Thursday, March 24, 2016

When Social Justice Goals Clash. The Case of the Annual Dinner of LSE's Islamic Society

This case from the London School of Economics (LSE) is worth a longer post, because it highlights the possible clashes between feminism and various other social justice concerns, in particular the avoidance of anti-Muslim bigotry, and what happens when such clashes do occur.  The case is this:

The Islamic Society of LSE, a religious student organization, organized its annual dinner as gender segregated, beginning with different contact telephone numbers for women and men who wanted to tell that they were coming.  The room with laid-out dinner tables was bisected by a seven-foot-tall screen, with women sitting on one side of the screen and men on the other side of the screen.

Several British newspapers then wrote about the event, some with pictures of it, all taken from the male side.  The head of the LSE Student Union, Nona Buckley-Irvine, a feminist,  attended the event and had no problem with the gender segregation.  This is what she said:

‘I had a lovely time at the dinner and barely noticed the separation between men and women,’ she told MailOnline.

She added: ‘Where groups would like to organise themselves in a way that fits with their religious, cultural and personal beliefs, both genders consent, and there is no issue I have no problem.
‘It is not for me to decide what is right or wrong with our Islamic society and they are one of the most inclusive societies I have ever worked with.’
It is that second paragraph that deserves strong scrutiny.   

First, how can one tell that both genders consent?  A "gender" cannot consent, only individuals can, and those individuals who do not consent probably didn't turn up at the dinner at all.  Indeed, they might have left the Islamic Society's activities earlier because of the segregation of men and women:*

However, other students were less positive about the segregation, one telling the MailOnline it had intimidated some Muslims who want to celebrate their faith without gender segregation.
‘It’s been going on for quite a while,’ the LSE undergraduate said.
‘I have a friend who says she’s really intimidated because she doesn’t believe in gender segregation at all so she stopped going.’

Muslim women are not a hive mind, all thinking alike, and opposing and supporting views can be found on this issue.  But the view of marginalized religious or ethnic communities far too often assigns one opinion to the whole community, thus marginalizing certain individuals inside those communities.

Second, why is it not for Nona Buckley-Irvine to have opinions about the Islamic Society's gender segregation practice?  I get that she doesn't have the power to do anything about those principles, but she certainly has opinions about related questions.  From her tweets:

In what sense are these tweets relevant here?  Because the American Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case essentially argued that "separate cannot be equal."  Race-segregated school systems in the US resulted not only in race segregation but also less resources and less power for the black schools.  Race segregation put an upper limit to what blacks in the United States could achieve.  The same consequences follow from gender segregated systems, even if those who support them don't explicitly strive for that outcome.

If I had to make a guess about her statement concerning the Islamic Society segregated dinner party, it would be that she doesn't want to fan the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry, of the kind the Daily Mail demonstrates in its take of the dinner where the same article discusses radicalized UK Muslim terrorists.

But there should be a difference between that honorable stance and the refusal to criticize cultural norms which have the vaguest of religious justifications**.

That's my opinion.  What are the views of the "other side?"

The statement from the LSE's Student Union states:

There has been significant media coverage of LSESU Islamic Society’s Annual Dinner which was held last Sunday. The event has been successfully held every year and celebrates the achievements of students as well as commemorating those who are graduating.
Media coverage has singled in on ‘segregation’. Voluntarily, the society had different seating areas for women and men in line with religious requirements. This falls in line with the Equality and Human Rights guidance on gender equality and we are confident that there has been no breach of the law.

What does "voluntarily" mean in this context?  The Islamic Society Facebook page conversations assert that there was an area where men and women could mingle, but it's unclear whether any tables were set up in that area.  Without equal integrated seating, the segregation cannot be viewed as "voluntary."  That would require a valid choice to exist, one which allows the person to participate in all the activities while seated and eating in the integrated area.

The Islamic Society itself has created an answer which addresses mostly the dreadful treatment of the event in the Daily Mail, in particular the way that newspaper's article seems to hint at gender segregation as the first step in how terrorists are created.  But it also says this:

The report in The Daily Mail spoke against the seating arrangement by suggesting that it may be in violation of the university’s policy on gender equality. As a society, we reject any suggestion that our Annual Dinner contravened the LSE’s Equality Policy. The guidelines explicitly state that segregation is permissible both in the event of religious ceremonies and when it is voluntarily chosen. The curtain was in fact set up at the request of our members and the layout of the room was necessary for the facilitation of three prayers, a spiritual sermon, and Quran recitation. Furthermore, the seating arrangement at the event was not mandatory, as there were numerous spaces around the venue that allowed men and women to mix freely. It is important to note that the coverage of the event was entirely false and written with an islamophobic agenda.

The question, then, is a) whether the occasion was religious and b) whether the gender segregation was voluntarily chosen.  I have already written about the latter question.  In terms of the former, I cannot quite see where there is space for the requisite kind of prayer, what with tables everywhere, but perhaps the pictures don't show those spaces.  But even if the occasion was religious and not an annual gala dinner, couldn't the screen have been removed after the prayers were over?  In any case, note my footnote * which shows that the segregation policy has not been applied as narrowly as the above quote suggests.


*  While reading the Facebook site of the Islamic Society, I noticed this post from before the annual dinner gala:

Thus, the gender segregation is not something that was initiated at the time of the dinner party and may well have caused some women (and men) to leave the society.

**  The Koran references to gender segregation are to prophet Mohammad's wives, not to all Muslim women, and they specifically apply to a period when he and his family were staying in a military camp.  In other words, it would be completely reasonable to argue that gender segregation is not a required aspect of Islam.