Christina Patterson: The limits of multi-culturalism

When I first moved to Stamford Hill, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention

Wednesday 28 July 2010 00:00 BST

I would like to teach some of my neighbours some manners. I would like, for example, to say to the man who drove the wrong way up a one-way street on Sunday night, while chatting away on his mobile phone, and to the man who nearly backed into me yesterday, while also chatting on his mobile phone, and to the man who drove into my friend's van last week, while also chatting on his mobile phone, that while they clearly enjoy the art of conversation, it's one that doesn't combine brilliantly with driving.

And I would like to say to the man who drove the wrong way into the car park at Morrisons, and then hooted me, and who parked in a mother and baby slot when he was on his own, and the car park was practically empty, that it seemed a rather aggressive thing to do, and also rather lazy, and I would like to say to the man from whom I bought some paper cups, and who handled my money as if it had been dipped in anthrax, that it wouldn't kill him to say "please" or "thank you", and I would like to say to the fishmonger who asked my (black) friend whether he really wanted to buy some fish from his shop, that you should probably assume that if someone is asking for fish in your shop, then the answer is in the affirmative.

And I would like to say to the little boy who sat bang in the middle of two seats on the bus and who, when I tried to sit next to him, leapt up as if infection from the ebola virus was imminent, that it does slightly make one feel like a pariah, and I would like to say to the women who roam the streets with double-decker pushchairs and vast armies of children, that it's sometimes nice to allow someone else to get past, and I would like to say to all these people that I don't care if they wear frock-coats, and funny suits and hats covered in plastic bags, and insist on wearing their hair in ringlets (if they're male) or covered up by wigs (if they're female), but I do think they could treat their neighbours with a bit more courtesy and just a little bit more respect.

When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention. I didn't realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad.

It also makes me sad to see the three-year-olds in hijab, who want, of course, to look like Mummy (all three-year-olds want to look like Mummy) but who, in any case, soon won't have much choice, and who are being taught that their tiny bodies, and their lovely hair, are things to be protected from the male gaze. It makes me sad to see young women in the niqab. I accept that some of them choose to wear it because they, too, have absorbed the message that they are a walking sexual provocation, and that this way they can shield themselves, and preserve themselves "as a precious jewel" for their husband, and maybe reclaim an identity that they don't want to lose, and maybe even stick two fingers up at a country which is, according to new leaks this week, bombing quite a lot of their innocent brothers and sisters, and maybe even, get some (secretly enjoyable) attention. I accept all this, but it still makes me sad.

(The young women, by the way, who were asked to leave that bus last week, might remember that Russell Square isn't a place that has great associations for any bus driver, and that they're living in a country in which covering your face has traditionally been a practice undertaken by criminals and terrorists and people who have something to hide, and that if they choose to dress this way, they might expect to be treated with some suspicion, just as women wearing shorts in a Middle Eastern country might expect to be treated like prostitutes.)

All these things make me sad, but I accept that people should, except in certain professional situations which involve dealing with the public, be allowed to wear whatever they like, and that laws which prevent this are self-defeating, and that you can't stop parents, or rabbis, teaching little boys that adult women shouldn't even be brushed against on a bus, and I accept that some of these things are an inevitable consequence of a modern, and in many ways magnificent, multi-cultural society.

But there's one thing I will never accept. In the next few weeks, between 500 and 2,000 British schoolgirls – yes, British schoolgirls – will be sent abroad, ostensibly on holiday, and taken to the home of a woman who will, using an often dirty razor, and no anaesthetic, slice off their labia, and clitoris, and then, using sewing thread or horse-hair and an often dirty needle, stitch their vaginas closed. Sometimes, the girls faint. Sometimes, they die. But the people who do this to them (in East Africa and India and Pakistan and the Middle East) believe that it's what God wants. They believe that it promotes "cleanliness" and "chastity". Oh, and men's sexual pleasure. But not, for obvious reasons, women's.

Female circumcision has been illegal in Britain since 1985. Since 2003, it has also been illegal to take girls out of the country to have them "cut" abroad. The maximum penalty is 14 years. So far, there have been no prosecutions. Not a single one. I don't care if evidence is difficult to get, and I don't care if parents think they're doing the right thing for their children, and I don't care if it's a "sensitive" issue. This is a total and utter disgrace. Parents are being allowed to mutilate their children, and the institutions in this country are doing sweet FA.

There is, I'm sure, nothing in the Koran to indicate that hacking off a girl's labia is an all-round great idea, just as there's nothing in the Torah to say that Volvos should always be driven with a mobile phone in hand, and goyim should be treated with contempt. People will believe what they believe, but a civilised society will have laws to indicate what is acceptable in that society and what isn't, and it will act on those laws. A properly civilised society would also ensure that children are not subject to the crazed whims of their parents, and hived off into "faith schools" where they're taught that the world was created in seven days, or that they need special gadgets to switch on the lights on a Saturday, or that women who show their face are sluts.

A properly civilised society would accept that while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can't have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can't have either, but have, instead, a system of compulsory state secular education, in which children learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none, and are taught about all religions, but also that the culture of the country they're living in was, for 2,000 years, largely based on one.

But we, alas, are living in a country whose government believes that schools should be "free" – free to abandon the national curriculum, free to adopt any damned framework they fancy – and that parents should be free, with no state intervention at all, to teach their children whatever sexist, racist, dangerous, violent and yes, ill-mannered, nonsense that they like.

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