Joan Smith: This shameful gender segregation

An MP who walked out of a Muslim wedding acted out of principle
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two countries, two weddings, two outcomes. In the first instance, a minister in the British government has been accused of bad manners for leaving a Muslim wedding in east London when he was asked to sit in a separate room from his wife. In the second, 41 women and children died when fire broke out in the women's marquee at a wedding party in Kuwait.

Reports of the latter event are hugely distressing, while only feelings seem to have been hurt in the row involving the minister, Jim Fitzpatrick. But the tragedy in the Gulf is not as remote from events in Whitechapel as it first seems.

Fitzpatrick has been depicted, wrongly as far as I can tell, as storming out of the wedding at the London Muslim Centre, which is part of the East London Mosque. The MP for Poplar and Canning Town, who is also minister for food and farming, says he didn't cause a fuss but left when it became clear that his wife would have to sit in a different part of the building. Muslim organisations have attacked Fitzpatrick, saying he should have respected the wishes of the bridal couple, and they defend gender-segregation at weddings and social events as a matter of "personal choice".

It isn't. As the ghastly fire in the Gulf state demonstrates, insisting that men and women occupy different spaces is common in states where Islamic law is in operation. At last weekend's wedding, male and female guests were directed to different tents and children sent to sit among the women, which is why no men died in the conflagration.

This kind of segregation is often presented as a custom which has nothing to do with religion, but it's far more common in countries where people subscribe to religious ideas about purity and the need to curb sexual expression. In secular countries, the idea that men and woman should not mix socially – whether in public spaces such as nightclubs or at private parties – is regarded as at best out-of-date and at worst offensive.

Treating women differently on grounds of gender is no more acceptable than discriminating on grounds of race; it emerges from an ideology of difference and sexual danger which has caused endless suffering across the world. Such ideas are certainly not confined to Islam although it's just emerged that Afghanistan's useless president, Hamid Karzai, is trying to win votes with a law allowing Shia men to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex.

In the case of the London Muslim Centre, it couldn't be clearer that the policy of segregating female wedding guests is ideological; it says so on its website. "Wedding hire at the LMC is only available for Islamic weddings," it warns. "Hirers should ensure they require a wedding that complies with Islamic Shariah in which there is no free mixing between sexes and where proper Islamic dress code and etiquettes are observed." There's a paragraph about "segregated facilities" and families have a choice of hiring separate halls on different floors or a single room with a partition down the middle.

There's no way of squaring this with any notion of universal human rights, and Fitzpatrick's response seems to me both polite and principled. Years ago I argued against gender segregation in bars and golf clubs, and I'm no keener on it when it happens in religious buildings. It's a blatant form of discrimination and I wish more politicians and religious leaders would get up and say so.