By now many people will be aware of the unfortunate controversy surrounding the latest IERA ‘Big Debate’ at which their workhorse and front-man Hamza Tzortzis debated celebrity atheist Professor Lawrence Krauss. The event has become notorious for a ‘gender segregation’ controversy, as Krauss stormed out, refusing to speak at a ‘segregated’ event. He was coaxed back in but the circumstances of his departure and return are unclear: the Atheist contingent claim that the event was segregated and that this was enforced. IERA say that they provided different seating areas, women, men, mixed and couples and that people were free to choose.
The incident was widely reported in the national press through ‘The Guardian’ newspaper and even the Archbishop of Atheism, Richard Dawkins himself chimed in, tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?’ and advising people to not be squeamish of being accused of Islamophobia. He further opined that ‘Heads should roll’ (the Saudis would no doubt approve).
This unfortunate incident brings to light something far more important though: IERA’s raison d’etre and their mandate from Muslims (or lack thereof).
Whatever the specifics of the gender segregation of this particular event, one thing is clear to anyone who has followed the rise of IERA over the past four years: They never have any female public speakers. More specifically, they never hold an event at which a female speaker addresses men or even a mixed audience. Ever. This includes their ‘Dawah training’ and retreats for new Muslims, where a male instructor will speak to a segregated crowd or even perhaps a mixed crowd, but never a woman to a mixed crowd. In fact, iERA have had ‘sisters only’ conferences with but never one with female only speakers (http://www.iera.org.uk/seedsofchange/faq.html).
They have held events such as the one at UCL where a man addresses a mixed audience. But never a woman addressing a male or mixed audience. Not only that, we cannot even find a picture of a woman on their website, which is nonetheless full photos of their speakers, events and students. Their website clearly states that the females in their ‘speakers bureau’ will only address a female audience (http://www.iera.org.uk/our_work2_1.html). Interestingly, the men are free to speak to any audience they like.
In the 2011 ‘Twins of Faith’ conference (http://www.iera.org.uk/event.html), out of 11 speakers, not a single woman was present though there were numerous overseas representatives and at least four Saudi graduates.
The rigid nature of their stance is further evidenced by the advert for the ‘Seeds of Change Conference’ held for women in 2012 (http://www.iera.org.uk/seedsofchange/faq.html), which features five female and three male speakers, but which was open to women only and most strikingly has an advert showing full colour pictures of the male speakers but only a faceless avatar of the women (some of whom, such as Lauren Booth were television personalities, so one assumes they would not object to a photo of themselves).
I am not here to get into the specifics of gender segregation in Islam or to prove that it is legitimate or illegitimate. However, the unfortunate fact is that IERA seem to be interested in just such dogmatic and sectarian jurisprudential enforcement, despite their self-proclaimed mandate to call to ‘generic Islam’ and ‘monotheism’. It is indeed true that IERA nowhere state that they are practitioners of the view that women cannot speak before a male or mixed audience, but their actual practice makes it clear that they are insistent on it nevertheless, just the same as they are not supposed to be affiliated with any particular ‘brand’ of Islam, but in their entire history, they have seemingly failed to give a platform to any speaker opposing the Salafi/Wahhabi position. Ever.
Both of these observations may be mere coincidences but this is difficult to believe. It seems that the latest incident is in some part just a case of IERA being challenged on their unstated practice of gender segregation of a rather strange kind: where male speaker may have access to a female audience but women do not get a public platform to address men.
Since IERA are there to ‘give the call to Islam’, it seems unbefitting for them to engage in jurisprudential controversies or sectarian preferences of this type. Even if they are exonerated from this latest debacle, it stands that despite the presence of numerous talented female Muslim speakers and intellectuals in the U.K (for example, we even have scholarly authorities such as Ruqqayah Waris Maqsood and Aisha Bewley, women who have translated the Quran and Hadith into the English language), IERA seem to find only men to address their mixed events, often not even from the U.K but further afield (most frequently individuals who have studied in Saudi Arabia).
Would it be so hard then to find a female speaker from abroad if the list of female U.K talent was inexplicably so inadequate?
The worrying thing is that less well funded Dawah organisations have no problem attracting and utilising female speakers, having numerous female instructors and even high profile international Islamic conferences hosted by British Muslim women. Some highly orthodox Sunni organisations have female debaters and public personalities (interestingly they also seem to lack the kind of ‘Saudi scholarship’ predilection shown at IERA conferences such as the aforementioned ‘Twins of Faith’). Indeed, many of the best known British Muslims are women such as Yvonne Ridley, who often speaks at mixed gatherings and on television.
I am not denying the entirely legitimate right of women or men who wish to segregate or not address mixed audiences to do so. But likewise one should allow the practice of those who are happy to be addressed by Islamic female speakers, just as iERA allow unrelated men to address an all girl audience.
So although Dawkins is typically hysterical in asking ‘Who the hell do Muslims think they are?’, we Muslims could do well to ask ourselves ‘Who on earth do IERA think they are?’