Britain was yesterday mourning the death of Nelson Mandela at his memorial in Soweto, praising him for bringing the world out of the dark times of apartheid into a more enlightened, progressive world.
Or maybe not, at least according to a group of 100+ protesters outside the Euston offices of Universities UK, who believe the higher education representative body’s new guidance facilitates “gender apartheid”, and that its chief executive Nicola Dandridge is therefore not fit for public office.
The official document (pdf, p27), intended as “guidance” for “autonomous” institutions, presents a hypothetical situation of a widely advertised speech involving a “representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group who has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world”, and who “wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender”.
It goes on to list the various complex considerations, such as equality law, freedom of expression considerations, the audience space being safe for women and ensuring that the segregation is side-by-side rather than back-to-front and that “both women and men are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”
Universities UK concludes no explicit guidance should be issued against gender segregation and that “it should therefore be borne in mind […] that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.”
They add: “[if] imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”
The guidance has also been endorsed by the National Union of Student (NUS).
As reported in The Independent, vice-president Colum McGuire said: “We fully support UUK guidance and worked with them to advise on best practice in these matters.
“We encourage our members to follow this to assess the risk of all speakers to determine the action they should take to protect students and keep them safe.”
While not as violent, policed or as substantial as the infamous Millbank student protests, university privatisation protests at the Univesity of Sussex in March or other recent protests, the sentiment among the 100 gathered in north London, on the UN’s Human Rights Day, was just as impassioned – ending with several chants such as “our tradition, struggle not submission” and “fear is your weapon, courage is ours”
The list of twelve speakers included The Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, comedian Kate Smurthwaite and joint-organiser and activist Maryam Namazie, who fled to Britain in 1980 after the suppression of the Iranian Revolution and now leads the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.
Referring to University UK’s claim that side-by-side segregation can be separate but “equal”, Ms Namazie said: “Isn’t that what the racist apartheid regime of South Africa said when it was criticised?
“We knew then, as we know now, that separate is never equal. Segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal. In this case, superior men versus inferior women.
“Universities UK say there is too much fuss over a hypothetical case study. This is far from hypothetical; we have at least 20 universities across Britain that have already allowed segregated meetings. For shame!
“University College of London, Leicester University, Northampton University…
“What Universities UK is doing is institutionalising this gender apartheid.”
She went on to decry how rights language was being used to “endorse misogyny and inequality”, question if a BNP member requesting racial segregation would be accommodated, and ask, if segregation was so central to Muslims’ belief, why they don’t segregate on public transport, the high street and in the rest of academia.
The Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) is one group to have supported the new guidance.
They organised a gender-segregated speech, Islam vs Atheism, at UCL on 9 March, which scientist and atheist activist Lawrence Krauss walked out of due to gender-segregation of the crowd – returning only after the organisers had allowed people to sit where they want.
UCL then barred the iERA from conducting speeches at the university in future, despite the group’s claims that they did not enforce the segregation, merely “facilitated” it, and a mixed area was offered.
The stance on the matter within Islam is far from uniform, however.
Journalist Ms Alibhai-Brown, a strong campaigner for multiculturalism and moderate Islam, said: “This square should be full of parents, students, student unions, feminists and Muslims. Where are they? Where are they?!
“If they don’t come out, we’re losing this battle because of absolute cowardice on the part of people who should care much more than they do. I am so disappointed – I wanted more [people].
“This is why this building [University UK’s] thinks we are nothing; thinks this protest is nothing. We’ve got to move and not let this catch on.”
And, in a very forthright written statement, Imam Dr. Taj Hargey from the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford, said: “This trendy gender apartheid in the UK is advanced by mindless militants who are financed by malignant petrodollars to recreate a mythical 7th-century dispensation that is structured around the false notion of rigid public demarcation between men and women.”
There were some comic moments in the speeches, however, such as when Helen Palmer, of the Central London Humanist Group, said Universities UK’s guidance seemed a “comedy ruse” to promote Monty Python’s reunion.
“Women queuing at the front of a lecture theatre wearing false beards, saying [mock manly voice] I’m a man and so is my friend Daisy…uh, I mean Dave. Dave is definitely a man, so we can sit here can’t we? Definitely.”
“But this isn’t satire – this is Britain in 2013. This is 100 years since the Suffragetes went to die for women’s rights in the UK.
“This is the memorial of the day when the amazing Nelson Mandela has passed away. Have we not learnt anything from history and the sacrifices and struggles of these incredibly brave people, fighting against all forms of segregation for equality?
“I cannot think of a single case of segregation on religious grounds that has had a positive outcome.”
And Kate Smurthwaite talked about a Twitter argument she had with someone who called her a “white supremacist” and was angry that she would “dare, in his words, to speak for Muslim women”.
She said: “He has already spotted the irony in what he was saying, in arguing about which one of us is better qualified to speak on behalf of Muslim women, which for the record I’m really not trying to do.”
“But if I have to, I’m pretty sure his imaginary friend is outranked by my vagina.”
Universities UK said their guidance is merely hypothetical, not prescriptive, and allows institutions to reject segregation for reasons other than free speech.