A meeting organised by Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) in London on Saturday 21st October attracted about 90 people, mostly women.
"Women, the War on Terrorism and Fundamentalism", was presented by several speakers who covered a variety of themes, including the growing domination of fundamentalist Islam in Iraq and its impact on women, and the debate on the veil (niqab) in Britain.
Nadje Al-Ali, from Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq, spoke about the growing repression and violence against women in Iraq - repression which began with attacks on students at Basra University to enforce hijab wearing and which have now escalated to large scale violence against all Iraqi women who are now caught up in the sectarian religious and militia struggles.
Nadje spoke about the the development of the Stop the War Movement, highlighting the difficulties of taking a position that was critical of the resistance movement yet supportive of Iraqi struggle against the occupying forces. Nadje gave an example of the World Tribunal in Istanbul which took the view that it was "divisive to raise criticism of the policies of the various resistance groups on women". Nadje informed us that there was an ongoing debate amongst women in Iraq and highlighted the danger of some Iraqi Women and Women's Organisations looking to the US/UK, or neo-con NGO's as a bulwark in defending women's rights against a rising tide of patriarchal tribalism. (editor's example: Madre, OWFI)
Irene Bruegel, a member of WAF, highlighted the need to be clear which political groups in the UK have failed to challenge religious fundamentalisms rather than lump all the left together, and denounced double standards and the attacks on Islamic religious expressions whilst Britain is still dominated by Christian religious schools.
Pragna Patel (Southwark Black Sisters) spoke about the Government's political and financial endorsement of Faith-based communities and how this erodes both secular education and community cohesion. Pragna told of how a "cultural expert" had vetoed the desire by a group of girls to show their traditional dances at school on the grounds that it was not appropriate to their religious/cultural traditions - an example of an attempt to transform multiculturalism into a religiously dominated concept.
Mai Ghoussoub (writer, artist and founder of Saqi Books) spoke about her recent visit to Lebanon and tried to explain some of the contradictions in the multi religious state and the impact of the rise of Hezbollah. She explained how you could see in photos of 1950s Beirut virtually no women wore the hijab, and this was felt to be part of embracing modernism in the country. She described how "ghettoisation" and the discrimination against rural-city migrants led to their embracing of older traditions as a form of pride against this oppression and that it became increasingly common to see the headscarf as rural communities moved into the cities.
The open discussion on the niqab (full veil) in the workplace and school highlighted how once, in Egypt and elsewhere in the near and middle east, wearing the niqab used to be a symbol for women who did not have to work, who would wear it to the Haman or when visiting relatives. Mai Ghoussoub discussed that although we should defend rights to religious dress, this had to be balanced against the ability of young women to participate in school and civil society. She told us that the niqab was incompatible with certain work, such as the teaching of children where facial expression and lip movements were a vital part of the work process, and that other religious dress prevented girls and women from participating in sports and subjects such as chemistry and biology.
The WAF event lasted for three-hours and covered many more issues as well as encouraging a lively debate and exchange of ideas from the floor with individuals from WAF, the Jewish Socialist Group, the Permanent Revolution Network and Socialist Resistance speaking.
If you're willing to get involved in future debates and support the work of Women Against Fundamentalisms, more information can be found at: http://waf.gn.apc.org/ and the Jewish Socialists' Group
Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq
Southall Black Sisters