"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Nicola Dandridge attempts to justify gender apartheid

Nicola Dandridge is the chief executive of Universities UK the organisation that has issued the appalling advice to colleges hosting religious speakers who require their audiences to be segregated by gender, and she appeared on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Program where she attempted to defend, to presenter Justin Webb, the assertion that gender segregation was justified under certain circumstances.
Nicola Dandridge
Her argument was framed as a human rights and freedom of speech issue limited to occasions when the audience or participants of a particular meeting or lecture had agreed that gender segregated seating was appropriate or desirable. She was adamant that this was entirely different to segregation by race (which in any event would be “illegal”) and that UUK were prepared to publish legal advice that stated that refusing such a gender segregated meeting would be a violation of free speech. Interestingly, the only politician prepared to comment on the issue was former Home Secretary Jack Straw who very much doubted that a challenge in the high court to such a refusal would have a chance of succeeding. He also confessed to being “shocked and appalled by the decision of Universities UK”.
The first thing to say is that the original case study does not make any reference to the wishes of the participants in a meeting but only supposes that the visiting speaker is insisting on a segregated audience. That Nicola Dandridge reframed the advice in this way suggests that UUK are less sure of their ground but are not prepared to backtrack. But whatever, the argument still does not fly. There is no universal human right to non-association and nor should there be. If you are the kind of person who does not want the company of a certain gender, creed or race, your only right is to avoid places where those individuals go. Universities are open publicly funded spaces and whether or not the speaker is a Muslim or Haredi Jew, or even if most of the audience are, the fundamental principle should be one of equal and open access to all parts of the auditorium.
Dandridge also insisted that universities were not being advised to “enforce” gender segregation, but this is disingenuous. Social norms will always compel people to follow the stated protocols and if you happen to be, for example, a Muslim woman in that situation there is zero chance that you will risk the disapprobation of your peers by bucking the system. The very act of offering segregated seating, even if mixed areas are also available, will mean that at least a proportion of the audience will be compelled to segregate whether they really want to or not.
In no other secular public space would this be considered an option. Try and imagine a cinema, a cafĂ©, a train or a waiting room where the sexes were banished to opposite sides and you’ll get the point. It is not enough to claim that no-one is being disadvantaged. O.K women are not being sent to the back of the bus here but in the week when we are honouring the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela it is apposite to recall that “separate but equal” was the apologetics of apartheid and should have no place in 21st century society.


  1. Revised slightly following an English lesson from Ophelia Benson

  2. Whenever I read or hear the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson racist phrase “separate but equal”, I immediately remember the excellent Brown vs. Board of Education reply: "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As it is with race, so it is with gender. Whether religionists acknowledge it or not, separate seating for women is inherently unequal.