On the Today programme this morning Justin Webb covered the decision by Universities UK to allow fundamentalist speakers to segregate women from men at public meetings.

With a characteristic disdain for accepted standards of behaviour, Universities UK refused to go on air and answer his questions. Webb had to ‘put the other side of the story’ himself. He told a Palestinian woman demonstrating outside Universities UK headquarters in central London, [1hr 36mins in] ‘What Universities UK say is, if non segregated seating is also provided, it could be all right.’

Put like that it can sound just about all right. Men and women who want to sit apart can do so. Meanwhile there will be mixed seating for students who find the notion of sexual apartheid as repellent as racial apartheid. A typically British compromise, you might say.

I am not having a go at Webb. He delivered a fine report. Nor do I blame him for not understanding the Universities UK report on segregation – the academics write as if they learned English as a foreign language in an understaffed Brussels business school. But Webb, like many others, underestimates the extremism of the leaders of our institutes of “higher” learning.

They insist that the wishes of the misogynist cleric must be paramount. If he wants sexual segregation, he must have it, regardless of the views of the audience. It would be an attack on his human rights to refuse him. As I said in my original piece for the Spectator, Universities UK is giving religious fanatics a power over the audience at a public event no other speaker enjoys. It is as if Justin Webb were to invite me on to the Today programme, and I were to say, ‘Before I appear, you must guarantee that you and the Radio 4 listeners will behave as if you agreed with my prejudices. Think carefully before you refuse. If you do, my advisers say that I can sue the BBC for attacking my human rights.’

True to form, Universities UK raises the possibility of allowing an unsegregated space for liberal students in university meetings, only to dismiss it. Here is the shameful passage in full [From page 28].

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. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.

The Today programme ought to learn that it’s always best to assume the worst when you are dealing with pseudo-leftists from the English middle class. You’re more likely to get it right that way.

To all of this Universities UK say: oh we’re just acting on legal advice. But as you can find lawyers who will say that black is white and 2 + 2 = 5, the question remains: is its legal advice any good? No one knows. Universities UK has not published its advice, and thus deprived feminist lawyers of the chance to examine it.

It admitted to me, in the days when it was talking to journalists, that it was just acting on this mysterious advice. It accepted that no court had ruled on whether speakers can impose segregation. Even without judicial authority, however, it went ahead and upheld the supposed rights of speakers with a ‘genuinely held religious belief’.

If you read the whole report, you discover a glaring double standard. When Universities UK moves on to discuss the rights of women, far more stringent criteria apply. It speculates that ‘feminism’ might be a ‘belief protected by the Equalities Act’. If it were, then maybe feminists could stop segregation. A terrible prospect, indeed. But Universities UK finds reassurance in the knowledge that no judge has ruled on the status of feminism.

‘The question of whether such [feminist] beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling.’

To spell it out, Universities UK is prepared to appease religious fanatics without a court ruling but will not defend sexual equality until a court tells it to. While I am at it, let me spell out something else. With the exception of the odd [in all senses of the word] Orthodox Jew, the speakers Universities UK wants to appease are Islamists. So it won’t be women with white skins who will be affected by this on the whole; but women with brown skins. Along with all the charges of sexism, secrecy and hypocrisy I can level at the academics, I catch a whiff of the racism of low expectations as well.

Tags: Feminism, Freedom of speech, Islamism, Law, Religion, Universities