Apartheid may have ended a few decades ago but its sinister ideological kin gender apartheid continues to prevail and cause much damage and disruption to women’s lives across the world.
But what exactly is gender apartheid (also called sexual apartheid or sex apartheid)? The word ‘apartheid’ means ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans. Apartheid was a policy that governed relations between South Africa’s white minority and non-white majority for much of the latter half of the 20th century, sanctioning racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites. Although the legislation that formed the foundation of apartheid had been repealed by the early 1990s, the social and economic repercussions of the discriminatory policy persisted into the 21st century.
And while the campaign against (racial) apartheid gave us a crusader like Nelson Mandela and a template for combating racial segregation and discrimination, gender apartheid continues to negatively impact women’s lives across the world in various degrees and permutations. Gender apartheid is different from sex separation (or segregation) in that the latter implies the physical, legal and cultural separation of people according to their biological sex and is not necessarily a form of discrimination.
Gender apartheid is defined as the economic and social sexual discrimination against individuals because of their gender or sex. It involves the use of either physical or legal practices to relegate individuals to subordinate positions. According to feminist scholar Phyllis Chesler (also a professor of psychology and women’s studies), the phenomenon can be defined as “practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence and which turn boys and men into the permanent guardians of their female relatives’ chastity”. Instances of gender apartheid lead not only to the social and economic disempowerment of individuals, but can also result in severe physical harm.
The most recent example of it, close to home, has been the controversy over the ‘hijab’, primarily in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, which has since threatened to spill over to the rest of the country but thankfully hasn’t, as yet.
On February 10, 2022, several feminist and civil rights democratic organisations from across the country released a statement condemning the targeting and exclusion of hijab-wearing Muslim women students in Karnataka’s educational institutions. Signed by over 1,750 individuals, including lawyers, activists and academicians, the statement said:
“Hijab is only the latest pretext to impose apartheid on and attack Muslim women, following on the heels of Hindu supremacists holding multiple ‘online auctions’ of Muslim women and making speeches calling for their sexual and reproductive enslavement. Hindu supremacist groups in coastal Karnataka have, since 2008, been unleashing violence to enforce such apartheid, attacking togetherness between Hindu and Muslim classmates, friends, lovers. Islamophobic hate crimes have been joined at the hip to patriarchal hate crimes against Muslim and Hindu women…. They (uniforms) are not intended to impose cultural uniformity on a plural country. This is why Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans not only in the classroom but even in the police and Army. This is why Hindu students wear bindi/pottu/tilak/vibhuti with school and college uniforms without comment or controversy. And likewise, Muslim women should be able to wear hijabs with their uniforms.”
Some of the signatories of the statement included Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association; student activist and Jamia research scholar Safoora Zargar; Vrinda Grover, advocate, Supreme Court of India, and Arundhati Dhuru, National Conveyor of the National Federation of Indian Women. Other signatories include organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, Awaaz-e-Nizwan, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Forum Against Oppression of Women, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Dalit Women’s Collective, National Federation of Dalit Women, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, and Feminists In Resistance.