Women Against Fundamentalism was formed in 1989 in the wake of the Rushdie Affair with the aim of challenging fundamentalist trends in all religions. Though it has now, after twenty-five years, ceased activities, the organization published an edited collection recounting the stories and experiences of its members. In this review, Tehmina Kazi praises the collection as ‘a blueprint that today’s activists would do well to follow’.
A few weeks ago, I attended the launch of the new Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity book at the Rich Mix Centre in Bethnal Green. Compiled by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis, this is a striking collection of stories from the few women who have the courage to take on patriarchy and oppression in all its forms (even when said oppressors hail from religious or ethnic backgrounds that much of the liberal-left deems ‘above and beyond reproach’.). Time and time again, we see certain media outlets whitewash the excesses of the Muslim right: their entryism into democratic systems of governance to promote and embed thoroughly illiberal interests; their harassment of activists who highlight injustices against Muslim women and other ‘minorities within minorities’.
As Meredith Tax wrote in her ‘Double Bind’ essay, it is crucial for activists to uphold a progressive politics which exposes the wrongdoing of the Muslim right and other fundamentalists, without falling into the trap of those who perpetuate hatred against all Muslims (or make similar generalisations about other racial or religious minorities). This theme runs through Women Against Fundamentalism. The courageous Southall Black Sisters founder, Pragna Patel, says in her essay: ‘We had to face some inconvenient truths about multiculturalism and anti-racism, which often lapsed into a narrow and essentialist identity politics, and denied differential relations of power within our communities’. WAF were one of the first groups to acknowledge the diversity within minority communities, and reject the ‘Take me to your leader’ approach that has defined much of the state’s political engagement with minorities throughout the last 30 years.
In my experience, certain mainstream human rights organisations do not only deny the existence of these warped power dynamics within minority communities, but they actively take the side of the oppressors. Gita Sahgal talks candidly of her experiences here: ‘…international organisations were willing to promote Islamist organisations, and to liken women’s activists fighting fundamentalism to people such as Geert Wilders’.
Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) defines fundamentalism as ‘modern political movements that use religion to gain or consolidate power, whether working within – or in opposition to – the state’. Craftily, they can also amass power from civil society mobilisations. The ultimate aim is to present their interpretation of religion as ‘normative’, quash any kind of dissent, and gaslight said dissenters as being ‘crazy and unreliable’, or casting them outside the fold of Islam. All fundamentalist movements – no matter which religion they take inspiration from – have sought to control women’s bodies, minds and voices. However, this is the only constant I can see in these poignant critiques of fundamentalism. Unlike other tomes from activist groups, contributors are not averse to acknowledging the limitations of the ‘Women Against Fundamentalism’ group itself. As Julia Bard from the Jewish Feminist Group writes: “So, for example, Saudi power is not the monolith it once was, and it doesn’t have the hegemonic potential that it had a few years ago. WAF didn’t seem able to adapt to this complex and fast-changing situation.” Gita Sahgal observed the sharp divisions within WAF when it came to challenging Muslim fundamentalism (as opposed to other types), but was hugely grateful to those who rallied round her and helped her find a lawyer during a very difficult time.
Unfortunately, the WAF group is now defunct, but all the members who have shaped it since its inception must never underestimate their own impact on the UK political scene. For one thing, they have popularised a secularist perspective that is entirely different from anti-theism (i.e. recognising the positive role of religion in people’s lives on a personal level, but simultaneously campaigning against instances where it exerts undue power and influence). Many other organisations – including my own, British Muslims for Secular Democracy – are now running with this vision of secularism. One of my heroines, the late Cassandra Balchin, encapsulated our dilemma perfectly in her own chapter: ‘…in certain contexts, I have to stick up my hand and say, “What about Muslims, what about believing people?” In other contexts, I have to stick up my hand and say, “But what about atheism, what about people who don’t identify as religious?” I find myself positioned consistently as an outsider’.
Having analysed the political and social challenges for activists in this space, the book ends with a taster of the practical challenges. Judy Greenway pays a moving tribute to her partner, the anti-fascist campaigner Helen Lowe, who passed away in 2011 before she could be interviewed: ‘She was only too aware of the dangers of exhaustion and burnout; of how hard it is to sustain democratic structures, learn from past mistakes without discouragement or cynicism, and maintain “the dignity of fighting even when it feels like the battle can’t be won.”’ All in all, a blueprint that today’s activists would do well to follow.
Tehmina Kazi has been Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy since May 2009. Prior to joining BMSD, she was a Project Officer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where she worked on an inquiry into the Human Rights Act and co-organised the first awards ceremony acknowledging the achievements of the UK’s Muslim women. Tehmina regularly contributes to debates and forums on civil liberties and foreign policy, and her articles have been published in, among others, the Guardian and the Huffington Post.
This article was amended on 12th January 2015. The original version attributed the quote about Helen Lowe to Dhaliwal and Yuval-Davis.
 Meredith Tax, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights (New York, N.Y.: Centre for Secular Space, 2013).
 For further details see Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds., Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity (London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014), p.96.