• Home
  • gender segregation

Tag: gender segregation

Gender segregation is humiliating and damaging

This piece was first published in The Freethinker.

Segregation was humiliating. Just the reality of signs that said you couldn’t use front doors or you couldn’t use this water fountain implied that you were subhuman … Every time I complied with a sign, I felt like I was acquiescing to my own inhumanity. I felt outraged and hated it.
– Diane Nash, a leader of the 1960s US Civil Rights Movement

When the Hezbollah came to segregate the girls from the boys at my school in Iran in 1980 after an Islamic regime took power, I remember wondering what was so wrong with me that I had to be separated from my male friends.

I was only 12 at the time.

I soon learnt that segregation was a “necessity” because girls over the age of nine (considered the age of maturity) are “sources of fitnah“, “temptations that incite men’s lust” eventually leading to adultery (Zina). And that gender segregation “protects” society from “moral decay” and “sex anarchy”.

Better to be segregated, I was told, than to have to be stoned to death for adultery.

I was elated, therefore, when a Court of Appeal found that gender segregation – including in the classroom, corridors, school clubs, play areas and school trips – at Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham was discriminatory.

Given the rise of gender segregation at schools and universities in this country (including at the Rabia School in Luton, Madani school in Leicester, the LSEQueen Mary University of London as well as Orthodox Jewish schools), the land-mark decision should have far-reaching effects in favour of the rights of minority women and girls in particular. The decision is also a victory against the religious-Right which uses religion in the educational system to police and control women and girls.

The basis for gender segregation (as well as veiling, banning women’s singing, prohibiting hand-shaking with women, male guardianship and so on) is that a woman’s and girl’s place is in the home, that she is lesser than a man or boy and that mixing with her will lead to “corruption”.

In Bas les Voiles, Chahdortt Djavan argues that the psychological damage done to girls from a very young age by making them responsible for men’s arousal is immense and builds fear and feelings of disgust at the female body.

Sayyid Maududi, the founder of Jama’at-i Islami (the Salafis of South Asia that are running some of the mosques, schools and Sharia courts here in Britain) explains why segregation is important in his book Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam:

In the eyes of law, adultery implies physical union only, but from the moral point of view every evil inclination towards a member of the Opposite sex outside marriage amounts to adultery. Thus, enjoying the beauty of the other woman with the eyes, relishing the sweetness of her voice with the ears, drawing pleasure of the tongue by conversing with her, and turning of the feet over and over again to visit her street, all are the preliminaries of adultery, nay, adultery itself.

Sharia courts here in Britain reinforce this point of view. For example Haitham al-Haddad, who was until recently a Sharia judge at the Leyton Sharia council and who testified at the Home Affairs Committee Sharia Councils inquiry (which was by the way quietly closed without any resolution), says on gender segregation:

What really amazes me, however, is the denial many people suffer when it comes to gender interactions in the 21st century. Even more astonishing is the blind eye that countless Muslims turn towards the masses of cases in Islamic law and jurisprudence in regulating the relationship between men and women, in particular minimising ikhtil?t (intermingling) between sexes.  The Prophet (sallAll?hu ‘alayhi wasallam) said, ‘I am not leaving behind a more harmful trial for men than women’.

Those who defend gender segregation as being “separate but equal” ignore the reality that women and men are not equal in any sense of the word.  In fact, “one is confined while the other is at large.”

Cultural relativists who would never defend inequality between non-minority women and men or segregation based on race excuse gender segregation because they say it is “voluntary” and a “choice”. Aside from the fact that Islamists use rights language to curtail rights, of course women and girls can sit where they choose. “What is discriminatory”, however, says Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas “is to assign a place to somebody, whatever that place may be. It says: keep to your place; to women’s place!”

In her witness statement to the Court of Appeal, Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters stated:

The impact of segregation is detrimental to girls since its aim of gender segregation is not to promote gender equity but to reinforce the different spaces – private and public – that men and women must occupy, and their respective stereotyped roles which accord them differential and unequal status.

In a piece entitled “Education and the Muslim Girl”, Saeeda Khanum quotes an interview with Liaqat Hussein from the Council for Mosques, which shows the real aims of gender segregation:

The struggle, he said, is between Islam and godlessness, which in the schools takes the form of coeducation, Darwinian theory, female emancipation and Muslim girls running away with non-Muslim boys. There’s no such thing as freedom in religion. You have to tame yourself to a discipline. We want our children to be good Muslims, whereas this society wants children to be independent in their thinking.

For now though, we should celebrate this important decision. As Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters stated:

We very much welcome the judgment and its recognition that gender segregation can be unlawful and discriminatory, especially in contexts where the practice is tied to the rise of religious fundamentalist and conservative norms. For over three decades, we have seen how regressive religious forces have targeted schools and universities as a means by which to control and police female sexuality in minority communities.

The imposition of gender segregation, dress codes and sharia laws are just some means by which gender inequality is legitimised and promoted despite the serious and harmful consequences. This judgment is a vital step forward in our effort to persuade the courts and state bodies to take account of the reality of the misogyny and gender stereotyping that is promoted in our schools and universities in the name of religious and cultural freedom. We are delighted that the court has seen through this and upheld the equality principle.

Court of Appeal: gender segregation is sex discrimination

  • Join protest at Court of Appeal hearing on 11 and 12 July 2017 at 9.30am at Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London, WC2A 2LL.
  • Pack out the public gallery in the court so that the judiciary is under no illusion as to what is at stake.
  • Publicise our campaign widely.

6 July 2017

On 11 and 12 July 2017, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Inspire will be intervening in an important case on gender segregation to press the Court of Appeal to rule that the practice of gender segregation in a voluntary aided Muslim co-ed school amounts to sex discrimination under the equality law.  This is a potentially historical and precedent setting case, the outcome of which will have a far reaching impact on the human rights of minority women and girls.

Background to the case

School X segregates its pupils based on their gender. From the age of 9 to 16, boys and girls of Muslim background are segregated for everything – during lessons and all breaks, activities and school trips.

The school was inspected by Ofsted which raised concerns about gender segregation and other leadership failings involving the absence of effective safeguarding procedures, and an unchallenged culture of gender stereotyping and homophobia. Offensive books promoting rape, violence and against women and misogyny were discovered in the school library. Some girls also complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society. As a result of what it found during the inspection, Ofsted judged the school to be inadequate and placed it in special measures.

The school took legal action against Ofsted accusing it of bias amongst other things, and claimed that gender segregation did not have a detrimental impact on girls. Following a High Court hearing, in November 2016, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Jay, found no evidence of bias against the school but agreed with the school that gender segregation did not amount to sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. He went onto say that no evidence had been presented to show that gender segregation disadvantaged the girls in the school.

Ofsted is seeking to overturn this part of the judgment but the Department of Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, along with SBS and Inspire are intervening in support of Ofsted.

Why we are intervening

SBS and Inspire are intervening in this case because we believe that the right to equality for women and girls of Muslim background in this instance is being seriously undermined. We are alarmed by the growing acceptance of such a practice in our universities and schools; a move that we have also previously contested. In a context where all the evidence shows that minority women are subject to growing abuse, isolation, inequality and powerlessness, the practice of gender segregation cannot be viewed as a benign development because it is informed by the Muslim fundamentalist view that women are inferior and the cause of disorder and sexual chaos in society. If unchecked, the practice will give religious fundamentalist and ultra-conservative forces in our communities more and more power to define women’s lives. It will also signal the view that regulatory bodies like Ofsted have no business in investigating issues of gender inequality in faith based schools. We say that gender segregation amounts to direct sex discrimination and violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of women and girls under international human rights law on equality and non-discrimination.

Pragna Patel of SBS said: “Fundamentalist and conservative religious norms like gender segregation are becoming normalised in minority communities at an alarming rate. Separate can never be equal in a context of rising misogyny, violence against women and patriarchal control. Regressive religious forces want to implement their fundamentalist vision of education. They want to use religion to extinguish the human rights of minority women and girls to equality and self determination. We will not allow this to happen. We will not allow them to undo the strides that we have made for greater equality and freedom. Our struggle against gender segregation mirrors the struggle against racial segregation: it is morally, politically and legally wrong and the Court of Appeal and the rest of society must recognise this.”

Sara Khan of Inspire said: “I am deeply concerned about the rise and accommodation of gender segregation in our schools and universities.  This is due in large part to the rise of fundamentalist patriarchal movements over the last few decades which seeks to reinforce regressive gender stereotypes and restrict women’s rights in an attempt to deny women full and equal participation in public life.  I have seen first hand the damaging impact of gender segregation on women and girls.  As a British Muslim woman, I call on our country and our judiciary to stand on the side of equality and women’s rights, at a time when illiberals and fundamentalists seek to do away with them.

Maryam Namazie from One Law for All added: “Islamists have become adept at using rights language to impose rights restrictions. Islamist projects like the niqab or Sharia courts are deceptively promoted as “rights” and “choices” when in fact their aim is to control and restrict women and girls. Girls in Islamic schools are segregated not in order to enable them to flourish but because they are seen to be the source of fitnah and male arousal from puberty onwards. Which is why they must be veiled, segregated, and prevented from many activities that are essential to child development. The court would do well to remember that when it comes to children in particular, there is a duty of care to ensure that the girl child has access to a level playing field and is able to flourish – sometimes despite the wishes of parents and fundamentalists.”

We will be available on 11 and 12 July to give interviews and make comments.


For Further Information Contact:

Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, pragna@soublacksisters.co.uk 02085719595.

Sara Khan, Director of Inspire, Sara.Khan@wewillinspire.com

Maryam Namazie of One Law for All, maryamnamazie@googlemail.com 077 1916 6731.

Notes to the editors:

  1. For more background information see http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/news/gender-segregation-is-gender-apartheid
  2. See the High Court judgment here: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/x-v-ofsted.pdf and here: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/x-v-oftsed-press-summary.pdf
  3. Southall Black Sisters is also part of the One Law for All campaign which also includes the Kurdish Culture Project, Centre for Secular Space and others working to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism and it specific impact on  the rights of black and minority women in the UK. We are currently running a campaign against the accommodation of Sharia laws in the law or as part of alternative dispute resolution systems in relation to family matters. See here: http://onelawforall.org.uk/over-300-abused-women-issue-statement-against-parallel-legal-systems-who-will-listen-to-our-voices/
  4. Information about previous contestations against gender segregation in universities can be found here: http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/news/campaign-gender-apartheid-uk-universities  and here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/pragna-patel/’shariafication-by-stealth’-in-uk and here: http://www.wewillinspire.com/tag/segregation/