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Legitimate cultural difference or barbaric rite?

July 26, 2010

Having spent the last week working with the recently formed European Institute for Gender Equality I was more than usually sensitised to two adjacent reports in the online Guardian over the weekend. One a special report on genital mutilation, the practice of which is apparently growing in the UK; the other a polemical piece from David Mitchell under the sub heading of If Britain decides to ban the burqa I might just start wearing one. Now both of these are cases under the general heading of whether unique cultural practices should be tolerated with the secondary question of whether should be tolerated over there, but not over here. If that is hard enough then we end up with the rights that children have in relationship to their parents and society as a whole, a subject which includes faith schools of all varieties.

Now I do find it ironic, in Britain at least, that is it the right wing who protest most about Immigrant customs, while being most in favour of allowing families to make their own choices without state interference. However, that aside we have a serious issue on of balance here. I was mulling it over through the last few days and came up with a few principles, or heuristics:

  • Anything involving physical mutilation of a child is wrong unless it is easily reversed and does not involve pain or humiliation. So for example ear piercing is OK tattoos and genetical mutilation are not. Male circumcision is more problematic as it can be a hygiene measure so medical conditions only for its practice. Female circumcision is up there with crimes against humanity and no tolerance should be allowed. I’d include forced marriage in that and, reluctantly I think we are going to have to look at issues on holidays overseas, which is where most of the abuse takes place. At the moment if I take my children to Canada I have to have a letter from my wife to say its OK. Maybe we need something similar relating to medical condition and marital status.
  • Anyone should be allowed to wear whatever costume they want subject to normal rules of safety and also in schools for neatness etc. All you achieve by banning burkas is to increase social isolation and that just makes dangerous radicalisation more likely
  • With reluctance, I think we have to ban faith based education and home schooling. Part of being part of a society is a universal right to education. Recognition of cultural mores is important, so I could see separate streams for religion within the same school. This is a big change for me having supporting faith based schools in the past, but I now think the benefits are too few and the dangers are too high.
  • We have to create a housing policy that prevents ghettos forming, it has been the bane of race relations in the UK over the years and school policy based on parental choice have increased the problem with a class divide rather than reducing the problem. The more people know people across cultures the better and a bit of social engineering is a small price to pay. Social interaction is vital so that people can see beneath the superficialities
  • We need at all costs to avoid homogenisation of culture, understood differences are healthy, isolated stereotyping is a very different matter
  • Talking about social issues rarely produces changes, working together on social projects does. There is far too much naval gazing, facilitation and cod psychology in this area. What is needed is people cross cultures getting down to working with each other, meeting at the school gate etc. etc.
  • Realise (with David Mitchell) that toleration does not always require excessive respect. I have a full right to make a reasoned case as to why I think your particular social practice is wrong. Taunting or stereotyping is wrong, criticism is valid.
  • Access to social computing and free interaction is also key here, anything which improves connectivity
  • And while we are at it, lets get rid of private schools

A bit of a straw man there, but we do need to think differently

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