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A Landmark Conference for Universal Rights and Secularism and against Fascism

The 25 November International Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism in London celebrated the 10th anniversary of the founding of the One Law for All campaign in the UK.

The conference was a landmark event in the fight against all forms of fascism and in defence of universal rights and secularism with leading activists in the fight against the far-Right – including religious fundamentalisms of all stripes – from 24 countries and the Diaspora, including Algeria, Bangladesh, Europe, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kurdistan, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Serbia to Sudan, Tunisia and the United States.

In her welcome address, Conference Organiser Maryam Namazie reiterated how women are the first targets of fascist, fundamentalist and other far-Right movements and are leading the opposition to the sustained backlash against women’s rights and secular values – and in many cases continue to win victories in the most adverse circumstances. She stressed the urgency of secularism as a minimum precondition for women’s and minority rights.

Centre for Secular Space Director Gita Sahgal’s opening keynote address emphasised the precious heritage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights noting that Indian and Pakistani women fought for the clause on right to choice in marriage – the foundation for many struggles taking place on family laws and equality in marriage today. Muslims from Pakistan and India also voted for the right to religious freedom, including the freedom to leave religion.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul Malook spoke about the Asia Bibi case in his keynote address. As mentioned in a DW report on the conference, Ul Malook spoke of the Pakistani constitution and its secular credentials and his childhood when Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together in Pakistan and how a minority are behind the intolerance seen today. He was given a standing ovation for his courage in defending Asia Bibi and prosecuting Mumtaz Qadri, the man who murdered Salman Taseer.  Ul Malook said he had no regrets.

The Conference passed a resolution in solidarity with Asia Bibi and her lawyer and the Judges who had the courage to strike down her conviction for blasphemy, called for asylum for Asia Bibi, the release of all those imprisoned for blasphemy and an end to blasphemy laws everywhere.

The film 3 Seconds Divorce by Shazia Javed about the struggle against triple talaq in India, had its UK premiere at the conference. On a panel discussion that followed, campaigners gave examples of similar practices in Britain. One Law for All had criticised the ‘theological inquiry’ into sharia law in Britain that the government had established and raised concerns about how the British government has effectively caved into religious lobbies by recommending that marriages may require a religious as well as a civil divorce, giving Islamists the green light to establish community-based ‘zina law.’ Women’s rights campaigner Yasmin Rehman explained this was not the historic practice of Muslim communities in Britain. Rights activist Afsana Lachaux pointed out that while she won a victory in France where a Judge set aside decisions made by a UAE Sharia court regarding custody of her son, the English court accused her of ‘demonising’ Sharia law.

In various other panels on Gender Segregation, the Veil and Women’s Bodily Autonomy and Secularism as a Defence of Women’s and Minority Rights, activists spoke about the far-Right marching against migrants on the one hand and against women’s rights on the other from Russia to Poland to the US and South Asia.  Polish feminist Nina Sankari described rise of far-Right militias in Poland; Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-President Anne Laurie Gaylor warned of the takeover of the courts by the religious-Right with grave implications for the future. Italian journalist Cinzia Sciuto argued that universal rights were a better way to ensure migrants’ rights than to entrench multi-cultural practices that left them at the mercy of homogenised communities. Eve Sacks of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance gave examples of extreme isolation and erasure faced by Jewish women in ultra Orthodox communities, where literally all images of women and girls are excised and women are forced to shave their hair and cover with a wig and or a hat. She called for support in the campaign for sex and relationship education to be applied to religious schools.

Staša Zajović reminded the audience that religious revival was on the main tools for an aggressive nationalist politics which caused the genocidal war in former Yugoslavia. The irreligious feminists who worked across the conflict and took care of victims of all backgrounds were called ‘internal enemies’ or ‘witches,’ and faced numerous attacks.

The importance of direct action was reiterated by Inna Shevchenko of Femen who argued that religious patriarchies found women’s bodies ‘sinful, dirty, guilty and always shameful,’ and Ibtissame Betty Lachgar of Morocco, who described living under a monarchy that claimed descent from Muhammed, Islam’s prophet, and turning fountains red to challenge violence against women, organising ‘kiss-ins’ and eating in public during Ramadan. These activities were dangerous and brought legal and other threats.

There was also considerable good news. The Rojava movement which had confronted ISIS and in the middle of war, protected refugees and developed women’s leadership was remembered by Culture Project Founder Houzan Mahmoud who added that secularism alone was not enough, rather a transformation of society was needed. Campaigner Homa Arjomand recalled the successful struggle against the recognition of Sharia courts in Canada and Filmmaker Nadia el Fani reported on the adoption of equal inheritance rights in Tunisia in the face of opposition from the government. The struggle against ‘Triple Talaq’ reflected women’s struggles for equality across the world.  The One Law for All campaign also won a number of victories forcing regulators to abide by their responsibilities- see timeline for victories against the Law Society and gender segregation at universities and schools, amongst others.

At the Conference, a short film by Iranian performance artist Atoosa Farahmand in support of White Wednesdays, was followed by a protest action by body painter Victoria Guggenheim in support of the Girls of Revolution Street and against compulsory veiling. Women and men present all raised white hejabs and raised their voices against forced veiling.

Artist Mahshad Afshar also had a solo exhibition to showcase her “Cursed Seal” Photography collection. There was a dance performance by LCP Dance Theatre.

One Law for All gave awards to Afsana Lachaux, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Gita Sahgal, Houzan Mahmoud, Ibtissame Betty Lachgar, Inna Shevchenko, Masih Alinejad, Marieme Helie Lucas, Nadia El Fani, Nina Sankari, Pragna Patel, Staša Zajović and Yasmin Rehman for their immense contributions to the cause of women’s rights and secularism. The awards were sculpted by Sodabeh Gashtasebi and was a likeness of Vida Movahedi who first stood on a plinth on Revolution Street in Iran waving her white hejab on a stick.

In her closing keynote address, Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters warned of the rise of fascism all over the world, and recalled Southall Black Sisters stand against blasphemy laws and in defence of Salman Rushdie, nearly 30 years ago. The need to oppose both racism and fundamentalism within a framework of secularism has never been more urgent.

The conference adopted a Ten Point Manifesto for Women and Secularism which recognised that the far-Right, including religious fundamentalisms, was gaining power in both authoritarian and democratic states and that its strength was due to the complicity of governments who see fundamentalists as allies to deliver services, post-conflict ‘stabilisation’ and privatised law. The Manifesto acknowledged that universal rights were won in the struggle for civil rights, liberation and against colonial occupation and called for the promotion of a universalist based approach to human rights, the right to free conscience and expression, abolition of religious-based laws in family, civil and criminal matters, prohibition of gender segregation and compulsory veiling, prohibition of religious laws that violate children’s rights, the need to counter both racist and fundamentalist discourse, and secularism as a basic human right, amongst others.

The conference ended with “This is our Resistance,” a new song by Singer/Songwriter Shelley Segal inspired that very day by the women’s rights activists present.

Fariborz Pooya and Nahla Mahmoud were Master of Ceremonies. The Organising Committee were Maryam Namazie, Sadia Hameed and Sina Ahadi Pour. The Conference was sponsored by Bread and Roses TV; Center for Inquiry; Centre for Secular Space; Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; Culture Project; European Network of Migrant Women; Equal Rights Now; Fitnah; Freedom from Religion Foundation; National Secular Society; One Law for All; Southall Black Sisters and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.

NOTES:

  1. Ten years of One Law for All Timeline showing the highlights of the campaign can be seen here. Please donate to One Law for All so we may continue our crucial campaigning work, which would not be possible without public support.
  2. High quality video footage of the conference will be made available soon but livestreaming footage of entire conference and some photos are now available.
  3. For more information on the Conference, please contact Maryam Namazie at namazie@onelawforall.org.uk.

25 November Conference with Keynote Speech by Asia Bibi Lawyer and Leading Campaigners

International Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism
25 November 2018, Central London, 9:30-21:00
#OneLaw4All

On 25 November, International Day against Violence against Women, there will be an international conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism in central London with 38 notable speakers from 24 countries and the Diaspora who are leaders in the fight for equality, secularism and against the far-Right and religious fundamentalisms of all stripes.

Keynote speakers at the conference are Centre for Secular Space Director Gita Sahgal, Southall Black Sisters Director Pragna Patel and Asia Bibi’s Lawyer, Saif Ul Malook. Asia Bibi is a Christian woman accused of blasphemy who was on death row in Pakistan for eight years. Saif Ul Malook successfully defended Bibi and she was released on appeal in November 2018.

Other distinguished speakers at the one-day event include Bangladeshi Writer Bonya Ahmed who survived a brutal attack which resulted in the murder of her husband Avijit Roy; Moroccan Activist Ibtissame Betty Lachgar; FEMEN Leader Inna Shevchenko; Algerian Sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas; Tunisian Filmmaker Nadia El Fani; Polish Secularist Nina Sankari and Women in Black Belgrade Co-Founder Stasa Zajovic.

The leading secularists and veteran women’s rights campaigners will discuss Sharia, Religious Arbitration and Family Law, the Politics of Collusion, Gender Segregation, the Veil, Women’s Bodily Autonomy and Secularism as a Defence of Women’s and Minority Rights.

There will be a dance and public art protest in solidarity with the women’s movement against compulsory veiling in Iran and an evening awards ceremony to recognise women’s rights campaigners. For the first time in the UK, there will be a screening of 3 Second Divorce by Shazia Javed. The new film explores the impact of instant triple-talaq on Indian Muslim women through intimate stories as well as behind-the-scene glimpses at the struggle of activists fighting for a legal ban on this practice.

The conference aims to gather secular and egalitarian forces, highlight voices from the frontlines, and reaffirm the centrality of the universality of rights and the principle of secularism – the complete separation of religion from the state.

The conference, organised by Maryam Namazie, will mark the 10th anniversary of the One Law for All Campaign for equality irrespective of background, beliefs and religions.

The Conference is sponsored by Bread and Roses TV; Center for Inquiry; Centre for Secular Space; Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; Culture Project; European Network of Migrant Women; Equal Rights Now; Fitnah; Freedom from Religion Foundation; National Secular Society; One Law for All; Southall Black Sisters and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.

NOTES:

  1. The conference schedule and speaker biographies can be found on the conference website.
  2. Tickets to the conference are available here.
  3. For press passes or for more information, please contact: Maryam Namazie and Sina Ahadi Pour via website or onelawforall@gmail.com.

Why so Afraid of Secularism

By Maryam Namazie

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is organising “Beyond the Promise of Secularism” in response to our 25 November International Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism.

Their event will apparently explore what they say are “western preoccupations with ‘Sharia Law’, Hijabs, and segregation” and “look at the ways Islam is pitted against ‘secularism’ in the name of women’s rights, equality and democracy, and … utilised and weaponised by the State against Muslim communities and other minorities to promote nationalist narratives.”

Given the Inclusive Mosque’s confusions, I hope our conference and its 38 speakers from 24 countries and the Diaspora, may assist them in understanding what secularism is before they venture “beyond secularism.” Leading activists in the fight against the far-Right – including religious fundamentalisms of all stripes – from Algeria, Bangladesh, Europe, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kurdistan, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Serbia to Sudan, Tunisia and the United States – will reiterate the importance of secularism and universal values for women’s rights.

We can only hope that our conference will enable Inclusive Mosque to finally grasp that secularism is merely a framework that separates religion from the state to ensure that religion cannot influence the state and public policy and impose itself on private lives. After all, not everyone in a given society is a believer and even if they are, they don’t usually want the state to tell them how to believe. And what about the persecuted atheists and agnostics, like ex-Muslims, or minorities like the Christian Asia Bibi in Pakistan or Bahais’ in Iran or LGBT in Somalia and UAE? Only a secular framework can ensure the equal rights of all citizens before the law and not different rights for different categories of communalised groups. It is only a secular framework that can ensure one law for all via changeable laws made by people versus unchangeable ‘divine’ laws imposed by clerics. It is a secular framework which can allow for multi-ethnic, multi-religious and plural societies and is a minimum precondition for the rights of women and minorities. It is a secular framework that can ensure freedom of conscience, including freedom of and from religion. Which is why there is no “Inclusive” Mosque – let alone a Council of Ex-Muslims – in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Of course, Inclusive Mosque claims it is “not interested in taking sides on whether one should or should not be ‘secular’” and is merely addressing secularism’s apparent “mobilisation” for “violence” and “power.” In light of the fact that religion in power has set the world on fire, targeting, murdering, disappearing, terrorising and silencing women, secularists and dissidents, the Inclusive Mosque’s anti-secular stance further targets dissenters and conveniently ignores how Sharia, the hijab and segregation are key pillars of the Islamist project to manage and control women. Convenient, of course, since Inclusive Mosque is in the business of opposing secularism and selling Islamic ‘feminism’ – a hard sell given that the women’s liberation movement has always been a struggle, in particular, against religion’s control of women and her body. The promotion of Islamic ‘feminism’ in the era of religious fundamentalisms is a defence not of women’s rights but of religion and the far-Right. In fact, Inclusive Mosque’s position is in line with State policy that appeases religious fundamentalisms at the expense of women’s rights and the nationalist narrative that promotes a clash of Islamic versus Christian ‘civilisations,’ cultural relativism and an identity politics of superiority and difference (two sides of the same double-edged sword). Even their branding of secularists as “western” is no different to what Islamists have been saying for years. Since ‘Inclusive’ Mosque seems to pride itself on ‘inclusivity,’ though, we hope the conference will at the very least be a much-needed reminder that there are countless individuals from Muslim backgrounds who are secular, including believers, agnostics and atheists. Labelling secular activists, “western,” feeds into the Islamist narrative, negates history and erases the long and ongoing struggle of women in Muslim-majority countries and the Diaspora for citizenship rights and equality before the law, irrespective of background and beliefs.

In the age of religious fundamentalisms, whether Islamism, Hidutva, the Buddhist-, Christian- or Jewish-Rights, the insistence on and defence of religion in women’s lives is no defence of women at all. It is rather an insistence on secularism, universal values and our common humanity that is the urgent need of our era, particularly for those living under the boots of the theocrats.

Maybe if Inclusive Mosque spent more time defending women’s rights rather than acting as an Islamist echo chamber, it would begin to comprehend this historical task and necessity. One can only hope, though I for one will not be holding my breath.

For more information on the International Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism, visit www.secularconference.com.

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