Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Women Against Fundamentalism

Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity, by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds), reviewed by Charlotte Sykes

June 8, 2015
4 min read

wafWomen Against Fundamentalism (WAF) was born at the time of the February 1989 fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for his execution for blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. WAF started in response to a particularly successful meeting organised by Southall Black Sisters and the Labour Party women’s section discussing women and religion, sparked by the responses to the controversy. Concerned by the left’s silence over fundamentalist religious communities, WAF staged a counter-protest against the Muslim march denouncing Rushdie in May, and issued a statement in support of the author.

Formed of an alliance between Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and atheist women, some of whom were born into fundamentalist communities and others who experienced them as outsiders, the group insisted on facing fundamentalism as a political phenomena: a method of utilising religion as a means of control. There was initial debate over whether to name the group Women Against Fundamentalisms, to refute the notion that the group was only to combat activity from Muslim communities, but it was decided that the singular Fundamentalism showed clearly that it is a continuous spectrum, often with similar methods and aims.

The anthology begins by charting the history of WAF, especially emphasising the role of New Labour in giving religious groups and schools power within their communities through funding and an uncritical approach to multiculturalism. A criticism of New Labour’s blindness towards the treatment of women in minority cultures recurs throughout the book. Many of the women whose stories form the main part of the narrative stress that the power given to religious leaders within communities resulted in the disempowerment of women. Hannana Siddiqui writes that New Labour multiculturalism allowed for minority cultures to be self-policing in matters such as domestic violence and forced marriage. Southall Black Sisters, WAF’s sister group, called for greater state intervention in order to protect and empower women.

Women Against Fundamentalism presents the narratives of 19 WAF activists, who explore the political and social factors that led to their involvement, and how their activism manifested itself as a consequence. The book’s subtitle, ‘Stories of Dissent and Solidarity’, emphasises its purpose: each of the stories highlights the plurality of WAF’s dissent and objections to fundamentalism, yet the women are united through a joint effort to understand the phenomena politically.

Throughout the group’s existence, WAF’s members had a policy of speaking in pairs when commenting publicly on issues. This was intended to emphasise their belief that fundamentalism should not be isolated within the religion it purports to represent, but rather engaged with and tackled as an expression of oppressive power dynamics. The women’s narratives portray their differing attitudes towards religion: atheist, agnostic and religious perspectives all informed WAF’s activism.

Working under the Southall Black Sisters mantra of ‘struggle not submission’, WAF activism has always emphasised the British state’s role in creating a culture conducive to racism and fundamentalism. One key element of this analysis involves showing how state Christianity has facilitated further institutionalising of religion, as it has provided a space in which demands can be made (for example) to extend blasphemy laws and brought more religious figures into the House of Lords.

Throughout the anthology, and from different perspectives, WAF activists also emphasise the link between the state’s desire to offload social services onto religious groups, and the rise of fundamentalism and control of women. As Pragna Patel writes in her narrative, ‘Flying By the Nets of Racism’, by the early 1990s WAF campaigners ‘were blasting a hole through the assumption that minorities readily identify with their “faith communities”’. The campaign against Sikh religious leaders taking over local schools in Southall, following the Tories’ ‘opting out’ laws, made explicit the increased policing of female choices that would result from more institutional religious ideology.

This anthology serves to reject the oft-peddled narrative of the passivity of women living in or near repressive fundamentalist communities. Its structure is self-consciously close to the dynamics and politics of WAF itself: intentionally divergent, but emphasising the united analysis of a heterogenous group. Pragna Patel regrets WAF’s disbandment, as it was good at ‘joining the dots of what appeared to be disparate political, social and economic developments in order to bypass the polarity of the logic “You’re either for us or against us”.’ Indeed, we are more in need than ever of groups that work against the co-option of religion by fundamentalists, and that unites anti‑racist politics with a critical approach to sexist practices.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


13