The Australian‘s report today on gender segregation at Islamic events at the University of Melbourne poses a dilemma. The paper reports:

“The University of Melbourne has declined to condemn gender segregation at public events held by Islamic organisations at its Parkville campus, despite its leading gender-politics academic describing the practice as ‘sexual apartheid’ and a form of ‘ritualised humiliation’.

“On April 13, a lecture entitled ‘Islamic rulings on Jihad in Syria & why great scholars’ silence’ (sic) was held in the university’s Copland Theatre by Islamic education organisation Hikmah Way. At the entrance to the lecture, attended by The Australian, signs directed ‘sisters’ to the back of the theatre, and ‘brothers’ to the front. Asked whether seating was segregated, a male attendee said: ‘It usually is here, yeah.'”

As a feminist, I object to imposed gender segregation and the ways in which some religions — not just some Islamic groups — reinforce the lower status of women. This issue is wider than Islam. For instance, I read recently that at an orthodox synagogue, a disabled women couldn’t go to services as she couldn’t access the segregated upstairs worship area (The Jerusalem Post touches on the issue here). There are other examples of orthodox sexism, and there are other religions, including Christian sects, that mandate dress standards and certain roles for women.

So my objections are much wider than the case highlighted in this story above, but we rarely hear about the other cases. The media seems to focus in on Islamic examples of s-xism. University of Melbourne gender politics professor Sheila Jeffreys is quoted strongly opposing the segregation. Her comments are over-the-top and add to the widespread perceptions and general prejudices that are levied against Islam in toto, without  understanding that its adherents are as diverse as are the adherents of Christianity.

As a child refugee of Jewish background, I remember the anti-Semitism I met as a child and it still feeds into my antipathy to prejudices against a particular grouping. As a non-believer and human-rights feminist, I do not accept religious or other beliefs as excuses for gender biases. However, this type of media coverage and the particular focus on groups who already feel alienated will not help change attitudes and practices. Constant and often uninformed public criticism tends to drive particular targets into closing ranks and holding more extreme views.

There is no doubt that certain Islamic-based societies have appalling records on women’s rights, but there are many that do not. Unfortunately, the Western powers have used the situation of women, when it suited them, to excuse invasions and criticisms. George W. Bush has used this excuse as a justification for invading Afghanistan — but allied Saudi regimes are never criticised for their equally obnoxious practices against women.

The recent American reactions to the Boston bombings and the immediate desire to wholly blame Islam — rather than question what else might have created two very disturbed young men — is a current  illustration of this problem. The religions of the shooter in Connecticut (or any of the other home-grown massacres) are not usually raised or questioned. There is no doubt that such media coverage does reinforce negative views of Islam and all those who are believers, without recognising how such biases may further fuel the extremism we all fear.

Obviously we must make it clear that this type of gender segregation, as apparently occurs at the University of Melbourne, is not acceptable. We should make it easier for young Islamic women to feel able to speak out. The article points out that some men sat with women at the back, but interestingly no women sat in the front. The segregating of women to the back is a clear indicator that this is discrimination, as they are giving women the less desirable area. So this cannot be waved away as segregation where each group gets different but equal treatment. The organisers’ practice should be raised politely with them, rather than this media “shock horror” effort.

It would be reasonable for institutions like a university to make it clear that any events, held in their spaces, even if hired, must not discriminate on the basis of gender or race. This may seem to their commercial arms a betrayal of market principles but they need to remember that the sector has responsibilities as a good corporate citizen.