Courageous Women – Inspirational Seminar
The NSS co-sponsored seminar on Islam, Women’s Rights and the Veil which was held at the University of London Union on Thursday was packed to the doors by people wanting to hear from a group of exceptionally courageous women who are standing up for their rights against a controlling and often violent religious establishment.
NSS honorary associate Taslima Nasreen started proceedings with a moving account of the persecution she has suffered at the hands of the religious authorities in her native Bangladesh. Because she refused to accept the role as an inferior human being that Islam dictates for women, she was driven from her homeland under threat of death and is now a refugee. She aches to return home, and her dream is that one day that will be possible on her terms and not those of the mullahs who demand that she squander her education and experience by confining her to what would be, in essence, house arrest.
Maryam Namazie, an NSS Secularist of the Year winner, spoke out passionately not just against the wearing of veils by Muslim women but calling unequivocally for it to be banned. She said that there could be no argument for tolerating the veil, because, “It is not just another piece of cloth, not just another item of clothing”. She likened it instead to a chastity belt or the yellow star that was attached to the Jews by the Nazis, or a body bag. “It isn’t a fashion accessory like a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, it is like footbinding that was used to stop women from wandering.” She said it creates sexual apartheid, and must be as intolerable as racial apartheid. It represents nothing but women’s enslavement. She says if you removed all the threats and intimidations, there will be few who would ‘choose’ to live in a mobile prison – other than those who want to show their allegiance to the rising political Islamic movement.
Mina Ahadi is an Iranian women’s activist now living in Germany. She has been instrumental in saving several people from execution. She is founder of Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany which recently caused a media storm when it was launched in Berlin. Mina said she set up the group to highlight the difficulties of renouncing the Islamic faith, which she said is misogynist and tyrannical. She wants the group to form a counterweight to Islamic organisations that she says get all the media attention and the Government’s ear, but don’t adequately represent Germany’s secular-minded and non-Muslim immigrants.
Mina has been subject to endless death threats. Renouncing Islam can carry the death penalty in a number of countries including Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Mauritania. In other countries people who turn their backs on the faith aren’t punished by courts, but they are often ostracised by family and friends.
Mina said she wants the new organisation to help women who feel oppressed by the rules of the faith to find a way out. There is no way to modernise Islam, she says, the only way is to leave it and fight it. She encouraged other ex-Muslims to turn away from religion and have their pictures published. There are now over 300 members of the group. Mina says there is an enormous support for secularism amongst those who have fled Islam which is hidden and suppressed, and she is determined to bring that hidden population into public view. She wants the world to understand that even though you might have the label “Muslim” stamped across your forehead, it cannot automatically be assumed that you are religious. This does not please the mullahs, who are anxious to create the impression in the West that all Muslims put religion before anything else. Only in that way can they keep their power and control over the population.
Ann Harrison from Amnesty International gave a summary of the legal situation of women in Iran and the terrible injustices that they have to endure. Sonia Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, also spoke about her own experience.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “This was a superb and exhilarating evening. I cannot say how much admiration I have for these courageous women. They sense that they are at the head of a growing movement and that the women of Iran are aching to be freed from the confines of the ‘medieval rag’ and all it represents.”