An Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas – Activist & Founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue
March 31, 2017
What was the moment of political awakening for you?
Being born and raised in a colonized country and having lived through a very bloody liberation struggle from French colonialism… there is no way to ignore politics and their consequences on individuals; moreover, I was born and raised into a family of strong feminists for several generations; let’s say that I fell into the pot from childhood…
When did personal and professional attention turn to activism, religious fundamentalism, and women’s rights?
Well prepared by the colonial situation and by my family’s political awareness, I was an activist – as well as a feminist one - since early teenage, under various forms depending on the period of time (pre-independence struggle, during the struggle for liberation, after independence, when women’s rights were curtailed by the new family code, under armed fundamentalists’ attempts to impose a theocracy in Algeria in the 90s, etc…). I became a full time activist in the early eighties, when I left research and teaching in university, and founded the WLUML (Women Living Under Muslim Laws) network. I remained a full time activist since then. But my academic research was already focused on people’s rights and women’s rights.
WLUML was a non-confessional network of women whose lives were shaped and governed by laws said to be Islamic, - regardless of their personal faith. Our research (1) on laws affecting women in many countries - in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, West Africa - show that these man-made laws (rather than of divine inspiration) borrow not just from very different interpretations of Islam, but mostly from local traditions, cultural practices, and even colonial laws, when it suits both patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. Over the past decades, we could monitor the progressive eradication of progressive laws and Muslim fundamentalists’ dedication to exhuming, picking and choosing the most backwards and reactionary practices and passing them off as Islamic.
Interestingly, many journalists and human rights organizations failed to understand our sociological and political approach; they focused on the ‘religious’ flavour in our name, thus attempting to force us into a religious identity we never claimed: for instance, they often renamed us as women ‘under the Muslim Law’ (in the singular!) or even ‘ under the Islamic Law’. This recurrent ideological ‘mistake’ speaks volumes about their urgent need to put us ‘under religious/cultural arrest’ and deny us universal rights and our common humanity. (2)
You founded ‘Secularism is a Women’s Issue’. Of course, the title provides the general idea. What is the more formal argument to derive the connection between secularism and women’s issues?
Secularism is the legal/administrative provision that separates state from organized religions. It was defined during the French Revolution and later codified in the 1905-1906 laws on separation. Article 1 of the law guarantees freedom of belief and practice to individuals; article 2 stipulates that the Secular Republic does not recognized, therefore dialogue with or fund religions, their representatives and their institutions; the secular Republic only knows equal citizens with equal rights under the law.
The concept of separation at that time successfully challenged the political power of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the French kingdom. (So much for those ignorant writers and preachers who now pretend secular laws in France were designed against Muslims, since there was NO significant Muslim emigration to France at the time of the French revolution).
In the UK, as the King/Queen is both the Head of State and the Head of the Anglican Church, the concept of separation was hard to swallow. This is why they developed a very misleading re-definition of secularism as equal tolerance by the state towards all religions – which indeed involves and ties together the State and organized religions.
This distortion of the original revolutionary concept spread across European countries where Churches had a strong base. In the present context in Europe, we witness an increasing trend to grant - in the name of rights: what a perversion of the very idea of rights ! - separate laws to different religious ‘communities’. This breeds communalism and creates inequalities between citizens, especially women: for instance some UK citizens may have rights that other UK citizens will not have access to, if they are, let’s say, Muslims: sharia courts do not grant equal rights to women in the family. All the recent attempts by Muslim fundamentalists in the UK to promote gender segregation in universities or sharia-compliant wills point in the same political direction. Governments are so keen to trade hard-won women’s rights to appease the religious extreme-right !
This is also the situation in the former British Empire, for instance in South Asia, where the definition of secularism that prevails is not separation but equal tolerance by the state. We deplore that even the Left is hardly aware of this unholy colonial legacy …
It should not be necessary to explain here that, within all religions, reactionary forces generally prevailed that justified women’s oppression by god’s will. It is certainly the dominant political trend today, especially but not exclusively among Muslims.
Moreover, when laws are designed as representing god’s intentions on earth, they become un-changeable, a-historical. Theocracy is the antithesis of democracy where laws are voted by the people and can be changed according to the will of the people.
Women always have a hard time in getting patriarchal laws changed according to international standards of human rights, but it is obviously more so when they can be accused of hurting religious sentiments by doing so, or worse, of apostasy or blasphemy – crimes that are punished by death penalty in Muslim contexts.
In Europe today, xenophobic extreme right movements are attempting to co-opt and manipulate the concept of secularism and to use it against citizens of migrant descent, especially those deemed to be Muslims. This certainly does not make the struggle of secular opponents to Muslim fundamentalism any easier. We need to walk the fine line, challenging at the same time both the new religious extreme rights which condemn secularism and atheism, and ‘traditional’ xenophobic extreme rights which are hijacking the concept of secularism to justify their claim to white Christian superiority. Unfortunately the European Left and Far-Left, that should have been our natural allies, have not yet understood that they should not throw themselves in the arms of Muslim fundamentalists in order to counter the traditional extreme right parties... thus choosing to support one extreme right against the other. Instead, they should support us, who confronted Muslim fundamentalists in our countries of origin and now have to do it all over again in Europe.
As an Algerian sociologist, i.e. as an individual with an expert opinion in sociology, what is the situation for women living under Muslim laws throughout the world?
As varied as one can imagine in one’s wildest guess: it ranges from being able to become an elected head of state, to being closeted between four walls with no education and no rights – and all the intermediary shades in between these extremes. There exists absolutely no homogeneous ‘Muslim world’.
However I must add a few caveat:
although very progressive provisions for women existed in different periods of history and in different locations around the world in predominantly Muslim contexts, we witness today everywhere the rise of fundamentalism, i. e. a political extreme-right which camouflages its power greed behind religion.
Everywhere and at all times (3), women in Muslim contexts fought for their rights, using different strategies, just as we do today: demanding right to education, political rights, freedom of movement, financial autonomy, equal rights in marriage, etc… – religious interpretation was only one of the many strategies they used. The struggle still goes on now, in these very difficult times.
An important new dimension of the struggle now takes place in the countries of immigration. Every right we lose in Europe or North America to the mermaids of cultural relativism heavily impacts the situation in our countries of origin. Conversely, being able to bypass the smokescreen of the ‘main enemy’ to convey to our comrades and sisters back home the reality of Muslim fundamentalism having opened a new front in Europe and North America is part and parcel of building our common struggle beyond national borders. (4)
What is the general status for international women’s rights, empowerment, and advocacy in these contexts?
One cannot look at it in terms of ‘countries’ or cultures: for instance, one can find places where the promotion of economic rights improves women’s autonomy while FGM is tolerated or repudiation legal; or countries where women enjoyed a notable degree of legal autonomy which is suddenly reduced in practice by the coming to power of extreme right fundamentalists.
One must abandon the idea that there exists a homogeneous ‘Muslim world’ where everything would function under the banner of religion. I believe this idea of Muslim world, highly promoted by fundamentalists, is derived from that of ‘Umma’, i.e. the assembly of believers, which exists also in the Catholic Church as ‘Ecclesia’. In reality, we all know that countries are the location of various political forces and classes which fight for political representation or domination; this is in no way different in Muslim contexts and religion per se has little to do there – except as a generally right wing form of political organisation.
You are the founder and former international coordinator for ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’. What tasks and responsibilities came with this position?
It has been a very inspiring and rewarding time in my life, even if one had to work round the clock while raising small kids and living in poverty – a formative time, too. I came to realize that women’s struggles already existed everywhere in Muslim contexts but that they were fought in isolation, that women needed to know about each others’ projects and be inspired by each others’ strategies, and eventually that they could come together on specific actions and/or support collectively the local struggles or initiatives.
The idea was timely and everyone grabbed it across Africa and Asia, quickly gathering together the very best of smart committed women activists.
This network was not a pyramidal organisation, it had no membership, it was a fluid network in which women and groups could step in and take responsibility for specific projects depending on their local needs.
It gathered together in mutual solidarity women who were religious believers, human rights advocates, secularists and atheists.
The tasks of the coordination office were that of a clearing house of information, of a publishing house, of a coordination secretariat for research programmes and for collective projects, of an urgent response/ emergency rescue organisation, of a board–lodging- therapeutic safe place for endangered or burnt out activists, etc… Now that most revolutionary women’s networks of the nineties have been tamed and ‘professionalized’, my heart goes to the Women In Black–Belgrade, whose humble coordination still performs so many of these exhausting and exhilarating tasks, under very difficult political circumstances; I salute these great resisters to NGOs normalization !
Needless to say that, with the growing success of our network, funders were eager to ‘own’ it: there were growing pressure on me to come to my sense and conform to the corporate sector’s norms of organization, believed – despite the evidence provided by the enormous success and achievements of our very network - to be the only efficient ones: a membership organisation with a classic top to bottom pyramidal structure, ‘professionalized’ activists appointed to specific tasks and responsibilities with afferent titles and fat salaries, and a well paid ‘director’ (myself), with a clear religious identification, etc…
If you look at funding organizations’ NGOs normalisation plans during the nineties, you will see clearly exposed what I am talking about… I managed to keep them at bay and to protect the revolutionary spirit of the network for 18 years, till I left it.
As an organisation, the network WLUML circulated information on a regular basis; published a very good journal that mixed together sophisticated academic analysis and on the ground information on struggles and strategies of local women’s groups; produced knowledge that was needed to enhance women’s struggles through coordination of collective research; organized cross cultural exchange of women from one predominantly Muslim area to another, culturally different, Muslim area, so that participants could deconstruct the idea of a homogeneous Muslim world by living a very different reality; organized collective support for local actions; organized rescue; etc…
What have been the observed, if possible measured, impacts of ‘Secularism is a Women’s Issue’ and ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’?
WLUML definitely was instrumental in putting on the agenda, worldwide, the issue of women’s rights in Muslim contexts. It projected not the usual image of the ‘poor oppressed Muslim woman’ (which was instrumental in justifying military occupations and wars), but that of universalist (believers as well as secularists) women human rights defenders.
As for SIAWI, it performs very similar tasks in a new political context where secularists and atheists are more and more endangered while they become more and more vocal especially among the youth. Siawi takes part in the circulation of information on the struggles of secularists and atheists in Muslim contexts and in the diasporas by maintaining a website (siawi.org); it gives visibility to the new forces for secularism in Muslim contexts and in the diasporas; it supports struggles and endangered individuals; it produces analyses on secularism in the times of rising armed fundamentalism; it participates in secular gathering and conferences (5); it challenges cultural relativism in Europe and North America and supports women’s local secular demands.
What are the historical, and ongoing, problems with religious fundamentalism?
There always were reactionary forces aiming at governing in the name of god; secularism, understood as separation, is the best way to keep them at bay, away from directly exercising political power. Historically, progressive religious interpreters and liberation theologians have been defeated within their own religions.
Who is your favorite philosopher or scientist?
The one who will enlighten us tomorrow.
We must not forget that all philosophers and scientists are grounded into their times: the French revolution failed to grant equal rights to women and executed Olympe de Gouges who drafted a constitution that incorporated women’s rights to the social revolution. So did Darwin. Many otherwise progressive thinkers did not see any problem with colonial exploitation of Africans and slavery. We do not need to throw the baby with the bath water but we definitely have to look for thinkers for our times and our future.
What about activist?
What is the question?
Any recommended reading?
I suggested some books and articles in the foot notes. To those who read French, i could suggest ‘Bas les Voiles’ by Chaadortt Djavan, any book by Mohamed Sifaoui, ‘Marianne et le Prophète’ by Soheib Bencheikh, articles and books explaining the concept of secularism by Henri Pena Ruiz .
English speaking people need to access original literature that makes the difference between separation and equal tolerance by the state… such a source of confusion in any discussion on secularism… Fight for translations into English !
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion about our discussion today?
Secularism – understood as separation between state and religions - is today’s best response to growing communalism in Europe and North America, as well as to the murderous armed Muslim organisations that want to impose theocracies and eradicate democracies. As imperfect as democracies are in Europe today, we need to fight for their survival in wake of the growing danger of seeing them replaced by theocracies, in the name of religious rights, cultural rights, minority rights, etc…
Confront the erroneous idea of a ‘Muslim world’: it exists no more that ‘ the Christian world’, or ‘the Crusaders’ that Daesh pretends to destroy…
1. Knowing Our Rights: Women, family, laws and customs in the Muslim ...
2 Dossier 23-24: What is your tribe? Women’s struggles and the ...
3 Great Ancestors: Women Claiming Rights in Muslim Contexts | Women ...
4 Dossier 30-31 The struggle for secularism in europe and North America
5 For example, the Secular conferences in the UK: 2014 and 2017
Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist, activist, founder of ‘Secularism is a Women’s Issue,’ and founder and former International Coordinator of ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws.’