I started Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law for All more than a decade ago to publicly mobilise dissent against religious laws. An expression of “not in my name” and a challenge to the Quran, Islam and Islamism as the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of the emancipation of women, freethinkers and others (if I may “paraphrase” US Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton)*.
Having fled the Islamic regime in Iran – where there is a deep-seated anti-Islamic backlash and women’s liberation movement – I found it astonishing how Sharia courts, apostasy laws and women’s subservient status were legitimised as a defence of “minority rights” in Britain and the west.
How Machiavellian to promote a defence of fundamentalists as a defence of a presumed homogenous minority “community”! How patronising to assume that those of us from minority backgrounds are so “different” from everyone else that we can only be expected to live within the confines of predefined patriarchal structures.
In any religious or tribal court, the odds are stacked against women who are viewed as the property and honour of the men in charge and not as individual citizens with rights.
The fact of the matter is that Sharia law violates women’s rights, including here in Britain. As do Ecclesiastic courts, the Beth Din or Loya Jirgas. In any religious or tribal court, the odds are stacked against women who are viewed as the property and honour of the men in charge and not as individual citizens with rights.
Sharia courts legitimise and encourage violence against women whether by considering a women’s testimony as worth half that of a man’s, normalising polygamy and child “marriage” or considering marital rape as the prerogative of the husband, amongst others. Sharia court jurisprudence and practice violate every article of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including by promoting the concept of “zina” which criminalises sex outside of marriage.
Sharia law also violates the rights of religious minorities, freethinkers, ex-Muslims, atheists, apostates, blasphemers and LGBT… In more than a dozen countries under Sharia, apostasy, blasphemy and homosexuality is punishable with the death penalty. In Britain, too, Sharia judges have made statements justifying the killing of apostates; the apostate label alone carries with it the grave risk of shunning and honour-related violence and death.
The establishment of CEMB and One Law for All were efforts to be heard and to be seen and to insist on our equal citizenship and individual rights and freedoms in the face of a cultural relativism that erases any dissent and only recognises “group” and “community” rights. Given that it is those in power that determine the “rights” of an in-group, a defence of an essentialised “Muslim community” ends up becoming an exercise in defending the fundamentalists and blaming the victims. Make no mistake. Defending Sharia courts or for that matter the veiling of children and sex segregation at schools or opposition to the “No Outsiders” programme is a defence of the Islamist project to control women, dissent and doubt and has nothing to do with promoting religious freedom or combatting bigotry.
A brief look at the founding organisations of the oldest Sharia court in Britain, the Islamic Sharia Council, for example, clearly shows the transnational Islamist links. The organisations include:
London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center (whose Trustees include officials from the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brunei, Qatar, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan – many of which punish apostasy with the death penalty and have discriminatory family laws).
Muslim World League (which propagates Saudi Wahabbism, the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in its founding).
Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (involved in promoting sectarianism and jihad in the Indian sub-continent).
UK Islamic Mission (inspired by Jamaat e Islami and Syed Abul Ala Maududi and shares the same ideology as Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood).
Dawatul Islam, UK (UK branch of the Bangladeshi Jamaat e Islami. In 1971, some of the Jamaat e Islami were implicated in running death squads and organising lynchings against people demanding independence).
Jamia Mosque & Islamic Center, Birmingham (where protestors marched from the mosque after Friday prayers to the Bangladesh High Commission in Birmingham after the execution of a Bangladeshi Islamist convicted of atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan following the country’s war crimes tribunal).
Muslim Welfare House, London (was founded by Kamal Helbawy of the Muslim Brotherhood who has praised Osama Bin Laden. They have fatwas defending polygamy and prohibiting Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men as well as campaigned to stop the selling of alcohol).
It’s where we each stand when rights are violated and fundamentalists appeased that counts.
Contrary to the far-Right arguments that aim to promote anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia, this is not about a clash of civilisations but a clash between theocrats and secularists everywhere, with believers and non-believers, including minorities and migrants, on either side. Identities are irrelevant and beside the point though; it’s their politics that matters. It’s where we each stand when rights are violated and fundamentalists appeased that counts. As the refrain from the old labour movement song says: “Which side are you on?” Are we all, as the song continues – “on the side of those who fight for freedom”?
I’m frequently approached online by those who have lost their faith and a question that almost always crops up in various forms is:
How do you cope without religion?
For those of us for whom religion gave them their meaning, comfort & guide in life’s ups and downs, loss of faith is a deeply distressing & terrifying feeling.
So I want to share some thoughts that might help.
It’s OK to not have the answers to everything. Don’t feel you need to rush to fill the space religion had in your life. Take your time and allow your thoughts & feelings to settle.
It is said; “There is nothing so easy as catching a heart on the rebound,” referring to how people often recklessly fall into ill-fated relationships after the break-up of a long term relationship. For those of us who were religious we experience this same desire to fill the void. It can make us panic and want to quickly replace our value system with a new one. This can lead to poor decisions and going from one form of black & white thinking to another.
Learn to be OK with not having an answer for everything. As time moves on you will gradually develop your own thoughts and beliefs and they will be much more satisfying in the long term and reflective of who you are.
Where do I get my morality from?
Losing belief in the prescriptions of religion can feel like you now have no yardstick for what is right and wrong, but this fear is unfounded. You are still the same person and you still possess an instinct for what’s right and wrong regardless of whether you consider it the result of an evolutionary process or something we are created with.
It’s true that it is not as fixed and cast in stone as the edicts of religion are – but that’s a good thing, because our understanding of human nature & the world evolves and is not static.
We must struggle with difficult questions using our conscience & evolving understanding of the human condition. It may not always be easy and we may not always agree (& it should be noted that those who claim to follow objective moral standards don’t always agree either,) but it allows humanity to keep striving to improve rather than remain bound to the morality of the 7th century.
Fear of Death.
Fear & anguish over either one’s own death or a loved one is natural. Most people have some level of apprehension about it – including the religious. Religion may ease this thought, by painting a picture of some happy place where we and our loved ones will go, but once one sees them as man-made myths then this simply doesn’t work and we have to face the possibility there is nothing – that we simply cease being – however uncomfortable that thought may be.
As with most fears, it’s better to face them than to try to hide from them & the fear will lessen the more we accept reality.
If you think about it, if one’s consciousness simply ends at death, then there is literally *nothing* to fear. It is actually the “thought” of not existing that we find painful. Try to focus on doing your best in the life you have and strive to leave the world a little better for the next generation in whatever small way you can.
A statement often attributed to Marcus Aurelius puts it well:
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
Fear of Hell
We’ve had the fear of Hell drummed into us since childhood, so it’s no surprise that even after losing our faith many of us are still troubled by it. One way to reduce this fear is to deconstruct it and see how it evolved.
Judaism originally had no clear concept of an after life let alone a place of eternal torture. The Old Testament refers to ‘Sheol’ which meant ‘grave’ and had a neutral connotation. It was a gloomy place of almost non-existence that everyone goes to – good or bad.
It was in the New Testament that Hell became a place where sinners would be punished.
One of the words translated as Hell in the New Testament is Gehenna which is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Gehinnom, where the Qur’anic word Jahannam comes from.
Gehinnom literally means “The Valley of Hinnom,”& it was a real place – a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem used to burn the dead bodies of criminals. When Jesus rebuked the scribes & Pharisees using this word, his audience would have immediately understood it as a metaphor.
It wasn’t until after the death of Jesus, that the concept of Hell as an abode of eternal torment was developed by Christian church fathers in apocryphal literature such as “The Apocalypse of Peter,” where they described sinners forced to drink boiling water, skins ripped off & eyes poked out.
By the time Muhammad was born, this very graphic and literal view of Hell was the view current at his time.
Another thing that can help is to think about why is it that you fear the Islamic Hell and not the Hell of other religions?
For example you don’t fear burning in Hell for not accepting Jesus, nor do you fear the crocodile headed Ammit devouring your heart, nor being boiled alive in Buddhist Naraka nor the flesh-scraping knives of Aztec myths.
You don’t fear them because you weren’t taught to take them seriously. They are not part of your in-group bias. The culture or community you were part of saw them as strange and absurd. You fear the Islamic Hell because that’s the myth you were taught to take seriously. But is it really any less absurd? Would a merciful God punish people on such a flawed basis – let alone torture them eternally?
The more you dissect and examine the concept of Hell rationally the more the fear will gradually fade away.
Talk to Someone.
This can be very difficult for those who come from tight-knit religious communities where leaving religion is not treated sympathetically. Plus unfortunately many of the frontline agencies are not equipped or cognisant of the unique problems ex-Muslims in particular face. But you can speak to your GP or a professional therapist about getting counselling on how to deal with the trauma of losing your faith. There are also a growing number of ex-Muslim organisations that you can reach out to who can offer advice and someone to talk to.
The thing to realise is that loss of faith is a traumatic process and it’s normal to go through the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, anxiety & depression. An experienced therapist can help you through your feelings.
Explore New Interests & Communities
Take a look around at local organisations, events and activities in your neighbourhood. Get involved with things that interest you. Learn a new skill or take up that hobby you’ve always wanted. Check out what’s going on in publications or websites like Meetup and find interest groups or support groups. Get to know your neighbours, or join a local cause you care about. There are plenty of things to do and relationships to be made, but it means being proactive and taking the initiative.
Often, the religious beliefs we left behind were all-consuming and left us unaware or unable to fully explore the horizons and interests life has to offer. It can take a little work to get out of that old mindset, but with time and effort you can find a life that is meaningful and fulfilling and you may find a new passion and flourish in areas you never thought possible.
Everyone’s Journey is Different.
Leaving behind the dogma of religion doesn’t always mean ceasing to believe in God or a higher power, although it does for some. The important thing is to be true to yourself and not go from following one crowd to following another. As the philosopher Voltaire said: “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”
I am personally Agnostic about God and would put myself somewhere along the spectrum of Agnostic Deist and Agnostic Atheist. But don’t worry too much about labels. Again there is a temptation for those of us who had a clearly defined identity to want to find another box to put ourselves in. But labels can never encapsulate the full range of an individual’s thoughts and views – let alone the fact that these views are always evolving.
You may find that you still want to maintain a relationship with God – a God that is beyond any religion – and that’s fine. Equally if you find you no longer need God in your life – that’s fine too. It’s also fine to say you just don’t know and can’t define your beliefs. Don’t feel pressured to decide what you believe. The bottom line is, don’t let anyone else’s journey define yours. You didn’t go through the anguish of leaving religion only to then follow someone else’s idea of what you should or shouldn’t believe.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) was formed to break the taboo that comes with leaving Islam, highlight the plight of and support ex-Muslims, and challenge Sharia, apostasy and blasphemy laws. CEMB stands against all forms of bigotry, xenophobia, racism and extremism and unequivocally defends reason, freedom of conscience and expression, equality, universal rights and secularism.
SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE
CEMB is now supporting around 600 ex-Muslims rather than 300 a month. 50% of our caseload are outside of the UK. 25% are ex-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. 25% are British ex-Muslims. The majority of ex-Muslims who contact CEMB are closeted due to the risks they face. The ex-Muslims who are out are still a very small minority.
With our international cases, the consequences of blasphemy or apostasy can be a death sentence. The result of someone finding out is often violence and sadly, this can involve violence or abuse from family as well as the state. In many cases, it is loved ones that report their family members to the police.
In Britain, the consequences of blasphemy and apostasy manifests itself as honour-based violence, forced marriages, corrective rape and even honour killings (in an attempt to bring ex-Muslims “back into line”).
Our free support includes face-to-face, email and social media contacts, as well as monthly support groups in London and Birmingham, a monthly Social for isolated members, direct support services such as attending court hearings, writing letters of support, contacting housing and social services for young people at risk, working with the Forced Marriages Unit to prevent young women and girls being taken abroad for forced marriage and so on.
We hold monthly meet ups. This year, topics under discussion included female genital mutilation and male circumcision, leaving faith behind, shunning, mental health and apostasy and religion, misogyny and atheism.
Ana Gonzales, a Partner at Wilsons LLP conducts regular workshops on asylum rights and apostasy for asylum seeking ex-Muslims.
On the left is a photo of our arts meetup with artist Salma Zulfiqar who focused on empowering refugees through art.
CAMPAIGNS AND ACTIONS 2019
10 December, International Human Rights Day
For International Human Rights Day, we initiated a social media campaign to show that ex-Muslim rights are human rights. #Apostate #ExMuslim #Human #ApostasyIsAHumanRight
22 November, Statement in Support of protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon
In November, the International Ex-Muslim Coalition mobilised in solidarity with the protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, including by issuing a statement calling of the support of protests, which have been anti-clerical and deeply secular as well as women-led.
27 October, Campaign to establish the first ex-Muslim refuge in the world
CEMB began a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the first emergency shelter for ex-Muslims in order to provide accommodation and support in the UK to those at serious risk to their lives because of their apostasy from Islam. Until now, CEMB has been forced to provide limited emergency accommodation at hotels, which is neither practical nor cost-effective.
With this crowdfunding campaign, CEMB hopes to provide a long-term and safe solution for those at greatest risk by establishing the first ex-Muslim refuge in the world. Purchase of a refuge space, as well as maintenance and utilities will cost £300,000. Whilst we realise this is an insurmountable amount, any money raised here will be used to provide emergency accommodation and support to those at greatest risk with the aim of working towards the first permanent refuge for ex-Muslims.
More information on the JustGiving campaign can be found here. We have also started a Patreon campaign for those who wish to support our efforts for emergency shelter on a monthly basis.
30 September, International #BlasphemyDay, #EndBlasphemyLaws #BlasphemyNotACrime
August/September, Celebrating Dissent Festival at De Balie Amsterdam
The epic ‘Celebrating Dissent’ Festival took place between 30 August -1 September in Amsterdam, a collaboration between the prestigious art and debate institute De Balie and Maryam Namazie. More than 50 speakers from 30 countries worldwide joined a mixture of intense, conversations, comedy, art, poetry and dance performances, films, lectures and protest.
To highlight the dangers facing dissenters, a public protest of 160 balloons (left) with the names of those persecuted or murdered for blasphemy and apostasy was held. Participants at the Festival carried balloons to a nearby square and chalked the names of dissenters into the pavement as a memorial of sorts.
The historic event was an astounding celebration of apostasy, blasphemy and dissent. From the moment the city’s Mayor, Femke Halsema, opened the festival by welcoming ‘heretics, infidels and renegades,’ it was clear that this would be a historic and remarkable festival committed not only to defending free thought and expression but also the lives and freedoms of dissenters.
On 4 July, CEMB organised an evening on LGBT Rights, Apostasy and Blasphemy as part of Pride in London Festival with a film screening of ‘Ferdous’ by Shakila Taranum Maan followed by a panel discussion with Jimmy Bangash (CEMB Spokesperson), Khakan Qureshi (Birmingham South Asians LGBT Founder), Nadia El Fani (Tunisian Filmmaker), Sadia Hameed (CEMB Spokesperson), Shakila Taranum Maan (British Director) and Syed Isteak Hossain Shawon (Bangladeshi LGBT activist and Editor of Boys Love World). Facilitated by Maryam Namazie (CEMB and One Law for All Spokesperson). Kenyan Somali Poet Halima Salat ended the evening with her poem called A Boy, A Village, A Death.
On 6 July 2019 CEMB marched in Pride London for the 3rd time as an organisation. This year, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a rebellion against the church’s religious morality, by marching as the Imams of Perpetual Indulgence. Instead of being the Council for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice that terrorise people by enforcing Islamic morality codes with brute force in the countries some of us have fled from, we were the Council for the Promotion of Vice and the Prevention of Virtue. Our imams were not the usual imams promoting death for thinking and loving freely but instead included dissenting topless women who subverted Islamic morality language by being Imams of Vice, Lust, Kofr, Zina…
Unsurprisingly, as in previous years, social media erupted with threats and intimidation because as always apostasy and blasphemy are considered worse than the murder of LGBT, apostates and blasphemers. Some “Sheikh” has even called for a joint statement of imams against CEMB because apparently, he fears “the punishment of Allah will descend.” And as usual, we have been accused of “Islamophobia.”
Photographs of women sitting on the ground in a public park with legs akimbo were in solidarity with women across the world who are being sexually assaulted for fighting for their rights and told to ‘sit properly’, ‘be decent’ and threatened with rape for claiming the right to their bodies. It was in particular a show of solidarity with women involved in the aurat march in Pakistan. See video of the action here.
CEMB focused on #PeriodsAreNatural in order to break the taboo that comes with women’s periods. This caused a huge uproar and started a much-needed discussion.
February 6, No to FGM Day
For zero tolerance to Female genital mutilation (FGM) day, we handed out roses that had been stapled shut, along with flyers explaining FGM, the harms of it and how to support someone that is at risk, or has experienced FGM. We received much public support and had some good discussions on the issue with the public.
February 1, No Hijab Day
For Hijab Day, we organised in a 3-hour live podcast, with over half a dozen women worldwide, discussing the harms of modesty culture and the veil.
January 21, Refugee Too
CEMB organised a #RefugeeToo protest outside the Home Office in order to highlight the fact that ex-Muslims are also refugees. This campaign linked into the plight of the Saudi woman and ex-Muslim Rahaf who was able to get asylum in Canada after locking herself in her hotel room in Thailand when authorities tried to deport her back to Saudi Arabia. The campaign highlighted a number of activist cases to show the absurd reasons given for rejecting apostates and how at risk they are.
International Coalition of Ex-Muslims
After the De Balie Celebrating Dissent Festival in Amsterdam, we organised a strategy meeting of the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims on 2 September 2019. Our coalition continues to work together on campaigns such as against blasphemy laws and on International Women’s Day, against Facebook and Twitter bans, e.g. ban of Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka’s Facebook page and on urgent actions like in the cases of calling on the Egyptian government to allow atheist Ahmed Harkan to leave the country, demanding the unconditional immediate release of Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba in the Maldives and helping get Hisham Mohamed, the Egyptian who said he was an atheist on live TV and was abused and kicked off the show and faced death threats to reach safety in Germany.
On 4 November, Sadia Hameed and Ali Malik trained Malaysian officials (left) around the issues of blasphemy and apostasy. The Malaysian officials said that this was the first time they had ever interacted with atheists and that even homosexuality is considered more normal/common than atheism in Malaysia.
CEMB holds fast defying protests outside embassies of countries that prosecute people for eating during Ramadan, an action that led to being filmed and threatened outside the Pakistani embassy and armed police approaching our protestors outside the Saudi embassy.
In April and October, we held “Coming Out” parties where people received their apostasy certificates. The parties are one way of seeing people’s coming out as a cause for celebration rather than vilification and a source of shame.
In October, Sadia and Maryam conduct a training for 11 Malaysian government officials who are involved in the Islamic religious affairs department, including those implementing Sharia in the law, education and government. We show the film, Islam’s Non Believers, and have an extended discussion on apostasy and the right to atheism.
CEMB calls on all to stand with Mohamed Salih, a young Sudanese who filed an official request for all mention of Islam to be removed from his documents, including his national ID. As a result, he was charged with apostasy, arrested and released after being declared mentally unfit. Salih was forced to flee the country.
CEMB hosts the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history in London in July 2017 at the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression with over 70 notable speakers from 30 countries or the Diaspora gathered in what is dubbed “The Glastonbury of Freethinkers” and “a Conference of Heroes” to honour dissenters and defend apostasy, blasphemy, and secularism. The sold-out conference highlights the voices of those on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled. The conference made a space for crucial discussions and debates on Islamophobia and its use by Islamists to impose de facto blasphemy laws, the relation between Islam and Islamism as well as communalism’s threat to universal rights, art as resistance and Laicite as a human right. The conference hashtag, #IWant2BFree, trends on Twitter. The conference includes a public art protest of 99 balloons to represent those killed or imprisoned for blasphemy and apostasy around the world. Resolutions against the no platforming of Richard Dawkins and in support of Egyptian atheist Ismail Mohamed and CEMB at Pride are adopted. A Declaration of Freethinkers is adopted at the conference.
Following the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression, the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims is launched. The Coalition begins working on joint projects and actions and meets regularly to plan campaigns.
CEMB and One Law for All organise a Conference on Sharia Law, Apostasy and Secularism to discuss freedom of expression, apostasy and blasphemy laws, Islamism and the religious-Right, as well as Sharia in the law, educational system and public policy. They will also highlight the successful campaigns against the Law Society and Universities UK and pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo and the many Muslims, ex-Muslims and others who have been killed or persecuted for their dissent.
First legal atheist organisation formed in Turkey! The first legally recognised Atheist Organisation of the Balkans, Middle East and among all Muslim-majority countries, has been founded in Istanbul, Turkey. The organisation, titled Ateizm Dernegi, was founded in Istanbul on April 16, 2014.
CEMB and One Law for All sponsor a two-day international conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights. Notable free-thinkers, atheists and secularists from around the world came together for a weekend of discussions and debates on the religious-Right, its attacks on civil rights and freedoms, and the role of secularism for 21st century humanity. The exciting two-day conference discusses the Arab Spring, Sharia and religious laws, the limits of religion’s role in society, free expression, honour killings, apostasy and blasphemy laws, faith schools, women’s rights, secular values and much more. The 250 delegates made an unequivocal stand with the brave women and men of Kobane saying: “Their struggle is ours. Their fight is a fight for us all. We are all, today, Kobane.”
Muslimish Launched in May 2012 in New York City where ex-Muslims and Muslims who have questions about religion or want take a more objective look at its teachings can come and participate in a free and open discussion without fear of punishment or judgement.
CEMB holds successful International Day to Defend Apostates and Blasphemers. More than three hundred individuals and organisations call for an international day of action on 14 March to defend those accused of apostasy and blasphemy. Thousands more defended apostates and blasphemers via acts of solidarity and social media, Tweeted, sent letters of protest, or issued statements and messages of support.
CEMB stands with Bangladeshi bloggers and activists. In January, 29 year old blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed. In February, 35 year old atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib, was brutally killed. Islamists continue to threaten prominent bloggers and have called for the “execution of 84 atheist bloggers for insulting religion”. We call for 25 April to be an international day to defend Bangladesh’s bloggers and activists.
CEMB defends Alexander Aan and condemns his being sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined for having written “God does not exist” on Facebook and calls for his immediate release. He was found guilty of “deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity” and “caused anxiety to the community and tarnished Islam” in Indonesia.
CEMB organises an International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates and calls on groups and individuals to take action on this day by organising a protest or vigil, setting up a table in a city centre, writing a letter, signing a petition, drawing a picture, taking a photo, making a video to highlight blasphemy and apostasy laws and rules, defend free expression and the women and men whose lives are at stake.
CEMB organises a Day of Agreement to highlight the difficulties faced by non-believers in Islamic theocracies, where they are forced to live in silence and furthermore, are unable to have even the smallest disagreements, as it could very much result in incarceration or execution.
Northern Ex-Muslim Meet up Group Launched. CEMB affiliated Manchester Ex-Muslim Meet-Up group which was established in November 2012 by Sandbad has been renamed Northern Ex-Muslim Meet-up Group. Ex-Muslims from Leeds, Bradford and surrounding areas are now part of the group. They welcome ex-Muslims in the North to join them, including from Liverpool.
CEMB and One Law for All hold seminar on Sharia Law in Britain to mark International Women’s Day. The seminar brought together Muslims, ex-Muslims, women’s rights campaigners, lawyers and politicians to outline the problems with Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and Sharia Councils and to propose recommendations for prohibiting religious tribunals and bringing about equal rights for all.
Maryam Namazie is an activist with the Council of Ex-Muslims and other secularist groups.
On the issue of child veiling, a state ban on conspicuous religious symbols for children is an important defence of children’s rights.
Children are not parental property
Children are not the property of their parents.
They are individuals with rights and bodily integrity. And just because their parents believe in child veiling or FGM and male circumcision doesn’t mean they should be automatically entitled to impose their views on their children, especially when these views are harmful.
It is not a question of choice
Religious symbols on children are not a child’s choice but a parental imposition, as no child “chooses” to be “modest” and “chaste” and protect the family “honour.”
Even for adults, it is debatable how many have freely chosen to wear the veil given the huge amounts of pressures to conform, the compulsory nature of the veil in many instances and because submission and compliance are not the same as choice. Even so, there is clearly a huge difference between the veiling of adults and child veiling.
As the late Iranian Marxist Mansoor Hekmat said:
“The child has no religion, tradition and prejudices. She has not joined any religious sect. She is a new human being who, by accident and irrespective of her will has been born into a family with specific religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of society to neutralise the negative effects of this blind lottery.
“Society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal living conditions for children, their growth and development, and their active participation in social life. Anybody who should try to block the normal social life of a child, exactly like those who would want to physically violate a child according to their own culture, religion, or personal or collective complexes, should be confronted with the firm barrier of the law and the serious reaction of society.
“No nine year old girl chooses to be married, sexually mutilated, serve as house maid and cook for the male members of the family, and be deprived of exercise, education, and play. The child grows up in the family and in society according to established customs, traditions, and regulations, and automatically learns to accept these ideas and customs as the norms of life.
“To speak of the choice of the Islamic veil by the child herself is a ridiculous joke. Anyone who presents the mechanism of the veiling of a kindergarten-age girl as her own ‘democratic choice’ either comes from outer space, or is a hypocrite who does not deserve to participate in the discussion about children’s rights and the fight against discrimination.
“The condition for defending any form of the freedom of the child to experience life, the condition for defending the child’s right to choose, is first and foremost, to prevent these automatic and common impositions.”
The veil promotes sex apartheid and inequality
The veil is emotionally harmful. It aims to erase girls and women from the public space and creates a physical wall of segregation. If you do not stay home, and insist on going to school or work or what have you, then you must carry the purdah on your very back to prevent yourself from enticing men and creating fitnah or chaos in society.
The veil is part of the misogynist insistence that girls are “different” from boys. As has been seen in some classrooms in Islamic schools here in Britain even, what follows child veiling is girls sitting in the back of the classrooms, eating after male students, having different textbooks…
It also inhibits the free movement of children. There is an implication that veiled girls are not to run, shout or laugh too loudly or even ride a bike and be seen playing with boys. Child veiling encourages inequality between girls and boys right from the start and solidifies women’s subservient status in society.
Modesty culture is an extension of rape culture
Moreover, child veiling is on the continuum of other religious and cultural rules to control women and girls to ensure that they know “their place” – whether it be via FGM, polygamy or child marriage. At worst, it promotes rape culture and violence against girls and women.
The veil and its demands for modesty brings with it the implicit and often explicit shaming (or worse) of those deemed “immodest.” It is the immodest girl or woman who fails to dress or behave appropriately in order to avoid the male gaze and titillation. She has no one to blame but herself for any ensuing male violence. Modesty is always the remit of women and young girls.
And while it is often portrayed as harmless, modesty culture sexualises girls from a young age and puts the onus on them to protect themselves. Child veiling also removes male accountability for violence, positioning men as predators unable to control their urges. Girls and women are to be either protected or raped depending on how well they guard their modesty and the honour of their male guardian.
Therefore, despite what we are often told, the veil is not just another piece of clothing. This would be similar to touting foot-binding as footwear, FGM as piercings and the chastity belt as lingerie.
In all religions and every religious-Right movement, the perfect “modest” and “moral” woman/girl is the one who cannot be seen or heard in public. Whether via acid-attacks, FGM or child veiling, the message is clear: a good woman/girl is a “modest” one.
To ban or not to ban
There are bans on domestic violence, FGM, child labour… because of social and political movements demanding an end to such violations culminating with changes in the law. Therefore, the banning of child veiling and conspicuous religious symbols should be seen within this move to prioritise children’s rights over the rights of their parents, religious dogma or religious “leaders” and to codify it in the law.
Racism or Fundamentalism
Much of the discussion around the banning of child veiling centres around legitimate concerns for bigotry against Muslims, rising xenophobia and the exploitation of any ban by the far-Right. I would challenge the view that sees girls and women as extensions of their communities and expendable for societal “cohesion.”
Yes, of course, there is a context of racism but there is also a context of the rise of the religious-Right (including white nationalism) with women and girls as their first targets. Increased child veiling is the result of this rising fundamentalism since the veil and control of “its women” is the most public manifestation of Islamist control. In Britain, today, even some toddlers can be seen wearing the veil.
A more ethical position would be to oppose both racism and fundamentalism. Excusing fundamentalism because of racism or vice versa addresses neither and leaves women and girls at the mercy of religious and patriarchal restrictions.
Identity or Solidarity
Saying the fight against child veiling is a fight for feminist and secularist movements within faith communities allows one to remain on the side lines and pay lip service to what is a serious child welfare issue. Oh well, at least you showed some solidarity by putting the onus on others!
Children – British girls – are being sexualised, segregated, taught they are different from boys. British children cannot feel the wind in their hair, run, laugh out loud, dance… They are not considered as individuals whose welfare is paramount but extensions of “community” and family and bearers of modesty culture.
The idea that the fight for the rights of these girls — because they are minorities — must be left to “faith communities” shows how ingrained regressive identity politics and cultural relativism have become. For me, the issue is clear.
If you want to improve the lot of children who are veiled, then changes in law are an important battleground for those who are serious about children’s rights.
See video footage of a discussion on apostasy from Islam, blasphemy and free expression with the brilliant Sarah Haider and Shabana Rehman in Oslo at an event organised by Ateistene and Human-Etisk Forbund Norway.