University gender segregation move sparks controversy

A decision by a medical school in an Egyptian delta province to separate female and male students on practical courses has triggered concerns that the country's new Islamist rulers are moving towards curbing freedoms.

Students in the first three years at the medical school of the state-owned Mansura University said they were surprised at the start of the new academic year on 15 September when the dean ordered students to be segregated on the basis of gender.

“The student community felt optimistic when Mohammed Mursi became Egypt's first elected civilian president because he is a university professor,” said Mahmoud Abdul Fatah, a third-year student at the Mansura medical school, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood leader who took office in June.

“We thought that as a president, he would give attention to scientific research and the creation of a proper learning environment. But the dean's decision reflects attention to superficial things rather than to the elimination of problems facing students such as high fees and a shortage of scientific facilities in universities.”

After long years of suppression, Islamists have built a high profile in Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country, since a popular revolt forced Hosni Mubarak out of power more than a year ago. Fears are growing in Egypt that Islamists are planning to tighten their grip on state institutions and to enforce a strict version of Islamic Sharia law.

Dismissing the controversy as a manipulative exaggeration Dr Ihab Saad, dean of the Mansura medical school, said the segregation move was in response to a request made by female students.

“Female students repeatedly complained that they found it hard to move freely during the practical training sessions,” he said in press remarks. “All that happened was to fulfil the girls' wishes. This should make both sides feel comfortable.”

Egypt's state-backed National Council for Women has slammed the decision.

“All the justifications cited for it are unacceptable, even if they were in response to the female students' wishes,” said council chair Mervat al-Telawi.

“It would have been better if the school administration had set clear rules for proper conduct during the [practical] sessions and discipline whoever violates them," al-Telawi added in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Higher education has denied any link to the controversial segregation move.

“The minister has not made any instructions for this decision, which is illogical,” said Adli Reda, an advisor to Minister of Higher Education Mustafa Musad.

But female students at the medical school welcomed the decision.

“It is a right decision, which comes to the benefit of the educational process and students,” said Shaima Khaled, a second-year female student at the school. "Now male students will have higher concentration as they will have nothing to distract them.”

Al Azhar University, a state-owned seminary that also teaches secular subjects, is the only university in Egypt where females and males are officially separated.