By Amina Lone
Women are often the first victims of extremism whether it is in policing what they wear, where they go, how they live or as victims of domestic violence. Society looks, but we don’t see. We hear, but we don’t listen. Like campaigning for a new crossing on a dangerous road, an accident(s) has to happen before we act.
At a time when sexual abuse allegations against establishment figures like Harvey Weinstein and others finally come to the fore, quietly in the background, a landmark decision was made — a huge suffragette ‘deeds not words’ gender equality action. Women were key to the ruling made by the Court of Appeal in the Al-Hijrah v Ofsted case; that gender segregation in co-ed schools is unlawful sex discrimination and a violation of the Equalities Act 2010.
This wasn’t just a talking shop about girls’ and women’s right to be treated equally in public spaces. This was the demonstration of powerful women in action. From the formidable Lady Justice Gloster and HM Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman, to the resolute co-interveners Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Inspire, led by Pragna Patel and Sara Khan, this was activism at its finest.
This is not to negate the role of the two male judges or the many men who supported the campaign including Stephen Evans, Campaigns Director of the National Secular Society. Men are part of the solution and their input is invaluable.
I supported SBS and Inspire’s campaign and was present at the two-day hearing. The importance of this judgement lies not just in the precedent it has set. It is in SBS’s and Inspire’s decision to bare witness and provide reams of evidence about the context in which religious segregation exists. It was in laying out how cultural, religious and community honour codes impact on the lives of children, girls and boys to state institutions that barely understand them.
It is in Amanda Spielman’s wiliness to take the injustice seriously and not be cowed by political correctness or accusations of anti-Muslim rhetoric, but to uphold hard-won rights of gender equality. And it was reinforced when Justice Gloster made references to a time when women were not served at the bar just because of their gender. These insights and understandings were crucial to unpicking a complex and sensitive case.
But it was the presence and the voices of the unseen and the unheard which was most striking. The public gallery was jam-packed, full of mostly South Asian women, young and old, of faith and none, from across the country who came to show solidarity. To be visible for those who could not be. To represent the countless testimonies of women, men and children we have listened to over the years. The stories of being told you have to behave a certain way because of your gender. The feelings of “I have no choice” to “I have been told I will go to hell if I don’t cover myself”, to the emotional pressure exerted by family and community members. The feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing for daring to question a set of imposed values on them.
There were not enough seats for all the frontline activists that came and a camaraderie game of musical chairs took place. But we stayed. Waiting. Willing that justice be served for the children who quietly spoke about being treated unequally. Familiar strangers, an imperceptible thread connecting us across cultures.
We understand the everyday, ordinary impact of gender inequality, for we live it. Through our lives, listening to our mothers or our grandmothers before them. Worlds largely hidden away from those in power, often only sought out by vote-seeking politicians or by far-right propagandists.
As the actions of those who commit violent and non-violent extremism affect us all, so do the challenges to our freedoms. Yes, believing women have fewer rights because they are female is an extreme position to hold. As it is for race inequality. This case has been crucial. The precedent must not be diluted, but rather reinforced when the going gets tough. We owe it to those women and men who cannot share their stories whose voices are there. We just have to tune in and hear them.
*For more information about the case https://wewillinspire.com/facts-al-hijrah-gender-segregation-judgement/.
Amina Lone is a trustee of the Henna Foundation and co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter.