Sunday 16 August 2009

Segregation and disapproval

Jim Fitzpatrick, a British Member of Parliament, has been in the news. He and his wife went to a Muslim wedding to which they had been invited. They found that male and female guests were to be seated in separate rooms, as happens at some but not all Muslim weddings, so they left.

Comments have centred on issues such as good manners and multiculturalism. I think that given that he wished to register his disapproval of the custom, his conduct exemplified exactly the right approach.

We should not ban such practices, or the ugly prison that is the veil. But freedom to engage in such things must be matched by freedom to criticise, to say out loud that what lies behind them is a religious tradition that perpetuates the oppression of women, and freedom to campaign hard to get people to change their ways. The tradition exists in several traditionalist forms of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. They are all the same on this point. The point with the veil is obvious. But segregated weddings and other social gatherings tend to locate community political power in the men's half, an equally oppressive practice.

Mr Fitzpatrick's reaction makes the strong criticism that it is perfectly appropriate to make, without calling for any kind of ban. This is, I think, the most appropriate way forward. There is a large area where criticism but not legal restriction is appropriate, in between the morally neutral and that which should be illegal. Critics may fervently hope that the practice they criticise should die out, but that hope is quite different from a desire to prohibit the practice.

The identification of this large area is anathema to those who wish to give religious codes of conduct the force of law. They think that the immoral should ipso facto be illegal, and their supposed direct line to God gives them entirely unjustified confidence that their view of morality is the correct one. That is why it is so dangerous when religion (as opposed to people who happen to be religious) gets its hands on political power.

Postscript added on 19 August. There is an excellent piece in the Independent here. As well as making important general points about the evils of enforced segregation, it refutes the claim that segregation at the wedding in question was the couple's personal choice and makes it clear that it was intrinsic to that venue's interpretation of Islam.

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