What happens in Bangladesh is similar to what happens in most so-called Muslim countries worldwide: An interview with Marieme Helie Lukas

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Marieme Helie Lukas is an Algerian sociologist. Based on her experiences in exile, and her committed work to the emancipation and rights of women, we enthusiastically reached out to do an interview. With that in mind, we sent her some questions. Unfortunately, she was unable to answer all of them due to illness. We have published here the answers she was able to give and all the questions we put forward. Although she was born and raised in Algeria, she was forced to flee into exile after the rise of extremist Islamic politics in her country. Marieme Helie Lukas is the founder of the organisations “Women Living Under Muslim Laws” (1984) and “Secularism is a Women’s Issue” (2004). – Editor

Shuddhashar: To start things off, we would be really interested to know what you are doing at the moment. Could you please tell our readers about your current plans?

Marieme: No Answer.

Shuddhashar:  We would like to hear about your personal struggles coming from a conservative society.

Marieme:  I come from a very progressive family in a conservative country and time. And I know many progressive women and men from Muslim countries or background who could say just the same. So… I never had to struggle for my own personal freedom, it was gifted to me from childhood. It was clear from the start that I will get the best possible education, that boys and girls should be equal, that women should earn their living and be economically independent, etc…

My mother and her sister (my maternal aunt) who raised me together were feminists and my maternal grandmother was a feminist too. Of course this meant different areas of struggle for different generations. My grandmother, a brilliant student, was taken out of school against her will and despite her pleading when she was 12 (school was compulsory under French colonial rule till that age), in order to help raise the youngest child in the family; she later had to struggle very hard as a young widow with two daughters to complete her education and find a job. She therefore paid for her daughters’ education till age 26 and 27 respectively, i.e. till they achieved professorship. I was still a child when I heard my grandmother say: ‘women should be economically independent’. I quote her exact words because it struck me as such a modern way to express herself, while she was born in the early 1880’s. My mother and my aunt waged other struggles for their own personal independence: marriage, divorce for my mother, and celibacy, with a very late (and chosen) marriage for my aunt, as well as citizens’ rights. I benefitted from all their previous struggles and gains before starting to wage the new struggles of my time. In my experience, during my years with the international solidarity network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), many feminists and progressive men from Muslim context had just the same experience of being supported and encouraged by one or both their parents, and building on the gains of their progressive ancestors. It is a very encouraging point of view for young parents today, to realize that, by giving a progressive egalitarian education to their sons and daughters, they can help build resistance in society.

About 40 years ago, while we were doing research on family laws in Muslim contexts – where family laws are defined, or at the very least colored by religious interpretations -, we came across and collected Muslim marriage contracts passed in Bangladesh a hundred years ago, in which so many progressive provisions were made that guaranteed the rights of the bride: her economic independence, freedom of movement, right to initiate a divorce, rights over children in case of dissolution of the marriage, her own choice of a monogamous marriage, etc… were stipulated. Undoubtedly, those marriage contracts were signed among the educated progressive elites of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it shows that progressive thinking existed. However, class is not the only criteria when it comes to defending freedom and independence for women: I met many woman-headed families in Algeria whose children, boys and girls, were inculcated equality and freedom for all, regardless of sex. A harsh colonization, two World Wars in which colonial troops were deliberately sent to the front lines and subsequently decimated, and then the 7 ½ yearlong liberation struggle killed many men in Algeria; the mothers – head of family I knew after independence  were generally widows (and sometimes divorced) who were poor but independent, managed their family financially and did not allow the extended family to make any decision for themselves or their children.

We have a rich and diverse (progressive, libertarian, atheist, feminist) history that we should reclaim. As part of such a much-needed effort, we started collecting stories of women who fought for their rights in Muslim contexts many centuries before us, whom we consider our inspiring predecessors, our great ancestors in feminism (1) Great Ancestors, WLUML I think we should now start collecting stories of our Great Ancestors in secularism… It is a timely political task too. We should build on this history, instead of passively swallowing up the unfounded reactionary (and racist) propaganda that pretends revolutionary ideas, including feminism, are imported from the West. It only aims at delegitimizing us and granting the most reactionary forces in our countries the label of national authenticity.

Shuddhashar:  Could you give us an understanding of the politics of the time both globally and nationally from when you left Algeria?

Marieme: I am part of the generation that grew up and became politicized in the late fifties and early sixties, during Algeria’s liberation struggle from French colonization, and throughout the decolonization of Africa. Algeria was the first to initiate a liberation struggle among African countries colonized by France, and the last to be freed, after a 7 ½ year long war … After independence, Algiers was hosting liberation movements of Southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies, it was an inspiring place to live in, with experiences of self-management and various people’s initiatives in the field of popular culture, for instance. It did not last long and the reactionary forces that kept quiet during the struggle for independence did not take long to raise their heads. For example: Improvised self-management in agriculture, a sheer necessity to make sure the country will not starve after the departure of European settlers, was quickly tamed and controlled by the government; a regressive and repressive family law that severely curtailed women’s rights was passed under the influence of Muslim fundamentalist groups; women were little by little incited to wear traditional veiling, then forced into wearing a totally un-traditional, culturally alien, type of veil – Saudi style; Berber minorities were suppressed and so were their languages, to the benefit of Arabic; etc… all this paved the way for the religious right to grow, to infiltrate the minds of the people, and finally, in the late 80s to attempt seizing political power and launching a “war against civilians” ( as we called it, by opposition to the concept of “ civil war”) in the 90s which made about 200 000 victims.

Q4. What does the structure of IAUI look like? What kinds of programmes is the organisation involved in? What has been the success of IAUI when dealing with raising awareness around religious fundamentalism and women’s rights?

Marieme: No Answer.

Shuddhashar:  Could you elaborate on your involvement with creating awareness about religious fundamentalism worldwide and especially in Muslim-majority nations?

Marieme: The network Women Living Under Muslim Laws was not designed to create awareness in the West, but to link up, support, enhance, and reinforce women’s organizations in Muslim contexts. It is only recently, with the fundamentalist ideological offensive spreading in ‘the West’, that one had to address this issue and raise awareness globally in writings and activism. Women in Muslim contexts do not need to be ‘made aware’ of religious fundamentalism, they suffer from it every day. In all our countries, we were told: “that’s what Islam says, it is like this because Islam says so…” in order to justify the oppression of women. A simple comparison between two neighboring countries in North Africa (both are Maliki) showed that the laws in Tunisia granted women many rights that were denied in Algeria; for instance, Tunisia banned polygyny and repudiation, Algeria allowed both, Tunisia granted reproductive rights that Algeria denied, etc… However, both countries stated that their laws were in total conformity with Islam. This is what we found everywhere in the so-called ‘Muslim world’, when we extended the comparison to countries in the Middle East, Africa South of the Sahara, South Asia, South East Asia, the former USSR Central Asia Republics, etc…The first step we took as an international network was to expose women from one Muslim context to a very different culture – albeit also ‘Muslim’; women from countries were FGM was practiced (in the name of Islam) were sent to countries where it was unheard of (and vice versa); women from countries were they had to veil went to countries where it was not compulsory and little done (and vice versa); etc.. When they went back to their countries, they had seen such a diversity of behavior, practices and ways of life within Muslim contexts, that they were well equipped to challenge reactionary forces who pretended: ‘thisis Islam’. In our first international planning meeting, we stated: ‘Our realities range from being strictly closeted, given in marriage as a child, etc… to enjoying  freedom of movement, being politicians, Head of State, etc…’ (2) Aramon Plan of Action, WLUML, 1986 Our second step was to compare supposedly ‘Muslim’ family laws throughout Africa and Asia, pointing at the wide discrepancies in terms of space and rights for women: it ranges from having no rights to enjoying equal rights within the family. These laws were therefore obviously man-made, shaped by cultural norms at least as much as by religious interpretations and by the local political manipulations of religion. We undertook to compare these laws nationally, regionally and internationally and the reports were disseminated locally. An international handbook, designed to serve the needs of women’s rights activists, came out of this research. (3) Knowing Our Rights, WLUML.Through the production and wide dissemination of such new knowledge, we increased women’s groups’ range of areas of struggle, they provided each other with news tools and exchanged strategies. Ideas, concepts and analysis which were new and unheard of in the late 1980’s when we started the WLUML  network are now currently used by women’s organizations in Muslim contexts all over the planet.

Shuddhashar:  You are aware of the situation surrounding the killings of bloggers and writers in Bangladesh. You have also visited the country. You have done research on Bangladesh and the wider Indian Subcontinent. How would you analyse the present situation there?

Marieme:  What happens in Bangladesh is similar to what happens in most so-called Muslim countries worldwide, where the religious-right has been growing steadily over the past decades; our governments have been making unholy alliances with extreme right forces in order to tame progressive protests; they have chosen their camp and now they – and we – pay the price. They pay the price because the Frankenstein monster they have nurtured will not satisfy with crumbs of power, it wants to rule in their place and eliminate them politically. We pay the price because the people’ s organizations have been decimated by our undemocratic governments and there are no more political forces on the left that have the capacity to stand up to the religious extreme right. In our countries, unions and parties of the left have been banned, their leaders and activists jailed or killed, in total indifference from progressive forces worldwide. There is no one left to face the Frankenstein who escaped its masters. Let’s take one step further and look at the rise of extreme right forces worldwide. In recent years, so many countries have seen the rising to political power of nationalist extreme right forces, be it in India with the Hindu right, in Sri Lanka or Myanmar with the Buddhist religious right, or in Europe with the more traditional extreme right xenophobic political parties, not to speak of the election of Trump in the USA… We live in times when, globally, we witness a terrible political backlash. It is important to look at the rise of Muslim fundamentalism within this global context, as the particular form that extreme right takes in our countries. It is important not to define them as religious movements (which they are not – they display a remarkable ignorance in religious matters and an equally remarkable indifference to debating interpretations of religion), but as political movements of an extreme right nature. It is interesting to compare the ideological similarities between Nazism/Fascism and Muslim fundamentalism. They share, for instance, the following characteristics: Both believe in the superiority of either their ‘race’ or their creed. Both ground this superiority in a mythified past: be it the Aryan race, the glorious past of Rome, or the Golden Age of Islam. Both state that this superiority grants them the right and duty to physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’: and curiously, across different times and different locations, these ‘sub-humans’ happen to be similar:Jews, communists, gays, etc…and now also “kofr”…Both are pro-capitalists. Both define the place of women in society as ‘the Church ( now read the Mosque), the cradle, the kitchen”…. It is quite heart breaking to witness, among the European Left, the all out defense of Muslim extreme-right political forces who slaughter our progressive forces, in the name of anti-imperialism and human rights…

Shuddhashar:  You are one of the most vocal and visible voices from the Arab world when it comes to protecting the rights of secularists and atheists. What kind of information can you share about the plight of victims of persecution and torture in these countries, like Saudi prisoner Raif Badawi?

Marieme: No Answer.

Shuddhashar:  Blasphemy laws vary depending on the country. What do you think needs to be done in order to create global awareness about this situation?

Marieme: By ‘global’ I have a feeling you actually mean ‘ in the West’ and that bothers me. In India for instance, Left intellectuals are in total denial of the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, because they rightly think that they need to denounce the Hindu right which is now in power; but they also believe that the Hindu right is far more dangerous and that it needs to be addressed first. This is in my views a strategic error: both need to be denounced; like many other Left and far-Left people in Europe, they deny that the Muslim extreme right is growing dangerously.

In Europe, under the influence of Muslim fundamentalist groups, the resurgence of the crime of ‘blasphemy’ is slowly creeping under new wordings such as ‘hurt religious sentiments’. Even in France, the birthplace of secularism, politicians and media are propagating such dangerous concepts. Although, of course, in Muslim countries, there are more and more attacks on secularists, I think ‘blasphemy’ is coming back everywhere now… Secularists are very aware of the danger and in the UK, there are actions initiated by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Great Britain, to demand from politicians the suppression of its criminalization.

Shuddhashar:  We would like to know about your opinions about the current state of world politics. Do you think there is a risk of a new World War?

Marieme: No Answer.

Shuddhashar:  What are your thoughts and analyses on the ideological basis behind the movement, including terrorism, to create an Islamic State?

Marieme: I think I said it already when I pointed at the need to qualify in political terms and not in religious ones, the extreme right political movements working under the guise of religion in our countries. “Terrorism” has an ideological basis that needs to be exposed and combated. One cannot hope to defeat the Muslim extreme right without targeting their ideology first. Algerian women have been saying so – in vain, alas – throughout the 90s when armed Muslim fundamentalists was decimating the population in order to impose an Islamic state in Algeria. To our utter surprise, democrats in Europe were supporting our religious extreme right in the name of democracy, because they were opposing our government. True enough we had successive undemocratic governments, but who in one’s right mind would dream of exchanging Thatcher for Hitler – in the name of democracy… The failure of analyzing the rise of extreme- right forces in Muslim majority countries will remain a stain on democratic forces worldwide.

Shuddhashar:  Thank you very much for your time. Before we bid farewell, there is one final question we would like to ask. What are your plans for the future?

Marieme: No Answer.

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