The below Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas has been published in the January 2014 issue of Unveiled, Fitnah’s Monthly Publication.
Maryam Namazie: What is the nature of the recent sex segregation scandal at Universities UK where the representative body issued guidance saying side by side sex segregation was permissible? Why does it occur and by whom is it imposed? Also, it’s more than just a question of physical separation isn’t it?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Just like with the niqab, it’s an extreme-Right political organisation working under the cover of religion to promote sex segregation as a pawn in the political landscape and using all possible means to make itself visible and impose its mores and laws. The idea is to permanently demonstrate that the law of god (as interpreted by them) supersedes the law of the people. It is a blatant attack on the very principle of democracy and one woman/man, one vote, particularly relevant in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death.
The UK has laws for gender equity; therefore, the government should be clear that these laws are the only ones applicable in the UK. However we know that this is not the case as it has already accepted a parallel legal system [what’s known as Sharia Courts or Muslim Arbitration Tribunals] which does not grant women the same rights as the law of the land does. This is a major setback.
Às long as all these attempts by Muslim fundamentalists – whether in the form of different rights for different categories of citizens, veiling, sex segregation and so on – is not analysed in political terms – as the expression of an anti-democratic programme, but rather in terms of religion or culture, the British government will not limit the rise of this extreme-Right movement, which will be increasingly difficult to control.
Those of us who clearly see the rise of a new form of fascism – mostly because we come from situations in which we have had to live under the boot of fundamentalists – are left to our own devices to struggle against it. It is not very different from the situation of anti-Nazi Germans who were not listened to, for far too long, until a bloody war was inevitable.
Maryam Namazie: Universities UK’s guidance first said (though it has now been withdrawn as a result of pressure) if women are not made to sit at the back of the room but are segregated alongside men, since none are disadvantaged, then there is no discrimination. Your views?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Whether at the back or on the side, the old argument is always that this is done to protect women – for their own good, of course, and by doing so to restrict their freedom of movement. By the same logic, some twenty years ago, Bangladesh suddenly restricted women from leaving the country as there was a lot of trafficking of women in the region. What appeared to be their solution was NOT to arrest pimps-protectors, but to prevent women from travelling without a wali (a male guardian from their family). Please note that Bangladesh does not even abide by the Maliki School, in which the institution of wali is legal.
What is discriminatory is to assign a place to somebody, whatever that place may be. It says: keep to your place; to women’s place!
Universities have no business pandering to such requests, and if they do, what’s next? Fundamentalist speakers will only address audiences where females are fully covered?
It seems we are already witnessing some of the next steps. According to media reports, in one instance at a UK university, women were not only segregated but had to give their questions in writing to the speaker, whilst men could raise theirs. As one knows, their voices are sexually attractive and fundamentalists plug their ears against temptation – hence the ban on singing in the areas the Taliban control…
What is sure is that fundamentalists will not stop here and will produce more and more demands, since the aim is not to get satisfaction for a specific demand, but to gain political ground.
Maryam Namazie: Omar Ali, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, says ‘segregation’ is ‘an emotive use of language’. ‘If a society is set up to cater for religious needs on campus, why shouldn’t they? ‘A lot of people would find it insulting to say this is something discriminatory against women.’
Marieme Helie Lucas: Why should religious needs be catered to on campus? If we launch a society for the rights of naturists, should universities cater to our need to organise healthy debates in the nude (in summer only), and to exclude or seclude those who do not adhere to putting our philosophy in practice? Or is Mr Omar Ali’s religious ideology considered by university authorities more valuable than my naturist philosophy? In that case, I could take the authorities to court for discrimination against my philosophy, for creating a hierarchy of rights amongst different views and beliefs.
What is to be allowed on campus? What is in keeping with a university’s general mission of expanding knowledge and reasoning? I presume that my naturist philosophy could be and should be of interest to all to debate about on campus, but that my insistence to put my beliefs in practice may not be considered as indispensable to the exchange of ideas.
Maryam Namazie: Separating men and women isn’t necessarily discriminatory and can reflect personal preferences, such as women-only gyms on women-only refuges. The head of Universities UK which issued the guidance endorsing segregation of the sexes says: “It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment. It’s not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation, which is totally different and it’s unlawful and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.” Are racial and gender segregation incomparable? Why is it that everyone can see the distinction between a black university and racial apartheid but when it comes to gender, it’s not as obvious?
Marieme Helie Lucas: This is a very crucial question that I have debated a lot, including more than twenty years ago with feminist friends in the USA. While sex segregation was rapidly expanding in Algeria under the heavy weight of the first fundamentalist preachers and religious groups, I was trying to warn them about the potential backlash of their gender segregation policy in the name of feminism.
Many of our feminist weapons have been turned against us along the years… and I have come to this very sad conclusion that we were not smart enough to think, as thinkers and philosophers should, about all the facets of the concepts we were grappling with. Just think of our feminist praise for diversity, whilst all along we knew that difference was used to legitimise the racist South African apartheid regime, or the segregationist states of the USA. This concept is now used to legitimise the imposition of differences on women that make them unequal in the name of religion, ethnicity or culture.
I think we should urgently question the present trend to regroup with ‘the same’ in order to protect ourselves from ‘the other’. It seems to me that this is a general trend, from the creation of Israel to the dismantling of the former Yugoslavia, to the creation of ghettos – whether for Blacks – or increasingly for wealthy Whites, Asians, Muslims, Sikhs… you name it.
We are slowly returning to the ethnic/racial/religious/gender purity which induces us to stay amongst ‘the sames’. Decades ago, I wrote a chapter entitled ‘What is your tribe? The construction of Muslimness’ in which I discussed the fear of the other to discover that the other is the same…
Mixing is the future of humanity.
Maryam Namazie: Cultural relativists will say that gender segregation is people’s culture and beliefs and must be respected. If the speaker wants segregation, and the audience are okay with it, what’s the problem? Is denying the right to “voluntary” gender segregation a denial of the right to manifest religion? The head of UUK says: “If people feel more comfortably about sitting separately, and that’s invariably the situation that will arise in these cases, then universities have to listen to those views.”
Marieme Helie Lucas: There are two underlying questions here: the first one is about the limits to respect for ‘The Other’s’ culture/religion…; the second is about who speaks for culture; who speaks for religion?
On respect, the real question is: should everything be respected? Is Female Genital Mutilation to be respected because old men think that is their culture – and even if some women also think it is their culture? Should forced marriage or child marriage be respected? Should public flogging for adultery be respected? Should stoning to death be respected? Or for that matter should the death penalty be respected at all?
There is a relativist culture of non commitment and neutrality that has been expanding – certainly in the West, under the influence of liberalism, of human rights organisations and of political correctness and the fear of appearing racist. Accordingly, everything is equal; everything has to be respected on par – the right of the capitalist and the right of the worker, the right of the one who holds the gun and the right of the one who runs for his life away from the gun… It is high time to admit that there are conflicting rights, antagonistic rights.
It seems to me that progressive people have forgotten the virtues of being partisan. I want to stand for the right of the worker, not that of the capitalist, for the right of the man who runs for his life, not for the right of the man who holds the gun, and for the right of women to live their lives without interference from extreme-Right religious people.
There can be a principled response regarding respect for ‘The Other’ and its limits, but this first question can also lead to another: who decides that THIS is The Culture of a group?
We could immediately produce, of course, hundreds and thousands and even millions of people, in each specific country, who would vouch that ‘this’ (be it stoning, FGM, child marriage, etc…) is by no means their culture/their religion, not the culture they feel they belong to, or the religion they believe in.
Do we believe that those presently standing in their own countries or in the diaspora against FGM, public flogging, death penalty for atheists, etc… have less legitimacy in representing their people, their culture, their religion than those who stand for it?
Are we really saying that women fighting against sex segregation today in their own countries are alien to their culture? That they are illegitimate representatives of their cultures?
This stems from a definition of culture as fixed in the past, a-historical, not as a moving, living, permanently changing, social organisation. But then WHEN is a culture arrested in history, in which year? In the years of slavery, in the years when women did not vote, in the years when women did not have access to contraception, or could not open their own bank accounts? In which of these historical steps is a culture ‘arrested’ to be seen as authentic?
To me, the women who fight against FGM or stoning for sex outside marriage or for gender equality, etc are the representatives of today’s culture in their country.
It seems to me that cultural relativists are furiously and deeply racist since they exclusively promote as true and legitimate the worst possible opinions of extreme-Right Muslims. If anyone, white, European, would utter similar opinions about their white European co-citizens, these same cultural relativists would shrink in horror and refuse to shake their hand. One can only conclude that cultural relativists think that a Muslim must be a horrible reactionary, otherwise s/he is not a true Muslim. Isn’t that racist?
Maryam Namazie: Universities UK has even gone so far as to say that denying segregation may violate the free speech of those speakers who cannot speak except to segregated audiences due to their strongly held beliefs. Is this really about free speech or for that matter the right to religion?
Marieme Helie Lucas: This is the very old and always successful story of blaming the victim.
When professor Krauss walked out of the debate at a UK university, although he had announced in advance that he would not participate in it should it be segregated, he was shouted out by Muslim fundamentalist students as ‘intolerant’; he was a little surprised…
At the beginning of the 70’s in Algiers I had two similar experiences:
I was in a queue waiting to vote when the man before me handed eleven (11, you read well) ID cards for all the women in his family whom he was voting for to the voting booth authority. I objected that this was illegal; the staff at the voting booth, the very person who was supposed to guarantee the respect of law accused me of being against the right of women to vote. These women, he said, could not get out of the house, hence their only way of voting was by giving their IDs to the male in the family. And who was I, a woman, objecting to women’s rights as citizens; how dared I?
Also in the early seventies, when for the first time a non-indigenous form of veiling appeared in the streets of Algiers, in fact an early Iranian style of chador that women in Turkey still wear, a sort of long rain coat on trousers, with a tight head scarf, it was labelled ‘the students’ dress’. Most female students in Algiers, especially during the first decade after independence, usually wore western clothes and did not cover their heads. It was clearly an offensive from Muslim fundamentalist groups; they were doing a lot of social work and, together with other goods, would distribute to poor families the so-called students’ dress, in fact the early model of what was to become ‘the Islamic dress’. Orhan Pamuk described the same thing in Turkey, saying that it was virtually impossible to refuse this ‘gift’ while accepting all the others indispensable ones.
When I raised the issue of veiling young women, I was told that I was preventing women access to universities; that I was denying women the right to study! Without this outfit, fundamentalists said, fathers would not allow girls to go to university (a blatant lie, as Algerian fathers after independence were most willing to send all their children to university, boys and girls alike; schooling was entirely free and lunch was provided), hence I was depriving girls of their right to education by questioning their alien outfit…
By the way, how come we haven’t heard the devotees of untouchable cultures speaking up against this brand new dress code? Wasn’t this costume that we had never seen before alien to our culture?
While attacking our most basic rights, fundamentalists managed to put the blame us, the victims of their manipulation, just as in rape cases: “yes I raped her, but what was she doing at this time of the day/or night in this place? And what was she wearing; how was she dressed? She was actually looking for it, she is the culprit and I am the innocent…”
We have no more reason to accept this reversing of responsibilities from Muslim fundamentalists than we did from rapists.
Maryam Namazie: There is often a problem in addressing issues such as sex apartheid, “Sharia” courts or the niqab as the links between these and Islamism is often kept hidden and it is portrayed as a matter of choice and rights. We often see the use of rights language to push forwards restrictions on rights in the name of religion. Your views?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Our friend Cherifa Kheddar, herself a survivor of an attack on her family by armed fundamentalist groups in the nineties in Algeria is often quoted by Karima Bennoune in her book and her articles. She says that it is useless to fight ‘terrorism’ without fighting its root cause: ‘Islamism’ i.e. the ideology which engenders terrorism.
There is an ideological battle going on, as well as very concrete ones. Introducing parallel legal systems, making one’s political presence visible thanks to more and more women wearing a so-called ‘Islamic dress’, gender segregation, the revival of medieval forms of punishment such as beheading ( let’s not forget it happened in Woolwich not so long ago) or stoning or flogging or amputation of limbs – all this does not come in a vacuum. There is a correlation between all these demands; and there is a deliberate political will behind it. I cannot believe that there are blue-eyed do-gooders who do not see the links, even if they may not analyse this phenomenon politically.
The very sad and very dangerous part of the story is that only the classical racist far-Right organisations in Europe seem to identify the problem. And they use it to further their xenophobic anti- Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-others agenda.
Our betrayal and abandonment by the Left, its denial of the right-wing agenda of Muslim fundamentalists, its hiding behind anti-imperialism, is what causes most difficulties for us anti-fundamentalists from Muslim-majority countries living in Europe. While denouncing fundamentalists, we have to constantly strive to avoid getting used politically by the classical racist far-Right.
Had the Left in Europe had a clear political analysis regarding the rise of the Muslim-Right, we would not be stuck with the perverse manipulation of liberal language. It is in the name of rights that Algerian anti-fundamentalist resistance has been abandoned to its fate – 200,000 victims mostly at the hands of armed fundamentalist groups. It is in the name of rights that the Iranian theocracy has been put in place. Theocrats being hailed by the Coward Left; what more can one say about the absurd dreadful situation in which we are?
The theory of priorities still operates, as well as that of the “main enemy” and the “secondary enemy”: we are being eaten up by our secondary enemy, whilst the main enemy, US imperialism, is quietly allying in Afghanistan and elsewhere with the secondary enemy, Muslim fundamentalist forces which own and/or control gas and other natural resources…
Maryam Namazie: Gender apartheid is hugely contested in places like Iran, Algeria and Tunisia. Isn’t ironic that it would be promoted at UK universities as a right? What are the links between the fight in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa against gender apartheid and those at British universities?
Marieme Helie Lucas: We are fighting the same battle, except that the issue seems much clearer when one lives inside a Muslim-majority country than when living in the diaspora in Europe. The list of signatories to the petition against UUK guidelines shows that women fighting fundamentalist forces in Muslim-majority countries are very much aware of the fact that it is a common battle.