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Two recent (private) Islamic forums at Melbourne University, in which women attendees were reportedly asked to sit at the back of the hall, have sparked controversy, even reaching an international audience in the World University News. Outrage and disapproval have been directed at the University for its failure to enforce its gender equality policy and to condemn these events. In reply, Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis, has offered a defence of the University’s position. First regretting that the University’s policy was not communicated more clearly to the forums’ organisers, he goes on to emphasise that religious freedom was also implicated, and that the imposition of gender equality ‘preferences’ may contravene religious rights. There is no ‘simple calculus’ for deciding which of the two must be absolute, he writes. Religious communities requiring gender separation have a right to worship according to their faith. Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act (1984) is ‘precise’; the prohibition on gender discrimination, he notes, does not affect ‘an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion.’ Both gender equality and religious freedom are also enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rights, as we know very well, ‘collide’. A clash of principles is commonplace, and there are many concrete ways in which religious freedom may conflict with other rights, including gender equality. The controversy in this instance revolved around the practice of dividing people according to sex. Both ‘separation’ and ‘segregation’ have been used to describe what happened in the forums. Surely they are not the same thing.

We need to consider what is at stake. Does a practice reinforce women’s subordination? Does it diminish women’s life-chances? Does it stunt women’s growth as human beings? Does punishment (formal or informal) follow contravention of the practice? The 'calculus' may not be simple, but these are surely the metrics. There are many instances in which gender separation is harmless on such measures. It is absurd to argue that simply sitting among other women, any more than (the standard example) wearing a head scarf, is in itself subordinating. People practice, wear, do, and enjoy all sorts of things that others don’t (I could list dozens, starting with the wearing of six inch high heels), and it is not for those others to say that they are wrong.

But segregation is another thing. It took the United States decades to understand that segregation and equality are incompatible. In the famous 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court reasoned that segregation had a harmful effect on black Americans, even where separate facilities were offered on an equal footing. The effect, importantly, was not to be measured by objective criteria or findings of tangible harm. Overturning Plessy v Ferguson (1896), which had concluded that ‘separate’ and ‘equal’ were compatible, the Court held that educational segregation generated in African Americans ‘a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.’ Desegregation was ordered, even for black children who (or whose parents) were comfortable with things as they were. Sixty years later, Brown is a landmark in subtle sociological reasoning. But the fact that, in many instances, black and white Americans still socialise apart from each other and still worship apart from each other does not mean that desegregation has failed. Nor is it, in itself, a token of inequality.

Professor Davis calls for reasoned discussion, but offers critics a stark choice: either to defend enforced gender integration in every facet of life, or to tolerate religious practices, tout court. He comes worryingly close to implying that any practice done in the name of faith should be tolerated, and that expressions of disapproval equate intolerance. He invokes the law, but incompletely; he certainly knows that some religious practices - notwithstanding anti-discrimination law - are criminalised in Australia. He also surely knows that liberalism does not require people to be silent when faced with practices they believe to be harmful. Nor should tolerance (or commercial considerations) mean that religious functions, of any sort, must be permitted in secular institutions.

Professor Davis prioritises religious freedom in the construction of his reply. He might just as easily have reversed the principal and the subordinate value: while the toleration of religious practice is a key value at Melbourne University, he might have said, so is gender equality. History is full of examples where women’s interests have been balanced away or sacrificed to other interests (usually men's), commonly styled as ‘rights’. It is regrettable that both in law and in social discourse, gender equality does not trump other rights. It is also regrettable that, here, as so often, the women are not invited to speak for themselves.

Professor Davis writes: ‘If those who criticise the university believe no gender segregation is ever acceptable, even among faith communities, let them argue so explicitly – and argue why this is a defensible imposition on personal rights.’ He might have written instead: If women who criticise the university believe no gender segregation is ever acceptable, let them argue so explicitly, and let women who disagree argue with them. Let both sides consider what is actually at stake, and weigh up whether it is indeed segregation .