Call Out the Women

Johann Hari had a good column the other day.

But in among the bad reasons for opposing multiculturalism – hinted at by Davis – there are some good reasons, and it is time we overcame our nervousness and heard them. I am the child of an immigrant myself, and I believe we should take more immigrants and refugees into Britain, not fewer. But it is increasingly clear that, forged with the best of intentions, multiculturalism has become a counter-productive way of welcoming people to our country. It promotes not a melting pot where we all mix together but a segregated society of sealed-off cultures, each sticking to its own.

Which used to sound good, or at least okay. Vibrant, colourful, pluralistic, all that (despite the lack of mixing, which is a contradiction that should have been glaring but mostly apparently wasn’t). Now it doesn’t sound so okay any more.

…funding for local projects – from community centres to schools – was invariably conducted on ethnic lines: a “Muslim” school there, a “white” community centre here. Nobody could bid for cash unless they were appealing to a particular “community” – rather than the community as a whole. Faith schools made the problem even worse. Places where different ethnic groups could meet and become friends, develop sexual relationships or have rows, simply did not exist. Since it was official multicultural policy that different cultures should be preserved rather than blended, spliced and interwoven, this all seemed rational. But there is another dysfunctional aspect to multiculturalism. In practice, it acts as though immigrant cultures are unchanging and should be preserved in aspic. This forces multiculturalists into alliance with the most conservative and unpleasant parts of immigrant communities.

Just so. What I’ve been saying here like a broken record. And not only as though immigrant cultures are unchanging, but also as if they are monolithic, as if every individual within each culture has exactly the same interests, needs and desires as every other. So convenient – the man wants to tell the woman and girls what to do, the woman and girls want to be told what to do. The man wants to subordinate, the woman and girls want to be subordinated. So convenient, and so very unlikely. Yet it is such an entrenched assumption. I heard it yet again – from a woman – on Talking Politics on Radio 4 on Saturday – ‘some families prefer the women not to work,’ she said. That’s a stupid way of putting it – as if families automatically spoke with one voice and wanted the same thing. Maybe everyone in a given family wants that, but you can’t just assume it – obviously. Sometimes – often – it’s simply a case of the man not allowing it. Other times it’s a case of the woman not being equipped to work because of not speaking English, not being trained, and the like, and the man keeping it that way. It’s simple-minded, blind, and sentimental to assume that locked-up women are in that situation because they want to be.

All this time, we could have been helping women and gay people from immigrant communities to enjoy the fruits of a free society. This would have created interesting and more progressive versions of Islam that would fight back against jihadism far more effectively than a thousand government initiatives or police raids. Instead, we have been inadvertently helping the conservative men who want to keep these groups in a subordinate position. We have been acting as though there is one thing called “Muslim culture”, and elderly imams or enraged, misogynistic young men are its only voice.

Bingo. Well, I do my best. I publish Maryam and Azam and Homa and Azar, and hope the major media will someday start asking them to talk on Radio 4 and write for the Guardian and the Independent. (The m.m. do at least talk to Irshad Manji a lot these days, which is definitely a start.)

A few weeks ago, it was driven home to me how wrong this is. I wrote about how the best way to defeat jihadists was to empower Muslim women, and I was inundated with e-mails from Muslim women, many explaining how the logic of multiculturalism weakened their hand.

That was this one.

The best way to undermine the confidence and beliefs of jihadists is to trigger a rebellion of Muslim women, their mothers and sisters and daughters. Where Muslim women are free to fight back against jihadists, they are already showing incredible tenacity and intellectual force. In Iraq, mass protests by women stopped the governing council from introducing sharia law in 2003. In Europe and America, from Irshad Manji to my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Muslim women are offering the most effective critiques of Islamism. The jihadists themselves know that Islamic feminism is the greatest threat to their future…

And it doesn’t help, to have multiculturalists cheering victories for the subordination of women. As one of the emails Hari got shows…

My younger sisters go to Denbigh High School [in Luton] which was famous in the headlines last year because a girl pupil went to the High Court for her right to wear the jilbab [a long body-length shroud]. Shabinah [the girl who took the case] saw it as a great victory for Muslim women … but what happened next shows this is not a victory for us. My sisters, and me when I was younger, could always tell our dad and uncles that we weren’t allowed to wear the jilbab. Once the rules were changed, that excuse was not possible any more so my sisters have now been terrified into wearing this cumbersome and dehumanising garment all day against their wishes. Now most girls in the school do the same. They don’t want to, but now they cannot resist community pressure … I am frightened somebody is going to fight for the right to wear a burqa next and then my sisters will not even be able to show their faces.

Many on the left hailed Shabinah Begum’s victory as a victory for religious freedom. I disagreed at the time, and that email makes it appear that I was more right than I wanted to be. (I don’t think it was widely known at the time that Hizb ut-Tahrir was behind the Begum case.) Sometimes ‘religious freedom’ equates to the coercion of others – so is it still freedom then? I would say no.

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