Gender segregation and the campus

This article first appeared in the Australian newspaper, Wednesday 7. August 2013Image

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.


7 comments on “Gender segregation and the campus

  1. Gerhard, I’m interested in whether the breaking of the fast is considered a ‘religious’ event when gender segregation is normally imposed. It seems to be that the imposition tends to be decided by a particular kind of Islamic interpretation, one that not is at all universal. Challenging ideas about gender segregation in what many would consider ‘religious’ spaces and events is important. Muslim women have fought for greater inclusion in mosques in different ways, either the permission to enter the mosque itself, or given the same shared space as men. I don’t see why gender segregation in events like iftar or others organised by the campus Islamic society cannot be challenged.

    it is very easy to be silent about gender segregation in public spaces that do not require it. I remember attending lectures in a college in Perak where young men were expected to sit one side of the lecture theatre. That was not a religious context at all but an extension of gender segregation that took place in other spaces of the college, like dormitories.

    I am appalled at gender segregation that takes place in universities, especially when it is weakly justified on religious grounds. Recently during Ramadan at SOAS, women and men sat together on the lawn outside the main building to break the fast. There were women who did not need to wear the hijab, non-Muslim women and men amongst Muslim women and men. Perhaps there were people who thought that that kind of ‘mixing of the sexes’ was abominable, but there will be always be people like that.

    • anthropolitics says:

      I agree, as I state, I have come across gender segregation at the prayer part of breaking fast, especially in a mosque setting, but generally breaking of fast is not segregated, only in a few specific Islamic traditions/interpretations. This issue was first raised this year at Melbourne Uni, where a Muslim organisation segregated a lecture theatre for a talk and it became politicised very quickly, but the university made its position clear, i.e. that they are against gender segregation on campus:
      I am worried about a process I have witnessed in Malaysia, which is that if a very orthodox view of Islam is allowed to take over the public square, in this case the university, and gets to represent Islam, unreflexive Muslims will follow blindly and Muslims who follow other traditions/interpretations are marginalised. This process in Malaysia has led to the banning and discrimination of Shia as well as a range of Muslim sects and the demise of heterogeneity in Islamic theology and praxis.

  2. Lee Sheppard says:

    See links to other events organised at universities and/or views expressed by insiders and outsiders which you may have already seen: ;>; ; ; . I have already seen this video, ‘Beneath The Veil – Women In Islam(Part 1 of 5)’ but it is now downloadable off youtube , see also: . Another ‘Documentary: (Un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab’ .

    I have had an interest in Muslim people and their culture since completing an essay which investigated the religion, people and culture – finding a very diverse, global Muslim community. I would like to say, that although I do not agree with segregation of any kind or even practices which limit a person’s ability to live freely; that people do have the capacity to make a choice to change their worldviews; especially those who no longer reside in majority Muslim societies. The documentary I watched and used for my essay was ‘She’s a Thoroughly Modern Muslim’ .

  3. Gunther says:

    I find this piece bizarre. If a student association, or any other host of a religious or other cultural event organises separate seating by gender, the role of the guest is to comply, or if this is deemed somehow offensive, to not attend. I cannot see the issue here in terms of concerns about voiced or unvoiced support for contentious terms of religious hegemony. Where was the imposition of hegemony here? It was an event organised by a particular group, exhibiting their priorities. Acknowledgement of and support for religious diversity also entails an acceptance of practices that will be deemed by some to be conservative, ultra-orthodox or even regressive. This is the essence of religious pluralism. Feel free to be involved in organising your own events that have non-segregated seating arrangements. But if attending one where this arrangement is in place, your role is to respect the wishes of the host, not wear your Enlightenment values on your sleeve! I am, frankly, shocked that you can have such a response as an anthropologist.

    • anthropolitics says:

      Sorry for the late reply, I had not been tending to this site for a while. Gunther, shock aside, my issue is with the representation of normalcy that in my opinion misrepresents a large portion of people. A Muslim association that enforces one interpretation at an event that was meant to foster inclusion is not helpful, nor was the fact that many representatives of the organisation in question I spoke to at the event did not know why they were divided by gender. The university should be a place to question practices and beliefs and interrogate them constructively. Hiding behind so-called tolerance of the other is, in my view, a meek recognition that we do not care about them enough to question their actions. As an anthropologist ‘at home’ I was shocked and tried to deal with that shock by engaging representatives at the event to better understand why they had chosen to practice gender segregation. Most shocking, to me, was the unreflexive attitude I experienced. Thus my intervention was to foster debate, which we must do at a place of learning in my view. I don’t accept my role simply as guest who must obey (a simplistic view of the sort of tolerance often practiced towards new migrants incidentally), but if I am to be a true guest I expect the host to engage my queries in constructive conversation – something I did not encounter.

  4. Cherie says:

    I wish there was a way for me to post here three photos which best tell a beautifully inclusive story of gender segregation. Let me know if I may post and where. It saves a thousand words.

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