Amongst the ranks of MPs who don’t impress me, few impress me less than Jim Fitzpatrick. Perhaps this is because, prior to his being a New Labour hack, Jim served a political apprenticeship in the Socialist Workers Party. Like many former revolutionaries who moved over to the greener pastures of NuLab, Jim has abandoned what he used to believe, but taken with him many valuable life skills learned on the far left, most of them to do with the efficient shafting of one’s factional enemies.
Anyway, as many of you will know, Jim has been in the news recently. This has to do with him being invited, along with his wife, to the wedding of two Muslim constituents. By Jim’s account, he and the missus arrived at the venue to discover that male and female guests were gathering in different rooms. Apparently Jim didn’t know this sort of thing went on at Muslim weddings, and had a rush of blood to the head at the sight of people who were obviously Islamic extremists blatantly gathering in separate rooms in front of Jim Fitzpatrick. (It is possible Jim is telling the truth, and just doesn’t mix much socially with his Muslim constituents. Alternatively, it is possible that Jim, who has in the past assiduously courted Muslims, and actually gone all the way to Bangladesh to canvass for votes, is being a little disingenuous.) But, according to Jim, he didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to his hosts, so instead of remonstrating with them, Mr and Mrs Fitz left quietly and discreetly. And then Jim proceeded to contact the media and tell them all the story.
One may simply assume from this that Jim Fitzpatrick is an ignorant ganch. Such is the line taken by Sunny:
One of these days I’ll hopefully get married and a ceremony is likely to be held at a Sikh Gurdwara (more because my parents will want to have a ceremony there rather than on account of my own religiousness). In a Gurdwara the guys sit on one side and girls sit on the other side, and the bride-groom in the middle. If some MP came and didn’t like it, buggered off, and then sent a press release to all the media going on how about insulting he found it – I wouldn’t speak to that tosser ever either.
It’s one thing to raise the issues of female foeticide, forced marriages or other activities where people are forced to do things against their will. It’s entirely another to try and squeeze votes out of a situations you may not agree with. Let minorities deal with their own issues as long as it’s within the law. How about that for a revolutionary idea?
I have a suggestion: why don’t Labour MPs ban the practice of British women adopting the surname of their husband once they get married? That’s a pretty unequal situation too and I know plenty of feminists who won’t do it. It’s only right these MPs register their disgust and refuse to stand for it.
Sunny makes his case well. In fact, while the practice at weddings varies between the different Muslim communities, this sort of thing is quite common in other religious communities as well. Had Fitzpatrick attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, he would have seen a very similar segregation of the sexes; if you go to Mass in an Eastern Orthodox church, you’ll immediately notice the men standing on one side and the women (wearing headscarves) on the other. Customs pertaining to weddings and such aren’t really all that integral to women’s oppression. And one may note that MPAC have been doing a lot to challenge traditional patriarchy in Muslim communities with frig all support from the likes of Jim Fitzpatrick. (Note also that Jim was a firefighter in a previous life, so he’s not exactly unfamiliar with all-male environments.)
But then, there’s the political aspect. Many commentators have remarked that this sort of grandstanding is a bit rash on Jim’s part, as a third of his constituents are Muslim and they might be sensitive to a white bloke telling them how to celebrate their weddings. Not to mention that in the next election he’ll be facing up against George Galloway, whose ability to appeal to East End Muslims is well established. But you have to look at the matter in a Machiavellian sense. For the last five years or so, Labour strategy in Tower Hamlets – which Jim has played a key role in shaping – has been based on squeezing the Tory and Lib Dem votes with the message that only Labour can defeat Galloway. This tactic of the squeeze actually worked for Oona King in 2005, it just didn’t work well enough for her to win. One should also note that, Tower Hamlets politics being what they are, this sort of campaign very quickly polarises the vote on racial lines. Fitzpatrick will have weighed up the consequences of alienating Muslim voters as against appealing to the non-Muslim majority who are more likely to be resistant to Gallows’ charms, and will be Jim’s target audience.
There may also be a game within the game. Fitzpatrick made oblique reference to the nefarious influence of an outfit called the Islamic Forum Europe, which is active in the area and is rumoured to have some influence amongst the Bengali component of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. Set that alongside Labour’s ongoing purge of East London councillors, which has been ongoing next door in Newham and will surely be hitting Tower Hamlets soon.
But no matter, there will always be someone willing to defend Fitzpatrick. Yes, in a touching display of comradeship, it’s his SWP contemporary Joan Smith .[Actually, it appears I was misled by there being a plurality of feminists called Joan Smith. Thanks to Harrods and Phil in the comments for clearing that up.] Joan is now ensconced at the Independent, and, given her strong Decent affiliations, is not likely to miss an opportunity to bash teh Mooslims in the name of feminism. Thus Joan:
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…
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.
I honestly don’t understand Joan’s argument. Is she saying that the Kuwaiti fire would have been less of a tragedy had men died in it? She sounds here like a Private Eye caricature of a wimmin’s studies academic.
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.
One assumes that Joan never goes on a girls’ night out. A mixed-sex hen party would be dreadfully dull.
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.
I don’t know if Joan plays golf, but I suspect she doesn’t spend a great deal of time in working men’s clubs. And, at the risk of boring readers, I note that Joan is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. For someone who believes in the separation of church and state, she’s very keen on politicians telling religious organisations what they can and can’t do.
Joan Smith, incidentally, is in a romantic relationship with Muslim-bashing MP Denis MacShame, and used to be married to Muslim-bashing journalist Francis Wheen. If this sounds a bit incestuous to you, you’ve latched onto an important fact about the interface between the political and media classes, especially their Decent component. Not, of course, that one judges Joan’s opinions by her other half of the moment. No, that would be sexist and wrong. She’s perfectly capable of being idiotic on her own account.