Secularism Is The Way To Defend Women’s Rights

Maryam Namazie with her opening remarks on Women in Islam in a discussion with Tehmina Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy at AHS University Of Birmingham conference on Religion in 21 Century.

Women in Islam have no rights. It’s the same in any religion. Even if was “progressive” for its time – which I don’t buy – it’s not enough for 21 Century women.

I know religious texts can be interpreted to be more “women-friendly” but I have yet to see interpretations that are good enough for me at least.

And anyway I think it’s dangerous to leave women’s rights to the mercy of interpretations – especially since it is those in power – very often Islamists – that determine women’s place in society.

For me, “Islamic feminism” is an oxymoron like “Islamic human rights;” they are antithetical to each other. If there are better laws for women in some countries where Islam plays a role, it is not because of Islam but because of secular movements calling for the separation of religion from the state and law.

If we want to have an impact on women’s rights, however, this is not the key conversation to be had. After all, it is hard to reconcile my views – as an atheist who has left Islam - with the view of one who believes in the tenets of Islam.

The more important conversation in my opinion is where there can be and are points of agreement between many atheists and believers, amongst others and that is that whatever one’s views on religion and Islam, religion in the state and law is detrimental for women and her rights.

In fact, Islam in the state and the law is the end of women’s rights.

To have this discussion, we must first separate the conflation between Islam (an idea), Islamism (a far-Right political movement) and Muslims (people with as many different points of view as any other). The three are often seen to be one and the same – incidentally both by the far-Right and the post-modernist Left. The far-Right uses criticism of Islam and Islamism to attack Muslims; the post-modernist Left uses it to defend Islam and Islamism under the guise of defending Muslims.

When we conflate real live human beings with religion and the religious-right wing we not only fail to see the humanity of the “other,” but also the immense dissent and resistance. We therefore cannot see the commonalities in our struggle for women’s rights and equality. The conflation of Islam, Islamism and Muslims homogenises Muslims and sees the authentic Muslims as an Islamist. It fails to see that many issues – often seen as “people’s right to religion” are highly contested/challenged by those deemed “Muslims” and that they are in fact Islamism’s “right” to oppress and control women – whether in the areas of gender segregation, Sharia laws or the veil.

There are countless examples of this huge political fight against the Islamists by those deemed to be of “Muslim heritage” and how these contestations are ignored in Europe with only Islamism’s narrative given credence.

In Iran, for example, women are fighting hard to enter sports stadiums where they are banned due to gender segregation rules. In Britain, however, gender segregation is actively promoted. One good example of this is when in December 2013, Universities UK, a regulatory body, endorsed gender segregation in its guidelines on external speakers, saying: “Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” (The familiar separate but equal arguments we heard during racial apartheid in South Africa.)

UUK was eventually forced to withdraw its guidance after women’s rights campaigners and secularists protested the guidelines; as a result of our campaigning efforts, the Equality and Human Rights Commission ruled against it saying: “Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.”

Sharia family codes are another area where women’s rights campaigners have fought hard to oppose discriminatory laws. Under Sharia’s civil code a women’s testimony is half that of a man’s, women have limited right to divorce whereas men have unilateral right to divorce, child custody is given to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child and marriage contracts are entered into between the man and the woman’s male guardian.

The Islamic Sharia court in Britain explains why a woman’s testimony is half that of a man’s: ‘If one forgets, the other can remind her.’ It’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains.’ ‘A woman’s character is not so good for a case where testimony requires attention and concentration.’ It goes on to say it is not ‘derogatory’ but ‘the secret of women’s nature.’

According to human rights campaigner Gita Sahgal, “there is active support for sharia laws precisely because it is limited to denying women rights in the family. No hands are being cut off, so there can’t be a problem …”

But this is an area of fightback for many years.

In Algeria, women’s rights activists singing for change label 20 years of Sharia in the family code as 20 years of madness. They sing:

“I am telling you a story

Of what the powerful have done

Of rules, a code of despair

A code obsessed with women…”

“This law must be undone…!”

In Iran, after the establishment of Sharia law there, the Iranian Lawyers’ Association came out in full force against the new religious codes only to be met with arrest and exile; some opponents were even charged with apostasy, which is a “crime” punishable by death…

But here, the British government has so far failed to defend women’s rights and equality and even groups like the British Humanist Association state that Sharia courts are people’s “right to religion;” its Chief Executive has stated after visiting a Beth Din and the Islamic Sharia Council that he was “left without a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do.”

Also, despite its discriminatory nature, the Law Society in Britain issued a practice note for solicitors on how to draw up ‘Sharia-compliant’ wills, stating that:

“… illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs … The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir … Non-Muslims may not inherit at all … a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir…”

The note was withdrawn only after the protests of women’s rights campaigners and secularists.

It’s the same with regards the veil, burqa and niqab, which are highly contested.

In Iran, for example, there is an unveiling movement though improper veiling and unveiling is punishable by a fine, arrest, and up to two months in prison.

In Iran, billboards will compare unveiled women to unwrapped sweets – free for the taking. Here in Europe, pressures include calling improperly veiled women “hoejabis.” Despite this, “progressives” often defend the hijab as a “right” and a “choice” when, socially speaking, it has been imposed by brute force. Defenders of the veil here in Europe forget that there is a corresponding right to unveil and for unveiled women not to be perceived as whores and sources of fitnah.

What I want to say is that in areas where there is a huge fight taking place, like against Sharia law, the veil or gender segregation, rather than siding with those defending women’s rights and equality, there is often a defence of the Islamists under the guide of defending “Muslims.”

How to change things? We need to move beyond regressive identity politics and begin to side with those who defend women’s rights and equality – whether they are believers or atheists.

Moreover, secularism is a minimum precondition for women’s rights.


  1. Things like womens rights, liberty, equality, mercy , justice etc mean quite different things in Islam. They think taking women into slavery (after their husbands have been slaughtered in war) is a merciful thing to do because they arent left to fend for themselves, they have certain protections as a slave.To those used to Western norms, it sounds horrific, and anything but merciful or just. I think this is why I always prefered natural philosophies, you have to qualify everything in Physics and Mathematics so there is no potential misallocation. I think this renders it superior to other philosophies, which appear as fairies on a pinhead type outputs in comparison.

  2. DaithiD,

    read the latest Charlie Hebdo editorial. It is causing controversy but I think you will find a lot in it

  3. AM, I will do, is there a version online ( i dont see the editorial on ?

  4. Thanks AM, its not so obvious from the front page to find!

    That is certainly worth a lot of consideration. I always assumed (much like Maryam outlines in her piece) that individual Muslims are not the issue, its the ideology of Islam. But the Hebdo piece proposes the individual unit of practising faith builds into the theological fascists final act of terror. It kind of removes personal responsibility from the perpetrators actions ,much like others who view it as Imperial blowback, but it also seems a self consistent analysis, and thats very scary because the question because some part of the answer will neccesarily be communal punishment.
    Additionally ,should people be villified for factoring these issues into their analysis of the (so called) refugee crisis? I dont think our societies are upto dealing with these issues yet, I dont see how mass importation of more followers of the problem ideology is healthy. Once you get past those that wish to signal their virtue by competing to offer more and more to those migrants,this will still need to be addressed for all our sakes.

  5. DaithiD,

    I think the argument is familiar to the French, and in particular those familiar with Althusser and Foucault with an emphasis on how ritual can reinforce a belief or a power relation. Althusser asks the question Do we believe in God and then fall down on our knees and pray? Or do we kneel down to pray and then believe in God?

    It is about how ritual is weaved into a power relation.

    Whatever about that, I don't see Charlie as blaming the individual in the way that Max Fisher suggests but stresses the power of the discursive regime over the lives of individual Muslims. It was also a very conscious push back against Tariq Ramadan who persistently tries to undermine secularism and empower religion.

    There has t be a much better quality of debate around immigration than what we are being provided with at the moment. Centuries of nation state formation with the evolving complexity of society on top of it, simply will not allow - despite the best will in the world for the type of change being brought about by immigration or by what people anticipate or fear will be brought about by it - for a smooth conflict free acceptance of the change.

    People should not be vilified for factoring in their concerns on the refugee issue. A refugee perspective should no more be allowed to silence discussion than a religious perspective should. How else are people going to think about the issues if they are denied by the regime of hush the means to think?

  6. AM, I would need to read more about your suggestion of what the Hebdo editorial references for definate, but even on a third reading it still suggests a connection between Tariq Ramadans gentle compulsion towards Blashphemy laws and the Brussels attackers,

    "...In reality, the attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed. They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale..."


    "...none of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone's contribution..."


    "...These young terrorists have no need to amass the talents of others, to be erudite, dignified or hard-working. Their role is simply to provide the end of a philosophical line already begun..."

    It doesnt seem to me its suggesting some external regime that exerts itself on Muslims, I think its saying that the disparate actions of each Muslim builds towards the final act of terror by conditioning our (non-Muslim) reaction, and validating their reaction at each stage thus creating a connection between all acts. But id need to read the authors that frame your view to compare our two perspectives. I can see how it would cause controversy though.

  7. DaithiD,

    I think they very much want to make a link between "Brother Tariq" as Caroline Fourest calls him and the theocratic attacks. Maryam and her colleagues have been calling Ramadan out for quite a long time and placing him at the heart of political Islam, just like Fourest has been doing for over a decade.

    Charlie Hebdo seems to be saying that people like him are all the time solidifying and extending a cultural bedrock on which political Islam can embed. It does not make the case that every Muslim because of the texts is complicit.

    The external pressure seems obvious - the cowering and the silencing. It is not the texts causing this but the ability of political Islam to interpret, control and enforce them.

  8. AM

    any chance you'd set this out in a comparative Irish context?

    Just so that we could get a grip on the nuances!

  9. HJ,

    no sure exactly what the suggestion is.