Pragna Patel on the difficulty of human rights work between conservative views of economics and law on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other.
First, we are compelled to challenge the state for removing legal aid from a huge range of civil and criminal matters which impact not only on individual rights but also on our demands for institutional accountability in the face of abuses of power that seem to be growing rather than diminishing. The government’s ‘reforms’ on legal aid are strongly located in a fiscal context that reiterate some of the key overarching aims of the present government: localism, alternative dispute resolution strategies, deficit reduction and deregulation. Taken together these measures are destroying one of the great pillars of the welfare state.
They have forced SBS into leading or supporting legal and political challenges against various legal aid cuts.
This development is directly linked to the challenges that we face on the second front: increasing privatisation of justice and state adoption of a ‘faith based’ approach to address minority issues. This has meant amongst other things, challenging religious fundamentalists and ‘moderates’ alike who are using the vacuum created to influence and shape law and social policy by reference to a regressive religious identity that they have come to define.
That’s something I don’t think I’ve paid enough attention to – the fact that it’s just plain cheaper for the government to outsource dispute resolution to theocrats. Cheaper but worse, as cheaper so often is.
Muslim fundamentalists have mounted what can be described as a two pronged pincer like manoeuvre based ostensibly on the demand for religious tolerance, but which is in reality a bid for power in which the control of female sexuality is central. On the one hand they seek to ensure that personal religious codes are normalised within the legal system, and on the other they seek to formalise a parallel legal system through the establishment of alternative religious forums for dispute resolution in family matters. This process – a sort of ‘shariafication by stealth’ of the legal apparatus – involves making state law and policy ‘Sharia’ compliant. If successful, we have no doubt that it will lead other religions to demand the same level of accommodation.
She talks about examples we’re familiar with – gender segregation at UK universities and the Law Society’s guidance on “sharia-compliant” wills.
Support for parallel legal systems come not only from male religious leaderships and the state, but also alarmingly from within feminism itself. For instance, in feminist discussions on intersectional frameworks for understanding violence against women it has become fashionable to talk of the intersection of religion and gender, and to refer to the need to develop a feminist response that is sensitive to the growth of religious values, especially post 9/11 and the rise of anti-Muslim racism. This has amounted to support for the accommodation of religious legal codes. Yet few if any acknowledge the fact that wherever parallel legal systems operate they generally suppress dissent, and seek to remove women from public spaces metaphorically speaking and to impede their fundamental freedoms in the private sphere.
Oh shit, has it? If that’s intersectionalism, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.
What we see at work here is clearly an attempt to impede the development of secular, progressive, political resistance by de-legitimising and locating our struggles for access to justice, outside of so called community, anti-racist and feminist concerns. These struggles are now taking place on many fronts as both religious right forces and the state mount an assault on secular human rights values in pursuit of power without accountability.
This article is an extended version of a presentation given by the author at theSecularism 2014 Conference held in London last weekend
That’s Maryam’s amazing conference.