Segregation is a step backwards

IT MUST be the Keyhole Kate within me, for I savour a glimpse into very different lives, like the article by the gap-year lad from south London, working with Health Projects Abroad in a Tanzanian village.

One of the most respected village elders there was Momma Justina, a charismatic character. She was amazed to see white men - the volunteers - carrying water buckets, traditionally a woman's job around her village.

Not, however, for Momma Justina culturally conditioned disapproval. On the contrary, she immediately saw the far-reaching possibilities of this extraordinary spectacle.

One ancient taboo promptly bit the all-time dust when she ordered the African lads to carry water buckets, just like the whites.

Which reminds me that proposals for England's first state-funded Muslim secondary schools are currently being drawn up in Birmingham and Bradford. On the basis that currently some 1,500 pupils already attend private Muslim secondaries, Birmingham's school chiefs argue that, given the existence of aided schools from other faiths, it is difficult to resist the logic of Muslim-aided state secondary education.

There is a worrying subtext here which hopefully will not traverse the Cheviots, despite recent policy on the hoof from the SNP's conference. The assumption is that every ethnic culture and practice is to be welcomed and accepted in broad-minded Britain. It therefore becomes inappropriate to question the centuries old notion that carrying water is essentially a female occupation.

Multiculturalism carried to its logical conclusion tends to erase the already fine line between what is tolerable in Britain and what is not.

Do we accept small growing girls being hampered and hindered by bulky enveloping clothing? Perhaps, but the sexual stereotyping underlying such restrictions is of concern. Do we tolerate the more limited role in British life for which some Muslim girls are being prepared by their own culture?

What price British legislation and lip-service to freedom, fair play, self expression for all - even children who happen to be born female in cultures alien to British notions of gender equality?

You would think that a society that takes trouble over the fate of horses in Egypt would equally exercise itself in the cause of the sometimes diminished human rights of Muslim girls whisked abroad to arranged marriages in their early teens.

And what about female circumcision, to which a blind eye is disgracefully turned in some parts of England? Perhaps it doesn't happen in Scotland, and if so let's be sure matters stay that way.

This is traditionally a difficult area for Conservatives, who tend to be natural proponents of parental choice. In Birmingham, however, the Conservative opposition has pointed out that local tolerance in matters of race and religion has a record based on sound educational integration.

In 1998, there is surely a lesson to be taken to heart from Northern Ireland. Certainly a fair body of UK opinion believes that the Troubles would have been noticeably less troublesome if young children had been integrated from five.

In fact, in Scotland there is an overwhelming body of opinion that wants all children, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, to go to the same school. Scotland on Sunday's poll put the figure at 80 per cent (with 13 per cent arguing for separate schools and 7 per cent don't knows).

Support for segregated education may be a superficial vote winner, but with Muslim education issues of male control and female subservience become inseparable from issues of basic human rights. Separate (but equal) development wasn't too successful in South Africa either.

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