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UK: Women Against Fundamentalism - Stories of dissent and solidarity

Book Review

Monday 6 October 2014, by Marieme Helie Lucas

Women Against Fundamentalism Stories of dissent and solidarity

By Sukhwant Dhaliwal & Nira Yuval-Davis

Published by Lawrence & Wishart, 2014
ISBN 9781 909831 025

Book Review

by marieme helie lucas

This timely book should inspire younger generations of activists to pick up the torch, to lead simultaneously anti-racist and anti-fundamentalist feminist politics. With the xenophobic far right rising and communalism turning beliefs and cultures into identity politics’ weapons, women’s rights, citizenship and secular traditions are at stake. The spirit of WAF, its rare political clarity, its true internationalism, are more than ever needed.

For two decades, Women Against Fundamentalisms walked a very fine line: defending migrants and citizens of migrant descent against racism and discrimination in the UK, and simultaneously combating fundamentalist movements which exploit politically the legitimate discontent of oppressed people, pretend to speak for them, manipulate religion, play identity politics - thus creating and reinforcing antagonism between ‘communities’.
This is what, alas, most progressive people from the Left and from human rights organisations in Europe failed to do: instead, they promoted ‘religious leaders’ as sole legitimate representatives of the ‘communities’ and embraced cultural relativism – all of it at the cost of the women belonging to the marginalized groups they pretended to defend.

Defending secular traditions and universal values, promoting citizenship rather than communalism, refusing ‘holy orders’ and patriarchal aspects of cultures, WAF clearly identified fundamentalisms as political forces of the Right and Far Right that could not and should not be supported under any pretext.
They were the first ones to speak up for Rushdie, and the only ones to defend Algerian women against the GIA (Islamic Armed Groups) which was slaughtering them in the nineties.

Today, the spirit of WAF, its political clarity, its true internationalism, are more than ever needed.
This is the very time when, in the UK itself, one witnesses attempts to segregate sexes in universities or to introduce ‘sharia compliant’ wills which deprive of inheritance non-Muslim spouses, adopted children or children born out of wed-locks, which discriminate against women by granting them half the share of their brothers; at a time when so-called ‘sharia courts’ institute a parallel legal system in which some women in the UK have less rights than others…
This timely book should inspire younger generations of activists to pick up the torch.

With the publication of this book, WAF announces the closing down of the organization – and explains the reasons for doing so. One is at the same time sad that such an inspiring organization will not live longer while it is still so much needed; and at the same time, one definitely admires the courage to prefer closing down to a slow death, surrounded with conflicts and compromise, - and in the process, maybe tearing to pieces old friendships.
For what emerges from the book is a sense of what each WAF member gained personally from the group, and the exhilarating sentiment that this is their ‘booty of war’ that nobody will ever be able to take away from them, that will inspire and nurture the rest of their political life. WAF was a veritable school of cadres for every member.
We are given to see this process though the individual narratives of WAF founders.

This book has taken seriously the feminist slogan « the personal is political ». It tells of the individual lives and trajectories of WAF women, and by so doing, it tells the story of their different organizations - mainly WAF and SBS (sometimes it is difficult for me to separate these two organizations in my mind) and occasionally one gets glimpses into other organizations too -; and it also tells the political history of two decades in the UK, its rising extreme rights - including the fundamentalist one -, and the inadequate response it receives from the Left and human rights organizations. In their own words, ‘ the very act of telling lives can be a pointedly political one’ (Rashmi Sharma, p224).

WAF’s and SBS’ political clarity was unique and remains unmatched. They challenged simultaneously apparently contradictory issues: violent xenophobia and racism, the dead end of communalism, and women’s rights: WAF was ‘building a secular movement against racism, state sponsored terror and religious fundamentalism“( Sue O’Sullivan, p 238),”one which would engage simultaneously with fundamentalism and any racist and reactionary developments in the West » (id).
A complex analysis that neither the Left nor human rights binary-minded organizations, (both more or less limited themselves to addressing the issue of racism), were able to formulate.

Refusing the ‘hierarchy of oppression’ (Hannana Siddiqui, p 147, and see also in Pragna Patel’s and Nira Yuval Davis’ contributions) was at the heart of WAF ’s political stand.
WAF slams the simplistic political thinking that has led anti-war and anti-racist movements to side with the fundamentalist ‘victims’, regardless of their far-right ideology and programs. WAF points at ‘the idiotic antics of elements in the anti-racist movement who are unable to understand that defending Muslims ( or anyone else) against racism does not commit you to defending oppressive and sometimes murderous fundamentalist ideas’ (Julia Bard, p 164 ) and at ‘the left too, (which), in the name of anti-imperialism, was stifling criticism of minority religious fundamentalism’ (Rashmi Varma, p 236).

In fact, the European left in general, not just the British left, amply demonstrated its inability to analyze Muslim fundamentalism in particular (they have no such problems with Christian or Jewish fundamentalisms) in political terms rather than in religious ones, i.e. as a political movement of the extreme right working under the guise of religion.
WAF’s independent minds show no such barrier, and define fundamentalisms as ‘modern political movements that use religion to gain or to consolidate power, whether working within or in opposition to the state’ (Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval Davis,p 8).
This matches the Women Living Under Muslim Laws definition of Muslim fundamentalism which further characterized these political movements as from the right and extreme right (Marieme Helie Lucas, What is your tribe in C. Howland (ed), Religious Fundamentalism and the Human Rights of Women (New York: St Martins Press, 1999).

WAF’s explicit aim is to ‘challenge fundamentalism in all religions’ as well as to challenge the political power of religions over the state, by promoting secularism: ‘WAF Campaign for Secularism calls for the withdrawal of all state funding for faith schools’; it ‘opposes the 1988 Education Act which imposes Christian worship within state schools’.

Having been in this situation myself, when working with WLUML – i.e. trying to making sure my criticism of Muslim fundamentalism could not be used by a xenophobic far right against Muslims -, i am especially sensitive to the fact that WAF was trapped into the same kind of oratorical precautions.

If one looks at facts, at this time in history, it is now mainly Muslim fundamentalism that has taken the lead in Europe, against secularism and which is taking action against dissenters - not Christian or Hindu or Jewish or Buddhist fundamentalists, at least not on the same scale, nor with the same intensity. Yet we all felt the need to make excuses for challenging Muslim fundamentalism head on, without fear of feeding into ‘the superiority of British culture over Barbaric Muslims’ (Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval Davis, p 11), so as not to infuriate further those supposed to be our allies on the left by titillating ‘antiracist defensiveness against any critic of Islam’ (Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval Davis, p 20).

Further, SBS and WAF challenge the position of the Left which demands no state intervention within communities, ‘hands off in the name of cultural sensitivity’. Just like Ni Putes Ni Soumises - Neither Whores Nor Submissive - (and many other grass roots organizations of women of migrant descent) in France, SBS and WAF demand that the State does not abandon citizens to the rule of communal fundamentalists; they demand the fulfillment by the state of all its obligation vis-a-vis its citizens, whichever the ‘community’ is they supposedly belong to.

SBS is well informed through its grass roots activities of the danger of allowing ‘community self policing domestic violence and forced marriages’ and it subsequently demand ‘more state intervention’. It criticizes working with and through ’religious leaders’, ‘religious arbitration’ and ‘parallel legal systems’ such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (Hannana Siddiqui, p149).
All this points at the ‘growing confidence of religious groups enforcing their rulings’ : these groups feel they are ’supported or accommodated by the state’ (id.).

This official policy has direct consequences on individual lives: women cannot ‘safely exit abusive situations due to community pressure’, and at the same time they experience ‘state racism or indifference’. ’We had to face some inconvenient truths about multiculturalism and anti-racism, which often lapsed into a narrow and essentialist identity politics, and denied differential relations of power within our communities. The struggle against racial inequality was so often reduced to the recognition of cultural difference, of which the only beneficiaries have been fundamentalist and conservative religious leaderships (Pragna Patel p 57)

Two crucial political events shaped WAF’s politics: The Rushdie affair - which impulsed its birth -, and the Gita Sahgal clash with Amnesty International over their political support to Muslim fundamentalists - which prompted the end of the organization.

The Rushdie affair was the first show of force of Muslim fundamentalists the world over. It is the real launch of what will become the global campaign of ‘hurt religious sentiments’, which flourishes today.
Prior to the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death after the publication of his book ‘Satanic verses’, one could ignore and discard similar attacks as being those of isolated loonies. But this time it appeared clearly for what it was: a concerted effort to attack democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as a visible attempt to impose the recognition of ‘religious laws’ on the international community.
What a sophisticated plan: get millions of people - throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas-, including a vast majority of illiterate people, to stand against a book they had not read - and could not read.

From the Rushdie affair onwards, Muslim fundamentalism cannot any longer be seen as a marginal phenomenon.
It is a wake up call to which WAF responds immediately.
WAF and SBS take the lead of the protest – not just in media or high class areas where they could be sheltered, but right there, in the very same popular areas where fundamentalists recruit their mass of maneuver.
It shows physical courage, moral strength, political clarity and confidence in their own analysis – i.e. the virtues that WAF persistently demonstrated throughout its twenty years of existence.

It is, I think, the founding stone of WAF: its unique and somehow underestimated political analysis, unmatched in ‘progressive’ circles. It singled out and sustained WAF for two decades.
Just remember, this was happening at a time when the Left hesitated to support Rushdie ( let alone challenge his would-be-executioners on the street as WAF-SBS did), and when human rights organizations did not hesitate to justify crimes committed in Algeria against the civilian population by GIA and similar organizations, on account that they were fighting an undemocratic government.

Sad enough, it is precisely on this very same issue that WAF finally parted.
Regrets are inappropriate. Organizations just like individuals were born out of need in a specific political context at a specific time; they live and grow as long as they serve the purpose; and they decay and die when their goals change or when in a changing context they are not needed any longer, or when external forces attack them or devour them from within as a result of entryist policies.

What brought WAF together at the time of the Rushdie affair is precisely what separated them two decades later: Muslim fundamentalism, how to analyze it, how to react to it. How to reconcile human rights for all – including for Muslim fundamentalists – and fighting fundamentalism, in other words, where to draw the line between protecting their fundamental rights and giving them political support.
This dilemma which was the final cause of WAF disappearing as an organization says a lot about the progress and the success of Muslim fundamentalists lobbying of progressive circles in Europe and North America.

WAF members so clearly exposed the problem twenty years ago: how blurred it seems the issues have become now !

To understand the feeling of despair, horror and rage that led to Gita Sahgal breaking up from AI, it is worth giving some background to the interactions between anti-fundamentalist women in Algeria and the main human rights human rights organizations, during the decades that predated this final cash and parting.

I cannot resist using the same quote again: ‘understand that defending Muslims ( or anyone else) against racism does not commit you to defending oppressive and sometimes murderous fundamentalist ideas’ (Julia Bard, p 164 ).

To me, it still looks as simple as it was thirty years ago when I desperately knocked on the door of human rights organizations, for the sake of Algerian victims of armed fundamentalists, when I was trying to argue my case with AI and with HRW in particular.
It is the role of human rights organizations to fight for the right of Muslim fundamentalists –including their armed groups that were slaughtering an unarmed civilian population in Algeria, among which were so many women - to have fair trials, to be safe from torture, from disappearing, from extra judicial killings, etc… at the hands of the state.
However, it is also the role of human rights organizations to defend the same rights when the perpetrators of similar crimes and violations were – this time, not the state, but non-state actors - Muslim fundamentalist armed groups, as was the case in the nineties in Algeria. But human rights organizations refused to fulfill their role in that instance.
They even told to our face -myself and many Algerian feminists can testify about it – that since we were not persecuted by the state, we were not eligible for their support.
They went as far as helping set up victims’ organizations for the families of the disappeared at the hands of police, army, gendarmerie, and similar state outfits, but refusing access to families of disappeared at the hands of GIA and the like. Those victims had to set up separate organizations, such as Djazaïrouna or Somoud, which were supported neither by AI nor by HRW.
This was a disturbing discrimination among victims and a blatant hierarchy of victims that will stain human rights records when we will write history.

And it was definitely not the role of human rights organizations to extend political support to fundamentalists – far, far, very far beyond the defense of their fundamental rights.
But since the early 90s, many of AI’s chapters in Europe for instance started inviting FIS ( Islamic Salvation Front) supporters and FIS lawyers to their functions on violence in Algeria. (Violence in this context was exclusively understood as state violence, although it was never spelt out.) Those invitees were introduced in AI’s flyers as ‘human rights lawyers’. Although I suggested many times, in writing, that should also be invited Algerian victims of fundamentalist violence, it never happened.

I was repeatedly told by human rights organizations that fundamentalists were non-state actors who, because they were not signatories to international treaties, fell outside human rights organizations mandate. The question of expanding the famous mandate never actually evolved to our satisfaction.
As for the ‘non-state actors’ narrowly legalistic argument it speaks volumes to the deep disinterest for actual people’s human rights, on the ground, - despite an estimate of 200 000 victims in Algeria, mostly at the hands of fundamentalist armed groups. Lawyers-dominated organizations upheld the letter rather than the spirit.

Portrayed exclusively as victims of the state, fundamentalist perpetrators or their representatives and spokespersons were the stars of human rights organizations’ functions on violence in Algeria. As for their victims, they were symbolically ‘disappeared’ – once more – by being totally ignored by human rights circles.

This state of affairs had been going on decades before Gita Sahgal was recruited in London to head AI’s Gender Unit. She knew many Algerian feminists; she was familiar with the situation; she probably hoped that working from within the organization would help bring some sense of reality and some moral balance in AI political stand for Muslim fundamentalism. But it did not happen.
We knew countless researchers who worked for AI, and contributed good reports on crimes committed by armed fundamentalists in different countries. AI’s archives must be stacked with such reports – but to no avail.

What we actually faced was a clear cut political position from the main international human rights organizations, and they were not willing to amend it. Not even for the sake of upholding the human rights of fundamentalists’ victims.

For years Gita herself struggled from within AI. For her, the last blow was to witness that ‘Moazzam Begg (from Cage Prisoners) was taken around Europe by Kate Allen of AI UK’ (Gita Sahgal, p 94) … to officially meet with European governments ! She gave up and spoke to the media. She was fired.

The immediate response from Algerians “ survivors, family or friends of victims of fundamentalist violence and violations in Algeria” (, was to support her (

She was not the only casualty: I know of two similar other cases: the founding members of AI in Algeria were expelled of the organization when raising similar issues internally; and a board member of AI USA went through a long and painful internal trial for having invited me to an internal AI meeting where I told AI members what happened in Algeria.

I went into some detail about the background of the Gita Sahgal /AI affair, because I do not think younger generations know about the ongoing situation.
It seems hard to understand that WAF could take a stand on the Rushdie affair, support my numerous attempts to try and convince human rights organizations that they were taking a morally very wrong position on Algeria, but could not confront AI with Gita. ‘Well meaning white human rights advocates continued to treat Begg like a human right defender’ (Gita Sahgal, p 94). And she concludes: ‘To this day, Ai has not been able to explain why they endorse Al Qaeda ‘s ideology’ (id), i.e. ‘jihad in self defense’ which they characterize as ‘ not inimical to human rights’. (id)

The discrepancy between positions taken twenty years ago and the lack of clarity today is to me a clear indicator of the pervasive propaganda by Muslim fundamentalists and its success in progressive circles. What was clear at the time of Rushdie is, alas, not so clear now.

Although the book ends on a positive note, although I do know and meet younger generations who seem ready to pick up the torch of the anti-extreme-right and fundamentalist struggle, WAF political clarity of the old days has, so far, remained unmatched. This book allows, at least, for this precious experience not to be totally lost to the younger generations of activists.

Ending on a personal note, I was somehow surprised to realize while reading this book that WLUML (a clearly secular organization working both with believers and with non believers against Muslim fundamentalism) was nevertheless probably still perceived as a religious (Muslim) organization by several of the most prominent WAF members; WLUML’s name is frequently, should I say: naturally, associated to that of Catholics For A Free Choice ( now Catholics for Choice), indeed a religious organization of progressive Christians which WLUML invited to share a platform on the occasion of several UN World Conferences. Notably in Vienna on Human Rights, in Cairo on Population ( we all battled together to defend reproductive rights against the unholy alliance between Al Azhar and the Vatican) and in Beijing on Women.
However WLUML also invited WIB, WAF and other prominent women organizations to speak on these very same occasions, but somewhat, what remains in WAF members’ memory seems to single out the association of two religious organizations: one Christian and one Muslim: I must confess I was upset!

The other surprise was Cass Balchin’s claim that, while she was part of a three-women team that ran the international coordination office of WLUML in London, she was not well accepted as she was a Muslim convert. Meanwhile, she describes that one of the first WLUML program she worked for was the Qur’anic Interpretation by Women, held in Lahore, Pakistan – which in fact, she says, sparked her interest in Islam. One would think this may indicate that WLUMl was not adverse to Muslim believers…
In fact, in wake of the formidable rise of extreme right forces working under the cover of religion – our definition of fundamentalism - WLUML was using absolutely all possible strategies to challenge fundamentalism, from reinterpretation of Islam to pushing for secularism, and demanding human rights for all – and above all, WLUML’s principle was to let local organizations decide upon their preferential strategies in their specific political context. We were well aware of the fact that strategies were dependant on the degree of liberties women could enjoy in a specific place at a specific point in time.
The present threat of the group “Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria, and of the numerous avatars of Al Qaeda in Asia and in Africa comforts me till today in thinking that we need a vast coalition of anti-fundamentalists, believers and unbelievers alike, to confront ‘green-fascism’ or ‘Islamo-fascism’, as Algerians started calling them in the nineties.
As a result, we were alternatively accused of being anti-Islam atheists or of being fundamentalists under cover…

An even bigger surprise was Cass’ inaccurate report on the controversy she launched regarding the name of the network WLUML: as a member of the British organization Muslim Women Network, she reports that ‘I tried to get MWN to change their name but I lost the battle’( Cassandra Balchin, p 218). She later states ‘The WLUML organization in Sri Lanka was Muslim Women Research and Action Forum (in fact it is ‘front’ not ‘forum’) so why was it ok in Sri Lanka but not in Britain?’(id) .
There are two points that I need to make here, for the record:

The name WLUML – Women Living Under Muslim Laws – points at the sociological and political secular approach of the organization: one needs not be a Muslim believer to live ‘under Muslim laws’, it is the case of all agnostics and atheists in Muslim majority non-secular countries, and it is also often the case of religious minorities forced to comply with traditions and regulations deemed to be Muslim.
The concept is not equivalent to that of ‘Muslim Women’.

As a secular network, WLUML linked all sorts of groups, some religious and others not. Hence, of course, it was not a problem to work with MWRAF in Sri Lanka, whose politics were excellent and which did a wonderful work for women during decades, and still does.
The network WLUML has to remain non-confessional, while the groups linked through it may or may not be religiously inclined.

Memory may have failed Cass at the time she registered her testimony, but the name she actually tried to change was the name of the WLUML network that she wanted to transform into a Muslim organization. I have no idea whether or not she actually tried to convince MWN to change their name to a more secular one; but I have it on record in numerous emails over more than a year: she did months of sustained lobbying inside WLUML, she even organized a sort of internal survey to recruit the more religiously inclined women amongst us to demand better representation by changing WLUML’s name to that of Muslim women. Fortunately, she failed.

The problem is that although a non-confessional organization can network with very diverse religious and non-religious groups, the reverse is not true: a religious organization will not include non-religious groups.

This clarified, go buy the book and just read this enlightening piece on the political history of Britain, on WAF members’ personal herstory, and on ‘dissent and solidarity’. It is really inspiring.