By Imtiyaz Razak –
As a human being first, and Muslim second, I strictly oppose the segregation of any kind: class, gender, sex, ethnicity, and you name it. I have been following the recent developments related to segregation of lectures along gender line in the UK. Accounts suggest that British Universities allow segregation “if the segregation represented the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the hosts, separate seating could be upheld.”
Whether the decision the university took with regard to segregation is correct, I truly do not know. But I would like to share my experiences in seeing female students class seating both in China and the US, the two big countries where secularism rocks the society, and some notes on women agency and developments.
The classes that I have taught both in China and the US are mostly filled with non-Muslim students and some classes, female students dominate class population. I found that female students both in male students dominated and female students dominated class rooms, mainly non-Muslim women many times choose not to sit next to male students. They would either prefer to sit behind the row where male-students sit or keep significant distance from male students. Of course, there are no requests either from schools or from me as far as class seating are concerned. But I often find female students tend to sit separately from male students.
I sometimes wonder as to why they do not sit next to male students because in both countries Muslims are not majority and secularists’ thoughts dominate state and its institutions as well as other institutions such as colleges. In other words, it seems like students practice voluntary segregation and they seem to be happy about their choice. I didn’t forces my students against their choice and will not do it. I remember when I was teaching at Nanjing University, one female student responded to me when I asked her “are you a Muslim because you do not sit next to male” Her response, I still remember, “ I don’t like to sit next to boys because I am not comfortable with sitting next to boys.” This young girl was from Nanjing and educated in mix-gender school from kindergarten till the university. According to her, she always chooses not to sit next boys. I also experienced similar tendency in high schools I taught in Nanjing. Female students tend to like separate seating in the same classroom.
The point is that women autonomy or agency is not all about going against one’s wish and rights. If a woman has right to sit next to man by her own choice, the same woman has the right to seek separate seating as long as there is no force is being applied either directly or otherwise on her. If autonomy would empower woman for self-determination, such autonomy should allow women to seek all forms of voluntary choices as long as choices do not go against the goals of journey. In other words, if a woman goes to college to pursue education, she should be allowed to either sit separately or sit with male. The question should be focused on her education: is she pursuing her education.
Studies suggest that Muslims are falling behind education. The World Bank report on education reform in North Africa and the Middle East concluded “the quality of education in the Arab world is falling behind other regions and needs urgent reform if it is to tackle unemployment. The report said unemployment in the Arab world averaged 14%, which is higher than other areas in the world, except Sub-Saharan Africa, with the Palestinian territories coming highest with nearly 26%.” Another study carried out in January by the Tunis-based Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization found that 30% of the approximately 300 million people in the Arab World were illiterate.
With respect to women education, they account for more than 50% of the Muslim population but their education has not been a priority. The main reason why a large chunk of Muslim women are not literate is lack of schools and colleges in the areas where there is a higher concentration of the Muslim population. Girls are enrolled in nearby schools and are not sent far off to study due to safety reasons.
Lack of proper public transport only works against any girl child’s desire to study. Also, my communications Muslim parents in Sri Lanka suggest some fears related to mix seating. These fears may sound silly and unwarranted, but different society has their own different priority and those need to be respected.
For any women, for that matter Muslim women, the major target should be winning education to seek upward social mobility. Education often leads to seek better social sources and upward mobility. Therefore, social forces need to create equal and better conditions for women to compete education. Studies repeatedly suggest that non-existence of healthy and strong Middle class among Muslims across the boarders. This is clearly dangerous, because the middle class is key to greater social and political reforms. Education is one key passage to embrace upward economic mobility. Hence, societies should encourage Muslim women to pursue education rather than directly or indirectly encouraging measures that would progressively weaken Muslim women desire to pursue education.