For over a week now, astonished reaction has been building to the decision of Universities UK to recommend the segregation of men and women on campuses. The astonishment has been all the greater because, in a characteristic display of 21st century hypocrisy, the representatives of 132 universities and colleges clothed reactionary policies in the language of liberalism.

It could be a denial of the rights of a woman hater – or ‘representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group’, as our finest institutes of higher learning put it – to allow men and women to sit where they please. The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate.

Academics and scientists, responding on the University UK site, have rightly seen this as a significant and shameful moment in contemporary history; an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles. Even the Guardian, whose editorial line to date has been that protests against minority religious beliefs are racist, has protested.

There are many reasons to revolt against a self-negating ‘liberalism’ which says that women’s rights stop where religious prejudice begins. First, the representatives of vice chancellors are endorsing the segregation of women not because they have to but because they want to. No court has ruled that religious extremists are entitled to push women to one side and men to another. Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, tells me that she is following legal advice. This does not alter the fact that Universities UK is taking a momentous step, which goes against 150 years of struggle for women’s emancipation, without judicial or parliamentary authority.

Second, the academics are extremists themselves. They are not talking about segregating Muslim or orthodox Jewish services on campus, where freedom of religion guarantees the right of believers to behave as they wish. (Once you have made the usual exceptions for human sacrifices and the like.) They want to allow segregation at public meetings in publicly financed institutions. Or to put it another way, obscurantist clerics are trying to take over public spaces, and the universities are going along with them.

The extremism is visible in the uncompromising nature of the Universities UK’s advice. It may not be enough to have segregated areas for men and women in a hall and a mixed space for people who find the whole notion of gender apartheid abhorrent, Universities UK says. The speaker’s wishes could be paramount, however unpleasant they are.

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.

Third, academics are using a perverse notion of freedom. In normal language, you restrict my freedom if you stop me from speaking or writing. According to Universities UK, you are restricting the freedom of an extreme religious believer if you sit next to someone from the opposite sex, even if he or she is your husband or wife. Your behaviour is so outrageous it silences the believer and deprives him of his right to speak. This is akin to me demanding that everyone who hears me speak must agree with my sentiments. If they politely disagree or ask hard questions, I am a victim. I am at liberty to walk out and perhaps sue the event organisers for attacking my freedom of speech.

Fourth, the academics are being disingenuous. The example of the extremist speaker who must be appeased is, they say, just a case study – a hypothetical talking point of merely theoretical concern. They forget to mention that the main reason they are recommending segregation is because Prof Lawrence Krauss, an eminent atheist and former adviser to President Obama, and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, of the Islamic Education and Research Academy met at a University College London debate in March. Professor Krauss was shocked to find that the organisers segregated men and women. ‘Quit the segregation or I’m out of here,’ he said, after security staff tried to throw out three men who had gone to sit in the women’s section of the audience. British politeness had become debilitating, he continued afterwards.

People are not only afraid to offend, but afraid to offend a vocal and aggressive group of people. There is a segment of the Islamic community that is very vocal about this.

Spurred by his example, UCL said they could not tolerate discrimination against women, and stopped the group from holding more meetings. Universities UK has therefore sided with the Islamic Education and Research Academy and against UCL. I should add that the ‘academy’ is notorious among gay activists for hosting speakers’ who say

- Homosexuals are dropping dead from AIDS and “they want to take us all down with them”
- The Islamic position on homosexuality is “death”
- Homosexuals are “sick” and “not natural”
- “Muslims are going to have to take a stand [against homosexuals] and it’s not enough to call names.

Islamic Education and Research Academy chairman Abdurraheem Gree is of course delighted by Universities UK’s decision. He made a business case for appealing to cash-carrying foreign students by extending segregation.

‘With a growing number of Muslim countries seeing a revival in adherence to normative Islamic practices, the idea of being forced to sit with people of the opposite sex and observing the adoption of anti-Islamic policies by British Universities might well lead many to avoid choosing this country to further their education.’

Why not go further? Why not segregate all lectures at universities? Or as, I said to Dandridge, why not segregate by race?

Well she replied, Universities UK cannot recommend racial segregation because Parliament has banned it – wisely it now seems.

What about speakers insisting that homosexuals sit on one side of a hall and heterosexuals on another?

Dandridge appeared to find that notion genuinely discomforting. She did not want to see gays singled out, she said. Not in the least.

‘What’s your problem with women, then?’ I asked. ‘Why should they come last?’

‘Because,’ she replied, ‘gender difference is visible.’

So there you have it. If women did not insist on growing breasts and wearing their hair long, Universities UK would treat them with greater care.

As I spoke to her, I realised that she had no understanding that powerful groups segregate to humiliate their targets and to enforce their ideologies. One of the academic critics of Universities UK gave an example I had never heard of to emphasise the point.

In the 1930′s Poland began to enforce segregated seating in its universities, with Jewish students restricted to the left side of the lecture hall. This, of course, allowed lecturers to address and take questions only from the right side if they were so inclined.
Polish students of all religious persuasions protested by refusing to sit down in lectures. We can only hope that modern students will also protest.

Let’s hope they do. But they will protest without the support of vice-chancellors or the equally appalling leaders of the National Union of Students.

Last weekend saw the anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger on 1 December 1955 – a splendid act of defiance, which began the campaign against racial segregation in the American south. Just like the sexism of the 21st century, the racism of the mid-20th had religious apologists. Blacks lived under the curse of Ham, white churches taught. God had ordained that they should not mix with whites. Just as in today’s universities, there were soothing voices in the American judiciary, who argued that there was nothing wrong with segregation. Blacks and whites were “separate but equal,” they said. Segregation was not subordination.

Rosa Parks knew that this was a lie, and fought back. Naively, I assumed that her battle had been won. Now it looks like we must fight it all over again.