Earlier this year, I was in the Emirates to give a lecture and was invited to visit the school of architecture where one of my hosts taught. Segregated by gender, the place was a Foucault fantasy made concrete. On one side of the building lay the studios and classrooms for women students and on the other — in mirror image — the rooms for the men. Between them were faculty offices, all of which had two doors, one to each side. The dean — natty in Armani — explained to me (as if the whole thing made sense) that the office doors were locked on the women’s side on Mondays and those on the men’s opened so male students could enter for meetings. On Tuesdays, the configuration was reversed. When my colleague proposed an academic exchange, I demurred, unwilling to contemplate the discriminatory logistics.
In June — the 40th anniversary of my college graduation — I thought back to those halcyon days and remembered that one of the reasons I chose the college I did was for its “co-education.” As a progressive-minded teen, I thought it was absurd that places like Yale and Princeton were simply for boys: I couldn’t imagine living in such a weird environment for four years, marinating in a pool of upper-crust testosterone. This recollection arrested my bien pensant liberal bile at the Gulf school’s setup, reminding me that it wasn’t long ago that our most prestigious universities were predicated on an even more extreme form of gender separation. A little of my self-righteousness ebbed, not at the thing itself but at the idea that such an arrangement was cast in stone and intractable. Indeed, we use such notions to demonize the Muslim other, as unsusceptible to change, forever fixed in its ways.