People talk about their commitment to equality and diversity so readily they must assume there is no conflict between the two. The phrase falls off the tongue as if it were an all-in-one package, and people can 'celebrate diversity' and support equal rights without a smidgeon of self-doubt. Until, that is, they have to make a principled choice. Then, whether they admit it or not, they find that they can believe in equality or they can believe in diversity, but they cannot believe in both.
If this sounds like the start of a patient exploration of a delicate philosophical distinction, don't be deceived. There is nothing difficult to understand, and my patience with the double standards of multi-culturalism snapped long ago. If you need me to rehearse the argument again after all these years, here it is, one more time. In a free society you are or should be free to believe what you want. But your freedom to 'celebrate your diversity' does not extend to the freedom to force your beliefs on others, unless you can secure a democratic change in the law compatible with the rights of minorities. For instance, you may be a doctor with ethical or religious objections to abortion. No one should force you to abort a fetus. You also have every right to denounce abortion at public meetings or refuse to vote for candidates who support abortion. But you do not have the right to bomb abortion clinics. Nor, to take an example that has concerned the Equality and Human Rights Commission of late, can you demand that women who have had an abortion must sit in segregated seating at the back of your public meeting and submit questions in writing so that men cannot hear their inferior voices.
Hardly anyone has noticed, but last week the commission ruled on an argument that filled the airwaves earlier this year: could Universities UK, a quango, which represents the vice-chancellors of 132 universities and assorted higher education institutes, endorse gender segregation at public events. In a sign of the times, the universities had dressed up their assault on the rights of women in the language of liberalism. They ruled that if allowing men and women to sit where they wished contravened 'the genuinely held religious beliefs' of the speaker – who let’s face it will be a religious reactionary addressing a student Islamic Society nine times out of ten - or of the group hosting the event, then women must be segregated. Universities must 'be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully,' it announced.
As I said, it is a novel view of freedom of speech that a speaker has the right to impose his views on his audience. But it fits with the totalitarian religious mind. If women can be segregated inside the mosque or orthodox synagogue, they should be segregated outside too. A stern god’s commands recognise no boundaries.
Mark Hammond, the chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, had no time for that or for Britain’s sinister academics. It was not against the law to prevent segregation, he said, but against the law to allow it. The universities were breaking the Equalities Act of 2010 – a useful measure passed in the dying days of the last Labour government, which requires public bodies to oppose discrimination. Religious organisations remain exempt – barring the usual exceptions for human sacrifice – but as the commission said:
'once an event goes beyond religious worship or practice, equality law applies and the courts are likely to consider any gender segregation to be unlawful…A woman who is not permitted to occupy a particular area of the lecture hall because it is reserved for men is disadvantaged because she cannot sit wherever she chooses.'
The universities could not claim that students were segregating voluntarily, he continued, because, 'it would be impracticable for organisers to attain the necessary certainty that, at every stage, segregation was demonstrably voluntary for all individuals considering or attending'.
It was good to hear a clear statement of basic principles after decades of obfuscation. But those of us opposing the liberal indulgence of theocratic power have our work cut out. It is not just the universities that need to be fought. The Law Society, which represents the 125,000 solicitors in England and Wales, will not withdraw its guidance for Sharia-compliant wills. It is standing by advice which goes far beyond, stating that Muslims citizens of this country are free to leave their money as they choose but should ensure that:
• Male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heirs; and
• Divorced and non-Muslims get nothing at all
In other words, Muslims, who perhaps are at death’s door, will be told by their solicitors that if they want to comply with divine law they must follow the Law Society’s exceptionally conservative version of Sharia, rather than any of the alternatives, and decide that a woman is worth half a man.
I am tired of pointing this out, but not so tired that I will shut up, what is truly outrageous about the white-skinned bureaucrats who endorse discrimination against brown and black-skinned women is that they consider themselves liberals. When I asked Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, if she would allow the segregation of gays and homosexuals, she appeared shocked that I would consider her capable of such a thought. One Lucy Scott Moncrieff, chair of the law Society's Equality and Diversity Committee, is leading its excursion into misogynist theology. She sounds quite the feminist, when she complains about the poor prospects for women in city solicitors firms, but when it comes to largely poor Muslim women, without careers in the law to support them…That’s another matter entirely.
I suspect she’s been nobbled by extremists. I cannot prove it because the Law Society will not tell me where its advice came from. But in the case of the universities, its support for segregation followed pressure from an ultra-reactionary organisation called the Islamic Education and Research Academy, whose gruesome views on ex-Muslims, gays, Jews and women you can read at your leisure here.
While supporting the religious right, the 'liberal' bureaucracy turns its back on genuine liberals from the ethnic minorities, as I found when I spoke to Sara Khan who runs a campaign group, Inspire, which fights for the rights of British Muslim women. When she publicly opposed Universities UK, Islamists threatened her so violently she had to call the police. To compound her misery, she had to endure lectures from white feminists telling her that she was 'promoting anti-Muslim prejudice', when she was a Muslim who had experienced anti-Muslim prejudice and they were not; and articles from the 'left-wing' Laurie Penny, maintaining that Asians who wanted the rights she enjoyed, were the tools of 'right-wing commentators'.
'Diversity,' it appears, does not protect women like Khan. They must do as their 'community leaders' tell them. Instead it allows whichever gobby god-botherer is first to make it through the quango’s doors to impose his prejudices as he pleases.