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Moving the Goalposts of Multiculturalism!

In the UK, a Muslim woman in a WH Smith shop that serves the public refuses to serve a customer because she shouldn't be serving tobacco. Without a sign saying that, the customer was supposed to know that fact when he decided to make use of the service the shop offered. On parade in the Met Police a new trainee refuses to shake the hand of the head of the service. He had no idea he couldn't shake her hand and, goodness knows, he probably thought the picture of them would do much to boost further recruitment from Muslim women to the service. Apparently, both refusals are regarded as part of asserting one's cultural and religious right in multicultural Britain.

As a diversity adviser, I beg to differ. This is merely moving the goalpost to suit individual whims. It has very little to do with genuine respect across communities and will merely antagonise others and damage relations further. This kind of behaviour purporting to be part of multiculturalism is questionable, and more likely to fuel misunderstanding and discrimination. Multiculturalism and diversity are supposed to enhance relationships, to lead to greater understanding between communities and, above all, to greater sensitivity and compromise. If a Muslim woman is not allowed to sell tobacco, when the shop offers a service in selling tobacco, then she should not be working there. She is showing no sensitivity to her customers' needs while insisting on sensitivity to her needs as a Muslim.

The essence of multiculturalism and diversity is also mutual respect. We cannot have a diverse society where one minority group sets the rules which everyone else has to follow, especially where they meet in the middle. The shop sells tobacco. That's a known fact. Anyone working in that shop should be prepared to handle tobacco. One cannot choose what to sell. What is that person doing there if this is not part of their remit? And what kind of service is it to the customer to be told that the shop assistant won't serve the very customers whose money keeps her job intact?

Again, when we join a public service, we have to be prepared to deal with the public, both men and women. We cannot expect preferential treatment unless we CHOOSE to join an all male or all female occupation. It follows that in a mixed group of people we are going to be dealing with members of the opposite sex in one form or another. The whole service cannot change just for one person's benefit. These two women, and more like them, are now rapidly moving the goalpost of tolerance to suit themselves and their desire to impose their own inflexible beliefs on others for simple personal power. That is not good.

Mutual Respect and Sensitivity
Respect is not just from White to Black. It has to be mutual to be effective. However, respect has seven dimensions beginning with curiosity and ending with healing, with sensitivity at the heart of it. If we are not sensitive to the needs of others in a spirit of compromise, we cannot expect sensitivity for what we believe either. Practising respect and sensitivity means we cannot CHOOSE to live in another country and then do exactly what we like publicly, regardless of how much it flies in the face of common sense or members the host country. If we intend to continue living exactly as we were, why move to anywhere different? At least by staying where we are, we ensure our cultures and traditions remain intact much longer.

Individuals really cannot have it both ways, wanting to be part of a diverse Britain but seeking individual public privilege which others are denied in a similar situation. Justice and fairness are then eroded. In the privacy of our homes, we are masters and mistresses. In the public domain, we have to work together for the benefit of all. If people are deliberately opting out of that process by virtue of religion and culture, how can they be benefiting their employer and, most important, the clients they serve?

In all these incidents of Muslim women choosing to do what they wish in a public place, one key thing is being forgotten. The effect on their peers and colleagues and the message that is being sent out to them of a privileged few who can ignore the rules to suit themselves, simply because of their religion. That can only lead to resentment and division, further fuelling the perception that the rights of the majority are increasingly being eroded.

It is time the Government and employers exercise firm leadership on what forms of behaviour are acceptable in a public place, where interaction between gender and different communities are inevitable. We cannot have individuals deciding what should be accepted practice according to their whims because that's a disastrous road to resentment and disharmony. It will leave most people confused, fearful resentful and prejudicial and a country divided against itself cannot thrive. Sensitivity has to be a mutual reaction...unless, of course, it is about imposing one's wishes upon others.

About the Author: ELAINE SIHERA (Ms CYPRAH is a writer, media contributor columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University, Elaine is a consultant for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships. An intelligent, confident expert. Elaine is the author of: 10 Easy Steps to Growing Older Disgracefully; 10 Easy Steps to Finding Your Ideal Soulmate!; Money, Sex & Compromise and Managing the Diversity Maze, among others (all available on Also the founder of the British Diversity Awards and the Windrush Achievement Awards.

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