Many people will have read about the controversial debating event hosted at University College London, which hit the news after Lawrence Krauss threatened to walk out of the debate in protest of enforced gender segregation in the audience.
Krauss’ opponent that day, Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, came to Aston University to speak three years ago. I wrote about it at the time, as it took place during my time running the Aston Humanist Society. Whilst the current controversy surrounded the segregation of women, at the event in 2009, which Ophelia Benson picked up and summarised on the Butterflies and Wheels Freethought Blogs, women and men weren’t segregated. Instead:
The Q&A session started with the announcement that whilst the Brothers in the audience were allowed to address the speaker directly, the Sisters had to write their question on a slip of paper which was then passed down to the front and vetted before being answered. Unbelievable. Perhaps what is more unbelievable is that the practice is being defended, and not labelled the outright misogynistic behaviour that it is. This was posted on the Islamic Society group page on Facebook:
“Just one side-note regarding the point which one of the atheists (I don't know who) raised regarding our sisters etc. The reason why sisters write questions on paper is because many of them feel shy, its called "hayaa". Its not because they're less than us!!! And also, there were so many brothers sitting on the floor, can we say: Muslims disrespect men because they had to sit on the floor?? If he didnt know, thats ok, but he should have asked. Isnt asking the cure to the disease of ignorance?”
For a start, ALL the sisters were told to write their questions on paper, not just the shy ones. I can’t imagine that none of the 40-odd women in the room were so shy they couldn’t put their hand up. And surely a room full of fellow, sympathetic Muslims is the best place to overcome your shyness? Yes, asking is the cure to the disease of ignorance. It’s just a shame that the Brothers seems to be keeping the cure for themselves. Around 10 bits of paper were passed to the front and not a single question from them was answered. In fact he actually chastised one woman for ’‘writing an essay’.
Following the controversy, University College London have now set in place a ban on the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), the organisation responsible for the event and insisting on the segregation, preventing them holding events on their campus. UCL, however, has not been absolved of blame for the event; it turns out their staff actively enforced rather than opposed the segregation.
According to the schedule posted on Tzortzis’ webpage, he was due to speak at Salford University on the 12th of March, but the event was cancelled: “Salford University told us that “this event is no longer taking place at the University tomorrow.” (Taken from an update on Freethought Blogs; Tzortzis' current page makes no mention of this).
I had hoped that Aston University would follow suit and stop the event that was due to take place during the Aston Islamic Society’s Islam Awareness Week, but it looks like the event went ahead yesterday (the 18th of March).
I don’t know if they tried to gender segregate the audience again, or if they pulled the same trick with getting women to write their questions on a bit of paper and then ignoring them. I can’t find any reports on the Aston event, so we’ll not hear about it other than from what are likely to be uncritical reports from members of the Islamic Society, or boastful tweets from Tzortzis that “another brother had embraced Islam”.
I’m disappointed and saddened that the event took place, but I also lament the fact that I never managed to set the Aston Humanist Society on strong enough foundations that it could survive without me and the core group that got it off the ground. With no secular/atheism/humanism-focused society on Aston’s campus, it looks like Tzortzis went unchallenged.
Tzortzis’ Islam Awareness Tour has certainly done what it set out to do. I hope that the controversial awareness that he’s achieved will be his undoing and that in the future, more societies and universities will be reluctant to host backwards, anti-equality, anti-science groups and speakers.