sit in the backs of public meeting rooms, and in many cases forcing them to shut up? How does a practice like that develop in a secular democratic culture?
It develops when liberal democracies lose their taste for defending foundational values.
American universities, like British universities, need more people in them like Anissa Helie and Marie Ashe, law professors who, in this article (click on download this paper), systematically lay out a humane and enlightened rationale for banning the burqa as an instance of intolerable gender apartheid.
Helie and Ashe review the work of American professors who defend full veiling (Joan Wallach Scott, Martha Nussbaum). In their review, they note these professors' intellectual narrowness, and their abstraction from the lived reality out of which the full veil emerges.
The fundamental problem in Western defenses of the burqa, the authors point out, is a phobia relative to the idea of actively defending democratic values. Helie and Ashe cite one defender's response to the stoning of women.
On April 8, 2010, the controversial European Muslim Tariq Ramadan made his first public appearance in the United States. Reporting on the panel discussion in New York City in which Ramadan had participated, Peter Schmidt noted:
'[W]hen the discussion turned to the longstanding controversy over Mr. Ramadan’s refusal to call for an outright ban on the stoning of Muslim women for adultery and [his] insistence that there should instead be a moratorium on stoning in general while Muslim jurists discuss whether it should continue. . .[his] fellow panelist, Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study... who identified herself as a feminist, said, “I actually think that his solution to the problem is not a bad one,” because an end to stoning cannot be imposed on the Muslim world by the West.'
The authors comment:
Scott forgets something perhaps entirely obvious, certainly well understood by numerous women’s rights advocates in Muslim countries: that it is neither racist nor imperialist to condemn, with no reservation, the stoning of women.
It is obviously and trivially true that other countries cannot "impose" social behaviors on places like Saudi Arabia; it is also (should also be) obviously true that we have an obligation to condemn, and, in the worst cases, act against, certain profoundly unjust and bigoted behaviors. When the Mayo Clinic, for instance, became aware that one of its doctors was, in his scientific papers, praising female genital mutilation as an 'honor' for women, it dismissed him.
Helie and Ashe cite Marnia Lazreg's rich and informed account of growing up in a veiled culture, an upbringing that has made her a proponent of burqa bans. Lazreg attempts to take on the grotesque assertion that totally veiling yourself so that even breathing and speech become difficult is an expression of liberated personal agency:
As a social scientist, I cannot deny women’s agency or substitute mine for theirs on grounds that I am more equipped to make sense of their motivations than they are... [A]gency is not a free-floating capacity independent of the social framework within which it expresses itself; [but] neither is it above questioning.
[Choosing the burqa]... engages [a woman's] responsibility toward other women. The fight for recognition of the veil as summing up Islam that takes place in Paris, New York, or Istanbul necessarily affects the women in Riyadh and Tehran who are compelled by law to wear it. As a custom grounded in history and sanctified by theologians, the veil is never innocent; it is not what it seems to be – a mark of religiosity. It is part of a historic power configuration . . . and its rehabilitation as a custom reduces women to their biological body and denies them autonomy in their body. Cultural relativism should not obscure the real effects of veiling on a woman's psyche as she lives out her concrete existence.
The Belgian activist Nadia Geerts elaborates:
[T]he veil is not a simple “religious symbol” but remains – no matter what the intention of the individual subject/veil-wearing woman may be – “a flag . . . for an Islamist social project” in which “religion comes first and state comes second;” in which “women’s bodies are kept under men’s control;” in which “coeducation or mingling of the sexes is challenged at school and in society at large; and, in which Western democratic values are undermined and attacked.”
The authors of the article conclude:
[T]he veil remains, as Chahdortt Djavann has stated powerfully, the “yellow star of women’s status.”
When intellectuals silence themselves and fail to produce this sort of social critique - or, worse yet, when intellectuals find ways to be self-righteous about their refusal to condemn the systematic degradation of women - you end up with England's current national embarrassment. We should learn from it.