• Gender Segregation and the Scourge of Identity Politics


    A few years ago, I had an extended argument on Facebook with the author of an article accusing Richard Dawkins and Maryam Namazie either of being racists or of perpetuating racism. The argument seems to be as follows: 150 years ago, anti-Catholic sentiment had its roots in anti-immigration or racism. Dawkins criticising Catholics in a speech “stirs up” these “old prejudices”. As for Namazie, her anti-Islam focus is (according to Meadway) reminiscent of the English Defence League (EDL). It’s an association fallacy: Dawkins is anti-Catholicism, so he is guilty of the same racism of historical anti-Catholics. Namazie is anti-Islam, so she is guilty of the racism of the notoriously anti-Muslim EDL members.

    This rather irritating line of argument has reared its head once again, as we are confronted with the issue of gender segregation in UK universities. Of course, gender segregation is wrong – in my view the speaker should be able to request that men and women sit apart, but nobody should be compelled to comply. Just imagining whether we’d tolerate the same with race segregation is enough to convince me of this. This is a principle. It doesn’t matter who is making the demand – female/male, black/white, atheist/Muslim/Christian and so on.

    As it happens, most (and possibly all) of the guest speakers making these demands are of the Islamic faith. However, while some might see this as a way to single out and attack Muslims, it is perfectly possible to oppose gender segregation on the principle alone, just as I would support the right of racists (say) to express themselves freely under the law. My reason for supporting it wouldn’t be that I like racists, but rather that I agree with the principle of free expression; similarly I oppose gender segregation out of principle and not out of hatred for Muslim people.

    This is the principled approach to political issues. However, there is another approach, and that focuses primarily on identity. Roughly put, there is a way of viewing the world that sorts everyone into two camps based on personal characteristics. If you’re white or male then you are on Team Privileged and if you are non-white, female, or trans-gender then you are on Team Oppressed. You can mix and match these to have some privilege and some oppression – this is sometimes given the ostentatious name intersectionality. Muslims are of course on Team Oppressed and so the gender segregation issue has caused some cognitive dissonance among fans of identity politics, as they have to decide between exclusively supporting one oppressed group and another (I’m reminded of a paradox in intersectionality I’ve never heard an answer to: when equally oppressed minorities disagree with each other, which one is right?). Specifically, they have to choose between attacking sexism and attacking ‘Islamophobia’.

    There were two notable articles using something like this approach that popped up late on in the debate. The first by Priyamvada Gopal laments that Student Rights “managed to bring ‘gender segregation’ at some campus events to national attention despite evidence that events in which the audience is so segregated are not numerous.” Student Rights is an anti-‘extremist’ organisation, seemingly right-wing and libertarian (though I’m unfamiliar with them). According to Gopal, after Universities UK retracted their advice:

    The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.


    Leaving aside that the director of Student Rights, Raheem Kassam isn’t white (though, alas, he is male), I don’t see much evidence that Student Rights were the ones leading the way (and at the time I was totally unaware of their existence despite keeping a keen eye on the issue). Even if they were, it shouldn’t really matter. It wouldn’t make gender segregation acceptable, it wouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t oppose it, and it wouldn’t mean that by agreeing with some of the views of Student Rights, we agree with all of them, or that we have the same motivations.

    The second article, by Laurie Penny, calls the issue a “non-controversy”, “white men stirring up anti-Muslim prejudice to derail debate on western sexism”. The suggestion is that there are feminist issues worth fighting for, but this isn’t one of them. It is less important, and ‘derails’ the debate. Penny also alleges that “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.”

    The article wildly misses the mark, even aside from her following Gopal in greatly downplaying the roles of many people in the debate. Nobody is “demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against ‘radical Islam'”, at least not those at the forefront of the fight against gender segregation. It is possible to support all of those campaigns, make no claims about ‘radical Islam’, and yet still oppose gender segregation at university events. It is not a “non-controversy” – as has been mentioned many times by many people, if this was about race segregation there would be uproar. And what made it worse was Universities UK’s advice which (at the time) seemingly excused gender segregation.

    Their trouble is this. Gender segregation is wrong, and should be opposed. There are good reasons for thinking this. But under identity politics, it is unclear whether we should oppose it. Do we oppose the sexism or the Islamophobia? Gopal and Penny seem disturbed by this fact, since it seems like such a cut-and-dry issue, and need to rationalise this lack of clarity with ‘whataboutery’ to make their identity politics ‘fit’. They see the fightback against gender segregation as ‘imperialist’, ‘colonialist’, or (as Gopal puts it) “an intolerant Western ‘liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.” This is where ‘intersectionality’ and identity politics tend to lead us. We stop considering the actual issue at hand, and instead think about who is making the arguments, their credibility proportional to how oppressed their identity group is. It should also be noted that the singling out of Muslims by groups like the EDL (as criticised by Gopal and Penny) is also identity politics, just applied in a different manner.

    This is why I find the principled approach much better. It doesn’t require a generalisation about ‘Muslims’, ‘racists’, ‘white men’, ‘women’, ‘minorities’ and so on. That isn’t to say that identities don’t matter at all – they might, but often the principle works generically. We can consider each case on its own merits – gender segregation is wrong no matter what the gender or race of the guest speaker might be. It doesn’t matter who alerts us to the issue – we can make the decision for ourselves and for our own reasons. We can offer arguments that don’t rely on ad hominem associations and accusations of hypocrisy.

    This is the liberal approach, and it really is liberating on many different levels.


    Category: EthicsFeaturedReason and ArgumentReligionSecularism

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.
    • I completely agree that we need a principled approach rather than an identity-based approach, but remain uncomfortable with the argument from analogy to racial segregation. We can imagine (or recall) bathrooms segregated by race, and we can easily imagine what the reaction would be if someone called for a return to that practice. The fact is that our culture is already practicing gender segregation, in at least a few contexts, and is vastly more comfortable with gender segregation than with racial segregation at this point in time. If we asked people to justify the segregated bathrooms, locker-rooms, changing rooms, etc. we’d hear much of the same purity-based justification that we hear from ultra-Orthodox Jews and super-fundamentalist Christians about keeping men and women apart in other contexts.

    • So, for us to be consistent, would you say we should move to a system of unisex bathrooms, or allow gender segregation at the request of guest speakers at universities?

    • I would argue that there are practical & privacy related issues that exist in changing rooms & bathrooms that don’t exist in lecture halls. Of course, this is subjective; for some, having to give a lecture to a gender-mixed audience could be as offensive as showing their naked body to someone of another gender or inadvertently being the one to see. But you also have to balance their desires against that of the audience, who I would argue should be granted the right not to be segregated if they so choose.

    • Shatterface

      The fact is that our culture is already practicing gender segregation, in at least a few contexts, and is vastly more comfortable with gender segregation than with racial segregation at this point in time. If we asked people to justify the segregated bathrooms, locker-rooms, changing rooms, etc. we’d hear much of the same purity-based justification that we hear from ultra-Orthodox Jews and super-fundamentalist Christians about keeping men and women apart in other contexts

      I think a compromise can be made. The speakers should agree to talk to a mixed audience so long as the audience don’t perform bodily functions on the chairs that normally justify the privacy of segregated bathrooms.

      It’s amazing how often apologists for gender segregation defend it by making analogies to taking a shit.

    • Shatterface

      People don’t have to give lectures. It’s a choice – and if they don’t like the rules of the institution they can go elsewhere.

      People have to go to the toilet.

    • I see you’ve avoided the changing room “analogy” in favor of the argumentum ad scatalogia.

    • If I had to choose between the two, I’d choose total gender integration as the social default, even though that means I’ll have to get dressed before I hit the gym.

    • It is to your credit that you see the subjectivity here. Some people are comfortable with public nudity, others uncomfortable with anything less than hijab.

    • But a person’s subjective taste is not necessarily defensible ethically or even rationally. Not so long ago I wrote about “things we won’t be able to explain to the grandkids”. I mentioned boxing as something society ought not to condone or applaud. But subjectively, it feels “normal” to me, as a sport. My feeling about boxing is an artifact of the culture I grew up in, but it is nonetheless wrong because it is incongruent with my ethical values.

    • I don’t think that it is possible to take a principled approach without including everything relevant, and that includes information about groups, races, classes, sexes, and so on. “Separate but equal” took a lot of people in, even people that weren’t bigots because it sounded OK… on principle. Of course, it wasn’t OK, not even on principle, but to know that you need to also understand and consider the dynamics of systemic racism present.

      I am not disagreeing, I think this is what you mean. The activists that focus on identity are making the case that that contextual understanding is lacking. They might be right, in particular points. But I agree that for some it becomes a social cosmology belief system that they believe determines the merit of any position.

    • That is sort of what I’m getting at. The subjective feelings of discomfort which lead to gender-segregated changing rooms, locker rooms, dormitories, etc. also need to be called into question, not only the subjective feelings of discomfort of those from non-Western cultures.

    • Sure. Though, I do feel the analogy of gender to race is frail. Sex (and gender to the degree that it holds influence) entail reliable psychological differences. The same is not true of race. Women will always [statistically] be more physically vulnerable to certain crimes, for example. More money should be spent on medical research as it pertains to females because pregnancy is an important health topic that does not apply to males. There are women’s shelters but not men’s- this is a problem that needs remedy, but I would not be concerned that the numbers are unequal.

      These sorts of issues call for different treatment along (typically) gender lines.

    • Richard Sanderson

      It was interesting that a bloc of FreeThoughtBlogs regulars rallied around Gopal and Penny via Alex Gabriel’s apologist whataboutery piece. Ophelia Benson and obviously Maryam were of the opposite opinion, and rightly pointed out the actual facts and history of these protests. Tis a pity Benson (who is usually so quick to attack a fellow atheist) didn’t produce a hit piece on Gabriel. I would have enjoyed that bit of in-fighting.

      I would also like to have known PZ’s stance on the matter. I sense some of the post-modern claptrap he’s recently fallen for could easily result in him attacking those protesters as Islamophobes, just like his spiteful attacks on Anne Marie Waters.

      There is an overall split in the secular/atheist/liberal world – those that stick to humanist, liberal, secular values (Maryam, etc.), and those that are prepared to throw some of those values under the bus when it comes to, ironically, calling out religious privilege, or the bigotry of a person who happens to be from a minority/oppressed group/wrong sex (like Gabriel). It is the kind of issue that could tear FreeThoughtBlogs apart.

      These battles are going to be fun to fight.