Secularism is a necessary (but insufficient) condition for establishing women’s rights

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Looking back on the past 40 years of the women’s movement in predominantly Muslim contexts, one can clearly see different phases in the past decades and a new trend today.

First of all, let me say that i do not know of any country or “community”, ruled by laws said to be Islamic, where i did not find several individuals, groups, and organisations fighting for women’s rights. This has been true whether women lived in a relatively less or relatively more patriarchal culture, in a more or less democratic country, whether they faced severe repression or where tolerated by the powers that be. They are sometimes working underground, sometimes very openly, sometimes reduced to a tiny number courageous enough to risk their lives, sometimes running huge mass organisations – but they exist absolutely everywhere, in Africa both north and south of the Sahara, in Asia, the Middle East, and in countries of emigration.

So much for the myth of the poor, helpless, submissive, oppressed “Muslim” woman…which served as a justification for various imperialist invasions into our countries.

Oppressed indeed we are, like women everywhere in the world, to various degrees. But fighting for our rights, certainly we are too, just like other women everywhere.

There is a distinctive factor in the form our oppression takes in Muslim contexts: it is the instrumentalisation not just of religion, but of the worst retrograde interpretations of religion. This is not to say that other reactionary forces have not used religions for the same purpose in other contexts. The Catholic Church, for instance, prevented predominantly Christian countries till recently (for example in Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Argentina, The Philippines, to name a few) to amend their laws so as to make space for reproductive rights, such as contraception and abortion. The use of religion in order to consolidate reactionary political agendas is by no means specific to Islam and to so-called “Muslim countries”.

In most of our countries, religion – Islam and rather reactionary interpretations of it – plays a crucial role in shaping the laws that govern specifically women, i.e. “family laws” or “laws on personal status” (as it is called in different continents): these laws regulate marriage, divorce, alimony, custody of children, etc. This may explain why, although women in Muslim contexts fight on all fronts for economic and political rights, for cultural rights, for health rights, for education and the right to work like everywhere in the world, there is a specific emphasis on struggles to change patriarchal family laws.

This leads us straight into the issue of secularism: how can different categories of citizens within one country be ruled by different laws, depending on the “community” to which they are assigned by virtue of their birthplace and ancestry? How can different categories of citizens in one country enjoy or be deprived of specific rights?

We have to go back into the history of the colonization of our continents, respectively by the British and French colonizers. And also into the history of the colonizers themselves regarding secularism.

France is the birthplace of secularism: the French revolution put an end to the political power of the Vatican over the French kingdom, and subsequently established the rule that political powers – governments – must and will be independent from religious power, i.e. from the diplomatic representatives of established religions.

Readers, please note: this was 1789 – so please, think twice before listening to present day ignoramus who claim that secularism in France was designed to discriminate against Muslim immigrants…

Needless to say that the Church and its reactionary allies fought hard to prevent the advent of a secular republic in France; it followed suite that secular laws were proposed – and fiercely countered for over a century – until the final adoption of what is presently known as the “laws on Separation of Religion and State”, passed in 1905-1906. It was a hard-won victory.

Readers please note: this was 1905 i.e. long before any substantial emigration of “Muslims” from North Africa into France; this only took place massively after WWII.

Let me briefly summarize the content of the 1905 law, which is so little known and so badly represented in English speaking contexts: Article 1 reaffirms freedom of belief and practice; Article 2 establishes that the State will not interfere with these beliefs/religions and the organizations that represent them: the State will not “recognize” them politically, as representative interlocutors, and the State will not dialogue with them, fund them, and so on. In other words, the State will have nothing to do with Religions as such. However, it guarantees that citizens as individual believers will enjoy total freedom of conscience and expression. Interfering with individual citizens’ beliefs is not within the mandate of the secular State.To this day, this definition has been applied in France, despite endless efforts by the Church and now by recent maneuvers by Muslim fundamentalists to undermine it. It is worth noting, however, that secular principles were hardly applied to colonized people including in Algeria, which, unlike any other colony, was supposed to be officially part of metropolitan France. This was the unofficial reality, while the principle of secularism for all was the official mantra.

Stating the obvious, the UK could hardly subscribe to the French founding concept of secularism: its king/queen is also the head of the Anglican Church. It therefore invented a new definition of secularism, by which the State interferes with religions and upholds a role of displaying equal tolerance vis-à-vis each of them. The British re-definition was unfortunately exported throughout its former colonies and is now spreading throughout Europe via the European institutions. Secularism in its original revolutionary definition is now under increasing pressure.

One can easily see that this UK-born disposition breads communalism, with each “representation” of a religion fighting against the others for securing more political power within the state. Although this is packaged as a highly democratic legal provision (all religions are equal), it is not. To start with, these so-called “representatives of religions” are not democratically elected; they are usually self-appointed conservative old males. One can hardly see progressive believers, youth, or women among them. Moreover, they promote the prominence of unchangeable “divine” laws (as interpreted by them) over democratically voted laws. And finally, they play a crucial role in the advancement of “communities” over citizenship, i.e. different rights for different categories of citizens, some enjoying less rights than others before the law. Not to mention the human rights violations that take place when assigning an individual to a religious “community”, regardless of his/her personal belief. In other words, this is turning religion, which should be a personal intimate choice, into a “race”. This happened to Jews, with the consequences from the Holocaust to the creation of Israel. Knowing this, we should be more than alert now as we see the further elaboration of a race of “Muslims”, the concept being constructed the world over, regardless of people’s personal faith in Islam.

Just to illustrate what i mean, journalists the world over (unfortunately a sizeable contingent of scientific researchers too – shame on them!), be it in “secular” India or “secular” Europe, or in Myanmar or in the USA or in Sri Lanka, dare write about “the Muslims” collectively: what “they” think, what “they” do, what political position “they” take on this and that without ever asking individuals what actual religious beliefs they hold, if any. “They” are qualified as “Muslims” on the ground of their name or surname, their place of birth, their nationality or nationality of origin. Their supposed religion even appears on their identity papers. What a gift these “secular” countries grant Muslim fundamentalists who use the very same criteria to claim ownership of whole populations!

Journalists and scientists should look at facts rather than build on their ideological constructions. A bit more than ten years ago, a research was undertaken in France and, for once, nothing was taken for granted. Individuals were actually asked whether or not they believed in any god/s and, if at all, which one.

I was born and raised in Algeria, in a large family where atheists, agnostics, progressive Muslims, and progressive Christians harmoniously cohabited, and the vast majority of my fellow students and the quasi totality of my friends were unbelievers. Therefore, it was really no surprise to me that the findings of this study were as follows: roughly about 25% of the population of presumed Muslims and presumed Christians declared themselves atheists (please note this is a very high percentage because statistics generally lump declared atheists together with “agnostics”). Only 5% of presumed Christians and presumed Muslims declared themselves practising believers. The remaining roughly 70% of people interviewed went to Church for baptism, wedding, and funerals, would have a festive Christmas and, beyond this, hardly ever let religion interfere in their lives; similarly, they would more or less observe Ramadan (at least as a social ritual, but that did not imply proper fasting, nor would it exclude alcohol, sometimes not even exclude pork), and they would celebrate Aïd/s, have their sons circumcised, and hardly set foot in a mosque in their lifetime.

Particularly striking was the impressive parity of opinion and behaviour between the two presumed “communities”. This is what happens when secularism prevails in a country.
Should we not consider that labelling anyone “Muslim” under these circumstances is a serious human rights abuse?

If one looks at what happens in many countries where “communities” are governed by separate – sometimes antagonistic – laws (from Lebanon to Senegal to India and now… Britain !), and where individuals are coerced into a religious identity they had no chance to define for themselves, one should unveil the colonial legacy that presided to this “multicultural” legal model. The underlying assumption we inherited from colonizers was that “natives” should remain “different” and keep their own “backwards ways”. In two cases, independent Algeria and independent India, there was scientific research demonstrating that what passes off today as “Islamic law” was actually constructed by the French and British colonizers respectively. Those colonizers incorporated elements of religion, culture, traditions, and foreign rules into a syncretic fabricated “indigenous law” in order to set up legal provisions that would help keep colonized people at bay. This was under the wonderful humanitarian pretext of “respect” for their culture, religion, and mores. Incidentally, the bits and pieces that are rooted into religious interpretations inevitably pertain to family laws, i.e. laws that specifically affect women.

In the UK today, or in India, or in Senegal, etc., commercial laws or criminal laws generally conform to international norms, while only family laws carry the burden of promoting and preserving the former “natives’” identity. At women’s cost. On the altar of identity politics, the multicultural system sacrifices women’s rights to the Muslim-religious-right. Little cost for big political benefit. Governments can pretend they champion human rights (but for women, however, if you say it loud, for instance in the UK, in France or in India, you will be labelled anti-Muslim).

UK today has about 300 so-called “sharia courts” that operate legally; their judgements are automatically transcribed into legal decisions as if they were governed by the law of the land. Attempts were made to gain similar legal ground in Canada, for instance, and on a smaller scale in France. They failed thanks to the international mobilisation of women.

Looking back at women’s struggle in Muslim contexts over the past 40 decades, unveiling the different and complementary strategies women chose to develop depending on where they lived and what space they had for maneuver, one finds that the first strategy was through legal action, with women fighting in court over detrimental dispositions in family laws that contradicted the rights guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution, for instance, or with women demanding modifications in laws that curtail their freedom of choice and freedom of movement, their access to education and financial independence. They seek to reclaim a legal status of “adult” because Muslim family laws usually confine women to the status of “minor” who must seek permission at every step from a father, brother, or husband.

Over the years, this contesting of patriarchal legislation was grounded, on the one hand, on human rights international laws which were signed by many of our countries, in the name of universal rights; this has been the most commonly used strategy by women in recent history. And, on the other hand, there was an emerging strategy of justifying women’s demands with reference to alternative interpretations of Islam. We found in Bangladesh, for instance, an impressive collection of marriage contracts dating back nearly a hundred years ago that granted the bride rights in their marriage that could rarely be matched by any progressive modern legislation anywhere in the world.

It is interesting to note that for decades these strategies, based on universal rights or based on progressive interpretations of Islam, worked hand-in-hand. In the early nineties, it changed. The situation became polarized.

In the past, women insisting on tackling the issue of women’s rights from within religion were usually located in countries that were most repressive, as if to affirm that they were no traitors to the national (or communal) religious identity (notwithstanding the fact that most progressive interpreters of the Qu’ran had been fiercely repressed, exiled, or killed in their own countries under the boot of the religious-extreme-right). There was a sudden wave that made religious re-interpretation the preferential strategy for women. While in the past, most women would demand universal rights, there was a sudden shrinking back towards more “indigenous” strategies, more “authentically Muslim”-specific strategies.

I certainly do not want to put the blame only or even primarily on external factors for the shrinking space for women’s agency and scope, but i do know that donors’ policies favoured the religious interpretation strategy and were instrumental in giving a push to what quickly became a feminine wing of fundamentalist movements that intended to contain women’s demands within the frame – and limits – of religion. Not very different from colonial policies that i described above, keeping “natives” as inherently different, isn’t it? The underlying assumption here is that universalism and universal rights are from and for ‘the West’. Therefore we are alienating ourselves by reclaiming rights which are not necessarily grounded into our specific culture, but are rather rights emerging from a global re-thinking of our common humanity across cultures.

How ignorant, if one thinks about the important role a country like India, for instance, played in the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man (“Man”, at that time!).

I do think that the shrinking place for universalism, and subsequently for secularism too, in women’s strategies globally is primarily a consequence and reflection of the growing space taken by Muslim fundamentalists’ organisations both on the ground and in the global discourse. I cannot help thinking of Marx on the Irish question, when i see that all social movements, wars, and popular uprisings are now seen under the narrow lens of religion and religious conflicts.

Fortunately, most religious-only strategies have been fading away with the last century, as they slowly appeared for what they became with the rise of fundamentalists, i.e. a women’s branch of religious Muslim fundamentalists organisations.

A new wave of struggle has become increasingly important since the beginning of the XXIst century: a struggle for recognition of the rights of atheists and agnostics and a clear demand for secular laws. New groups have been popping out and flourishing both in countries of emigration and throughout Asia, Middle East, and Africa, where they are met with fierce repression by governments as well as by non-state actors such as armed groups of the Muslim-extreme-right. They exist in Germany, UK, Pakistan, Singapore, the Netherlands, the USA, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, Iran, Canada, France, Morocco, Algeria, Norway, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Syria, Sri Lanka, Scotland, South Africa, Ireland, Jordan, India, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Tunisia or in Scandinavia. (Apologies for those i have forgotten).

This emergence is a consequence of the growing folly of armed Muslim fundamentalism and their numerous offspring (El Qaida, Taliban, Islamic Salvation Front, Armed Islamic Groups, Boko Haram, Shebab, Ansar-ed-din, etc… etc… etc…). As the number of their victims grow (200,000 victims in my own country, Algeria, during the nineties), so grows peoples’ disaffection for the theological social doctrine they propagate and for the theocratic form of government they promote. The crimes and violations they have committed over the past 40 years are the ground on which grew a new generation of activists, in which women have taken the lead.

As fundamentalists’ first targets, women are especially aware of the benefits that secular laws in a secular state can bring them, laws they can vote for or against, rather than rules decreed by reactionary religious old males who speak in the name of their god. We remember that the French Revolution granted equal rights to all citizens – except to women. And revolutionaries hanged Olympe de Gouges who demanded the same rights for women. Secularism is not, in and of itself, a sufficient guarantee for women’s rights, but without secular laws, we can be sure women’s rights will not be respected. This is why we welcome the growing secular movement and the increasing atheists’ mobilization in Muslim contexts. We salute the courage and determination they display as they risk their freedom and very often their lives in this struggle that concerns the future of all of us. It is a young and vibrant movement in which women are at the forefront, not only on the frontline of demonstrations but also in the leadership.

References and Recommended Reading
Anderson, Michael. “Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India.” WLUML occasional paper, no. 7, Women Living Under Muslim Laws. June 1996.
In contemporary debates regarding Muslim identity in South Asia no issue is as prominent or as hotly contested as the character and social role of Islamic law. Though the controversies are directly relevant to present day concerns the questions themselves are neither new nor innocent of colonial influence. The existing corpus of Islamic law in the subcontinent owes a great deal to the legacy of colonial jurists who systematised and gave shape to Anglo-Muhammadan law over many decades.

Bencheikh, Soheib. “Separation does not weaken religion.” WLUML, dossier 28, December 2006, Accessed Jan. 30, 2020.

Benoune, Karima. “Secularism and Human Rights: A Contextual Analysis of Headscarves, Religious Expression, and Women’s Equality Under International Law.” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 45, No. 2, 25 May 2007, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

Hickley, Matthew. “Islamic sharia courts in Britain are now ‘legally binding.’” Daily Mail, 15 Sept. 2008, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
Knowing Our Rights Women, Family, Laws and Customs in the Muslim World. Women Living under Muslim Laws, 2006,
In much of the Muslim world, women’s lack of knowledge about statutory provisions and about the sources of customs and practices applied in their immediate community obstructs their ability to change their circumstances. This understanding was the basis for the Women & Law in the Muslim World Programme of the international solidarity network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Knowing Our Rights Women, Family, Laws and Customs in the Muslim World. 3rd ed., Women Living under Muslim Laws, 2006,
This third and completely revised version of the “Knowing Our Rights” handbook is an essential resource for those taking a critical and questioning approach to rights, laws, and constructions of womanhood in Muslim countries and communities and beyond. “Knowing Our Rights” forms part of the international synthesis of the Women & Law in the Muslim world Programme and is based on some 10 years of field experience, research and analysis by multi-disciplinary teams of networkers in over 20 countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“Law Society Withdraws Sharia Wills Practice Note.” Southall Black Sisters, 24 Nov. 2014, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

Mayer, Ann E. “Reform of Personal Status Law in North Africa: A Problem of Islamic or Mediterranean Laws?” WLUML occasional paper, no. 8, Middle East Institute. July 1996.
There is a tendency in the West to exaggerate the gap between the evolution of Western family laws and the evolution of family laws in Muslim countries. By comparing the changes in the legal definitions of marriage and the relationship of the spouses in French law, the secular laws of Turkey, and the laws of North African countries, this article reveals similar patterns in legal evolution on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Lucas, Marieme H. “What is your tribe?: Women’s Struggles and the Construction of Muslimness.” Ed. Howland, Courtney W. Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women. New York, St. Martins Press, 1999. Also available on, and on

Lucas, Marieme H. “Secularism and the colonial legacy: How it impacts on women’s universal rights and on democracy.” Secularism is a Women’s Issue, 10 April 2019, Accessed on 30 Jan. 2020.

Lucas, Marieme H. “The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America.” WLUML, Dossier 30-31, July 2011, Accessed on 30 Jan. 2020.
Edited by Algerian sociologist and WLUML founder, Marieme Hélie-Lucas, this bumper dossier brings you papers by over 15 contributors, including Karima Bennoune: The Law of the Republic Versus the ‘Law of the Brothers’: A story of France’s law banning religious symbols in public; Pragna Patel: Cohesion, Multi-Faithism and the Erosion of Secular Spaces in the UK: Implications for the human rights of minority women; and Gita Sahgal: ‘The Question Asked by Satan’: Doubt, dissent and discrimination in 21st-century Britain.

Pena-Ruiz, Henri. “France: Secularity and the republic. A secular recasting of the state: principles and foundations.” Secularism is a Women’s Issue, 28 March 2007, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

Shaheed, Farida, and Aisha L. F. Shaheed. Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts. Shirkat Gah, 2004,
The essential information and training kit on women’s rights activists from the 8th to the 20th century. This publication, jointly produced by Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre and WLUML, explodes the myth that struggles for women’s rights are alien to societies that embraced Islam and profiles women who defied and changed the contours of women’s lives from the 8th to the mid-20th century.

Shaheed, Farida, and Aisha Lee. Shaheed. Great Ancestors: Women Claiming Rights in Muslim Contexts. Oxford University Press, 2011.
This book breaks the myth of Muslim women being passive, oppressed and apolitical. It retrieves the mostly forgotten lives and voices of women from the eighth to the early twentieth centuries in Muslim countries and communities who asserted rights for themselves and for other women, promoting justice in the home and in the public sphere. These narratives from East and South Asia to the Middle East and West Africa, bring to life the rich history of women’s resistance and engagement for rights, effectively overturning the misconception that the roots of women’s activism lie exclusively in modern-day Europe and North America. Women acted in their individual capacity and undertook collective actions in the public sphere. Not all the women assembled in Great Ancestors were famous or powerful, but they all exercised their agency for empowerment, challenging power structures and opening new avenues for women. The issues of identity, Muslim-ness and women’s rights from a contemporary perspective and the importance of reclaiming this history are discussed in an introductory essay.

Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist; she taught epistemology in the social sciences in Algiers university. She is the founder of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws international solidarity network ( and served for 18 years as its international coordinator. She also founded and coordinates Secularism Is A Women’s Issue (

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