THE SEGREGATED SEATING “CONTROVERSY”: A moral crusade for “gender equality” or civilisational insecurities?

Gender segregation at events has made the news again. Not because it is taking place at any other ‘normal’ locus of segregation, including the exclusive men’s clubs, women’s only pools, gender-segregated gyms or segregated “public” schools. Rather, it is in the news because it occurred at an Islamic event where both genders participated voluntarily in a practice rooted in Islamic tradition. This is not the first time this issue has been raised and it certainly will not be the last; not because the self-styled secular libertarians care about the plight of women, but because what underpins and motivates their propaganda campaign is more fundamental still. What drives such protagonists is a problem with how Islam and Muslims seek to organise themselves in a way markedly different to that which secular liberals and the Capitalist authority that represents them would have them do, not because Muslims are merely different, but because they offer an alternate way of life that has proven itself qualitatively and quantitatively over the current western order that dominants the world.

Accommodating segregated seating at Muslim events was first made an issue of publically in April 2013, when a journalist from The Australian newspaper attended and reported(i) on a Muslim organised event at Melbourne University. A barrage of criticism from both the right and left side of the political spectrum followed, including and most notably Tony Abbott’s description(ii) of it as “a leap back into the dark ages” and “un-Australian”. The Liberal party even went as far as publishing a piece on their website(iii) calling for the practice to be “condemned”, stating that they will “not tolerate any culture or society in Australia that refuses to accept this fundamental principle of gender equality.” Left wing academics jumped on the bandwagon with The Australian seeking comment from University of Melbourne Gender Politics professor Sheila Jeffreys, who described(iv) it as a “form of subordinating women” and called for “great outrage about this,” likening it to “apartheid” and going on to express her disdain for religion, saying “religious ideas that so blatantly make women into second-class citizens are not worthy of respect. They should not be allowed to undermine people’s justified rejection of discrimination against women.”

Even those who are generally a little more sympathetic to Muslims on the left side of the political spectrum– while acknowledging that there was disproportionate attention on the Muslim community – affirmed that voluntary segregated seating arrangements “reinforces the lower status of women(v) “.

Only last month the practice was again under the spotlight at the University of Western Sydney’s Parramatta Campus, when another journalist from News Ltd’sDaily Telegraph newspaper reported(vi) on the seating arrangements. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Barney Glover, was lured into public debate, expressing(vii) that “students were wrong” and buying into the argument that voluntarily segregated seating is a form of “sexism” by boasting that the University will continue to host speakers that deal with “sex and religious discrimination in Islam”. As if these subtle insults were not enough, he further went on to speak for Muslim youth and their outlook on life, stating that “their primary hopes and dreams are ordinary aspirations around employment and education ¬– they are not fixated on geopolitics or theology”.

One would be naive to think that such a controversy was conjured up by Fourth Estate (the media) just to “sell more papers”. The issue of segregation is one that has been brought into the spotlight by various Western governments in supposed connection with “extremism”. In September 2014, the British Home Secretary Theresa May stated in her extremism policy speech(viii) that “extremists infiltrated state schools and sought to impose a hardline curriculum on children. School pupils were told about the dangers of “white prostitutes”, the call to prayer was broadcast over loudspeakers, music was banned, boys and girls were segregated, and trips to Saudi Arabia were arranged for Muslim-only children”. Relevantly, her speech ended with her saying that “We must confront segregation and sectarianism. We must face down extremism in all its forms. We must stand up for our values. Because, in the end, as they have done before, those values, our British values, will win the day, and we will prevail.”

Here too, moves by the Australian government have begun to focus on Islamic practices and teachings in schools, including gender segregation. The Minister for Education, Christoher Pyne, was reported(ix) to be “worried by reports about the curriculum taught at schools, segregation of male and female students and movements of senior staff.”

The latest public episode on the issue has again been carried by the media. Alison Bevege, also a journalist, attended a regular Muslim event where speakers from Hizb ut-Tahrir were to discuss the impending invasion and bombing campaign of Iraq and Syria by the American coalition. Like most things Islam and Muslims in the media, headlines were generated on the back of lies and inaccuracies. In this case, the media and Tony Abbott objected to an “international speaker” from Hizb ut-Tahrir speaking at the event, leading to talks of banning and “red carding(x) ” hate preachers. There was, of course, no such international speaker. Other journalists present, such as The Sydney Morning Herald’s Tim Elliot, tweeted(xi) about the fizzle of it all, describing it “about as sinister as a primary school cake stall.” SBS’s Antoinette Lattouf also covered the event and tweeted(xii) frequently during proceedings, with no objections to the seating arrangements nor any mention thereof by those present.

Curiously, Ms.Bevege subsequently published a widely criticised opinion piece(xiii) in The Daily Telegraph, and along with fellow right-wing publication The Australian, misreported(xiv) the use of the word Takfeer during the event (a word used to excommunicate people from Islam). Infact, participants were responding to the Takbir, a cry which encourages people to praise God loudly in unison at gatherings. Ms. Bevege herself in the end acknowledged(xv) : “However if you say they are shouting Takbir and not Takfir I will accept your word for it; the two sound similar”. In a similar vein, Ms.Bevege was taken to task online(xvi) for misleading the speaker when he asked if she was from any Media, her answer being an unmistakable “no”.

It is not only these sorts of peculiar incidents surrounding the event and her blatant misrepresentations that raised eyebrows. Ms. Bevege also holds grotesque views about what should be done to Muslims generally, at the altar of which her liberal crusade is conveniently forgotten as she advocates just about every “illiberal” approach to dealing with “radicals” and “Islamists”. Her views are indicated in her National Security Legislation submission to Parliament. In the September 2014 submission(xvii) , she writes, among other things, that:

• “The Islamist threat has flourished in Australia only because freedom of speech has been harmed.
• “Islamist fascism needs a specific response which might look something like this:
– Mandatory jail terms of 20 years (no parole) for Islamists caught fighting foreign wars. Specifically Islamists, with the word “Islamist” written into the Act.
– Denial of prayer rooms, korans or visits from Islamic preachers for prisoners in Australian jails. Access for other religions to continue unimpeded.
– Instant revocation of Australian citizenship for Islamist Jihadis with dual citizenship caught fighting in foreign wars, with the word “Islamist” written into the Act, to apply only to Islamists.
– Instant, non-negotiable refusal for any Australian visa application or citizenship application for any foreign relatives of Australian Islamists caught fighting overseas.
– Protect and strengthen free speech by legislating that Australians have the absolute right to criticise, debate and question religion – which is a system of ideas and not a race.
– Introduce a licensing system for Imams and Sheikhs who seek to lead prayers in Australia. Those who advocate the imposition of Sharia Law in Australia to be denied licenses.”

These sorts of meanderings should rightly inform anyone seeking background into characters such as Ms. Bevege and her supposed moral crusade for “gender equality”. And they should also inform the analysis of those looking for places where they find encouragement for such campaigns of vitriol, exaggeration and lies. This place is, of course, none other than the Australian Government and its own hysteria and hype around Muslims. In a crudely symbiotic way, the Government’s rhetoric has given ample room for both the sincere and the sinister to add their voices to a narrative that places Islam and Muslims as the problem at a practical and “values” level. First it was “terrorism”, then “extremism” and now “radical Islam” – a byword for any aspect of Islam that these sinister voices and Government ministers deem to be apposite to ill-defined “liberal” values.

The broader thrust of this “debate” which positions Islam as an illiberal culture may be explained by looking at how the West universalises a very particularly and peculiarly European experience with the Christian churches. The centuries-long traumatic schism between politicians, reformers, Enlighten thinkers and the Church was similarly played out through polarising wars and conflicts, leading eventually to an situation whereby the State would control the temporal, while the Church continued to look after the “spiritual needs” of people. These developments were not replicated in the Muslim world, where as late as the 20th Century and despite problems of its own, the Ottoman Caliphate continued to provide an example of governance based centrally on religious prescriptions.

Western politicians, however, including Australian ones, are often frank in their desire to see Islam also go through its own “Enlightenment”. As early as 2006 Tony Abbott uttered words to this affect, stating(xviii) that “there never seems to have been the Islamic equivalent of the Enlightenment. Islam doesn’t seem to have a well-developed concept of pluralism, and the separation of church and state. And pluralism and the separation of church and state are central to modern western society. So, this is an issue and it’s something that all of us are going to have to work through together.”

The treatment of women in pre-‘Enlightened’ Europe exemplifies the broader experience Europe seems to have had with the Christian Church(es). The Church considered women inferior by nature and by law, with clergy linking such views to divine texts. Whether women had a soul was itself a question infamously debated. It is hardly surprising that such views led to the mistreatment of women. Using similar modalities of logic, certain races were also mistreated and as a result “segregated” away from (supposedly superior) white Europeans. One might suggest that in today’s Western imagination, segregation is associated with the discrimination, mistreatment and inferiority as it was used to hide away the “inferior” gender and races in the past. This acutely negative view of segregation thus arouses torrents of emotive speech and explains much of the civilizational chest-thumping when it comes to critiquing Islam’s treatment of women. The West’s own crimes against women and indeed other races, may well inform what seems curiously more like an insecurity than it does anything else. Indeed, it is also a most unwarranted universalisation of a particularly European experience, from which modern western civilisation emanates.

Islam’s history vis-à-vis women, meanwhile, is markedly different. Whether it be the well-known statements of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) or the verses of the Qur’an, the notion of masculine “superiority” over an “inferior” is a misnomer. This is not to be confused with faux notions of “equality”; Islam’s view of genders doesn’t claim this to start with. Rather, it seeks a symbiosis and complementarity between the genders leading to a society founded on a harmonious family unit: the very basic building block of society.

It was this attitude towards women and an appreciative attitude to their contributions in society that saw Muslim women prosper in fields of scholarship and teaching, the most divine and important of fields in Muslim public life. Famously, 1000 years before women in Europe or the greater west, were allowed to teach at universities, Fatima Al-Fihriyya, a Muslim women living under the Abbasid Caliphate, was the first to commission a university. The biographies of hundreds of famous Muslim women scholars and teachers bear out similar lessons for their role in society and public life.

The allegations regarding the “sexism” of Muslims stem from a combination of paternalistic attitudes towards Muslims (whereby they need to be told what is better for them, even if they choose to self-segregate), the universalisation of liberal values onto a people that could hardly care less about them, and the west’s own insecurities about the mistreatment of women. Whether levelled by left-wing academics, right-wing journalists, bigoted politicians or heads of Universities, the fact is that segregation is a practice Muslims have engaged in for 1.5 millennia, and do so out of a strong conviction in Islam’s view towards the genders and their interaction in life. When accusations stemming from segregation are levelled at Muslims, it is safe to read them as indicative of something more than just an issue around seating. Not only do both Muslim men and women seek to segregate themselves on the merits of Islam’s prescription on this issue, but Muslims also reject the premise of secular liberal views as an arbiter for what is right and wrong for them, and indeed for all of humanity.

i. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/academic-calls-for-end-to-ritualised-humiliation/story-e6frgcjx-1226629597535
ii. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/abbott-condemns-melbourne-university-over-sex-segregation-at-islamic-events/story-fn59niix-1226630024655
iii. http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2013/04/26/coalition-condemns-gender-segregation-melbourne-university
iv. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/academic-calls-for-end-to-ritualised-humiliation/story-e6frgcjx-1226629597535
v. http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/04/26/when-sisters-are-sent-to-the-back-of-the-room-ask-questions/?wpmp_switcher=mobile
vi. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/radical-group-hizb-ut-tahrir-segregates-males-and-females-at-uws-muslim-group-meeting/story-fni0cx12-1227355751307
vii. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/uws-segregation-of-men-and-women-seen-at-islamic-event-will-never-happen-again/story-fni0cwl5-1227361936082
viii. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/09/theresa-mays-speech-on-terrorism-and-extremism-full-text-and-audio/
ix. http://www.skynews.com.au/news/national/2015/06/02/islamic-schools-face-government-scrutiny.html
x. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-08/abbott-flags-red-card-system-hate-preachers-visa/5797750
xi. https://twitter.com/timelliottsmh/status/520494111816568832
xii. https://twitter.com/antoinette_news/status/520494697790185472
xiii. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/islamic-fascists-unveil-their-hate/story-fni0cwl5-1227090395649
xiv. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/islamist-push-with-wests-values/story-fn59niix-1227090679510
xv. https://twitter.com/uthmanb/status/522278632928972800
xvi. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/islamic-fascists-unveil-their-hate/story-fni0cwl5-1227090395649#social-comments
xvii. http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/National_Security_Amendment_Bill_2014/Submissions?main_0_content_1_RadGrid1ChangePage=2_20
xviii. http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2006/s1777444.htm

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