Gender Segregation By Whose Rules?


“Un-Australian”. Doesn't the word have a retro, Howard-era resonance? With a Liberal party leader almost certainly on the verge of becoming prime minister, everything old is new again.

And there are no prizes for guessing the religious affiliation of the “un-Australians” under discussion.

“I just think it's un-Australian what's happened here and I can't understand for a second why Melbourne University would tolerate it,” proclaimed Tony Abbott. Abbott was responding to reports in The Australian that signs at a lecture held at the University of Melbourne by the Muslim organisation Hikmah Way had directed “sisters” to the back of the theatre and “brothers” to the front. It adds that “gender segregation was also encouraged” at an on-campus information session for an Islamic Peace Conference in March.

The response to the Hikmah Way meeting conflates the issue of gender segregation with gender hierarchy. University of Melbourne gender studies Professor Sheila Jeffreys called the Hikmah Way meeting “a Rosa Parks moment” — women (or blacks) to the back of the theatre (or bus), men to the front. The report does not specify whether this was the form of segregation at the Islamic Peace Conference information session or not. At the conference itself, men were directed in front of the women during outdoor prayers.

However, once the attendees moved to the marquees for lectures, the MC directed “men to my right, women to my left” and families with young children to a separate marquee where they would cause less disruption. As usual at Muslim events, the pleas to relocate the children were completely ignored and they remained with their mothers, aunties and grandmothers in the women's section.

Gender segregated events for secular (including feminist) reasons are commonplace throughout Australian society, including university campuses. A quick search of The University of Melbourne website reveals other “gender segregated” events, including a women-only morning tea and a women's self-defence course. “Enjoy a relaxing morning tea, coffee and cake slice while you meet and mingle with your fellow female grad students” admittedly sounds a lot less contentious than Hikmah Way's lecture on “Islamic rulings on Jihad in Syria and why great scholar's silence” — but that is a different issue to gender segregation.

As a devout Catholic who in his youth toyed with the idea of entering the priesthood, Tony Abbott is presumably very familiar with gender segregated spaces, but also with gender hierarchy. Not only were no female candidates even considered for the role of Pontiff, but all of the cardinals who sent out the puff of white smoke from the Vatican to signal the election of Pope Francis were men, too. Yet Tony Abbott has not labelled his own religious community as un-Australian because of its lack of female clergy and the gender segregation practiced in its major institutions.

Muslim social and religious events feature a diverse range of arrangements with regard to gendered space. Some occasions are male or female only, for similar rationale to women's only gyms or the men's shed movement. Other events feature separate spaces for men and women, but side-by-side rather than men ahead of women. Even when the intent of such separation is explicitly patriarchal rather than feminist, women often cite its potential for allowing them to maximise female autonomy away from male surveillance and disapproval.

The issue of gendered prayer space remains contentious among Muslims. Internationally, many mosques exclude women altogether, leading them to turn instead to the shrines of Sufi saints, where women often play an important devotional role.

In some Australian mosques, the issue of gendered space intersects with the issue of disability access, with the women's prayer space often located on a balcony at the head of a steep flight of stairs. However, a growing number of Muslim organisations in Australia, Europe and North America, place their male and female prayer spaces side by side rather than one before the other. A few allow men and women to mingle in prayer.

The most common arrangement remains for women to pray in a subordinate location, out of view of the men. Women, however, are allowed to view men and even when their prayer-space is intended to signify their subordinate position, it is often designed to provide them a view of the male area, while remaining out of view themselves. “To see without being seen” — as the panic over burqas illustrates, this is often regarded as bestowing an unnatural degree of power upon women, even when the intent is highly patriarchal.

And given the wide range of secular and religious gendered spaces throughout Australian society, the discourse over Muslim gendered segregation seems intended to signify the subordinate position of Muslims in Australian public space.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.