[#wiscfi liveblog] Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide

The WiS2 conference logo.

Next up is Maryam Namazie, a blogger and activist who’s been involved with tons of secular organizations: Equal Rights Now, the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Iran Solidarity.

5:00: Namazie is talking about secular activists in the Muslim world who are being persecuted for speaking out. At the end of her talk, she will ask us all to write them a message.

5:04: There have been protests over the treatment of Malala Yousafzai, Amina Tyler, and others. You can see the immense resistance taking place day in and day out in response to Islamism, US-led militarism, and cultural relativism. Today as an era or revolutions and uprisings in the Muslim world, and many of them are women-led.

It may seem that Islamists are making gains in the area, but change is palpable. Yet many feminists, cultural relativists, and others are on the side of Islamists and believe that any opposition to Sharia law is tantamount to racism and cultural imperialism. But they’ve bought into the notion that Muslim communities are homogenous–Islamic and conservative. But there is no homogenous culture, and those in power determine the dominant culture. These relativists claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam.

5:07: A professor received death threats for posting this cartoon on his office door:


Conflating Islamism with Islam is a narrative that is peddled by Islamists to prescribe the limits of acceptable expression.

The demand for secularism is no more imperialist than the demand for women’s suffrage. Post-modernists who demand “respect and tolerance for difference” no matter how intolerable that difference is are siding with oppressors.

5:12: Islamophobia is used as a tactic to scaremonger critics into silence. It’s made not out of actual concern for Muslims, but out of a desire to support Islamism. If you really wanted to support Muslims, you would oppose Islamism, which kills more Muslims than anything else.

5:14: Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs. But Islamism isn’t just personal beliefs. Saying that people have a right to Islamism is saying that women’s liberation is only for white American women.

The idea that islamism is just a “misinterpretation” of the religion is inaccurate. The Koran and the Hadith are full of anti-woman laws and principles. Stoning to death for adultery is a Hadith; Mohammed himself stoned a woman to death for adultery. In the Koran there are suras on wife-beating.

5:17: Is  there a “good” interpretation of religion?  [audience: "No!"]

For instance, a Sharia court said that it’s ok to beat women as long as you do it “lightly” and don’t leave any marks. But no violence against women is acceptable.

Women are freer the lesser the role religion plays in the public sphere. Secularism is a precondition for the improvement of women’s status. All women, not just those who are Western.

5:20: If people really wanted to live under these rules, Islamists would not need to enforce them with such brutality.

Of course there are some people who prefer Sharia law to secular law, including some who are born in the West. Some people support racial apartheid, too. But there is no right to oppress. Post-modernists who suppose Islamists say that our demands are Western, but since when is secularism a Western demand?

When it comes to women’s right, when it comes to freedom, these rights suddenly become “Western.”

5:24: Reader question: How should those of us who are not of Middle Eastern/African descent walk the fine line of criticizing this? How should a progressive secular organization approach bigoted anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller?

Namazie: It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you think something is wrong, you should be able to say it. The Islamists have made it impossible to speak up and criticize because of this label of racism, which we should rightly fear. But they will also tell me that I don’t have the right to speak about Islam because I’m an ex-Muslim, or that I wasn’t a “real Muslim” because I was Shia. There’s always an excuse for why you’re not allowed to speak. But we have a right to speak about any injustice anywhere.

Racism exists. As an ex-Muslim I face racism. There are lots of people who aren’t Muslim who face racism. Racism doesn’t stop if you stop criticizing people’s beliefs; that’s a cop-out. You’re not going to deal with racism against Muslims by stopping free expression. These are bogus arguments to stop the debate from taking place.

Far-right European/American movements against Islam attack all Muslims because they blame them for Islamists’ crimes. And Islamists attack innocent people on buses and in discos because they blame them for American militarists’ crimes. If we don’t criticize Islamism, we leave the space open for far-right racists to attack it. They seem to be the only ones speaking, but we have to stand up and speak from a purely rights-based perspective–everyone should have the same rights. It’s not anti-racist to demand different rights for different people; it’s actually racist to do that. Secularism is good not just because you’re white and Western, but because it’s better for women. Not all Muslims want the laws that Islamists want.

5:30: Reader question: What percentage of the population in Iran is secular or atheist?

Namazie: I don’t know because it’s a crime to be an atheist in Iran. I would say it’s a large percentage. The Iranian Revolution wasn’t an Islamic revolution; it was a left-leaning revolution and the Islamic movement appropriated it and has ruled with sheer terror for the past several decades. Iran is the center of a mass anti-Islamic backlash.

The problem is, though, that it’s hard to gauge who’s who. I met a woman who was an atheist but she was wearing a burka. It’s hard to know the real numbers.

5:33: Reader question: There are people who make statements that because Muslim women have it so bad, Western women should just be quiet about their own experiences. How do these statements strike you?

Namazie: I don’t agree with those statements. You can always find a situation that’s worse. When I discuss women’s rights in Iran, people say, “Oh, but it’s so much worse in Saudi Arabia.” Women can drive in Iran. Yay. Of course there are degrees of oppression. For instance, some people want to call honor killings domestic violence. But that’s a very different thing. So it’s good to be able to name it, label it, and speak of the differences.

But the situation of women in the West is not perfect, either. And this is a fight that is global. I don’t find the comparisons very helpful.

5:35: Reader question: Revolutions in the Muslim world may be initially led by women, but how long do they remain positive towards women?

Namazie: What have secularists here done to support those women-led revolutions? Not very much. Both Western governments and Islamists want Islamic regimes because they’re a great way to control the population. What greater oppressor than a theocratic state? In Iran, the West supported the Shah’s regime, but when the revolution happened, Western leaders decided that they preferred the Islamic regime.

This happened during the era of the Cold War, when the U.S. was trying to build a green Islamic belt around the Soviet Union. They supported the Taliban and an Islamic regime in Iran. Some of the greatest allies of the West are now Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.


Previous talks:


Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Islamophobia Does Not "Cause" Riots

So I was reading the current issue of Utne Reader (great magazine, by the way) and came across an article about Islamophobia, reprinted from Intelligence Report.

At was a good article, at least up until the third paragraph. There, I saw something that made my eyes want to pop out of my head, migrate to the author’s place of residence, and slap him in the face:

Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. [emphasis mine]

No. No no no. First of all, unlike the first three incidents, burning a Koran is not an “anti-Muslim hate crime.” Last I checked, in America that counts as free speech, heinous as it may be. Second, Islamophobia may have caused the first three incidents, but it did not cause the fourth one. That one was caused by morons who chose to respond to a provocation in a violent way.

One of my biggest issues with liberal discourse on societal problems is its proclivity to diminish or erase entirely the concept of human agency. (Some) liberals talk as though society just makes people do things without them actually processing information and deciding how to act on it.

(Among more radical liberals, this lends itself to the belief that violent response to injustice is not only inevitable, but morally justified, even if innocent people are injured or killed in the process. See: Hamas apologists.)

Leaving aside the morality of the rioters’ actions, it nevertheless takes quite a few conceptual steps to get from American Islamophobia to Muslims killing people in Afghanistan. While one could reasonably assume that Islamophobia (along with a number of other factors, such as having a violent disposition) caused people to do things like bomb mosques, stab Muslim taxi drivers, and burn Korans, one cannot then jump from that to “Islamophobia causes people in Afghanistan to riot and kill people.” Just, no.

I should hope that it’s quite clear that moderating variables must be at play here. (Case in point: Jews have been subject to as much [if not more] racism and discrimination throughout history as Muslims have, but if we rioted and killed each other every time somebody did something anti-Semitic, there’d be none of us left. Do a Google search on “burning Israeli flag” and you’ll see how common this is, and don’t tell me nobody ever burns Bibles, either.) For whatever reason, the rioters in question chose not to respond to this incident by starting an initiative to educate Westerners about Islam, by simply ranting about it to family and friends, or by shrugging and moving on.

Instead, they chose to respond to a no-name dipshit burning a Koran thousands of miles away by killing 20 innocent people.

Clearly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims in the world did not react this way, just like most teenagers who happen to come into possession of a loaded gun do not immediately go shoot up a school. The few who do go shoot up schools have serious issues that go way beyond the fact that they have access to a gun.

Islamophobia is a serious problem and should not be swept under the rug. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. All humans have agency, and we should assign the same level of responsibility to the Muslims who rioted as to the Americans who provoked them.

Why I Oppose Banning Burqas

This is not the problem.

And no, my reasoning has nothing to do with racism or any other ism!

Belgian lawmakers recently passed a bill that, if approved in their senate, would make it illegal to wear burqas in public. This comes on the heels of France’s

When justifying banning burqas or similar Islamic garments, people typically make two points–one, that burqas represent and facilitate the oppression of women, and two, that they pose a security risk.

I’ll address the oppression issue first. Some women do indeed wear burqas because they’ve been pressured into it by their culture or by specific men in their lives. But other women do it out of a genuine desire to observe their religion in that way. Some even see it as an empowering gesture. It is fundamentally unjust to oppress the latter group in the name of protecting the former.

But even if I’m being completely naive, and even if not a single Muslim woman willingly chooses to wear a burqa, I conveniently have a second argument. For those women who are being oppressed by the burqa, would banning it really help? The obvious answer, I should hope, is no. In this case, banning the burqa is the legal equivalent of slapping a band-aid over a knife wound–and of treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The disease being, of course, large-scale societal oppression of women. Not something that can be fixed with a single magical law. To use an analogy that’s even closer to my personal experience, banning burqas to promote feminism is like banning suicide to promote mental health.

Not only would banning it not help, but it would probably backfire. If these women’s husbands or fathers are pressuring them into wearing the burqa, they would probably keep right on doing it despite the new law, thus placing these women in a prime position for facing charges, jail time, or plain ol’ harassment by the police. After all, they would be the ones paying the price for breaking the law, not men.

As for the whole security issue, I don’t have too much to say about that because I’m honestly not an expert on the subject, but I’ll say this–Israel has no burqa ban, or any sort of ban on Islamic head coverings, and yet has an incredible security force that manages to stop virtually all potential terrorists within the country’s borders. They don’t release these statistics to the public, but all the time in the Jerusalem Post, you see another story about security guards catching a would-be terrorist. Maybe the security authorities in these European countries should have a big pow-wow with Israeli ones and see what they’ve been missing.

I think it’s very tempting for people (and governments) to believe that issues like the oppression of women by organized religion can be fixed by something as simple as a law banning burqas. But ultimately, you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. What looks like oppression to us may not feel that way to the women in question. Or maybe it does. In any case, banning burqas won’t help.

I’ll leave you with my favorite cartoon on this subject: