Gender segregation and rape culture
Last week, the row over gender segregation in UK universities blew up and became a national story with international interest. You can read the details about what transpired there on the website of the London School of Economics Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. I also recommend the videos on Channel 4’s site about the protests against gender segregation. (Follow this Facebook page for updates on this ongoing issue).
I’d like to briefly address why gender segregation takes place in particularly Islamist events, and what is wrong with it. Besides the fact that most people in today’s world intuitively understand how “Separate but equal” propaganda is a tool for oppression – just look up the history of that phrase, and how it has been used in different times and places to justify unequal treatment of people – there are some specific things wrong about segregation when it’s applied to gender within a patriarchal religious context.
Islamist Dogma Objectifies Women
Islamists – those who use Islam not as a personal faith but as a political tool – promote gender segregation throughout Islamic communities all over the world. While this is a problematic practice everywhere, it is particularly insidious in public spaces like in taxpayer funded Universities where anyone can attend the seminars, lectures, and conferences that take place throughout the year. The opposite of gender segregation – what we would call general, everyday intermingling of people of all kinds, and of all genders, in the public sphere – is called ‘free-mixing‘ by Islamists. And this is marked as a taboo among them. The reason why ‘free-mixing’ is discouraged among Islamists is because of the presumption in their patriarchal dogma that women are temptations to men (fitnah) who can endanger men’s faith by sexually tantalizing them with their appearance, their voice, their presence.
Modesty Doctrine Demeans Women
This view is demeaning to both women and men. It is demeaning to women because it reduces women to sexual objects. Women are seen, in Islamist circles, as inherently being objects of sexual desire, and that is why they are to be kept hidden away. This is the idea behind the ‘modesty doctrine‘ that exists in all patriarchal religious and cultural belief systems: women’s value is defined essentially by their sexual and reproductive functions. This is why Islamists also enforce the idea of the ‘mahram’ upon women. A mahram is a male who is allowed to see the woman because he is not allowed to marry (have sexual relations with) her, or because she is already married to him. A mahram is usually the woman’s father, brother, husband, or son. In Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace, a woman may not travel outside her home without being accompanied by a mahram. Women who are caught with non-mahram men have been punished in Saudi Arabia, and other places where the strictest versions of Islamic shariah laws are applied.
Modesty Doctrine Demeans Men and Promotes Rape Culture
This view is also demeaning to men as it reduces them to helpless creatures unable to exercise control over their sexual arousal. Ultimately, the modesty doctrine is part of rape culture and it blames the victims of rape and sexual assault as having brought the violence upon themselves by being temptations and sexual objects that men’s uncontrollable sexuality just could not stay away from.
The idea that women must cover themselves and/or hide themselves from men in order to protect themselves from male sexual desire is why it is deemed to be the woman’s fault if she is harassed or raped. Truth is that women are harassed and sexually assaulted no matter what they wear or don’t wear. The problem lies in the way that rape is normalized and seen not to be the fault of the rapist but the fault of the one who was raped. In no other crime is the victim blamed as much as in sexual crimes. And this is especially true in cultures and communities where women are reduced to being sexual objects and men are reduced to being sexual predators.
The modesty doctrine that prescribes shaming, covering, and hiding women’s bodies does not protect women. It only deflects the problem and further reinforces rape culture by putting the blame for sexual violence upon the (usually female) victims. The implicit statement of the modesty doctrine is: “Women who cover up are ‘good’ women who belong to a man; women who don’t cover up enough are ‘bad’ women who are available to any man.” The idea behind the modesty doctrine is that a woman is valuable or worthy of respect only if she belongs to a man (in Islamist dogma, to a mahram).
Instead of promoting the ill-conceived modesty doctrine, proper sexual education, and an open-minded atmosphere where men and women would be allowed to learn about sexuality, its risks, and its rewards, would be far more helpful in reducing sexual repression and preventing sexual assaults.
Congratulations to the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and all the supporters of egalitarian public spaces who came out and helped protest UUK’s misguided ‘guidance’. UUK has since withdrawn its apparently sexism-promoting guidelines. This is a beautiful moment for everyone who supports equal rights for all, and for secularism – the separation of religion and state – in public spaces.
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