A debate, 'Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?' took place this Saturday night at UCL, hosted by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). Lawrence Krauss, for the atheists, was lined up to debate against Islamic lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis. Richard Dawkins takes up the story:
A few days ago, I had received a tip-off from somebody who had made an inquiry about tickets: ‘We contacted the organizers today and learnt that "as for seating, it is according to when the ticket was booked and gender”.’
“Gender”? Seating at a public event in UCL organized by gender?
I passed this on to Lawrence, with the suggestion that he might consider withdrawing from the whole affair. He immediately asked the organizers, who assured him that the audience would not be segregated by sex, and Lawrence agreed to go ahead.
When he got to the meeting he discovered that actually the seating in the auditorium was indeed segregated by sex. There was a men’s section, a women’s section, and a “couples” section. Did the “couples” have to produce a marriage certificate, one can’t help wondering? And, while wondering such things, what would have been the reaction of the audience if they had been segregated, as in apartheid South Africa, into a black section, a white section and a “coloureds” section?
When Lawrence realised that he had been duped, he immediately secured permission from the organizers to announce that – contrary to previous instructions – people could sit wherever they wanted. Three young men, described by Lawrence as nice gentle guys, then got up and moved to the women’s section in the back. “In the back”, by the way, may resonate with those who remember Rosa Parks in Alabama in 1955. Security guards then tried to eject the three young men. Lawrence went to find out why, and the guards told him the three were a “threat”. Threat to whom, one wonders?
You can see Krauss's protestations here, filmed by Dana Sondergaard.
More here at HuffPo.
Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels has been following the story here, and, particularly here, where she quotes a letter that attendee Chris Moos wrote to the UCL authorities. Some key points as set out by Moos:
1) The organisers clearly and repeatedly violated UCL’s Equality and Diversity policy. Not only did they enforce gender segregation, but five security guards of the organiser intimidated and attempted to physically remove audience members who refused to comply, falsely claiming that these attendees had been disruptive. Both male and female audience members felt intimidated by the actions of the organiser’s security guards...
2) Separate entrances were in place for women and men, although ‘couples’ were allowed to enter via the men’s door. Several members of the organiser’s security team directed people to stand in either the male or female queue based on their sex, both at the entrance to the building and the lecture theatre. Signs pointing to “men” and “women” areas were in place. There were no signs for a mixed seating area, and attendees were guided by the guards to either the “female” or “male” area. Only attendees who insisted not to be separated were guided towards a “mixed” area, which only comprised two rows.
3) A woman who identified herself as a Chemistry teacher at UCL said the segregation had been agreed with UCL. She also stated, that “I’m actually booking this room on behalf of UCL Chemistry, I’m Dr Aisha Rahman”. Dr Rahman repeatedly refused two male attendees access to the “women’s” seating area. When asked if the event was segregated another security guard said: “It’s slightly segregated.”
4) There were only two UCL security guards on site, and they at first declined to help two audience members who were being denied access to the “women’s” seating area. They said that the only instructions they had received were to follow the instructions of the organisers. They specifically told the attendees who wanted to sit in the woman’s area to comply with the instructions of the organiser. Only after pointing the UCL security guards to that fact that they might be complicit in a breach of UCL’s Equality and Diversity policy, they reluctantly agreed to “look into the issue”.
So, University College London, founded early in the 19th century as England's first secular university, an enlightenment alternative to the strict religious orthodoxies of Oxford and Cambridge, dedicated to admitting students regardless of their religion and to admitting women on equal terms with men, is, in 2013, hosting meetings where gender segregation is enforced.
Jeremy Bentham will be spinning in his grave. Well, he would if he had a grave.
Update: a press release by concerned students at UCL.
Update 2: UCL have now officially banned any further events involving iERA.