Jim Fitzpatrick, gender segregation and multiculturalism as two-way street

I follow Jonathan Fryer on Twitter, which is how I found out about MP Jim Fitzpatrick’s wedding debacle at the London Muslim Center. Basically, Fitzpatrick and his wife were invited to a Muslim wedding, walked out when they realized that it would be segregated by gender, and Fitzpatrick later followed up the incident by saying that gender segregation is not appropriate in this day and age and that it is damaging to community cohesion.

Now George Galloway, ever cognizant of a good scandal, is calling for Fitzpatrick’s head.

Fitzpatrick represents half a borough in which there are tens of thousands of Muslims. Alienating your constituents, people who are already pretty damn alienated to begin with, is never an awesome move.

However, I also believe that what’s mere gender segregation to some people is pure gender apartheid to others. What’s being buried in this story is that not all Muslim weddings are segregated by gender, and not all Muslims believe in gender segregation as a rule, and merely saying that Fitzpatrick unequivocally “harmed local and national community cohesion” is too simple and pat.

Fitzpatrick and his wife had every right to walk out of that wedding. There was no way they should have sucked it up and pretended they were loving it for the sake of “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is a two-way street. If we agree, for example, that Muslim women in non-Muslim majority countries need to be left in peace when it comes to veiling, then Fitzpatrick’s wife ought to be left in peace if she and her husband decide that gender segregation is not their cup of tea.

It is Fitzpatrick’s remarks after the wedding that have needlessly politicized this entire issue and consequently turned it ugly. If he had framed it as a personal opinion, and not made a sweeping statement that implied that gender segregation should simply not be tolerated in British society in general, I would have supported him all the way. I do, however, agree with the groom that a celebration was being turned into a political clobbering tool either way you look at it. This must be a very bitter lesson for this family, and I don’t envy their position.

However, Fitzpatrick was not being “ignorant” either. There is nothing at all ignorant about stating that “separate but equal” is not something that you personally approve of. Gender segregation at mosques, for example, is already a big issue in the West. You can’t and you won’t make everyone agree on it. Cohesion? Hah. You might as well try to get a bunch of Duke & UNC fans in one room together, and ask them to remain “cohesive.”

The one time I went to a gender segregated wedding, I had a blast. It had nothing to do with gender barriers, however, and everything to do with the company, which was warm, welcoming and relaxed. When you’re surrounded by good people, you have a good time. It’s as simple as that, and politics don’t really matter in that moment.

At the same time, you realize that many of the women who are in the room with you wouldn’t necessarily attend your own, mixed wedding, because they would be uncomfortable. Their discomfort is valid – as is the Fitzpatricks’ discomfort. I personally refuse to privilege one feeling over the other here. You may say that Fitzpatrick is already pretty privileged – being a white male politician and all – and I would agree. But how one feels about an issue as contentious as gender segregation is still very much a deeply personal decision, and you can’t place value on it as easily as you can place value on someone’s social position.

Everyone has their own principles, and sometimes, you can’t avoid stepping on another person’s toes, no matter how hard you may try. The great illusion of multiculturalism is that it promotes a “love thy neighbour” mentality. Well, it doesn’t, not really.

6 thoughts on “Jim Fitzpatrick, gender segregation and multiculturalism as two-way street

  1. I think you’ve put your finger on the fundamental weakness of multiculturalism as a concept. Sometimes cultures are diametrically opposed on important issues like gender segregation, and it’s just not possible for them to agree. Where this happens, it seems only fair that the rules generally accepted in the country in question ought to apply, and it’s good that someone in government is acknowledging that. In the end everyone’s tolerance has a sticking point.

    In this case, though, it wasn’t the House of Commons, a cinema or a train: it was somebody’s private wedding ceremony, being conducted as those involved saw fit. We still segregate guests of the bride and groom in traditional Church of England weddings, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about that. We need to know where to draw the line: it’s utterly wrong to want separate courts that enforce different laws to those of the country at large (we abolished Christian church courts 250 years ago, after all), but two people ought to be entitled to arrange their own wedding to suit themselves. If they want gender segregation, the order of service in medieval Latin or every guest being required to wear a comedy wig, it’s their business, not a matter for Parliament.

  2. If they want gender segregation, the order of service in medieval Latin or every guest being required to wear a comedy wig, it’s their business, not a matter for Parliament.

    Well said.

  3. Very nuanced response. My wife and I had the opposite problem when getting married. Some of her conservative relatives became combative when they found out that the wedding was not going to be segregated along the lines of gender. I remember getting angry about it because it was our celebration.

    Cheap political points are being scored everywhere you look. People should be left alone.

  4. In fact, as the Torygraph reported, Fitzpatrick was telephoned by someone linked to the wedding soon after storming out, and told there was a section for mixed couples. But he refused to come back, presumably because he’d already phoned that bastion of racial harmony, The Daily Mail. I don’t think this has anything to do with feelings – after all, Jim is a big boy. Orthodox Jewish weddings are commonly segregated – would Jim have stormed out of one of those? Not on yer nelly. This is straighforward dog whistle politics.

  5. That IS very odd behaviour for someone who represents so many Muslims as an elected official. Seems like having three separate sections at (what I assume to be) a fairly large wedding was a genuine gesture on part of the people getting married to accommodate everyone, and it was thrown back in their face with full force.

    How unfortunate. And yes, dog whistly.

    P.S. However, I would still argue that segregated weddings are not for everyone.

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