At a dinner party not long ago, I sat next to a young
Norwegian woman, currently living in London. She told me that her father disapproved of her living in England and pitied her, because it was a fascist country. His reason for saying so was that there were still clubs in London that admitted no women as members.

No doubt he felt very virtuous and tolerant as he called down anathema on these clubs, which he believed ought to close at once. I wonder, then, what he would have made of a little scene I witnessed today in the Central Public Library of Birmingham, where I had gone to look up some obscure medical history.

In the reference section stood a row of tables recently marked: “For the use of women only.” There, chattering away in English, were about 12 young Muslim women, all in black headscarves.

In my mind, I could hear the Norwegian justifying this arrangement by claiming that many Muslim girls whose families otherwise would not permit it could now use the library. The arrangement was therefore liberating. But I doubt that this is true: there were also many Muslim women in the library, similarly in black scarves, who sat at computer terminals next to men. As of yet, library computer terminals remain sexually unsegregated, though no doubt a demand that they should be segregated is in the works.

Recently, the liberal Guardian newspaper claimed that a growing percentage of the population—though as yet not a very large one—was contemplating a vote for the far-right British National Party. If I did not know better, I might imagine that the BNP had taken control of the city council’s library committee. And my Norwegian interlocutor’s father may one day turn out to be right about England.


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