London, Jan. 12: A teenage student is mounting a challenge to universities in an attempt to ban gender segregation at Muslim meetings on campus.
Radha Bhatt, 19, has demanded in a legal letter that Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, admit that the guidance on segregation it published last November was “unlawful”.
UUK’s guidance cited a case study to justify its policy of allowing the “voluntary” separation of men and women for religious purposes.
It was forced to withdraw the case study last month and to review its guidance after David Cameron said he wanted to ban segregation at universities. Human rights campaigners accused UUK of promoting “sexual apartheid”.
Bhatt, a first-year history student at Cambridge University, is not Muslim. She considers that the UUK guidance is a threat to women of all backgrounds.
“I don’t see this as a Muslim issue,” Bhatt said. “Once you allow one religious group to impose its discriminatory values, it’s like a slippery slope, and others will follow.
“Universities are secular, neutral public bodies that perform public functions, and for them to allow others to impose such discriminatory values is really dangerous.”
Bhatt added: “I feel that religious sensibilities are taking precedence over basic equality laws and universal human rights protocols and I think equality must always trump religious belief. Of course religious belief is important, but equality trumps it.”
She has raised her concern about UUK’s guidance in a letter sent through her lawyers to Nicola Dandridge, its chief executive. She demanded an explanation regarding the “confusion caused by the original version of the guidance” and “new guidelines confirming that segregation as anticipated in (the) case study is unlawful”.
Dandridge has previously said UUK was advised by a human rights lawyer that its guidance about managing events involving speakers on campus was “lawful”.
A UUK spokesperson said the organisation “has always maintained that enforced gender segregation at university events is wrong. However, where gender segregation is voluntary the law is unclear”. It is working with senior legal counsel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) “to clarify the position for both universities and students”.
The EHRC said last month that the type of segregation proposed by UUK was “not permissible” under gender equality laws.