Southall Black Sisters have always organised autonomously as an anti-communalist, anti-racist, and progressive organisation. We’ve been going since 1979, as both a service provider to black and minority women, and an anti-racist and feminist organisation.
When we were set up, there was silence on race and gender in a range of social movements. We wanted to organise within those movements, autonomously, and at the same time calling on these movements to adopt what is now fashionably termed an “intersectional” approach to seeing the interconnections between race, class, sex, gender, and to build progressive alliances and coalitions.
In those early days, we took our secular identity for granted. It was just present in our politics, our outlooks, our thinking. The term “black” was certainly contested. But at the height of black feminist and anti-racist struggles in the 80s, the secular black identity was a progressive one, and a unifying one; it allowed us to forge connections and solidarity which transcended boundaries of class, ethnicity, caste and religion within black and minority communities. And with other communities as well: we were involved with delegations to Northern Ireland, to mining communities and so on.
So we’ve always maintained that the identity you choose, and coalition-building are interconnected, because the identity you choose conditions the alliances you can build.
By secularism, I do not mean anti-religion, but a separation of religion from the state. Secularism means that the rule of law, and other essential political, legal and civil society institutions and their functions, should not be informed by religion. Secularism on its own does not guarantee equality or democracy; we have seen plenty of totalitarian regimes which are secular and are hardly democratic. But secularism is an important precondition.
That is why the demand for a secular state must be tied to the demand for a democracy which is actually meaningful in that it enhances rather than hinders access to fundamental freedoms in private and public spaces.
What makes the ground beneath us so shaky now? New forms of religious identities have become the counter-hegemonic framework of resistance to racism, and neoliberalism and imperialism; that makes coalition building so much more difficult.
In the context of the war on terror, many on the left, but by no means all, have accepted the use of religion as the key definer of political identity within minority communities. Many social movements have actually embraced and given space to religion and religiosity in their movements without questioning what this brings with it. And this is as true of feminism as of other social mobilisations.
What we are left with is a growing acceptance of religious identity politics, and with it an increasing gap between movements for social justice and the movement for gender equality. Because as someone in the movement for gender equality, which is also a movement for social justice, I often find myself challenging religious identity politics.
SBS was one of the first organisations in the UK to respond to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism worldwide, by which we mean the use of religion for political purposes. We set up Women Against Fundamentalism in 1989. It was born in the midst of the tremendous furore against Salman Rushdie and the publication of Satanic Verses. The high point of that furore was the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which declared him a blasphemer against Islam and called for his death.
Very quickly, the media reduced the whole Rushdie affair to a debate between supporters of Rushdie, seen to be people from the artistic community, intellectuals, artists, who were supporting freedom of speech; and Muslim religious leaders, many of whom were calling for the book to be banned and supporting the fatwa on the grounds that Rushdie had offended religious sensibilities, even though many had not read the book. It was a polarised debate. And it’s not surprising that the media characterised this debate in this way, because the left was silent on this question.
It was left to WAF and SBS to pick apart this binary, and assert the need to challenge racism and religious fundamentalism at the same time. “Racism cannot be an excuse not to confront religious fundamentalism” was our mantra.
Our mantra is an important one, because in fact racism, imperialism and fundamentalism are in each other’s environment, absolutely linked.
Today I feel bookended by two linked events: the Rushdie affair, 1989, and Charlie Hebdo, January 2015. What the two have in common is the struggle for free speech and the right to dissent.
I don’t think that we can take any pleasure in having predicted in 1989 the rise of fundamentalism and the religious far right globally. I don’t think any of us could have imagined the extent of the rise of religious political movements, or the violence and atrocities which have followed globally. We speak in the shadow of a litany of unspeakable horrors which have now taken place.
We have seen the recent massacre of what were, contrary to popular view, radical-left-leaning journalists in Paris, many of whom were trade unionists or members of the Communist Party — they were part of the left. We have seen the no less shocking acts of religious extremist violence, murder and even genocide in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Kenya, and elsewhere. And who is that violence perpetrated against? The majority are civilians, who are often from the same religious background as the perpetrators.
Whilst we have been at pains to point out that free speech has limits, especially when it incites hatred and violence, the demand for the extension of the blasphemy laws, which began after Rushdie, laws that had traditionally privileged Christianity, was not one such limit to free speech. We said the laws shouldn’t be extended, and we called for the disestablishment of the Church. We also made the point that free speech is not just a liberal, but a feminist and a left issue.
I think that the right to dissent from religious and patriarchal orthodoxies has always been an important part of the armoury of feminism. Our analysis showed that the real losers from a religious culture and from this fallacious idea of the right to not be offended are women, sexual minorities and other religious minorities, more often than not from the same communities. What has happened from Rushdie to now in the UK bears this out. Those who were targeted, vilified, intimidated and assaulted are those who dared to show irreverence towards religion, to criticise religion, however mildly.
The Behzti play in 2005, which tried to depict rape in a Sikh temple, was seen by Sikh fundamentalists to offend Sikh sensibilities, and the play was pulled from the Birmingham Repertory. Then in 2006 the Indian painter, known as the Picasso of India, M F Hussein, put on an exhibition in London, and that was pulled following protests by Hindu fundamentalists, who said that his depictions of naked female deities offended Hindu sensibilities.
You see vigilante groups of young Muslim men, linked to fundamentalist groups in Tower Hamlets, who have become self-appointed guardians of community morality in that part of London. They police women and their dress codes, and police sexuality.
Hindu, Sikh, Muslim fundamentalists are campaigning and protesting aggressively; and although everyone has the right to protest, they sometimes blur the line between protests and intimidation, and terrorise and censor democratic debate.
Religious fundamentalism and the religious right are all to do with power and politics. The use of violence to suppress alternative ideas and any form of dissent from religious orthodoxies glorifies criminality and dresses it up as a fight for a just cause, even sometimes defence of human rights. It uses violence to destroy free, open democratic societies created out of struggles for accountability.
The end game of all religious fundamentalism is hatred and intolerance, silence and violence. It leads to the destruction of aspirations and hopes and efforts to be better human beings. It aims to destroy our capacity to imagine what justice and equality might look like: ideas that should be, in the words of Indian historian Dilip Simeon, the very music of humanity.
It was argued by many people on the broad left that Rushdie was provocative and caused religious offence, led to the stereotyping of Muslim communities as backward and medieval and so on. These same people are today arguing that Charlie Hebdo caused religious offence, played into stereotyping of Muslims, and has fed into racist and intolerant French establishment culture which treats many Muslims as an underclass, subjected to lifelong poverty, deprivation and alienation. They also argue that what occurred was not satire because it involved the powerful attacking the powerless.
I’m not denying that the ghettoes, deprivation, racism, humiliation, alienation suffered by migrants, Muslims and non-Muslims, in France or anywhere else in Europe. This deserves political analysis and resistance, and actually there has been a rich history of both. We in SBS see how racism plays out in the daily lives of the most vulnerable. But we urgently need to grasp and accept the fact that the story of Charlie Hebdo does not start with the racist context alone, or the racist aftermath and backlash of the killings — it starts with the killings themselves.
They are the product of a religious far-right ideology which is nihilistic and no different from fascism. It is not possible to justify, without loss of integrity, the idea that such killings are the consequences of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. You should try telling that to the parents of the children who were killed in the massacre in Pakistan at the end of last year; or to the parents of the children abducted and killed in Nigeria. Are these people not themselves part of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in their own countries?
I think this idea that many on the left endlessly peddle, that Charlie Hebdo is racist and Islamophobic and that the terrorists were merely victims of the war on terror, serves to erase, deny, minimise or underestimate the threat that is posed by all religious fundamentalist movements, both global and context-specific.
When the left argues that there is a new construction of anti-racist resistance, based around religion and the politics of the right not to be offended, this poisons progressive activism, and allows the state to tiptoe around religion and accommodate demands such as the accommodation of sharia principles into family law. The state has accommodated religion to such an extent that we are seeing religion encroach into the way that the law and education operate.
At the end of 2012 Universities UK actually put out guidance legitimising gender segregation at public events if external speakers demanded it, on the basis that speakers had the right to manifest their religion.
The guidance did not question the issue of sex discrimination. In fact it legitimated gender apartheid. It took a campaign and threats of legal action before UUK agreed to withdraw that guidance. We argued that the UUK had violated equality and non-discrimination principles enshrined in the public sector equality duty and Human Rights Act and that these laws which had long been using as a tool to challenge sexism were themselves the products of long hard battles by feminists, racial minorities, and others and in fact, are a part the postwar settlement.
But there were many people on the left, including feminists like Laurie Penny, who argued that we were being racist. I remember that she and others reduced our protest to mere hyperbole, or Islamophobia, and said that it was yet another attack on Muslim people.
And then in 2013 we had the Law Society issuing guidance on how lawyers can prepare sharia-compliant wills. It was drafted using reference to fundamentalist texts which defend the most abhorrent practices including death by stoning. It endorsed so-called sharia succession rules, which stipulate that as a general rule, a male is worth twice a woman, so she receives only half of what a man would, and that illegitimate children have no right to inherit.
So the guidance accepts without question the inherent discrimination that exists within Islam, and indeed within other religions, against women, and against children born out of wedlock. And of course the Law Society doesn’t ask how it possibly knows what is and isn’t sharia law — there is no such thing! There are personal Muslim codes that operate throughout the Muslim world, but they are varied and vigorously contested and targeted for reform or repeal, particularly by feminists, sexual minorities and others.
The real problem is that the Law Society, instead of upholding a rights-based culture, upholds a sharia-compliant culture, promotes it, and weighs into doctrinal territory. This came after a series of training courses that they developed on sharia-compliance in the realm of family, children, property and financial settlements.
All of this gives succour to Islamists, and to religious fundamentalists in other communities, to argue for parallel legal systems. The argument is that secular human rights law can apply to the majority, but minorities must settle for second best, second-rate, religious, patriarchal codes of conduct. What we see is form of racism. What the Law Society is doing is preventing a culture of human rights taking root in minority communities and seeing to it that they are sort of “left to their own devices”.
The struggle for a secular universal human rights framework is made much more difficult when you have a government that goes on and on about upholding so-called “British values”. No-one knows quite what that means, but I suppose it ought to mean respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. But just as they encourage everyone to respect “British” human rights values, they threaten to repeal the Human Rights Act! There is a mix of interests at play here, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging. But what we are seeing is a growing alignment of religion and the law, and state support for non-state religious arbitration systems.
We are really seeing the rise of far-right religious and political movements across Europe and everywhere else, and they mirror each other. While they appear to oppose each other, they can and do converge and overlap. Where they overlap is to maintain authenticity, purity of identity, culture and tradition. That is as true of the EDL and the BNP as it is of the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh fundamentalists as well.
Their common desire is to protect extremist ideology and to suppress or eliminate ideas that seek to promote non-violence, empathy, compassion and the value of human life for everyone.
There is another debate raging at the moment, especially among South Asian women, about whether to seek an amendment to the Serious Crimes Bill that wants to criminalise sex-selection abortion.
That is the practice of aborting a foetus for no reason other than that it is female. It is a practice which is a part of the spectrum of gender-based violence against women in India and the Indian subcontinent. It is has reached crisis proportions there, because together with female foeticide, female infanticide and other forms of violence, in India 15 million women are missing. These practices are skewing sex ratios in certain parts of the country, and that in turn means that families and others are trafficking women from poorer parts of Asia and from poorer parts of the country – in Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere.
However there is only anecdotal evidence that it has taken place among South Asian communities here, and the case studies produced by the pro-amendment lobby are actually conflating coercion into sex-selection abortion with domestic violence against women who have given birth to girls.
The statistical evidence and political impetus for legislation to criminalise sex-selection abortion come from Migration Watch. One surely suspects what their agenda is. But despite the lack of evidence, some women’s groups are vociferously demanding criminalisation of sex-selection abortion in the UK.
They are publicly claiming that they seeking to clarify abortion laws. That leads one to question why they should wish to embed it in a criminal Bill, and why they can’t produce guidance. But the biggest problem is that the whole thing is driven by the Christian right. Fiona Bruce MP, who is a part of the evangelical Christian right, is being supported by the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim right. They are all behind this amendment.
Such alliances are not new. They are common on the international stage, regarding human rights law. But here we have the anti-immigration right and the religious right coming together. It is an attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights in an instrumentalised manner. They are using the language of choice in order to destroy the right of choice.
The stories we should start with are those of the courage and the bravery of countless civilians around the world who through a growing sense of injustice challenge and reject religious fundamentalism and refuse to underestimate it. They are the direct targets of criminality and genocide and they are the dispossessed and the alienated.
We have to assert secular values, but more importantly, we have to safeguard secular democratic spaces and values; and that we must do so without abdicating moral responsibility and solidarity with all those who dare to speak out against religious fundamentalism and other forms of oppression.