This weekend, as people mourned the death and celebrated the life of that enemy of apartheid, Nelson Mandela, I hope they spared a thought for the brave Brits currently waging war on another, apparently equally pernicious form of apartheid: gender segregation in universities. Certainly the critics of Universities UK’s guidance on gender segregation on campus – which said it might sometimes be acceptable if an external speaker refuses to address a non-segregated audience – hilariously fancy that they are following in Mandela’s footsteps.
So at last week’s London demo against Universities UK’s guidance, the hundred or so protesters promiscuously overused the A-word, waving placards saying ‘End gender apartheid’. One news report pointed out that the protest was ‘purposefully held… on the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial’. One of the speakers, from the feminist campaign group Southall Black Sisters, compared herself to Mandela. ‘I stand here reminded of the heroic struggle waged against racial apartheid in South Africa’, she said, ‘and yet find myself protesting against another form of apartheid’. When UK Universities eventually withdrew its guidance, following the intervention of PM David Cameron, former Tory MP Louise Mensch wrote a celebratory column saying the anti-segregation campaigners had shown that all our Mandela tributes were ‘more than words’.
Oh dear. This just might be the most cringe-inducing case of inappropriate moral equivalence of the whole of 2013. Let us try to segregate fact from fiction. Apartheid in South Africa was enforced on every single black person in the country, by law and brute force. The kind of gender segregation on British campuses that Universities UK was talking about is mostly voluntary and extraordinarily rare, being carried out at a handful of tiny Islamic Society meetings. Apartheid in South Africa lasted for 50 years. Universities UK’s guidance on gender segregation on campus – no laws or diktats – lasted three weeks. Mandela and others spent the best part of 30 years in jail for daring to criticise apartheid. Our brave warriors against sex-divided meetings on campus spent two hours in the rain on a protest in Tavistock Square before eventually getting their way.
For the critics of Universities UK to compare themselves to warriors against apartheid in South Africa brings to mind the teenager who evokes William Wilberforce when his mum insists he tidy his bedroom. Indeed, the whole campaign against Universities UK’s guidance on gender segregation has highlighted some big problems with what passes for humanism today. Largely led by those who define themselves as secular, rational, Enlightened critics of religious extremism and intolerance, the anti-segregation campaign has revealed that modern-day humanists understand little about where the true threat to Enlightenment values is coming from today, and are happier roleplaying in self-aggrandising dramatic re-enactments of earlier campaigns against authoritarian backwardness than they are getting to grips with the real forces currently denting reasoned universal values.
It is true that the advice of Universities UK – an advocacy organisation for all universities in Britain – was bad. The main moral error it made was to say that even public meetings on campus may potentially be segregated. This is unacceptable. It is one thing for religious groups and private societies on campus or off campus to practise gender segregation; that is their faith-based prerogative and no external force should have the authority to tell them to do otherwise. But it’s another thing entirely for a meeting in the public sphere to be split along gender lines. In public settings, whether buses, cinemas, restaurants, universities, the world of work or town squares, people ought to be treated equally, and the beliefs of no religious or political group should be allowed to override such equality.