Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’

Pragna Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists. In the recent, ongoing rows at Britain’s universities over cartoons of Mohammad and tropical fruits named after him, I’ve been sharing her presentation from last year’s National Secular Society conference a lot.

Reading’s and LSE’s student unions have both taken action against atheist groups whose blasphemous actions they deemed to harass Muslims; in one case naming a pineapple Muhammad, in the other wearing t-shirts with cartoons of so-called prophets on them. Reminiscent of the case of Gillian Gibbons, arrested in Sudan six years ago for bestowing the name Muhammad on a teddy bear (Reading’s atheists named their pineapple in reference to this), the rulings have made reference to ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘religious hatred’, defining and proscribing blasphemy in the language of race relations. It’s exactly what New Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act did in 2006, both student unions having utilised localised versions of it.

Patel speaks compellingly and instructively to the effect this positioning takes, especially to how the religious right in ethnic minorities has been granted representative status, and these ‘communities’ resultant religionisation has enforced conservative norms there at women of colour’s expense. (See in particular her discussion of how Behzti, a 2004 play about sexual and ‘honour’-based violence in a Sikh temple by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – herself a Sikh – was attacked on grounds of ‘religious hatred’, forcing her to go into hiding.)

It’s an intensely relevant discussion both for secularists and anti-racists, especially for those of us who aspire to be both. Since I couldn’t find a transcript anywhere online, I’m attaching one below. Read and take note.

It’s an absolute pleasure and an honour to be invited to this conference to discuss what I think to be one of the most urgent and probably the most difficult challenge that we all face, which is the challenge to stop or prevent the shrinking of secular spaces at all levels of public life.

The title of this conference is ‘Challenging religious privilege in public life’, and Peter [Tatchell] has just stolen my first few lines. I was going to say that it is both shocking and surreal, to say the least, to stand here in 2012 talking about the need to challenge the role of religion at the public table. We took the secular fabric of the public institutions and the largely secular public culture that exists in this country for granted, I think. I did not think that we would be adding the struggle for progressive secular spaces and secular values to the long list of struggles against inequality and injustice, and for democracy, that we then faced. But here I am discussing one of the most urgent challenges that we all face – one that involves countering the rise of the religious right in particular, in all communities, at the same time as challenging the accompanying rise in racism towards minorities, especially Muslims. In the time that I have, I cannot do justice to a discussion to both of these areas of struggle, but I would like to stress that the pursuit of human rights and its claims to universality will be futile if we do not, at the same time, challenge authoritarian and hierarchical systems of power that subjugate and infantilise others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or indeed any other category including gender, sexuality and disability.

Having said that, I of course will want to focus on the issue of secularism in particular, and its implications for the women that I work with – black and minority, especially South Asian women – and their struggles for equality. In the last few decades or so, it’s becoming clear that religion increasingly has a stake in politics. Even in this country, where it is assumed that religion has been formally relegated to the private sphere, it has never been absent from politics. Not really. However, this lack of separation of church and state has come back to bite with a vengeance. It has provided the space for religion, particularly Christianity, to encroach upon public institutions. The result of this lack of separation is that we now see a noticeable upsurge not only of the Christian right but also of radical and fundamentalist groups in other religions seeking to transform society along religious norms. It is, of course, a phenomenon that we are witness to the world over.

I think I perhaps, at this stage, should make it clear what I mean by secularism. By secularism I do not mean anti-religion, but my call and SBS’s call for a secular state (which Britain isn’t) does presuppose the need to ensure that there is a separation of religion from political power. This means that the rule of law and other essential political, legal and civil-society institutions and their functions should not be informed by patriarchal and anti-democratic religious values that are highly discriminatory and divisive in practice. Secularism in itself does not guarantee equality or democracy, and history tells us this quite clearly, but it is an important precondition, and that is why the demand for a secular state must also be tied to the demand for democracy – a democracy that is meaningful in that it advances, rather than hinders, access to fundamental rights and freedoms.

So now I want to come back a little bit to the SBS experience. In the UK religion is increasingly being used as a tool to reshape relations and the social contract between the state and minority communities. Needless to say this development has very specific consequences for all progressive struggles, but especially for those waged by minority women, whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation. Over the last two decades, the British state has vigorously promoted a religious or faith-based approach to minorities, notwithstanding the often contrary and assimilationist tendencies of successive government agendas on cohesion, integration, ‘Big Society‘ and localism. (I was interested to see that the first speaker of the day was Ted Cantle, and he was, I think, instrumental in promoting a very integrationist approach, but it is an approach which I found highly flawed in respect of minorities.)

This faith-based agenda is partly to do with a perceived need to appease conservative religious leaderships within those communities, to keep them on side as it were for the War on Terror, but it’s partly promoted in the belief that the right to manifest religion signifies equal treatment of minorities, and it’s a belief that’s actually shared by sections of the so-called progressive left. Our experience of working on the rights of minority women in the UK reveals that wherever the religious right are in the ascendency, the right to manifest religion always overshadows the right to freedom from religion. Of course this reflects a number of economic, social, political, global and national trends, but the result is in any event an ever-diminishing welfare state and a corresponding increase in the communalisation of minority communities, with community groups and civil society organising solely around religious identity.

The faith-based approach to minorities, as driven as it is by ideological and economic imperatives, is in effect a political resource used by the state and the religious right within minority populations to gain power and privilege. It is in this context that I say the struggle for human rights by many black and minority women in the UK is now inextricably linked to the struggle for secular spaces, and such struggles have taken on a sense of urgency.

The turning point in compelling feminist organisations like Southall Black Sisters to make explicit the link between gender equality and secularism was of course the Rushdie affair, and it’s obviously a very topical moment now, with his autobiography coming out. That moment represented the growing power of religious fundamentalists, who used the then-multicultural and now multi-faith terrain to pursue a vigorous de-secularisation agenda. The early nineties saw the rise of the religious right in all religions in the UK, and that created the conditions for the emergence of a culture of intolerance, a culture of fear and censorship, that remains with us in heightened and incendiary forms. Since the nineties we have witnessed with alarming frequency religious fundamentalist and authoritarian protest to any form of dissent from an imposed religious identity, much of which has centred directly and indirectly on the control of women’s sexuality.

Nor are such protests confined to Muslims only. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians in the majority community too have sought to impose strict religious identity on followers by clamping down on dissent. The furore created around the play Behzti in 200[4], as many of you remember, is an example of one of the many attempts by the religious right (in this case the Sikh right) to suppress dissent, and that involved silencing minority women who dared to speak out against religious and cultural impositions that undermined their freedom and rights. For those of you who remember, the Behzti play furore involved protests by Sikh fundamentalists – but also so-called moderates – against the play. (Behzti means dishonour, and it dealt with the issues of rape and abuse of power within a Sikh temple.) The so-called Sikh community took offence, protested and had the play removed from the Birmingham Rep[ertory Theatre] company. The author had to go into hiding.

That’s just one example. I can quote to you many, many more that don’t even make the headlines. We in SBS are aware also of countless cases around the country where South Asian and other minority women have been prevented from voicing their thoughts and prevented from exercising self-determination. Religious institutions have been involved [with] or condoned domestic and sexual violence and abuse within minority communities. There have even been cases where religious leaders have sought to ‘exorcise’ women or children by beating them, sometimes to death, for non-conformist behaviour perceived as possession by evil spirits. Last week there was one such report of a woman who, with the collusion of the local imam, was beaten by her family, who thought she was possessed by evil spirits. That was in Bethnal Green, I think.

Whilst these cases represent the more dramatic end of the spectrum, women find their aspirations quashed by religious leaders on a day to day basis. They often find themselves trapped at home because of the stranglehold of culture and religion, and as minority women in the UK have no effective political representation and no power to challenge the hegemony of the religious establishments, they (along with other subgroups) have the most to lose. Women have only their voices of dissent as a tool by which to demand more freedom. The suppression of dissent is therefore not just a question of freedom of expression, but literally a matter of life and death for many.

This is precisely why we supported Salman Rushdie, and why we also opposed the creation of the new offence of ‘Incitement to Religious Hatred‘ in 2005. We perceived it as an attempt to introduce the outdated blasphemy laws through the back door, and argued that the main targets would not be those engaged in fermenting religious hatred toward others, but those who wished to dissent from religion itself – in other words, those representing a challenge to orthodox traditions such as women, gays and lesbians. Our fears were confirmed [by] a spokesperson from the Sikh (so-called) Human Rights Group, who in response to the Behzti affair stated on television that if the law had existed at the time, the group would have used it to prevent the play from being performed.

The state’s faith-based agenda has given a further fillip to fundamentalists and religious right forces, who are in the process of consolidating their power and control over communities and resources. Partly in response to the rise of anti-Muslim racism, many Muslims including Muslim women are becoming increasingly vigilant in their efforts to protect religious identity, and this has resulted in a series of demands for greater religious recognition in public spaces. Dominant demands for legal tolerance, cultural rights and access to public resources, evident in (for example) campaigns to extend the blasphemy law, funding for religious schools, dress codes and the right to apply customary or personal religious laws in the governance of family affairs instead of civil law are just some examples, and – not to be outdone – other minority groups, predominantly Hindus and Sikhs, have followed suit, demanding that their educational welfare and family needs also need to be addressed in accordance with their religious values.

Such demands use the language of human rights, and even anti-racism, but actually what they’re doing is subverting these very principles, stripping them of their progressive meaning. Their demands seek not only to alter public culture but to strengthen the control of women in the private sphere. What is particularly troubling about all of this is that these demands have been taken to represent a strong counter-hegemonic voice to so-called Western cultural and religious imposition. To that extent, at all levels of society, minority rights are increasingly and almost exclusively linked to the right to manifest religion, and our concern at SBS is that in the process, the state is unable to distinguish between valid demands for equality and those that simply mask and perpetuate inequality.

Instead, the state happily obliges by promoting and funding multi-faith forums and projects at central and local government levels, to tackle all sorts of social problems even where those involved in such forums have had no historical interest in gender equality or social justice and human rights issues. Most are only concerned to ensure that the demand for equality is substituted for more religious literacy in all public institutions – that is, they demand that the state recognises the supposedly authentic theological values and traditions of minorities, but they don’t want, and erase in fact, the diverse, syncretic, liberal, cultural, political, secular traditions (including feminist traditions) within communities. It’s a demand which elements of the progressive left are all too willing to accommodate.

For the sake of clarity, and so that there’s no misunderstanding, I need to stress that equality and human rights are not Western concepts. The struggle for equality and human rights by black and minority women against religious and patriarchal authority in the UK, and indeed by women and others across the world, show that they are waged on a daily basis – often simultaneously with struggles against Western imperialism and racism that is also troubling because it’s increasingly linked to Christian evangelism. The feminist and human rights scholar Karima Bennoune, who is based in the US, has stated that the struggle to keep religion and the law separate is one of the most urgent struggles that is now taking place globally. This is certainly true of our struggles as minority women in the British context, where the gains that we have made in compelling the state to fulfil its obligations as the guarantor of human rights are increasingly under threat.

Although the state has begun to assert more clearly that harmful cultural practices such as forced marriage [and] honour-based violence will not be tolerated (and that in itself is a legacy of our short-lived attempt to create a mature multiculturalism), the faith-based approach contributes to a set of contradictory policies and practices aimed at recognising and protecting religious identity, increasingly to the detriment of women’s rights. For example, on the one hand, the state acknowledges issues such as domestic violence, honour crimes, forced marriage, female genital mutilation etc. as an abuse of women’s human rights, and actively seeks to intervene in its protective capacity, but on the other hand – in the face of the power of religious claims – it fails to acknowledge the lack of ability and the absence of social permission for the more vulnerable in minority communities to exercise choice in determining their cultural and religious affiliations, practices and identity.

Yet the emphasis on religious identities in social policy and practice brings with it a number of problems linked to questions of validity and authenticity: questions about which religious identities and demands are valid, and whose opinion constitutes the authentic voice, are matters that are rising in the battles that are now taking place. This is clearly evident in recent debates and development in respect of the demand to incorporate aspects of personal laws (Sharia laws) in relation to the family in particular within the English legal system – a move which, unsurprisingly in an economic context where controlling time-consuming litigation and slashing the legal aid budget is an overriding objective, is encouraged by leading establishment figures in the judiciary and the church itself.

We conducted a study at Southall Black Sisters to map some of these shifts toward multi-faithism, and implications on policy and practices for minority women. The findings of that study showed that women absolutely valued their right to freedom from aspects of their religion and culture, a freedom which is often seen [as] necessary to secure their right to life, to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, to choice in marriage, to private life, to freedom of expression, to an education and to a fair trial. They also complained of the rise of religious leaders and institutions as providers of services: they felt that it would threaten their access to protection and justice. They cherished the secular space provided by Southall Black Sisters, which they saw as an empowering space, a space that enables them to gain access to other essential secular state, welfare and legal services, which actually provide the final safety net when they are at risk of serious harm or [losing] their lives, and they were clear that however flawed the secular nature of the state, it did at least enable them to assert their fundamental rights and freedoms in the family.

Yet in spite of the history of achievement of feminist groups like us, and there are many others up and down the country, support for and engagement with religious forums (such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal for example) is gathering pace. On the face of it, formalised religious forums of arbitration such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal present themselves as professional bodies that seek to adhere to formal legal rules of engagement and to non-discriminatory principles, but what they are in fact seeking to do is create the conditions for the establishment of parallel legal systems based on divine law. Quite apart from the fact that in the UK there is no substantive evidence, as our study showed, that the majority of Muslim or other minority women want religious arbitration in respect of personal and family matters, we actually know from women’s experiences of formal and informal religious arbitration systems that they are gender-biased and profoundly discriminatory. There is nothing in the operation of these forums to suggest that they are progressive on women’s rights, irrespective of what they say publicly and of the views of some of the individuals associated with it. Backing religious forums will therefore in effect mean state backing for the most discriminatory and often abhorrent practices to be endorsed, and backing such forums will actually enforce a lack of choice on the most vulnerable within minority communities, especially women and children.

In our view, the aim of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal and other religious tribunals is to present themselves as legitimate mediators on women’s issues, but in reality they attempt to oust the position of feminist organisations that have historically campaigned on gender-related violence and gender equality in the family. The political context, therefore, and the issues of power that flow from demands from separate or parallel legal systems cannot be overlooked. They are made by those who have specific political agendas, and who are themselves unrepresentative of and unaccountable to the communities they claim to represent. So in conclusion, we would say that the duty to exercise due diligence, in order to prevent, investigate, punish acts for example of violence against women or other violations of women’s rights (including those carried out by non-state actors) is a necessary function of a democratic state. In our view this duty is being subverted by the state’s accommodation of demands for personal religious laws to govern family affairs, and for greater recognition of religious identity in public institutions.

In the final analysis, I suppose the question that has to be asked – but it remains unanswered so far – is why, despite evidence of discrimination and denial of rights, especially for women and sexual minorities, there is such widespread acceptance that family law can be culturally specific rather than subject to universal human rights norms. I think the connection between gender, equality and religious-political movements needs to be urgently examined, since it has human rights ramifications for the UK, particularly for the vulnerable in the UK. The current promotion of faith-based projects in all areas of civil society is in danger of compromising the gender equality agenda for black and minority women and for sexual minorities in particular. Ultimately though, there needs to be constant vigilance against the use of women’s issues, both by the state and religionists, in pursuit of other agendas.