Islamist fundamentalism and its impact on women

Forty people turned up at the B-Bar in March to hear Sadia Hameed from the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

Sadia started by talking about the work of the CEMB - it's there to help those who want to leave Islam.  Even in this county that can be very difficult, and abroad it's even worse - many countries still have the death penalty for atheists. So having an organisation being 'loud and proud’ about being ex-Muslim is a great support for 'closeted atheists'. For Sadia herself, it was the unfairness she saw women experiencing under Islam that convinced her she should leave the faith.

She then went on to show how in three Islamic countries - Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan - women suffer great injustice. They are denied education - in Afghanistan for example, over 80% of young women are illiterate, and attempts to set up illicit schools to try and improve the situation put those involved at great risk. Heathcare can be hard to obtain, especial if female doctors are not available. There are high rates of women dying in childbirth, while contraception and abortion are very restricted and only allowed to space births out, rather than to limit family sizes.  Getting justice for women is often very difficult - their testimony counts for half that of men, and in some cases, such as rape, not at all. Pakistan suffers from thousands of honour killings and forced marriage is widespread across all three countries.

It was not always this way - in Afghanistan in particular, during the 60s and 70s women had vastly greater freedoms, and got the vote in 1919, 10 years ahead of women in the UK. But the Taliban put a stop to that and now the restrictions on women there are amongst the strictest anywhere. This is part of a trend across the Islamic world to crack down on women's freedom that Sadia puts down to the influence of hard-liners in Saudi Arabia.

She sees this even in the UK. The first generation of her family to arrive here found the freedom they had liberating. But in her lifetime, she has seen the rise of a more fundamentalist Islam here too.  Greater numbers of women now wear the hijab or burka, there is a rise in 'modesty fashion' to cater for the demand for conservative dress styles for women. At schools sometimes even toddlers wear headscarves and fast during Ramadan, surely not good for the health of such young children.

More worrying still is greater segregation in Muslim communities.  Within them, sex segregation at schools and elsewhere is on the rise, while mixing with non-Muslims is also being discouraged. Sadia sees the increase in faith schools as a great concern.  For her, school was the first chance she had to see that other lifestyles and beliefs were possible, and to mix with other cultures.  It became a safe haven for her away from the influence of her very religious family.  But that opportunity is being increasing denied to children nowadays.

The evening ended with a lively question and answer session, where we were able to discuss further the nature of the problems Sadia had raised and look at what we, both as individuals and society in general, can do to try and address the injustices faced by women in Islam and support those leaving the faith.


CEMB talk