Written by Student Rights on 12 December 2013 at 4pm

Sky News: Sex Discrimination: Can Separate Be Equal?

By Tim Marshall,

12 December 2013

On Tuesday I spent much of the day watching the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, a human being who spent his life fighting against segregation.

It was International Human Rights Day.

That evening I was driving through central London, noticed a small demonstration, a few photographers, and the glare of a TV camera light.

So I pulled over and joined perhaps 100 people outside the Universities UK (UUK) building. They also were demonstrating against segregation.

Last month, UUK published guidelines saying that if an external speaker at a university wanted to segregate men and women during a lecture, then that should be acceptable.

The National Union of Students (NUS) agreed that religious rights trumped women's rights to sit where they wish. Both organisations say that the decision is not discriminatory.

The report does not specify that if such a scenario ensued it would be because of a demand from a radical Muslim speaker or student group.

But everyone knows that is what lies behind the guidelines and some of the speakers at the demonstration said they had been on the end of streams of abuse

UUK have tangled themselves in knots trying to balance discriminating on religious grounds against discriminating on gender grounds, and end up arguing that because women would be seated one on side of a room, and not at the back of a room, therefore, they would not be discriminated against.

The strength of this argument could be tested if instead of demanding that women sit in certain areas, a speaker demanded that gay people had to be removed from the midst of the audience.

It could be argued on religious grounds that homosexuality was so abhorrent to the speaker that they would only speak if gays were separated from the rest.

I find it difficult to believe the UUK would issue guidelines saying that was acceptable.

So why is segregating women okay? The rationale appears to be to uphold deeply held religious and cultural beliefs and thus those people rights.

But as argued, if those deeply held beliefs required gays or black people to sit to one side, they would be challenged, probably by the UUK, the NUS and a lot more than 100 people.

All this is hypothetical you might say. But it's not. The Student Rights group has done research suggesting that gender separation has already occurred or been called for on about 50 occasions at 21 universities. More will follow.

At the rally, the demonstrators were of the view that what they called abhorrent views were being accepted because the universities wanted to ensure they attracted enough fee paying students from South Asia.

Mosques, synagogues and churches can have their own rules, but Britain's institutions of higher learning are supposed to be places for the free exchange of ideas for all.

Ideas based on a fear of women's sexuality could indeed be part of that, but if they are to be discussed, surely it should be on an equal basis without segregation. 

That argument accepts that the mixing of the sexes is a positive thing and part of freedoms won over centuries, which are indeed the overwhelming view prevalent in the UK, and a right enshrined in law.

But the UUK and the NUS are pushing the other way.

'Separate but equal' was the lie the South African apartheid regime pedalled for decades. Only the stupid and the bigoted ever bought it.

Mandela never did.