by Eva http://www.womenagainstfundamentalism.org.uk
I firmly believe that we must live in a democracy where freedom of expression must be upheld and where expressing one’s belief in a public space must be allowed for purposes of discussion or proselytising. For me, a secular society is not an atheist society or an anti-religious society. A secular society, and by implication a secular institution, is one which tolerates non-believers and believers alike, in which religion is a private activity, not dominant and not used or supported by the society (institution) in order to advantage / disadvantage one group against any others. Thus only a secular society can be democratic.
I work at a secular state-supported university, which witnessed, at the start of Ramadan, a large atrium being taken over by two groups of people, segregated by gender at either end of the space. Everybody who used the space of the atrium was exposed to religious videos, calls to prayer, copies of the Koran and huge billboards displaying religious quotations. The purpose of this exercise was purely religious. Then, on the last day of teaching before Easter, a group of Evangelical Christians set up a tent and preached in the open space within the university courtyard.
The university’s communal space is not a public space, and as I work there I do not have the option of walking away from these activities. Thus I believe not only that our atrium must remain a secular space, but that the whole university must remain available as a social space which does not segregate men from women and in which I am not preached to. I find the activity intimidating and believe also that Muslim women who choose not to be completely covered, or non-evangelical Christians, will find these activities to be intimidating, particularly because they, too, are not afforded the freedom of walking away.
It is great that our students have every right to religious freedoms. However, I consider this selective segregating (these students sit side by side in classrooms) of our students on particular occasions to be a religious activity. There is, quite rightly, a room allocated to students who want to pray during Ramadan, Pesach, Easter or any other religious holiday and that must be an appropriate place for it.
The fact is that orthodox and fundamentalist Muslim and Christian groups (in this case, other groups elsewhere) use public spaces for proselytising and aggressive preaching. This makes people of the same religion who observe differently, or those who observe a different religion, feel guilty. Fundamentalist groups suggest that they are the “good observers of the religion” while the others are the “bad observers”. That is what I call intimidation and there is no place for it at a secular university!
It is vital that all forms of oppression are debated otherwise we are in a serious danger that in the name of fighting racism we collude in other forms of oppression from within the communities that practice it.