Boycotting All-Male Panels and Speaker Events?

Is it a problem if a panel at a conference or a speaker event has only male speakers? Is this yet another manifestation of patriarchal domination and the silencing of female voices?

For those who are calling for such boycotts, my question is this: Are you just wanting more female representation or, in addition to that, are you in principle against gender segregation as found in traditional Islamic ethics?

First a disclaimer. Sure, I think for certain events and panels, there are qualified and available female academics, intellectuals, activists, etc., that should be invited. For some highly specialized topics, there may be a dearth of qualified individuals, let alone qualified individuals who are also of a specific gender, and not much can be done in those cases. Regardless, from our perspective as Muslims, we know that even in the Quran, there are some ayat in which Allah explicitly mentions both men and women, using the masculine and feminine iterations even though the impersonal masculine pronouns and noun forms grammatically also are implicitly inclusive of both men and women.

“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women…”

In the same way, for some topics and some events, organizers should go out of their way to include a female panelist or a separate parallel event, because that representation is needed in some form in our communities. Furthermore, Muslim women and young girls today really need that kind of acknowledgment, just like the Sahabiyyat needed that in the time of the Prophet (s).

BUT, and this is a big “but,” the activists usually calling for these kinds of boycotts and protesting any given panel or event without female representation typically have a big problem with the whole concept of gender segregation in the first place. We should be aware of this because if we are not careful, we could throw out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, in our attempt to address important and legitimate concerns — namely, the rights of women and the need to combat the false accusation that traditional Islam is inherently anti-women — we forget another important part of our religion — gender segregation.

Gender segregation is something that all societies throughout time have recognized up until today, though many traditional distinctions have all but been eroded away. For example, other than at the most hyper-liberal university campuses, most public restrooms and locker rooms are still segregated by male and female. Why should that be? From a purely secular perspective, what reason is there that justifies this sentiment that men and women use separate facilities? It’s not like the body is anything to be ashamed of! It’s not like we believe in anything like honor or propriety! And anyway, this whole way of thinking about it is gender-binary-centric! What about people who don’t fall neatly into male and female genders?! Etc., etc.

In truth, liberal secularism and modern third-wave feminism have nothing to say about these intuitions of sexual modesty, propriety, decency, and honor that the vast majority of people deeply feel before TV, movies, social media, even psychologists tell us that we’re weird if we don’t lose our virginity to a grade school peer and we’re “socially stunted” if our “sex-life” as an unmarried person is nonexistent.

Islam’s model of gender segregation is a central part of its ethics of social engagement. It is important that “marriageable” men and women don’t casually mix because there are obvious dangers and severe social ills that are directly caused by that. Again, this is something virtually every society recognized and we see that in the historical record, but modern feminists interpreted that segregation as domination, i.e., that men locked women up in order to exercise power over them. That is certainly one interpretation of social history, a peculiar and uncharitable one in my opinion. If present society is any indication, the last thing men as a category want is to lock away women (assuming “they” even would be able to do such a thing unilaterally against women’s wills). If anything, the average man wants as much access to women as possible. To put it mildly, there are good arguments to be made as well as empirical evidence to indicate that the lack of gender segregation benefits men in the sense of their short-term desires and harms women in terms of their long-term interests.

Anyway, this is a much longer argument that I won’t spell out here. The point is that gender segregation is an important Islamic value and for SOME conferences or events, it is perfectly legitimate and acceptable if the organizers feel like sticking to all-male or all-female for panelists and speakers. Why not? Granted the disclaimer above, there is no need for this juvenile witch hunt and shrill cries of “Patriarchy!” every time an MSA or community board puts together an event and the two speakers they managed to book happen to be of one gender. Even if deliberate, there are legitimate jurisprudential differences of opinion on the issue and I’m tired of one side unfairly being accused of base misogyny.

The real problem is lack of female representation in some communal activities, and there are a variety of ways that that lack can be addressed other than having a female on stage in front of everyone when that is not something a particular mosque or community is comfortable with from the perspective of modesty. For the Sahaba after the passing of the Prophet (s), the Mothers of the Believers were active teaching the community of Muslims, both women and men, but they took the appropriate steps to maintain proper boundaries (e.g., teaching behind a curtain). Today, too, there are solutions that can be facilitated without compromising core principles.

Practical Advice: Transparency on Both Sides

As for those who boycott an all-male panelist event, they should clarify if they are just wanting more female representation or, in addition to that, they are on principle against gender segregation as found in traditional Islamic ethics. Some of these activists even bristle at the idea of women praying behind men, so clearly they have a more far-reaching issue and there may not be enough common ground to even have a productive conversation about this vis-a-vis any given event.

As for those who are organizing these events, especially highly visible events that use community or organizational funds, transparency is also needed. What is the decision-making process behind selecting panelists? Is gender segregation a factor? How can gender segregation be upheld while also addressing the issue of female Muslim representation, scholarship, and role-models, things our community these days desperately needs?