The Seating Plan Crisis

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[This is not a post on gender relations in Islam but rather a dialogue on recent events]

Recently there has emerged a group of campaigners who analogise voluntary gender segregation at some UK universities to the apartheid movement in South Africa that Mandela fought against. Claiming that these events go against human rights and women’s equality, there was a protest in Tavistock Square (London) a couple of days ago where the organisers wanted to express that apartheid is not over, that segregation restricts freedom and university life and this is something that all must fight for.

However, what never fails to shock is the fact that none of these protestors are ones that would ever even consider attending such an event where there is gender segregation. To this day, there has been no enforced gender segregation in universities – the choice of where to sit in a lecture, seminar or tutorial at a university has always been up to the discretion and choice of the individual student. So where this apartheid idea comes from is baffling. No one has ever been forced to sit separately from the opposite gender during their studies at university. No one is forcing anything.

Islamic student societies are like any other student bodies at universities (e.g. from Christian, Hindu and Jewish societies to Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter appreciation societies). Societies are built upon identification of student needs that lie beyond their academic curricula, bringing together people with similar interests/beliefs and at the same time remaining happily open to anyone else who want to join them. Gender segregation, as Omar Ali from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) correctly said, is an extension of Muslim students’ faith at university. Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued that this is a threat to feminism telling women to get out of public space. If only she tried saying that to one of the many Muslim women who are organising and leading half these events in the first place. The same women who are very much integrated into the public making huge contributions to UK  and international society through medicine, law, retail, business, education and so much more. In fact, these women are making positive contributions to our world just as much as if not more than other women. So speaking as a Muslim woman myself, these comments are hugely offensive and completely negate the concept of human rights. The only people who are trying to enforce something right now are these campaigners – who want to enforce a ban on people who prefer to sit separately.

It is suspicious that these protests specifically target Muslim student societies when there are female-only gyms, classes, games tournaments, single-sex grammar schools etc. beyond the umbrella of Islam. I could not be more grateful to be part of the Ummah where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had the most dignified and respected relationship with women. With the message of Islam that he brought to mankind, women were empowered, liberated and appreciated. Through the teachings of Islam women have been encouraged to master self-esteem, confidence, education and ultimately success as are men. This is what I call equality.

“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah [charity] and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those—Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (Qur’an 9:71)

May Allah (swt) enable understanding in our society and allow us all to pursue hopes, dreams and education that will bring benefit for mankind, rather than squabbling over seating plans.

Click here for a related article on The Guardian.

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