“If I had two sweets – one wrapped and one unwrapped – and threw them in a bin, which one would you pick out and eat?” He grins, the amateur philosopher pleased with his analogy, and breaks off to shake the hand of a young man walking past the makeshift London Metropolitan University Islamic Society stall set up in the student canteen. Ishmael, who says he is a former head of the society (something the current president later denies) appears to know a lot of the students passing through.
“Women are man’s great temptation,” he turns back to face me. “They should be covered up.”
Later that evening, in the windowless lecture room GC1-08, which juts out silver and angular over north London’s Holloway Road, the members of the Islamic Society file in. Through a side door come the men, occupying the seats at the front. Through another door come the women, sitting as far back as possible. There are no signs in place, and the society insists it has no policy of segregation, and yet on more than one occasion, a female late arrival is directed to sit at the back.
The talk is called “The Effects of Sins” by an external lecturer called Ustadh Abu Ibrahim. He appears to be no firebrand, espousing moderate views that wouldn’t sound out of place in any mosque, church or temple. At the end, he stresses that the women at the back should be allowed to ask questions. “You have to be fair to the sisters,” he tells his audience.
With the lecture finished, a white woman who slipped in midway through the talk and sat, unchallenged, near the men, rushes first to the door. Outside in the street, she explains she is a concerned member of the university’s staff. “I just think somebody should be monitoring these meetings,” she tells me. She is not alone.
Spring term 2014 was supposed to bring an end to gender segregation at British universities. In December, the Prime Minister himself intervened over the issue, emphasising through a spokesman that he wanted it banned even where men and women voluntarily separate themselves (although not in places of worship).
Mr Cameron – backed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove – made his comments after Universities UK (UUK), the body that represents vice-chancellors, published new guidelines endorsing segregation which, according to some student groups and human-rights organisations, were tantamount to “sexual apartheid”.
UUK’s controversial guidance, set out in a case study detailing how external speakers from “ultra-orthodox religious groups” could request that men and women sit separately, has now been withdrawn. It continues to work with senior legal counsel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify its position.
Yet, while hands wring over the latest furore, inside Britain’s universities nothing seems to have changed. In Islamic societies dominated by more traditional elements, segregated seating – be it enforced, implicit or otherwise – continues unchallenged. Hard-line speakers, who espouse the sorts of views I heard from Ishmael in the canteen, are meanwhile still being invited on a weekly basis.
The equality group Student Rights, which monitors preaching by extremists and discrimination through segregation at student events, says separated seating has become a widespread trend at many British universities.
New figures, to be released by the group tomorrow and that have been seen by The Telegraph, show there were 233 events “of concern” – be it because of the speaker, subject or seating – promoted to students via social media in 2013, of which 23 were cancelled.
About 140 of these took place on campus, and 93 off campus. Separate research has found that radical preachers spoke at 180 events at universities including Cardiff and University College London (UCL) between March 2012 and March 2013 alone. Segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of these events.
One preacher causing concern is Haitham al-Haddad, who spoke at 16 events last year. A London-based Islamic scholar of Palestinian origin, he is one of 25 clerics identified by Whitehall sources as spreading ideological hatred at universities, mosques and other public places, and who could, in time, be subjected to new anti-extremism “Asbos”.
But currently, the likes of Haddad continue to access campuses. Last month, London Met managed to ban him from speaking to its Islamic Society. A week later, he appeared at Kingston University.
Hamza Tzortzis, found to have spoken at 33 student events last year and the subject of two recent university investigations over addressing segregated audiences, is also once more touring campuses. Tomorrow, he was due to address an audience at Queen Mary, University of London, only to cancel at the last minute.
It was at Queen Mary that, in November, one female student complained of being forced to walk through a “sisters only” entrance and being banned from speaking, while men were told to avoid eye contact with members of the opposite sex. “It’s so degrading and embarrassing,” she said after reporting the incident. “You just want to shake them and say, ‘Why are you being so disrespectful?’.”
Her case is one being considered by the EHRC as part of the revised guidance for universities. Yet even last week, during an Islamic society talk held in a maths lecture theatre at the university, students were once more subjected to similar views.
The speaker this time was Ustadh Alomgir Ali, a lecturer from Haddad’s Muslim Research and Development Foundation. His audience comprised men at the front and women – the majority of whom waited outside in the rain before the lecture began while the men gathered inside – at the back. Although there were no signs enforcing segregation, he spoke at length in favour of gender division and of a “crisis in society”, with the relationship between men and women in need of correction.
“In Islam, we have laid down certain prohibitions because it leads on to other sins,” he told his audience. “The first important point you must learn at university is lowering the gaze.”
His lecture concluded with some advice. “Brothers and sisters, the important thing is to learn etiquette of modesty, lowering your gaze, avoiding touching the opposite gender and avoiding unnecessary socialising with the opposite gender.”
None the less, Ustadh Alomgir Ali told the assembled audience that the backlash over gender segregation was nothing more than “Islamophobia” sensationalised by the media.
Yet moderate Muslims find themselves at odds with his view of the relationship between the sexes. “That [position] isn’t something I recognise at all,” says Humayun Ansari, a professor of the history of Islam and culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, who specialises in researching the experience of Muslims in Britain. “What we’re talking about is various interpretations of Islam.”
For Prof Ansari, such views represent deeply conservative strands of the religion, being spread, in particular, from Saudi Arabia. In Britain, segregation at mosques and during prayers has been accepted and commonplace –but not outside of a religious setting, such as during a lecture, and certainly not enforced.
Myriam Francois Cerrah, a journalist and DPhil student at Oxford University who regularly gives talks in front of mixed and intermingled audiences at Islamic societies up and down the country, says it is the London Islamic societies, in particular, that have become dominated by these ultra-traditional stances on the relationship between men and women.
“As Muslims, we probably should be worried that there is a normalisation of expectations, which I don’t think are a requirement of the faith and specific to quite an austere and conservative interpretation,” she says.
“But my view is the society members are children, really, 18- and 19-year-olds who get a certain enjoyment out of the power of being able to book a room and establish this ‘Islamic state’ in a hall. Then they graduate, move on in life, and get a job at Google or somewhere like that.”
Back at Queen Mary, however, two 20-year-old female students, studying engineering and English literature respectively, and members of the Islamic Society, deny they are simply going through a rebellious hard-line phase.
In between manning an outdoor stall for Islam Awareness Week offering flyers and soggy fairy cakes to passers-by, they say they do not understand the fuss around segregation, which, they claim, is entirely voluntary. “It just happens,” says the engineering student (neither is willing to be named). “There are so many things going on in the world and yet people choose to focus on this. It is just putting a magnifying glass over something very small.”
There is defiance here to maintain the status quo, no matter what the Prime Minister or anybody else should think.
Women at the back, men at the front; united in faith – and divided by everything else.