This is a guest post by Jobeda Ali
Last week, Jim Fitzpatrick was lambasted in the press for walking out of a segregated wedding. The interesting thing here is how the story has proliferated about a white man being rude to minorities, and somehow manages to avoid talking about the injustice he was protesting against.
Gender segregation is a tool for the institutional subjugation of women and the reduction of women to sexual distractions that society (the domain of men) must be protected from. Of course this is not a deliberate calculation when people decide to segregate an event, they would rather call it modesty or tradition, but that destructive perception of women as a threat to society is what is at the heart of segregating the genders. The practice directly and subliminally reinforces to both the women and men present that women must be kept away from men, and that reinforcement impacts on many other gender relations in society from the domestic to the political.
This is not about keeping men and women apart, but about keeping women away from men â€“ a very important distinction because it maintains that society is the domain of men, and women are just visitors in it at the whim of men. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that segregation inherently perpetuates hierarchy.
Historical racial segregation did not afford black and white people the same quality of venues and services. If proponents of gender segregation believe in different but equal as they purport, how come every segregated wedding or birthday Iâ€™ve been to ALWAYS puts women in the lesser room, often the basement room? Imagine this were applied at weddings with mainly white people rather than brown people. Imagine white women being told to sit in the basement room while the white men feast in the grand hall. I guarantee you would all be up in arms. So why is it acceptable for brown people to treat women like this? Why did the press not pick up on this rather than focus on the anger of the Bangladesh men? Why are we not challenging this apartheid instead of defending the people who perpetrate it?
I always challenge segregation where I see it. I am slowly but determinedly challenging this sudden institutionalising of segregation and I donâ€™t care whether brown, white or purple people do it, because I believe no-one should do it. I believe all women should be treated equally, I do not have different rules for women from different races or faiths. I respect that Jim Fitzpatrick is one of the few public figures to have the courage to say the same.
No-one disagrees with respecting other cultures. But respecting an unjust practice just because some people claim it is their culture/religion is us cringing from the difficult task of social change, especially the advancing of womenâ€™s rights in resistant cultures; it is one of the hardest things to do. But we should not use culture and tradition as an excuse to not challenge injustices. We should not shy away from issues just because our own society does not practice them. I do not respect the butchery of the genitals of five year old girls just because some Somalis say it is their culture â€“ I will not respect some Kurdish men saying they have a religious duty to murder their daughter â€“ I will always combat these things. Why am I any less entitled to combat them than my Somali or Kurdish friends? And how belittled would my friend Amaal (who was mutilated as a little girl) feel, if I said FGM was just a cultural practice and so I respect it? Can Ammal and I not aspire to the same rights and standards and values? There are certain things that we have to stand up against, regardless of whether people claim it is their culture or not. There is, after all, such a thing as universal values and human rights.
This story is another clear example of the ‘Othering’ of Muslim women within British culture. They are the Other, their rules are different, they have lower expectations than us, they have a different sense of shame and dignity. Was it only right to condemn racial apartheid in South Africa just because white people were committing it? Are you just going to leave me to fight this segregation on my own because itâ€™s not a problem you created? While men undermine me for my gender, will you turn your back on me because of my race? Are you really going to wash your hands of me and undermine my right to appear in society as I wish, just as the perpetrators of segregation are doing?
Screw you all. You make me want to start a fight at a segregated event just so I can be taken to court and start the necessary process to illegalise gender apartheid.
Jobeda Ali is a documentary filmmaker and founder of the Muslim Women’s Cineforum.
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