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BHA condemns Universities UK’s endorsement of gender segregation

Universities UK (UUK), the umbrella organisation for UK academic institutions, has published a report which endorses gender segregation at university events. The report, entitled ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’, sets out guidance for academic institutions for managing controversial visiting speakers. However, the report also says that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as ‘both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.’ The British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) have condemned UUK’s endorsement of gender segregation, and have written to UUK calling for a meeting to discuss their position.

The report covers the issue of how to balance freedom of speech with the need to prevent extremism, and has been published amid concerns that extremists are attempting to radicalise young people on university campuses.  However, the report’s section on gender segregation has generated the most controversy.

The section of the report on gender segregation says that universities should bear in mind that ‘concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented that ‘Universities are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.  It would be completely unacceptable if a visiting speaker tried to segregate an audience along racial lines, so sex segregation should be equally unacceptable.  Universities UK have characterised this as a freedom of speech issue, but this is misleading.  A visiting speaker’s right to freedom of speech entitles them to express their political and religious views, but not to impose these views on the audience.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

The report – External speakers in higher education institutions: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

BBC News – Universities advised on managing radical speakers: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25051838

The Independent – Freedom of speech is not an ‘absolute’, university leaders warn: http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/freedom-of-speech-is-not-an-absolute-university-leaders-warn-8957899.html

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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