Monday, August 12, 2013

Culture Clashroom

I'd like to try to analyze as carefully as I can the extremely complicated controversy that erupted at a debate between Lawrence Krauss and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis on March 9th, 2013. The event was part of a series called The Big Debates, which are sponsored and organized by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) based in London, of which Tzortzis is director of research. This particular episode was titled "Atheism or Islam: Which Makes More Sense?" The venue for the event was the Christopher Ingold Auditorium at University College London (UCL), a rectangular room with raked seats accommodating 325 people.

Let me start out by saying that my own spiritual beliefs are irrelevant here and much too complicated to summarize, anyway. What I might say about another person's religious beliefs in some other forum is equally irrelevant. For the sake of this discussion, I'll stay relatively neutral on that subject. Furthermore, as much as one might like to argue to the contrary--and as irreversibly intertwined as they might appear to be in some cultures--a person's (inborn) ethnic background and their (chosen) religion are not, I repeat, not the same thing. If I take issue with anything here, it is abstract ideologies, not individual people. To be even more direct, I will not honor accusations that anything I've said here is Islamophobic, because my opinions on religion are not what this post or this blog are about. Not even close.

I'm going to justify possibly repeating what a lot of people have already reported about what happened at this event by attempting to be uncommonly thorough in my description. The iERA booked the venue with UCL, mysteriously, through a Dr. Aisha Rahman on behalf of the college's chemistry department. Zayd Tutton from the iERA claims that the UCL agreed that seating for the event would be segregated by sex from the beginning. There would be separate entrances for women and men. Women would enter from up in the rear of the hall, men from down in front. There would be three seating sections:
1. a section for male attendees excluding women,
2. one for male attendees with a female companion (comprising only two rows, apparently near the front), and
3. one for female attendees unaccompanied by a man (several rows all the way at the back).

UCL was the first university in England to admit female students on an equal basis with men. Although their Equality and Diversity policy doesn't specifically address physical segregation on their campus, it's likely that no mention of such a thing was thought to be necessary in the twenty-first century.

When inquiring about tickets to the event, those interested were informed that seating arrangements would depend upon when the tickets were purchased and on the person's sex. People were evidently asked their gender right out when they purchased their tickets. News of this reached Richard Dawkins, who then informed Krauss, suggesting that he might want to withdraw. Krauss contacted the iERA and was assured that the event would not be segregated.

When Krauss arrived, however, he discovered the gendered entrance queues being enforced. Signs were posted directing women and men to different parts of the hall. Men were refused entry through the door designated for women. Guests were automatically directed to separate seating sections according to their sex, unless they specifically requested to sit in the "mixed" section of the hall. Women who arrived without a male companion were forced to ask a male attendee unknown to them to act as their chaperone on the queue if they wanted to sit in the mixed section.

Krauss demanded permission from the organizers to announce that the attendees could sit wherever they wished. He threatened to leave twice, with no results. Three (according to Tutton, two) men got up from their seats and demanded to sit in the women's section, in seats several rows farther away from the stage from where they'd been. They were offered very isolated seats in an empty row of the women's section but refused, demanding to be seated in a full row, right between women who were adhering to orthodox Islamic principles by sitting apart from the men.

Security guards from the iERA (there were five of them on site) intercepted the men, deemed them "threatening," and attempted to remove them from the event. At least one of the men changing his seat was taken to a small room where iERA security allegedly berated him and threatened to kick him out for refusing to comply with the segregation. UCL security officers, of which there were only two on site, reportedly cooperated with the segregation until they were pressed to intervene by references to the breach of university policy. No women voluntarily attempted to change their seats. Allegedly several women were asked to move theirs, but I have no reliable confirmation on that.

Krauss had clearly had enough. He packed up his belongings and was in the process of abandoning the debate completely. I had seen the footage of his protest shortly after the event. It was only by accident that I more recently saw the full video and realized, "oh, this was the event where that happened." The iERA organizers spoke to Krauss and convinced him to return to the stage. Dawkins suggests that perhaps they feared bad publicity. It was announced that the seating would not be segregated, after all, but the fires of controversy had already been lit. As a result of all this, the UCL has banned the iERA from holding any future events on their campus.

The debate itself is not really relevant to this blog. Briefly, I thought that Krauss' presentation was unnecessarily adversarial, but in his defense, I suspect there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that didn't appear in the official broadcast, and I wouldn't blame him for feeling duped and misled by the iERA organizers. Tzortzis' arguments were based on rhetorical tricks of philosophical logic, Krauss' arguments on overly material exactitude and physics. Personally, I think that, despite the location of the debate, Krauss was at an away-team disadvantage in front of what was apparently a predominantly Muslim audience.

A young Muslim woman who took the microphone during the Q&A section of the evening (she begins speaking at 2:03:00 in the video linked in the first paragraph) convinced me that this clash of cultures was a pertinent subject for this blog. She said this:

I just wanted to make a comment about the incident that happened before this event began. I apologize to the Brother who couldn't find a seat, where he was coming from. I believe he has a right to sit where he wanted to, but there has been some misunderstanding. Firstly, Islam makes it very clear that equality is incredibly important, and that no Black man, for example, is superior to a white man, and vice versa. But the issue here was not one of superiority, as no one imposed segregation upon him. He was allowed to sit with the ladies at the back, and he was also allowed to sit at the front with females. But if some of us ladies chose to sit at a distance from the men, why must he impose himself upon us? If I sat in a restaurant with my friends, away from men, would it be appropriate for him to join me at my table, too? And I'm basically offended by his disrespect for my values.
[I searched around a bit in hopes of finding her, to ask for her no doubt fascinating take, but I had no luck.]

This young woman's monologue received uproarious applause. It indicates why this whole issue is so extremely complicated. I also think it's where Krauss' undeniably noble objection to the segregation of the audience backfired in a very unfortunate way. It's the head-on collision of women's rights and religious orthodoxy. Krauss' response to her was that, while he respected her objection, she had made her own choice to attend an event where proximity to men would be a strong possibility, as it is out in the secular western world in general. My focus, of course, is on the way that played out in the use of architectural space.

The most immediate difficulties with these issues become apparent by questioning why the UCL agreed to a segregated event in the first place. The problem is that any all-encompassing, anti-discrimination policy such an institution might implement would have to include prohibitions on both religious and gender discrimination. How do we protect religious freedom and the rights of women at the same time when they're pitted one against the other as mutually exclusive? How does someone entrusted with such a dilemma reconcile them fairly? My own opinion on this is that the most marginalized group in question is most at risk of discrimination and therefore most deserving of protections against it. Unfortunately, whether women face more discrimination than Muslims or vice versa in any given setting would be impossible to determine due to a myriad of contextual factors and social variables extremely difficult to quantify. I'm tempted to believe that misogyny is the most universal of all systems of oppression, but who could say for certain, especially in cosmopolitan London?

To be sure, I'm personally taken aback by the practice of segregation because I grew up in the United States. Any halfway-decent, primary-school history class in this country will have addressed the concept of Separate But Equal, which did not work and was famously overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court determined that separation per se was inherently unequal.

At the most base level of occupying space, even if the only difference were between right and left, that minor distinction alone holds some cultural significance. For an easy example, it was not much more than several decades ago that left-handed children were forced in school to learn to write with their right hands, likely for superstitious reasons. Certain locations in physical space are culturally considered superior or at least preferable to others. Although it can differ from one culture to the next, those hierarchies are nonetheless already in place. In an environment as complex as a lecture hall, the compounded dynamics of interaction carry far more potential weight. For access to be indisputably equal in every sense, all participants must (be permitted to) occupy exactly the same spaces at exactly the same time, which quite clearly makes any equitable separation of different people impossible.

Obviously the iERA hoped to organize this event the way they did to adhere to Islamic law. If the rules applying to Mosques are the proper analogy, the reasoning for the sequestering of women would seem to imply that Muslim men are incapable of thinking about anything other than sexual intercourse when there's a woman in close proximity to them. I seriously doubt that's true, but those rules would seem to provide every possible way to alleviate men of their responsibility to exercise moral and intellectual self-control, by placing all responsibility on factors external to them. I can understand how taking "reasonable" steps to avoid inadvertently entertaining thoughts one considers "impure" would be beneficial in a house of worship. I can personally attest to the fact that having spontaneous sexual thoughts is not terribly difficult for men, but that doesn't require an object of lust in immediate visual range. All it really requires is possessing genitals. [This may very well be true for women, as well, but that's not for me to conjecture.]

I can understand that, since the main topic of this particular debate was Islam, itself, perhaps it was felt that similar rules ought to apply as they would in a Mosque. If that's the case, then another unfortunate implication remains that Muslim women are seemingly not considered as worthy or capable as men of fully participating in discussion about the very religion they're expected, indeed, required to follow. I doubt any argument would be sufficient to convince me that they aren't. There is also the possibility that some of the Muslim women there would never have attended the event in the first place if they hadn't been promised segregated seating.

The mixed seating section was entirely ironic and counter-productive in this context for the very fact that it encouraged women arriving alone to introduce themselves to men they didn't know and form a superficial partnership with them for the purposes of hearing the debate from the seat of their choice. If the purpose of the seating arrangements was to prevent unnecessary interaction between the sexes, it had precisely the opposite effect in this regard.

The women's only section is, of course, the most troubling in light of the young woman's remarks quoted above. Throughout human history, women have had to fight to carve out "safe space": space over which they have sole dominion and propriety, without the approval or permission of men, with the ability to exclude men from it..."A Room of Her Own," to reference Virginia Woolf. The women attending this event had the right to their own space if they chose to have one.

Presumably for the woman who stood up to object during Q&A, the right of her and women who share her beliefs to a space of their own was of a higher priority than the freedom for all the women in attendance to sit where they chose. In other words, it would seem she feels sacrificing her freedom of choice is a fair price to pay to ensure her safety (or privacy, or seclusion, or decorum, or whatever benefits that space provided for her). Whether her personal religious beliefs entitled her to therefore impose her restrictions of freedom on the non-Muslim women in attendance is another very complicated question.

The actions of the men who violated the women's space were saturated with male privilege, easily as bothersome as the segregation itself, in my opinion. I'll go so far as to call them more reprehensible because their actions were clearly meant to needlessly offend the women's religious sensibilities, as well, and in order to make some misplaced, childish political statement. They'd moved from better seats to worse ones. I've seen some comments trying to downplay the motives of those men as less than purposely combative. Krauss described them as "nice" and "gentle." I'm not buying it at all. There's certainly no reason that someone couldn't be Muslim with the Anglo-Saxon name of the one of those men, but I'd be extremely surprised if he were.

While I hope what I've already said proves my support of women controlling their own spaces when and if they wish, the young woman's restaurant analogy is somewhat problematic, also. Aside from atypical restaurants deliberately designed with communal tables for social affect, a normal restaurant table is generally considered an enlarged, but personal space being shared by a select group of acquaintances or friends. Most people would consider it bad form to invade that space under all but a few special circumstances. A lecture hall is not the same sort of environment. Seats are not divided into distinct groups of two, four, or six as they are in a restaurant, but are arranged in large, homogeneous swaths.

I believe this young woman had every right to be offended by the infiltration of their section, regardless of her reasons. But if we remove the obvious orthodox and Feminist components to her objection, what remains? That is to say, what specifically is it that she and women who agree with her position would find objectionable? Let me be clear, that I ask these questions as they pertain to this very particular setting. I'm under no misapprehension of the abhorrent liberties that are perpetrated against women out in the world at large. But here I'm discussing a controlled space with a ratio of one security guard for every forty-seven audience members.

Would it have been less objectionable if, for instance, there were no available seats other than one near her? Less if that were the only available seat and it were a Muslim man who wanted to sit in it rather than a non-Muslim? What inappropriate behavior might realistically be expected at this kind of event that couldn't be put to an end, within several seconds, by notifying security? Inappropriate physical contact? Leering? Unsolicited invitations to converse? On the last example--and I could easily ask this of the men, as well--if a pleasant, mutually-respectful, and on-topic interchange arose with a person in an adjacent seat, what difference would it make what sex they were? Would she not have felt more empowered by being provided with a section of the lecture hall more conducive to active participation in the debate? Whatever her reasons for objecting, however, truly it was her prerogative to do so. I don't question that.

Oddly, the fact that women could enter from the back of the hall was conversely empowering in at least a few senses. My reason for saying that comes from readings in Feminist Film Theory where a concept known as the Gaze is often discussed. First, putting aside for the moment a person turning to look behind him, entering from the back rather than the front of the hall prevented the entrance of a female attendee from becoming a spectacle subjected to a male gaze or any of its potential attendant scrutiny. It's visually anonymous, in theory, and thwarts overt detection by those seated facing away from that rear entrance.

Secondly, entrance from above and the back permits an immediate overview of the full environment and all its current occupants. This direction of entering allows an educated assessment of how best to navigate and occupy that space. Arguably, it's a more comfortable route that requires fewer stairs, and stairs going down rather than up. In contrast, a more troublesome arrangement would have had the women forced to enter from the front, in full view of those already seated (made involuntary object of male gaze), and then proceed (laboriously) up the stairs all the way to the back rows.

Dividing the seats into sections is as problematic for equality as separate entrance queues, with all the same cultural hierarchies attached to relative locations in physical space. One might argue that an event like this one has a sort of "sweet spot." I'd suggest this location to be directly in the center, close enough to accurately read speakers' facial expressions, close enough to engage with them visually and audibly, and I'd also add--with a paradox, less voluntarily--to be made engaged, as a participating agent in the proceedings. One might also suggest, in a space with raked seating, a position slightly above the speakers is relatively empowering, so long as it's not counteracted by distance farther from them. If providing a dedicated section for women was an attempt at chivalry--as some of the Muslim apologists have implied--why was it located all the way in the back, and not in this sweet spot?

I was inclined to consider what difference a theater-in-the-round might make. No isolated seating section around a complete circle could be claimed on its own to be geographically preferable to any other. But the problem remains with the human body, namely that a speaker's eyes and mouth are decidedly on the front of the head, which means that a position directly in front of the speaker will always be ideal. A speaker in a continual spin on a stage would be dizzying, distracting, and surreal. There's also the matter in a debate like this one of the need for paperwork and some note-taking, which therefore requires a table and chairs that presume directionality.

How does one provide, in an environment like this lecture hall, both for women to sit wherever they like, but at the same time, to also provide for their right to sit separated from men if they choose? Is it impossible to have both without the seating arrangements disintegrating into chaos? The argument I've seen here and there, that the segregation of seating was "mostly voluntary," is completely absurd. That may be the case in a strictly legal sense, but if you have five, five iERA security guards entrusted to dictate where people plant their hindquarters, that's not voluntary by any stretch of the imagination. It sounds to me like they were as concerned with keeping the female attendees "in their proper place" as they were with "protecting the values" of their Muslim Sisters from men disgracefully unaware of their male privilege and exploiting it to invade a space reserved for women.

A colleague of Tzortzis, Abdullah Al Andalusi, later argued that the concept of Equality is nothing more than a liberal affectation. [I can't help thinking that the term, "Liberal," connotes much different meanings in the United Kingdom than it does in the United States.] His reasoning is that people are born with varying intellects, physical strengths, aptitudes, etc., and are therefore fundamentally unequal. This may be true, but those differences are based on a million immeasurable qualities that have nothing whatsoever to do with as simple a distinction as being male or female (or Black or white, for that matter). [I'm shocked that I even needed to type that idiotically self-evident sentence.]

The argument that female attendees were not being discriminated against because there were also some men seated at the back of the room is so preposterous it doesn't even deserve a response. Here's another version of that argument: "Some white Americans are poor, therefore racism doesn't exist in America." It's incoherent. Clearly, male attendees could sit anywhere they wished, except in the very worst seats, which were reserved for women.

Andalusi also goes on to argue that sex segregation is practiced and accepted on various levels in all societies. He uses toilets, locker rooms, and private schools as examples. As another commenter pointed out elsewhere, unisex restrooms are becoming increasingly common as an equitable alternative in a lot of places. We have one where I work, in fact. I'm not aware that it's caused any abuses or harassment. It also isn't a single large room with a bunch of exposed toilets. Everyone has equal access to the same individual, private facilities, including transgendered and intersexed people who may not identify inside strictly binary genders. Defecation is more or less universally accepted to be a solitary act requiring privacy, anyway. That would be difficult to dispute. Furthermore, practically every woman on the entire planet can tell you that gendered restrooms equal in size are not equal in practice, judging by the insufferable queues that grow like a weed out the door of any ladies' restroom they come across in a crowded venue.

Locker rooms are also a patently ridiculous example. I think we can safely assume no one was planning to get completely naked at a debate in a university lecture hall.

To whatever degree gender-exclusive private schools may be proven to benefit some students, it's precisely for the reasons that segregation inside an individual lecture hall would be detrimental. That is to say, a girls'-only classroom nullifies the distinctions between girls and boys along with biases on whether they may or may not have aptitudes for certain subjects or how they might learn those subjects better by different methods. Segregation inside the classroom merely amplifies those perceived distinctions.

By examining this particular situation, I've hoped to address some of the many difficulties and contradictions it presented. I hope to have asked the right kind of questions and perhaps paved the way for more harmonious solutions to these issues to be found in the future. I sincerely hope they can be. In this day and age, in a global, Information-Age community, where people with various conflicting interests are invariably brought together like never before, we have no choice but to find them. We'll be forced to find new solutions as fellow inhabitants of this planet. At the very least, hopefully I've shed some light in that regard on the ways that we see, occupy, and use architectural space as determined by our personal identities, preferences, and beliefs.

And I enjoy stirring the pot, so that's an added plus.

©2013, Ryan Witte