I am currently revising an article about my work in Malaysia with what can be described as fundamentalist and secular Muslims. One of the debates I am engaging is what role the researcher, in this case an ethnographer, plays in describing, analysing and writing about confrontations between universalisms and worldviews. Last Wednesday I took some time off from revising this paper to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event I had been invited to by a student of mine.
The university’s Muslim Student Association had organized a big event and invited non-Muslims to share in the experience of breaking fast together in a park on the university’s campus. Mats were laid out on the grass to allow people to sit down. The event included the breaking of the fast (with water and a date or snack), a prayer and the communal dinner.
Upon arrival I was directed to sit down on the left-hand side of two clearly separated seating areas and told that this was the men’s section, whilst women had to be seated in the corresponding women’s section. As a staff member at a function of a university union affiliated club I was aware of my position in what would come next. If I quietly sat down in the designated male section, I could be seen (as could the university) to be condoning gender segregation. If I began questioning the practice and decided to leave or sit elsewhere I could be causing offence.
In my fieldwork in Malaysia I often came across gender segregated events and as part of my research work I would often question the reasons behind certain practices and document the reasons people gave for them. More importantly, during Ramadan the breaking of fast and communal meal was generally a communal experience in which families came together and men and women were not segregated. The prayers, especially if held at a mosque would be separated, but most people break their fast at home or in public places with only a short prayer.
Here, I was not in my field; rather, I was there as both a participant and member of an Australian university with my own views about the position of religion on the campus, so I engaged the first and second and third person who directed me to sit in the men’s section by asking them who had decided upon the seating arrangements (the organizing committee) and on what basis gender segregation was practiced here. A few students engaged me as I sat down on the sidelines of the event. I valued the interaction and discussion I had with these students as it afforded me an opportunity to question and respond with my views on Islamic traditions and the history of gender segregation.
The event raises important issues beyond the immediate seating arrangement relating to both gender equity and religious tolerance and discrimination. Some of these issues have been raised by a similar incident at Melbourne University in April, but universities have not responded resolutely in addressing them. More importantly, though, I want to raise this issue to elicit a debate about the role of religious organizations on campus, whether Muslim, Christian or any other, and the role of the university as a place that can accommodate difference, whilst safeguarding universals. I see the university as a progressive space in Australian society that should engage separate views in its community and debate openly motivations for and against gender segregation derived from religious commitment. The pointy end of this issue is whether Australian universities are prepared to accommodate religious practices in public areas of the campus which contradict policies regarding student and staff behaviour.