Trouble reading this email? View newsletter online.

Newsline 28 March 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

Secular courts should not rule on the truth or otherwise of religious teachings – judge

Secular courts should not rule on the truth or otherwise of religious teachings – judge

News | Fri, 21 Mar 2014

A British judge has said that it is never right for a secular court to rule on the truth or otherwise of religious claims, as he throws out fraud case against the Mormon Church.

Bishop wants to withhold communion from Catholic MPs who vote against doctrine

Bishop wants to withhold communion from Catholic MPs who vote against doctrine

News | Fri, 21 Mar 2014

The Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, has said in an interview that Catholic politicians who voted for same-sex marriage should be denied Communion.

Diversity? No, the Law Society’s Sharia guidance has created division

Diversity? No, the Law Society’s Sharia guidance has created division

Opinion | Thu, 27 Mar 2014

Charlie Klendjian, secretary of the Lawyers Secular Society, argues that the Law Society, a secular organisation representing solicitors in a secular legal system, has gone beyond its remit and created division with its Practice Note on sharia wills.

A couple of weeks ago, on the front page of the Law Society Gazette, the Society's former president and current chair of its equality and diversity committee Lucy Scott-Moncrief called attention to the "woeful underuse" of women's talent in the legal profession ('Brain drain' fear as diversity stagnates, Gazette 10 March 2014).

Seventy two hours later, on 13 March, the Law Society issued a practice note on "Sharia succession rules".

These following provisions of that guidance, at section 3.6, ought to give any equality and diversity campaigner worth their salt some pretty serious food for thought:

"The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class. Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised."

"…illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs."

It's not exactly girl power, interfaith cohesion and happy families, is it?

On 18 March my LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman condemned the Law Society for issuing its practice note.

The national media picked up the story and by 23 March the Sunday Telegraph went so far as to lead with the headline "Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs". That same day the LSS issued a statement strongly condemning the Law Society and calling on it to withdraw its guidance, and we launched an online petition. For a round-up of the key media coverage, including my lively radio debates, see here.

There has been much debate since the practice note was published about what, if anything, has changed in legal terms.

The Law Society has said its practice note has not changed the law. The LSS agrees with this. At no point has the LSS said that the law has changed.

So what's the problem?

Well let's try and understand what the Law Society is actually giving guidance on. It is giving guidance on Sharia law. Sounds reasonable, surely? Well not really, because this is no ordinary law. As the practice note states at section 1.5 when defining the terminology it uses:

"Sharia – the code of law derived from the Quran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed.[…]"

This is an important point in itself: the Law Society is giving guidance on theology, and this is simply not appropriate. The Law Society represents all solicitors in England and Wales, which means it represents solicitors of all faiths and none. It is beyond the Law Society's remit to give guidance on theology. It is akin to the Guild of French Polishers outlining best practice on teeth whitening.

The Law Society is a secular organisation representing solicitors in a secular legal system. It would not and should not give guidance on the Torah, the book of Revelations, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Guru Granth Sahib, and nor should it give guidance on Islamic theology. For this reason, if nothing else, the decision to issue the practice note is utterly absurd.

By issuing the practice note the Law Society has created an assumption, whether it intended to or not, that Sharia law is a credible and respectable legal discipline just like any other within the English legal system. Furthermore, the detailed technical provisions at the beginning of the practice note concerning domicile potentially create a misleading impression that the focus of the guidance is perhaps foreign jurisdictional issues, but this is not its focus. The focus is the application of Sharia law within the jurisdiction of England and Wales. It's not for the Law Society to generously give Sharia law – which has the status of theology in this country – the credibility of a legal discipline within our jurisdiction.

It gets much worse. As you can see from the wording I have reproduced at the beginning of this piece, the Law Society's guidance (on the subject that is beyond its remit) is guidance on how to utilise an ancient religious code which is fundamentally discriminatory as far as English law is concerned. It is fundamentally discriminatory to women, it is fundamentally discriminatory to non-Muslims, it is fundamentally discriminatory to "illegitimate" children (how nice to see that phrase make a long-awaited comeback, incidentally), and it is fundamentally discriminatory to adopted children and children who are considered to be of a different faith.

Subject to noble statutory protections which safeguard the rights of a deceased's dependants, under English law if a testator wants to incorporate into a will ancient religious rules which specifically deem men more worthy than women, and Muslims more worthy than non-Muslims, then he or she is free to do so. Testators had that freedom before this practice note and they continue to have that freedom now. Nothing has changed. And whilst it would clearly be inappropriate for the testator's advising solicitor to be so frank, external observers are free to call out this harsh testamentary behaviour for precisely what it is: sexism, misogyny and religious bigotry.

I fail to understand why the Law Society should go out of its way to give its blessing to such discriminatory practices, for that is precisely how the Law Society's practice note will be perceived inside and outside of our profession – regardless of the assertion by its president Nicholas Fluck that the Society is not promoting Sharia and that any suggestions it is are "inaccurate and ill informed".

The president also said:

"Our practice note focuses on how to do that [distribute assets in accordance with Sharia], where it is allowed under English law. The law of England and Wales will give effect to wishes clearly expressed in a valid will in so far as those wishes are compliant with the law of England. The issue is no more complicated than that."

Move on, nothing to see then? No, not yet. The Law Society is legitimising, normalising and sanitising – or at the very least being seen to legitimise, normalise and sanitise – the distribution of an estate in accordance with the fundamentally discriminatory provisions of Sharia law. By extension, the Law Society is legitimising, normalising and sanitising Sharia law more generally, with all the toxic side effects this generates for women, for non-Muslims, for apostates, for homosexuals and indeed for Muslims themselves. This is wholly unacceptable, and I urge members of the Law Society to resist it.

Would the Law Society give its members guidance on other ways to achieve discriminatory objectives in their will? This point is rather eloquently covered by "Rob", who commented on The Lawyer's coverage of this story as follows:

"I don't think (please correct me if I'm wrong) that the LSS have denied the existence of freedom of disposition under English law. That is not the issue here. The issue is whether it is appropriate for a regulatory body in a supposedly secular society that respects diversity to issue guidance on how to comply with a body of rules/beliefs which many argue, and which at least objectively appear to be, fundamentally discriminatory.

"No one would argue that if a Muslim instructed his solicitor to draft a sharia compatible will that the solicitor shouldn't do so, of course he should. Equally, if a racist EDL member wanted a will under which any grandchildren who weren't white, or a homophobic client (who belonged to an anti-gay group of some kind) a will under which any grandchildren who grew up to be homosexual, received no inheritance, then of course the solicitor should again draft the will in accordance with the client's wishes. However, it would be entirely inappropriate for the Law Society to issue guidance on how to draft wills so as to be acceptable to a racist or homophobic group. As such is it appropriate for it to issue guidance on drafting wills in compliance with another set of (arguably discriminatory) beliefs simply because the beliefs stem from a religion? The LSS suggest not and I would suggest that's not an unreasonable stance to take."

Ignore Rob's reference to the Law Society as a "regulatory body" and ignore his assumption that a solicitor would necessarily be competent to advise on Sharia law, because he makes a very worthwhile contribution to our debate: it would be unthinkable for the Law Society to issue guidance on how to facilitate the discrimination Rob describes in his comment. The fact that the discrimination described in the Law Society's guidance "stems from" religion does not stop it being discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination. It's really as simple as that.

The Law Society has argued that it is merely responding to "demand" for Sharia wills. Don't be deceived by this apparently innocuous argument because it is a frightening one. It suggests our cherished and hard-won legal protections against discrimination, which are thankfully an established feature of our magnificent legal system, can be thrown to the wild dogs of supply and demand. Would the Law Society respond to "demand" for guidance on incorporating homophobic and racist provisions in a will? Would it respond to "demand" for provisions specifically enabling non-Muslims to discriminate against Muslims?

The Law Society concedes at section 1.2 of its practice note that:

"There are specific differences between Sunni and Shia rules on succession. These differences are not covered in this practice note…"

Coolly and bureaucratically remarking that there are "differences" between Sunni and Shia Islam earns the Law Society the gold medal for Understatement of the Year 2014. Yes, there are indeed "differences", as anyone who occasionally thumbs through a newspaper will confirm.

Will the Law Society in time produce different practice notes for different branches of Islam? By the Law Society's own standard, presumably all that is necessary is the requisite "demand"? Surely if "diversity" – as that term is so creatively interpreted by the Law Society – is such a good thing, then we need as much of it as possible?

By issuing this practice note the Law Society has enshrined into its official guidance documents a damaging assumption: it has created the assumption that Muslims are a monolithic block who are clamouring for Sharia law. It has created the assumption Muslims seek to live under inferior rules to the rest of us. As my LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman notes, this is the "racism of lower expectations".

Many liberal and secular Muslims, within these shores and beyond, are fighting a daily battle, often quite literally, to escape the clutches of Sharia law, and this guidance sells them out in an instant. Muslims who do want to live in accordance with what they consider Sharia law are free to do so but only insofar as this is compatible with English law, be it in the area of wills and succession or elsewhere. And it's worth recording that Muslims have far greater freedom to practice their faith as they individually choose to in the United Kingdom than perhaps anywhere else in the world, including – or especially – in Islamic states. This sobering fact ought to be an effective antidote to the constant and shameful accusations of racism or Islamophobia that are instantly generated when one dares to criticise Sharia law.

Having stumbled into the theology debate, by section 5.2 the Law Society folds its cards and realises it must now outsource further guidance to the experts. It calmly informs its by now bemused members that:

"Local Sharia scholars are a useful source of information and may be contactable via the client's mosque."

And with this the Law Society gives a ringing endorsement to Islamic scholars, some of whom will be progressive and some of whom will be anything but. When exactly did it become the Law Society's business to bestow upon theologians some kind of quasi-legal status? Answer: on 13 March 2014.

In constructing the defence of their practice note on the fact that the law has not changed, the Law Society fails to understand the wider social and cultural significance not only of its guidance, but of its own special place within our legal establishment. The Law Society is an important body. Its practice notes are not binding but (section 1.4) "They represent the Law Society's view of good practice…You are not required to follow them, but doing so will make it easier to account to oversight bodies for your actions".

In responding to its critics the Law Society fails with flying colours to understand that its practice note will be perceived as an endorsement not only of Sharia law wills, but of Sharia law more generally, and this is a misjudgement of monumental proportions. English law has – and crucially it must be seen to have – primacy over Sharia law. In its breathtaking naivety the Society fails to understand just how quickly "guidance" on Sharia wills becomes for some an assumption, or an expectation, or community pressure, to have a Sharia will. In short, the Law Society's response to its critics has been to display precisely the type of behaviour many ordinary punters might expect from the representative body for solicitors: technical, academic, dismissive, aloof, and missing the bigger picture in quite spectacular fashion.

In the space of just seventy two hours the Law Society highlighted the unequal treatment of women in its profession, and then it gave guidance on how to use English law to use a medieval religious code which is fundamentally contradictory to English law. What a thoroughly modern interpretation of "equality", and how very "diverse" indeed. Or perhaps the term should be divisive.

The Law Society's practice note on Sharia succession rules demeans liberal and secular Muslims, it demeans women, it demeans children, it demeans non-Muslims, it demeans the very term "diversity", it demeans the equality and diversity provisions of the Solicitors Code of Conduct, it demeans solicitors, it demeans the Law Society, and it demeans the English legal system – and so it demeans every single one of us.

As a lowly member of the Law Society I ask its president – I urge him – to draw a line under this fiasco and withdraw this disturbing practice note without a moment's delay.

Charlie Klendjian is the secretary of the LSS. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the LSS or NSS.

Why it would have been invidious to put the Mormon Church on trial

Why it would have been invidious to put the Mormon Church on trial

Opinion | Thu, 27 Mar 2014

Terry Sanderson clarifies the threat to freedom of religion and belief when secular courts rule on theological matters.

Last week we reported a decision by a judge at Westminster Magistrates' Court not to hear a case of alleged fraud against the Mormon Church because he considered that Tom Phillips, the man bringing it, was trying to manipulate the court. He was also strongly of the opinion that a secular court should never rule on theological matters.

Mr Phillips claimed that as a former member of the Mormon Church he had been defrauded of his money because the Church had peddled lies to him in the form of its doctrines (such as, there were no deaths on earth prior to 6,000 year ago, that the whole human race descended from two people who lived 6,000 years ago, etc,. etc).

He wanted to take the leader of the Church to court to prove that the doctrines were lies and that his money had, therefore, been taken from him under false pretences.

The judge said that no jury should be put in a position to decide whether religious claims are true or not and I agreed with him. I said it would set an "invidious and dangerous" precedent.

The reaction to that remark was fairly strong. Many people commenting on the story thought that the Church should, indeed, have been dragged through the courts, made into a laughing stock and then be made to pay the money back to Mr Phillips, and anyone else who felt they had been similarly duped by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

One commenter on Facebook wrote:

"So here we have the truth; the religious community can say anything they want whether it is the right to abuse children and women or to kill non-believers; to persecute any minority they choose to; to orchestrate hate campaigns against anybody 'different' or even to build these hideous 'faith schools' that brain-wash young minds into believing their sick lies. Anyone who supports this ludicrous ruling is betraying reality, denying truth and abandoning their freedom. It is ironic that NSS whilst supporting this obviously biased judge is running on the same time support for trimming the wings of faith schools, making their selection processes less restrictive and the prosecution in a FGM case. Those professing religion must only enjoy that right so long as they do not cause harm to others, believers or not."

Another commented:

"So fraud is permissible if it's in a religious context? The law will just turn a blind eye to that? The courts will create religious autonomy from the law, in order to uphold religious autonomy and freedom of religion?

"That's wrong, and fundamentally unjust. Justice is blind, which is supposed to mean all are accountable to the law regardless of position of influence or lack thereof, regardless of wealth or lack thereof, and regardless of religion or lack thereof.

"The Judge is right insofar as saying secular courts can't rule which religion is 'correct', or which religion is the 'correct religion', but they can and do judge matters on facts. Religions, like the church of LDS, make money by duping people into donating with erroneous claims, this is fraud. It shouldn't be exempt of being judged so because the organisation in question happens to be a religious organisation."

While another comment said:

"Not sure I entirely agree with the judge and Terry Sanderson on this issue. Yes, there should a space for people to make claims about what they believe, and they shouldn't always have to substantiate those claims, but if they start taking money off people or affecting lives in other ways on the basis of their claims, there must be a legal route to claiming loss or damages. Otherwise, anyone could declare that any claims they make are part of their religious belief and avoid any prosecution."

I think anyone who looks at the (relatively recent) origins of the Mormon Church will agree that it was started by a con-man, Joseph Smith, whose intention was to make money from anyone he could convince to follow him. He was more successful than he could ever have imagined (although he was shot dead by sceptics before he could enjoy the full fruits of his efforts).

On the basis of highly dubious claims (that an angel led him to golden plates on which were written the Book of Mormon. Nobody else ever saw the golden plates or the magic glasses needed to read them) he soon had a following.

Nowadays there are an estimated 14.5 million Mormons who ostensibly believe Joseph Smith's claims and have built their lives and communities around it.

Imagine if their current leader had been taken to court in London, that his religious doctrines had been subjected to forensic examination and made to look stupid (think Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind). A jury might well say, yes, it's all a load of cobblers, give him his money back.

But what comes after that? Would it then be illegal for the Mormon Church to levy tithes on its willing members who truly and honestly believe the doctrines of the Church? Would its missionaries be stopped from going door-to-door evangelising because their claims had been proved in court to be untrue?

How long before someone took the Archbishop of Canterbury to court to demand that he prove his claim that the virgin birth actually happened or that the resurrection truly occurred? How long before an imam was in the dock being ordered to prove that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse? And how long before Richard Dawkins had his collar felt to prove that evolution is undeniably true?

This is what the judge feared would happen.

The law can intervene when religious people's beliefs are put into action and adversely affect the lives of others – when, for instance, they deny their children medical treatment because it is "against their religion", or if someone said they were an Aztec and wanted to sacrifice seventeen virgins every springtime.

You could not stop people believing in their heart that medical treatment is inferior to prayer or that crops yield better if they have been fertilised by human blood. You can prove in court that, scientifically, it is not true but you cannot order people not to believe it.

Many people believe in FGM, but it is still against the law. You can prosecute them for doing it, but you will not shake their belief in its efficacy or necessity.

To decide on the superiority or otherwise of one religious doctrine over another is an invidious task to give to a court. It can only lead to civil unrest and, indeed, injustice.

In nations where one religion is regarded superior to all others (as in many Islamic countries) the result is persecution, murder and gross restrictions on civil liberties.

Our secular justice system should play no part in creating such a hierarchy. The NSS's whole ethos is opposed to any such hierarchy, which is why one of our main aims is to disestablish the Church of England.

It might seem like great entertainment to see religious leaders in the dock, trying to justify the, often outrageous, claims they make – and looked at objectively all religions are based on outrageous claims. But the result would be to reinforce those claims in the minds of the true believers, who would react with violence at any attempt to restrict them or humiliate them.

And anyway, you can't restrict people's beliefs – they go on inside their heads and no-one but the individual can truly know what they are. We've heard of plenty of clergy people who make a living from the church but who, in their heart, don't believe a word of what they preach.

Attempts at the mass "re-education" of those who do not share the accepted views of the leadership have been made in the past by the likes of Pol Pot and Stalin. Mass murder ensued.

I'd rather go with Queen Elizabeth the First's conclusion: "I would not open windows into men's souls." Despite the fact that no such windows exist, you get the idea.

Controlling what people believe is not the same as controlling what they do. And if someone freely chooses to follow a particular belief system – as Mr Tom Phillips once did - but then become disillusioned with it, they should accept their mistake and move on.

Gender segregation: Universities and Student Representatives continue to fail their students miserably

Gender segregation: Universities and Student Representatives continue to fail their students miserably

Opinion | Wed, 26 Mar 2014

In reflection of the anniversary of the first publicised case of forced gender segregation at a British university, Chris Moos gives an update on the present situation within British universities.

This March 10th marked the anniversary of the first publicised case of forced gender segregation at a British university. At the event at University College London, several students, including myself, were physically assaulted and intimidated for sitting in the 'wrong' section. After we brought this issue to the attention of UCL, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) was banned from holding further events at UCL.

The repercussions of this incident, which resulted in the publication and subsequent withdrawal of the guidelines legitimising gender segregation by the representative body Universities UK, can still be felt in British universities today. After our protest in December, policy makers across the political spectrum positioned themselves clearly against gender segregation, including PM David Cameron, Labour shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, and SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell. Despite this apparent victory of a coalition of the progressive left, secularists, human rights advocates and women's rights activists, including many Muslim women, the scale and scope of gender segregation at universities in the UK has hardly changed.

New evidence, which I will present here, suggests that gender segregation is not only tolerated, but often legitimised and institutionalised by the very universities and student representatives that are supposed to uphold and promote equality for all.

Firstly, the main organisers of gender segregated events on UK university campuses, like the aforementioned iERA, as well as other extremist organisations like the openly racist and anti-Semitic Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Muhajiroun of hate preacher Anjem Choudhary and the ultra-conservative Federation of Islamic Student Societies (FOSIS), which regularly hosts and promotes misogynistic, homophobic and violence advocating speakers, continue to operate on campuses, largely unchallenged by universities and students' unions. Interestingly, the very same organisations that work from a basis that explicitly rejects the notion of women's rights, like to portray gender segregation as a "right of Muslim women", despite reluctantly admitting that this claim does not even have a theological basis in Islam.

They are not alone. A poll by the Times Higher Education revealed that out of 46 universities that responded, 29 do not have prohibitions against gender segregation in place. Only a few universities, like Wolverhampton and Staffordshire, explicitly ban segregation. The Students' Union of the University of the Arts London has opposed calls to ban gender segregation, and claims it has the backing of its university. The SOAS University "Muslim Christian Dialogue" society has issued a statement of support for "both segregated and mixed seating in any event". At the same time, an attempt to outlaw forced or directed, but specifically not 'voluntary' segregation at the University of Edinburgh, was met with fierce resistance by the student body, including claims that disallowing segregation would be "Islamophobic" and "racist". Yet, the aforementioned Federation of Islamic Students Societies, which claims to be the "Voice of Muslim Students in the UK" and to represent 130,000 Muslim students, has itself issued guidelines on how to run a successful Islamic student society. In keeping with the orthodox ethos of the organisation, those guidelines prescribe to "maintain segregation between brothers and sisters, keeping interaction between them at a minimum".

Worryingly even some elected student officials go so far as to openly advocate segregation. Joe Killen, welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths Students' Union opposes bans on segregation based on an alleged "importance of segregation in political movements." The Women's Officer of King's College London Students' Union, Shaheen Sattar, who is also a National Union of Students delegate, has gone as far as demanding that "gender segregation should be respected, if not tolerated, in institutions of higher education", as it was "firm to the principles of Islam". Despite these efforts to agitate for gender segregation, the open promotion of gender segregated events seems to have diminished slightly, with fewer university societies advertising their events as 'segregated'.

Nevertheless, a quick internet search reveals that segregation continues to take place at many universities, including Keele University, Imperial College London, Salford University, Coventry University and Lancaster University. Although these events usually escape the scrutiny of the public, next to UCL, reports of gender segregation at London Metropolitan University, Leicester University (see also here) as well as Queen Mary University of London have featured in the national media. Notably, the latter event also included Muslim women being barred from addressing the male speaker directly.

At my own university, the London School of Economics, the picture is hardly different. Despite the claims of the Students' Union that segregation would "not be allowed", the Islamic Society regularly holds segregated 'brothers' and 'sisters' circles'. This is institutionally endorsed by the LSE, who recently inaugurated new Islamic prayer rooms, next to a 'multi-faith' room for all other religious students, encouraging segregation with the provision of exclusive 'male' and 'female' Islamic prayer rooms.

Now, some Muslim scholars suggest that the provision of separate male and female praying spaces in mosques is desirable, whereas others, like the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, do not. In fact, there are numerous examples of Muslims drawing on traditional and progressive Islamic schools of thought, like the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, who actively challenge segregation and encourage the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people into acts of worship. As a place of progressivism and learning, it is hardly understandable why LSE would give its explicit endorsement to the segregation of prayer rooms to the detriment of existing egalitarian approaches within Islam, thereby side-lining progressive Muslims.

In any case, a university, especially a self-declared "secular" one, is clearly not a religious establishment. I was surprised to find out that segregation at LSE is not limited to prayer rooms. Last Friday, my friend Abhishek Phadnis and I attended the Friday prayers of the Islamic Society in an attempt to build 'interfaith' understanding and reach out to our fellow religious students. The meeting was completely segregated, with not a single woman among the 200-strong audience. This was despite of it not being held in a religious prayer space, but in an open access room that should be accessible and inclusive to all students at all times, no matter their gender.

The fact that members of staff have been found to be complicit in the enforcement of gender segregation is worrying, although not surprising. At the UCL event last March, my partner and I were refused access to the lecture theatre by an individual who identified herself as Dr Aisha Rahman and a member of staff of the UCL Chemistry Department. She said the segregation had been agreed with UCL and repeatedly refused us entry to the lecture theatre. In the face of instructions from an alleged member of staff (her employment was disputed afterwards by UCL, despite evidence to the contrary), we felt pressured into compliance.

LSE and UCL are not the only universities implicitly or explicitly condoning or enforcing gender segregation. An even more worrying example of official endorsement of gender segregation can be found at the University of Keele. On the Facebook page, students can be found discussing an event involving several religious speakers. As one of the student expresses that the Muslim speaker had displayed a "backwards mind-set" by saying that the cutting off of hands as corporal punishment was justified, and that men and women were different so must be treated as such, the university chaplain Reverend James Stewart takes it on himself to retort: "He said cutting off hands was acceptable as a punishment ONLY ONCE certain very specific, very extreme criteria were met. […] It's a cultural, not a "backward" mind-set." In the ensuing discussion, several students then go on to express discomfort about the fact that the event was ostensibly gender segregated. In what becomes clear in the following exchange, the university administration, in the form of Reverend Steward, does not only dismiss the concerns of the students, but actively defends gender segregation:

"Some cultures find it easier to stay within their gender groups, is all. […] They [Muslim women] are used to it, and feel protected in their gender roles. It does not impede their enjoyment of the event, but enhances it, as if they were more intermingled the sisters would have felt uncomfortable […] Sitting separate is not "wrong" and I will defend women to go separately if they feel more comfortable to do so […] "Many cultures do this - Sikhs in Gurdwara, many Churches in the past in the west, and now in the East. It isn't Islam telling them to do this, but their cultural inheritance. It does not abuse or disempower the women in any way, but rather the opposite. Maybe it challenges our Western expectations of what "equality" looks like, but to them it feels like being respected and valued for being a woman."

This is the most brazen statement yet of endorsement and legitimisation of gender segregation by a university administration. It is hard to engage constructively with all of the false assertions, smokescreens and fallacies produced in this paragraph. I will instead rely on the words of Lejla Kuric, one of the many Muslim women who have spoken up against gender segregation:

"A society based on equality must resist gender segregation with the same vehemence reserved for racial segregation. The provision of separate entrances for 'Brothers' and 'Sisters' to a University meeting is no less repulsive than the provision of separate entrances for 'Whites' and 'Coloureds'. […] Promoting segregation as a 'right' also prevents debate within the Muslim community and silences liberals, secularists and feminists who wish to challenge it. It tries to present as normative a conception of Islam that is misogynist and reactionary, and it seeks to marginalise those who disagree by attacking their authenticity as 'real' Muslims."

Whether it is UCL, Leicester, Queen Mary, LSE or Keele - if the aforementioned examples are a good indicator of the state of gender equality at British universities, university administrators and student representatives continue to fail their students miserably.

Chris Moos is shortlisted for the Secularist of the Year 2014 Irwin Award. He is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and the Secretary of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisMoos_

NSS Speaks Out

A blog by Sadikur Rahman of the Lawyers' Secular Society criticising the Law Society for issuing a practice note on sharia law became the front page lead of The Sunday Telegraph and included a quote from Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society. The story was then taken up by the Daily Mail and The Independent and then spread like wildfire around the world with hundreds of newspapers, from Dubai to Malta and from Singapore to the USA, featuring it.

Sadikur wrote another piece for The Telegraph to reinforce his stance after the inevitable backlash and criticism of the original blog.

This email has been sent to you by National Secular Society in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Address: 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL, United Kingdom.
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7404 3126

Please Note: Newsline provides links to external websites for information and in the interests of free exchange. We do not accept any responsibility for the content of those sites, nor does a link indicate approval or imply endorsement of those sites.

Please feel free to use the material in this Newsline with appropriate acknowledgement of source. Neither Newsline nor the NSS is responsible for the content of websites to which it provides links. Nor does the NSS or Newsline necessarily endorse quotes and comments by contributors, they are brought to you in the interests of the free exchange of information and open debate.