Should segregation be allowed in British universities? Not racial segregation, but gender segregation on religious grounds? Writing for the Spectator, Nick Cohen is firmly of the opinion that it should not:

“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.”

As I understand it, this is not about the segregation of any part of a university course or research programme – but rather of voluntary meetings taking place on campus, such as those organised by student societies.

The Universities UK guidance (which has now been withdrawn) had allowed organisers to insist on separate seating for male and female attendees (as long as the women aren’t stuck at the back). Cohen describes the now unmade UUK decision 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.” He goes on to draw a direct parallel with the African-American struggle for civil rights:

“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.”

This is going too far. There are many situations in which gender segregation is justifiable, but where racial segregation would cause outrage. Furthermore, many of these apply to universities, including the provision of student accommodation, sporting activities and, of course, toilets and washrooms. Then there’s Cambridge University, which still has a few all-women colleges. Should all of those be forcibly integrated?

Clearly, it’s not gender segregation per se that’s being objected to, but religiously-motivated gender segregation:

“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.”

Well, if that’s the problem, then what about the celebration of religious services on campus? Should our universities ban forms of traditional worship that are legal everywhere else? Note that this might not only apply to Orthodox Jews and Muslims; the Roman Catholic Mass represents a form of segregation too – men and women may sit, stand and kneel together in the pews, but it’s always a man upfront, isn’t it? So are worshipping Catholics also to be kicked out – all in the name of tolerance?

If I read him correctly, Nick Cohen would make an exception for religious services: “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)” – but that’s an odd distinction for an ardent secularist to make. It presupposes that one can easily distinguish a religious service from other kinds of meeting organised by religious groups. For instance, which side of the line would a prayer meeting fall or a Bible study group or a talk by a visiting clergyman on an ethical issue?

It would be better to focus on the hard and fast lines that we can draw – between what is legal and illegal and what is voluntary and involuntary. That doesn’t mean that we have to like everything that falls within the rules. After all, that’s what tolerance is – putting up with what you don’t like.