When reading this, bear in mind that I am a white, atheist, British man of semi-Christian upbringing.
Following a couple of incidents of audience separation by sex at Islamic events at universities, Universities UK issued some advice. This advice suggested that sex-specific seating in the audience can be allowed as long as neither group is given priority (e.g. seating in front of the other).
It is important to note that these guidelines are not in any way promoting sex-specific seating, or requiring anything of the universities, but merely suggesting that universities allow it.
This led to student protests against the idea of separating sexes in public university halls, and caused Universities UK to withdraw the advice and seek further legal and ethical advice.
Read more in The Guardian
There actually seems to be an unusual amount of consensus about this. The majority of commenters on both The Telegraph and The Guardian seem to be against separation under any circumstances.
On Radio 4's "Any questions" just now, the panel all agreed that sex-specific seating should not be allowed.
Why I disagree
As Telegraph reader "LRBM" eloquently put it:
Love see (sic) the lefties wrap themselves up in knots trying to figure out which option is the most "progressive". Support a minority that does not believe in women's equality or support women's equality.
This perfectly sums up the problem as one of integrating Islamic culture vs promoting gender equality, and is exactly what this "lefty" has been wrestling with. I believe that both these problems are not UK-specific, but global, and we need to be working towards a world where people of different fundamental beliefs can work together.
I count myself as a feminist, even though as a man I may never properly understand the difficulties that women face in a male-dominated society. I try to promote respect for and integration of women in male-dominated circles and to decry gender-based prejudice and stereotypes.
I believe very strongly that society needs a mix of genders at all levels, and will benefit hugely from it.
The problem with Islam
My knowledge of Islam is not amazingly deep. However, I believe it's fair to say that Islam treats men and women separately, if not as fundamentally different. Women in western societies often have different customs and habits from men, but in Islamic societies the difference is clearly more extreme. And one can point to many abuses of women in Islamic countries that appear to be supported by the state.
So it's easy for westerners to point to Islam as an oppressor of women. But it's not like many Islamic women come to England and say "thank Allah now I'm free". Many highly educated and empowered Islamic women will staunchly defend their right to cover their face, or otherwise protect their modesty, and even be insulted that we presume to imply that they should feel oppressed by their customs. And why shouldn't they be offended? How arrogant of us to impose our values on them.
Where I stand
I believe in a harmonious and diverse world. In England and throughout the world, the promotion of gender equality is extremely important. But, particularly at the moment, the divide between western society and Islamic society is, to my mind, even more important. Many many people care very strongly about Islamic values - in some cases so strongly that they are willing to die just to hurt its attackers.
Achieving some measure of sympathy between the western world and the Islamic world is terribly important, and yet we are really very far from it. Our society does not foster an understanding of Islamic values. I am really quite interested in Islam, but I know very little about it. By contrast I understand fairly well the problems facing women in society.
This is why I think efforts to integrate Islamic culture into our society are the more important consideration here. Hopefully as the Islamic community starts to sympathise more with the west, Islamic women will gain more equality. But on their own terms, not ours.
I think that if we prohibit sex-specific seating in university halls, then many Islamic clubs, societies and speakers may then stay away from these academic institutions. It is more likely that Islamic societies and speakers would be pushed out of the public & academic forums, and end up resenting western society for it, than that any of those societies or speakers would change their views.
One proposed solution is for these guidelines to not prohibit sex-specific seating areas, but instead to insist not only that there is no prioritisation of one sex over the other, but also that there is a mixed seating area.
This seems to me to be a good solution, because it respects the beliefs of the Islamic community whilst keeping the event accessible to those who don't want to be separated.