A debate held at UCL on Saturday, 9 March certainly got students and professors talking, and has even found itself reported in the wider media – but for the wrong reasons.
The event, held as part of Hamza Tzortzis ‘Islamic Awareness Tour’, featured the public speaker Tzortzis debating against cosmologist and professor of Physics, Lawrence Krauss on the topic of ‘Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?’ However, attendees soon began to question the organisation of the event when an email sent by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) and the organisers of the event, informed attendees that seating allocation would be decided by “when the ticket was booked and gender”. However, when concerned students contacted UCL, they were assured by Fiona McClement, the university’s Equalities and Diversities Adviser, that all attendees were “free to sit wherever they feel comfortable”, and that this had been made clear to IERA.
This was not the case. Attendees found that upon arrival at the event, there were separate entrances for men and women, where male attendees were refused entry through the women’s entrance. Seating was also separated into sections for women and men respectively, with an additional ‘mixed’ area for couples. Despite the assurances of a number of UCL’s staff that the university’s Equality and Diversity policy would not be breached, the organisers went as far as to remove a male student who had sat in the women’s section.
Christopher Roche, who had taken a seat in the same aisle as female attendees, said that he was “immediately instructed by security to exit the theatre”. He was then told that the seating policy had been given to IERA by UCL, an issue which was raised after Dr Aisha Rahman, who identified herself as a member of UCL’s Chemistry Department, suggested that the university had agreed to the segregation. After asking to return to his seat, Mr Roche was told that security would remove him from the premises for “refusing to comply with the gender segregation”. The organisers’ security staff then attempted to physically remove both Mr Roche and his friend, Adam Barnett, from the theatre, before Professor Krauss threatened to leave if the two men were removed. The organisers allowed Mr Roche and Mr Barnett to sit near the women’s section at the back of the room following the Professor’s intervention, who himself stated that he had been told in advance that there would be no segregation.
Mr Barnett described the situation as “a scandal”, stating that “for a London university to allow forced segregation by sex in 2013 is disgraceful”. His belief that the segregation was a violation of UCL policy was also held by Chris Moos, president of LSE’s Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society who had made enquiries to UCL about the nature of the seating before the event. Mr Moos stated that many students were “shocked” to see that although concerns as to the seating arrangements had been raised with UCL beforehand, the organisers still created “a threatening and divisive atmosphere that was not inclusive to all attendees”.
Many have seen this situation as a complete violation of everything that London’s GlobalUniversity stands for, with world-renowned ethologist and noted atheist, Richard Dawkins, criticising its “cowardly capitulation to Muslims”. UCL’s Provost, Malcolm Grant, released a statement addressing the event, stating that IERA’s intention to segregate the audience was “directly contrary to UCL policy”, and that it had been made clear that the event would be cancelled if the organisers attempted to enforce any such segregation. Professor Grant then went on to say IERA’s intentions were “contrary to UCL’s ethos”, and that any further events involving them on UCL’s premises would not be allowed.
Closing his statement by reiterating UCL’s policy of equality, Professor Grant maintains that segregation should not have been enforced, and that this kind of behaviour was not acceptable at UCL which prides itself on its equality.