Increasing cultural and religious diversity does not and should not have a detrimental effect on social cohesion. Diversity should not be linked to a loss of a sense of collective action, but rather to a stronger community bonding and mutual trust. And under no circumstances, should cultural diversity be invoked to justify infringements on domestic laws and accepted norms of human rights. Indeed, cultural diversity should be employed as a key lever to engendering intercultural understanding in our increasingly multicultural society. Yet this is not always the case as recent events have shown.
The current debate about the supposed 'segregation' and 'discrimination' against Muslim women in a recent public event held at the University of Melbourne has generated much hysterical commentary and statements from all corners. The event organised by an educational Muslim organisation, the Hikma Way, had a seating arrangement that separated participants on the basis of gender. This practice is not unusual within many Muslim communities and families who feel a need for modesty by keeping men and women separate even at dinner tables. Now this is not to say that this a practice that any person should accept or condone if their own religious, ethical or moral standards do not accept gender separation under any circumstances. But as usual, our politicians felt the urgent need to set the record straight in support of all things 'women'. No surprise, therefore, that Opposition Leader Tony Abbot declared that this practice is 'au-Australian'. Some commentators and academics went further calling this 'gender apartheid' and 'discrimination based on gender'. And whilst we live in a multicultural democratic society that apprently places high premium on equality and fairness, let us just for a moment reflect on what is at stake here. We are not in uproar because women are denied equal opportunity in the workplace; we are not disgusted because women are still objectified and represented as sexual subjects in mainstream/commercial media and the advertising industry; and we are certainly not abhorred because some women amongst us are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. NO far from it, some 'feminists', politicians and opinion makers very are protesting very loudly because they somehow think that their own moral views are the standards that should dictate how others can behave and self-organise even when no specific laws have actually been transgressed. Worst still, no one among this outraged intelligentsia bothered to actually speak to the women in attendance to find our if they would have preferred mixed seating arrangements, or if indeed they have been forced to sit at the back of the lecture theatre as part of a male-chauvinistic desire to keep them as subjugated passive observers. And sometimes, when these so-called experts and academics try to chip with their reactive pieces, they most often end up making things worse. Selective quoting of Quranic passages, superficial readings and interpretations of Islamic history and outright misunderstanding of the contextual environment within which certain events occur, all lead to further stigmatisation and counter-productive commentary.
This incident has broader and more significant implications for how a multicultural society should approach 'dealing' with cultural and religious diversity. In fact, one can argue that a more ethical and democratic governance of such diversity should extend beyond the performative cultural and religious domains to include education; media; economic structures; as well as judicial and political institutions. Because cultural diversity cuts across different domains of our contemporary lives, its management should therefore extend to and shape all domains of public policy. Only then can we ensure that cultural and religious diversity is not only discussed at times of perceived tensions and conflict but is also invoked as a contributor to intercultural understanding and social cohesion.