Southall Black Sisters Need Political Breathing Room

This is a guest post by SJT

Progressive, secular anti-discrimination groups are facing growing obstacles to finding political breathing room. Southall Black Sisters have won their legal fight for funding against Ealing Council, but the arguments canvassed by the Council are likely to arise again. They claimed that specialist services like those provided by SBS (for women only and with a non-exclusive focus on BME women) were contrary to the equality duties of public authorities, and to the government’s agenda of “community cohesion”.

Ealing Council’s case was withdrawn, but the court issued guidance refuting both claims.

Far from prohibiting differentiated or specific treatment of different groups to achieve substantive equality, the equality duty imposed on public authorities by the law may require precisely that . The error of mistaking apparent neutrality for equality is easily illustrated by a familiar example: gay people aren’t enjoying equal treatment if they have “the same right as everyone else to form a partnership with a different-sex person.” Moreover, when a public body takes a differentiated approach, it is not inevitably that they will create social fracture; they may do so in order to address the inequalities and systemic discrimination which cause (or constitute) these fractures.

The Council’s arguments masked race and gender discrimination by pretending that we live in a post-racial, post-feminist society. But addressing them is made harder by a governmental approach to “community cohesion” rooted in sorting everyone into neat little boxes which are labelled according to “faith”, and taken as comprehensively spoken for by unaccountable “representatives”. “Religious leaders” co-opt anti-discrimination language on the accommodation of “differences” to justify, on grounds of “equality” and religious “freedom”, the suppression of differences, equality and freedom within these “communities”. This is abetted by the lazy racism which accepts claims that “in our culture” – for example – it’s appropriate for a woman to be shepherded to “mediate” or “arbitrate” instances of domestic violence against her, as if the very nature of the case didn’t implicate issues of power and control that invalidate such an approach.

There is no doubt that individuals face discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, and this needs to be taken seriously in our thinking about equality. But religious practice has a strongly groupish facet and a potential reach over others which (say) being of a given race, gender, or sexual orientation doesn’t. The same concepts of discrimination cannot always straightforwardly apply.

At the same time that some councils were demanding of anti-racist and feminist groups, that they take a  “neutral” approach as a condition of funding, other public bodies have been providing money, influence and room to trample on human rights to non governmental organisations and pressure groups that define themselves in religious terms, apparently in the hopes of winning over a Muslim “community” believed to be homogenous. This seems a manifestly self-defeating strategy: holding out carrots for groups to coalesce precisely around narrow conceptions of religious practice, while choking off internal dynamics of dissent and disagreement within and across racial and religious groups. You’d almost think the government wanted a rigid division of society into sectarian blocks.

At a meeting in the House of Commons earlier this week, Pragna Patel of SBS described this sort of “cohesion” agenda as “a load of bollocks”. I think she has a pretty good point.