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Newsline 14 July 2017

It's hard to believe that in modern Britain we're seeing courtroom battles over whether gender segregation in Islamic schools is discriminatory or not. Meanwhile, parents in some areas are being forced to send their children to religious schools, despite not wanting faith-based education for their children, due to a shortage of suitable alternatives.

Faith schools are dragging us back to an age of inequality. Gender segregation, discriminatory admissions, mandatory worship and limitations on choice are all the product of religion's continued involvement in publicly funded education. That's why we remain steadfast in our commitment to ending the faith schools madness and bringing about a secular education system, where equality and freedom of conscience are prioritised above faith groups' desire to inculcate children into their religion. Why not make a donation today to support our work?

Separate is not equal ­– not in this ‘faith’ school

Separate is not equal ­– not in this ‘faith’ school

Opinion | Tue, 11 Jul 2017

Turning a blind eye to discriminatory gender discrimination in Islamic schools would be disaster for future generations of British girls growing up in Muslim communities, argues Stephen Evans.

I was in court this week for Ofsted's appeal of a ruling that gender segregation in a state-funded Islamic state school is not discriminatory.

The publicly funded Al-Hijrah Islamic faith school in Birmingham was inspected by Ofsted last summer, following a visit from the former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw in June.

Sir Michael was said to have expressed "firmly negative views about the practice of segregation" at the school during his visit and ordered an immediate inspection.

In addition to finding girls and boys completely segregated in what purported to be a 'mixed school', inspectors also found books in its library which "included derogatory comments about, and the incitement of violence towards, women".

Discussing the books' content in his ruling, the judge said: "one of the books states that a wife is not allowed to refuse sex to her husband. Another opines that women are commanded to obey their husbands and fulfil their domestic duties. Two books made clear that a husband may in certain circumstances beat his wife, provided that this is not done 'harshly'."

Some girls complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society.

Nevertheless, the judge determined that the segregation practised within the school did not result in "one sex being treated less favourably than the other."

Mr Justice Jay said Ofsted inspectors wrongly assumed that the gender segregation implied unequal treatment and said its inspection report was based on the erroneous view that the school had committed unlawful sex discrimination.

The law permits only the most limited differences of treatment between pupils based on gender. There is a specific exemption in the Equality Act 2010 that allows single sex schools to have sex or gender specific admissions policies. There is however no statutory sanction against enforced segregation on the same school premises, whether for religious or other reasons. As vesitages of Victorian era gender segregation in education faded away, perhaps nobody thought this would be an issue in modern Britain.

But after considering the facts of this particular case – not least the "very prominently" displayed books in the library ­– it's hard to understand how one can fail to see the way in which the separation of the sexes in this school indicated an inferior outlook on women that reinforced notions of inferiority.

Of course there will be limited circumstances where it is reasonable to separate girls and boys in educational settings. But context matters. And we cannot ignore the fact that under some interpretations and manifestations of Islam, Muslim women are certainly not treated as men's equals.

Defenders of segregation may well stress the educational advantages of segregating pupils. And it is true that some educationalists believe that girls and boys perform better in single sex environments.

But this is a school that had books in its library that condoned rape and violence against women. A school where inherently misogynistic 'modesty' codes are enforced on young girls, forcing female pupils to 'cover up'. A school that applies a regime of "complete segregation" for all lessons, breaks, school clubs and trips. A school in which "teaching and learning in all subjects is Islamised".

You may believe that the school is acting in the best educational interests of the female pupils, but forgive me if I just don't buy it.

Another person not buying it is human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie. As she puts it:

"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."

Others not buying it include women's rights campaigners Southall Black Sisters and the counter-extremism and human rights organisation, Inspire – led by Sara Khan, a British Muslim woman on a mission to empower Muslim women to challenge the inequalities facing them.

The two groups have intervened in the case to ensure the court considers what is at stake here – especially for minority women and girls.

In the context of this school, separate is not equal. We wouldn't dream of regarding racial or sexual orientation separation in the classroom as legitimate ­– we wouldn't even be having the conversation ­– let's not lower the bar for gender segregation in order to accommodate religious customs and practices.

As their intervention will make clear, "the growing practice of gender segregation in education is not a benign development. It has a social and political history that can be traced back to the Rushdie Affair when religious fundamentalists sensed an opportunity to seize education as a battleground and a site on which to expand their influence."

Perhaps just as troubling as the current ruling is Ofsted's refusal to argue in court that the reason for segregating in this way was that the school's religious ethos viewed girls as inferior. It is inconceivable from what Ofsted acknowledges having observed at the school that they cannot have realised this.

The interveners were denied the opportunity to make an oral statement in court, but thanks to the intervention, these arguments will now be considered as part of the appeal.

As the intervening groups have warned, "Ultra-conservative and fundamentalist gender norms are seeping into the everyday life of minority communities".

UK law must protect young girls from 'educators' who seek to treat them as second-class citizens, yet this case risks becoming a precedent for the segregators.

It's shameful that our education system allows and encourages the religious segregation of pupils in the first place. To allow such gender segregation within those faith schools would be even more egregious ­– and a disaster for future generations of British girls growing up in Muslim communities.

Sex education: schools’ religious ethos may ‘limit’ pupils’ knowledge of LGBT facts and contraception

Sex education: schools’ religious ethos may ‘limit’ pupils’ knowledge of LGBT facts and contraception

News | Wed, 12 Jul 2017

More than 50 faith leaders have warned that schools' ability to teach relationships and sex education (RSE) through a faith ethos could undermine its accuracy and inclusivity.

In a letter in the Guardian, figures from churches and synagogues across the UK argued that schools must "actively promote" the acceptance of LGBT people and factual information about birth control within sex education.

Several educational experts – such as Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, who chairs the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education – were among the signatories. Others included Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.

They congratulated the government for ensuring that relationships and sex education will soon be taught in all schools in England. The Children and Social Work Act, which requires all secondary schools in England to teach RSE, became law in April. The Act also requires the education secretary to publish regulations and statutory guidance on RSE provision.

But the letter added that the requirement was "open-ended and undefined". RSE could therefore be "hijacked by those who wish to overlook topics such as accessing confidential sexual and reproductive healthcare services and contraception, as well as those who wish to limit pupils to what they consider to be religiously acceptable notions of gender and sexual orientation".

The National Secular Society is part of the Sex Education Forum and has long advocated religiously neutral age appropriate education about sex and relationships.

Stephen Evans, NSS campaigns director, said: "This is an important reminder that sex education should be based solely on a rational assessment of the interests of pupils and wider society. We have seen the harm, particularly for LGBT pupils, where a religious agenda is imposed on RSE.

"It's good to see civil society leaders – religious or otherwise – standing up for children's rights, and against those who seek to impose their theology in the classroom."

The letter urged the government to ensure its guidance requires schools "to actively promote the acceptance of LGBT people and provide, for pupils of sufficient maturity, factual information about contraception and abortion". It said the "paramount" concerns should be to ensure RSE is inclusive and pupils are well-informed.

Photo credit: © Shairyah Khan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

The greater the religious fervency, the greater the homophobia

The greater the religious fervency, the greater the homophobia

Opinion | Fri, 07 Jul 2017

On Pride weekend, NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood highlights the interconnectedness between the fight for secularism and equality for LGBTQ people.

Homosexuality, or at least homosexual activity, especially by men, has been a long-standing subject of extreme opprobrium by religious "authorities". The first state-sanctioned death penalty for male same-sex intercourse was reportedly around 500 BCE - with the adoption by Persian Jews of the "Holiness Code" of Leviticus.

In the 15th Century, Pope Nicholas V enabled the papal Inquisition to persecute men who practised sodomy.

According to Law, Religion and Homosexuality "the regulation of sodomy by the medieval ecclesiastical courts [in England] can be seen as enforcing a moral intolerance rooted in Christianity". (Until the mid 19th century such courts had jurisdiction over everyone, not just clergy as now). In 1553, as Henry VIII broke off with Rome, 'buggery' became a criminal offence punishable by hanging. This was largely in an endeavor to wrest power from these courts.

The fervor of Christian opprobrium can be gauged from the phrase Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum (that horrible crime not to be named among Christians).

The Catholic Church's total opposition to homosexuality continues despite the headline grabbing but vacuous "who am I to judge?" papal comments. It still officially describes both gay people and homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered". Having said that, there seems in some countries at least (and even in the Vatican itself) to be a widespread disregard for Vatican pronouncements. So maybe that hostility is rather less than might be imagined, perhaps also because – ironically – so many priests are gay. According to one report, it is a third in the US.

There is little doubt that such attitudes promulgated by the churches and repeated in their schools have been a major factor in fanning homophobia in the populace. Broadly speaking, the greater the religious fervency, the more homophobia there is; in the UK that certainly applies to Northern Ireland.

Worldwide, there are 76 countries where homosexual acts remain illegal, 14 (mainly Muslim) where they are a capital offence; and in around five of these executions are carried out.

In the UK, partial decriminalisation of homosexuality for England and Wales was enacted in 1967, but it took around a further fifteen years for this to be extended to Scotland and finally to Northern Ireland.

Some may be surprised that the 1967 decriminalisation was supported by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the other bishops who voted, but in many ways the Church of England then was quite liberal. Who could have predicted that, nearly fifty years on, the bishops would have turned out in force to vote en bloc against same sex civil marriage, especially as public opinion (even among Christians) had become hugely more liberal in the meantime? What a contrast to all Muslims in the German Parliament voting for same sex marriage.

This is further evidence if any were needed of the Church's bishops being 'the most orthodox since WWII', as the current Primate was keen to brag to his international, and very orthodox, colleagues, not realising one of them would leak it. I believe that this growing orthodoxy has been strategically planned by the evangelicals, caring nothing that it takes the Church keen on claiming to be a national church in the opposite direction from the populace and many of its congregants.

This orthodoxy may make Dr Welby fractionally less unpopular in the developing world, much of which sickeningly homophobic.

Several experts on Africa have told me that American evangelical money is poured into Nigeria to bolster anti-gay religious teaching and influence. In 2013, Nigeria even introduced a Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Human Rights Watch said "The law has led to an increase in extortion and violence against LGBT people and imposed restrictions on non-governmental organizations providing essential services to LGBT people in Nigeria." Mind you, they are not the first Christians to do so; the first law against same-sex marriage was promulgated by the Christian emperors Constantius II and Constans, in 342 CE.

But the Church of England is playing a dangerous game and the tables are turning somewhat. After centuries of the Church persecuting gay people at every turn, disputes over LGBTQ related issues could fatally split the Anglican Communion, and certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury's increasingly nominal presidency of it. But even greater damage may await at home.

The Church hierarchy's attitude to same sex marriage is unsustainable. The United Reformed Church, and the Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) Church accept same-sex marriage as does its US equivalent. Several other UK churches are contemplating it as are numerous other Anglican churches worldwide.

As a secularist, I support the right of the Church to dictate its own doctrine without state interference. But that does not bar me from saying such policies cause needless misery, nor to express the opinion that as both congregants and public opinion become ever more liberal on gay issues, the hierarchy becomes ever more isolated, as the recent report of Church in turmoil at Synod demonstrated. Their opposition clearly isn't boosting much-need attendance especially among the all-important young. I would not be the first to suggest that the same-sex marriage battles could combine with child abuse and the dispute over women bishops to create a perfect storm causing a three dimensional schism.

For all these reasons I have thought for decades that the fight for secularism and equality for gay people are interconnected, and I still do. But when I was much younger I had thought that the fight for secularism would be won before that for gay equality. I was wrong. Why?

While the UK population has become hugely more secular, religious forces have become more powerful. The need to take notice of growing and assertive forms of Islam, partly because of security concerns, has in its wake reinvigorated Christian leaders' ambitions. Minorities have segued from being identified by their countries of origin to being united around their religion (and sometimes segregated on religious lines), attend single-faith religious schools and are now represented by their religious leaders, not all of whom subscribe to so-called British values. And then there is the procession of religious PMs, nearly all of whom have been keen to give religion a leg up at every turn – but I must admit have generally been supportive of the advancement of gay rights.

Largely because gay people have courageously come out, the population's innate humanity has warmed to them and then discarded the gratuitous cruelty of previous generations.

Nevertheless, rather similar to the Church hierarchy's growing dilemma on same-sex marriage, the chasm between our religion-centred public institutions and the growing secularity of the population must eventually become unbridgeable.

The challenge for all of us is to mobilise that steadily secularising population, non-religious and religious alike, and persuade them of the benefits to us all of a more cohesive and equal society that only secularism can deliver.

Bradlaugh lecture to mark end of NSS’s anniversary celebrations

Bradlaugh lecture to mark end of NSS’s anniversary celebrations

News | Fri, 14 Jul 2017

A lecture at Manchester Art Gallery will pay tribute to the National Secular Society's founding president Charles Bradlaugh on 9 September.

European court backs Belgium’s ban on face veils

European court backs Belgium’s ban on face veils

News | Tue, 11 Jul 2017

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Belgium's ban on wearing face veils in public does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Malaysian state votes to allow public caning for breaching sharia code

Malaysian state votes to allow public caning for breaching sharia code

News | Thu, 13 Jul 2017

Legislators in Malaysia's northeastern state of Kelantan have voted to allow the public caning of those who break strict Islamic laws.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Wire, on the Government's bias against legislation to prevent caste discrimination. Our vice-president, and spokesperson for Scotland, Alistair McBay had a letter in the Herald regarding the recent Orange Order marches and Buckfast tonic wine.

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