Clash of principles, not cultures, in Islamic lecture case



The Australian’s report on gender segregation during an event held at the University of Melbourne has provoked condemnation by politicians, academics and letter writers, all keen to defend Enlightenment values.

The facts of the case are simple. A community group booked a room at the university, after teaching hours, to run an event about Islamic issues. The group did not claim any association with the university.

In hindsight, the university poorly communicated its expectations when providing space on campus. Hiring venues is a commercial transaction. The university needs to ensure the law, and its own policies, will not be broken by activities on campus. The standard University of Melbourne venue hire rules took for granted, rather than spelled out, requirements for equality when people use a university location. This omission will be addressed.

I acknowledge the error, and do not support gender segregation at a public event on campus. Before the rush to judgement, though, the issue still raises an important question. When discrimination is at stake what matters is the rule of law – a point overlooked by the original article, and little discussed in the controversy that followed.

The religious nature of the campus meeting was advertised: an Islamic gathering to discuss and promote aspects of Islamic faith.

According to The Australian, signs directed women to one part of the room, and men to another. As the report acknowledges, this was not always followed – some chose mixed company.

The report did not indicate whether the signs were an instruction or, as others suggest, a courtesy to those whose beliefs require seating separated by gender.

Belief is the operative word. This meeting was a voluntary religious gathering.

The report in The Australian stresses gender segregation. It opens with criticism of “sexual apartheid” and attacks the university for failing to condemn the practice.

Neither the original report, nor subsequent opinion pieces, consider Australian law. Yet the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), Section 37.d is precise: the prohibition on gender discrimination does not affect “an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion”.

Segregation is controversial within the broader Islamic world. Only some Muslim adherents see separation by sex as intrinsic to their faith – but for them, such segregation is a religious obligation.

Despite the one-dimensional commentary on the Melbourne meeting there is not one principle at stake but two – gender segregation, and the right to religious practice enshrined in Australian law.

When Tony Abbott finds it “absolutely extraordinary that a great liberal institution would take a huge leap back into the dark ages”, he defends liberalism by ignoring other liberal values such as tolerance and freedom of assembly.

Dr Jennifer Oriel condemns any exemptions for religious practice on campus. She knows this would close down Islamic prayer rooms at universities if they involve facilities separated by gender – even when such arrangements are entirely lawful.

Universities are committed to equality in everything from student selection to employment. They obey and promote the law on discrimination.

But a university must be careful when imposing its preferences on students, staff or community who rent a room on campus to hold a meeting.

If an activity is expressly protected under Australian law, the rationale for any ban must be articulated with care. Democratic liberalism accepts that others see the world differently, and are entitled to act on their beliefs provided no harm follows.

Both gender equality (article 2) and a right to “religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (article 18) are enshrined in the United Nations\’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The controversy at the University of Melbourne is a clash of principles, not just a case of discrimination. It is neither naive nor hypocritical for the university to weigh morality, the law, and the liberal ethos of campus life when deciding whether to make facilities available.

Faced with contending values, there is no simple calculus to decide that one principle must be absolute. Equality of the sexes is a key value – and so is toleration of religious practice. Any response requires a reasoned conversation about how best to work with these competing principles.

If those who criticise the university believe no gender segregation is ever acceptable, even among faith communities, let them argue so explicitly – and argue why this is a defensible imposition on personal rights. In such a debate, the location on a campus is irrelevant.

Had university rules been communicated more effectively, the Islamic group may have taken their meeting elsewhere. Even so, they deserve the same respect and consideration our society extends to other religious practices. This controversy would be well served by more reflection before the pious media releases and cries of outrage. Intolerance can cut more than one way.