Women 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.