By Norm R. Allen Jr.
No, this is not a flashback to the days of strict racial segregation in South Africa. Rather, it is a call for an end to what is known as gender apartheid, sexual apartheid, or, as I like to call it, gender Jim Crow.
Strict separation of the sexes is often forced upon women by patriarchal men, more often than not in the name of “protecting” the “weaker sex.” This problem is most obvious among reactionary Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Under Orthodox Judaism, especially among the Hasidic sect, women are assigned inferior positions to men. In Israel, there are about 60 buses that segregate the sexes. In Jerusalem, the number 56 bus travels through a conservative Jewish neighborhood on the east side. Men are permitted to sit up front, but women are required to board through the center door and sit at the back of the bus.
Throughout the United States, Muslims are segregated by sex. In Minnesota, men and women routinely pray in separate areas in various mosques. In her 1997 book, Little X: Growing up in the Nation of Islam, Sonsyrea Tate wrote about her dissatisfaction with the gender Jim Crow of the NOI. The sexism was so strong, it caused her brother to remark, “This ain’t Islam. This is Hislam.”
In Toronto, Ontario, there is a full-blown controversy involving Muslim students at public schools. Muslims are permitted to gather for prayer. However, girls who are menstruating may not participate in the prayer sessions. Rather, they are forced to sit in the back and merely observe.
In Christianity, Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians practice gender Jim Crow. In the churches, men sit on the right side, near the Christ statue, while women sit on the left side, near the Mary statue.
On January 5, 2003, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) debated Hassanain Rajabali, a Muslim, at the Islamic Institute of New York, in Woodside, New York. The topic was “Does God Not Exist?” The men and women in the audience were segregated by sex.
This raises the question: What is the proper response to gender Jim Crow? During apartheid in South Africa, Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, Jesse Jackson, and other African American anti-apartheid activists pushed for strong action against the apartheid regime. However, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell advocated “constructive engagement” with the White rulers.
Sun City, South Africa, then, as now, was a major destination for wealthy tourists. Many major music acts played there for the large sums of money they could make. However, other musicians accused them of selling out and harming anti-apartheid efforts. This prompted musicians Little Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and others to release the record “Sun City” calling for musicians to boycott the resort.
Similarly, anti-gender Jim Crow activists should oppose the practice whenever and wherever girls and women are being harmed by it. However, is it always wrong for the sexes to separate?
In nations such as Japan, Egypt, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, and Dubai, some passenger trains have separate cars for women. This has come as a result of complaints from women of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Japan has had such cars since the early part of the 20th century. However, in Japan, segregated cars, public education, and stiffer jail sentences have not helped. On the contrary, the sexual harassment and sexual assaults have actually increased there in recent years.
What about separate schools? Some educators believe that separating the sexes makes for better education for both sexes. There are many examples of all male or all female educational institutions with great success and high graduation rates. Similarly, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played major roles in educating African Americans. However, many scholars insist that the jury is still out on whether separating the sexes in education is mostly beneficial.
Malcolm X made the distinction between separation and segregation. Separation is a choice that could be beneficial to those seeking it. However, segregation is forced upon people in an effort to elevate one group above another. For purposes of this discussion, women might seek to form separate groups to elevate themselves, oppose patriarchy, etc. However, when men seek to impose gender Jim Crow by forcing females to dress a certain way, sit at the back of the bus, pray in the basement, use inferior facilities, all good people must rise up against such unjust behavior. It does women no good when anyone tries to rationalize gender Jim Crow in the name of God or anything else.
Norm Allen is the author of African American Humanism and the Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion.