Academic calls for end to ‘ritualised humiliation’

Originally published in The Australian by Rachel Baxendale, April 26th 2013.

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.”

During the event, which had a predominantly Muslim audience of about 250, a small number of men sat in the “women’s” section and were not prevented from doing so. No women sat in the “men’s” section.

Gender segregation was also encouraged at an information session for prospective Australian Islamic Peace Conference volunteers held by the Islamic Research and Educational Academy at the university’s Public Lecture Theatre on March 10.

Australian understands the practice has been encouraged at many similar events held at the university in recent years.

On Tuesday, the university was made aware of these events and asked about its policy on gender equality and whether it would consider prohibiting gender segregation at events held on campus.

A spokeswoman said yesterday the lecture had been held by a non-university organisation and run as an external event.

“The organisers are a not-for-profit organisation involved in charity and community projects,” she said.

“This organisation has previously booked venues at the university and we have received no complaints regarding their events. The university routinely makes its facilities available for hire to external clients when spaces are not being used for teaching, learning and research.”

In March, University College London banned the Islamic Education and Research Academy from participating in events on its campus after an investigation found it had tried to enforce segregation at a debate that month.

On April 16, the University of Leicester launched a similar investigation into an event hosted by the university’s Islamic Society, stating that if segregation was found to have been encouraged, it would ensure there would be “no recurrence” of the practice.

University of Melbourne gender politics professor Sheila Jeffreys said she was shocked to learn that this “form of subordinating women” was taking place on an Australian university campus.

“There needs to be great outrage about this,” Professor Jeffreys said. “It is a Rosa Parks moment . . .

Making women sit at the back in lecture theatres is sexual apartheid. This is a new practice in Australia, whereas apartheid against black Americans was an old practice. But it should be challenged strongly so that it goes no further.

“Religious ideas that so blatantly make women into second-class citizens are not worthy of respect. They should not be allowed to undermine people’s justified rejection of discrimination against women.”

Professor Jeffreys said the events at the University of Melbourne were part of a “wider trend” that was seeing women’s equality rights eroded under the mantra of religion and culture, even at the level of the UN.

University of Melbourne student union women’s officers Amy Jenkins and Mercedes Marsh declined to comment until they had the opportunity to meet with their Women of Colour Caucus on Wednesday.

Subsequent requests for comment have not received a response.

Next week, the union’s women’s department will mark the National Union of Students’ Blue Stocking Week, touted as “an opportunity for women across Australia to celebrate how far we’ve come since the early days of female enrolment, and to contemplate how far we have left to go”.