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Women Against Fundamentalism

Stories of Dissent and Solidarity.


Edited by Sukhwant Dhaliwal & Nira Yuval-Davis


London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2014

Paperback . 327 pages. ISBN 978-1909831025. £17.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King's College, London



This volume tells the stories of a relatively short-lived organisation, Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF), of nineteen women who were active in it, to varying degrees, of the experiences that drew them in, and drove some of them out. WAF was founded in London in 1989 in reaction to the wave of Muslim antagonism, including a fatwa demanding his death, against the author Salman Rushdie for sections of his book, The Satanic Verses, deemed blasphemous to Islam. The founders defended Rushdie on grounds of freedom of speech. They believed that religious groups should not impose their beliefs on others. They opposed all religious fundamentalisms, in all faith groups, in particular because they oppressed women, and advocated a secular state which did not encourage the beliefs of any religious group, for example by supporting faith schools, though WAF supported the right to individual religious observance.

WAF’s support for Rushdie aroused hostility among radical anti-racist and racist groups. When they demonstrated against an anti-Rushdie march in London they faced sexist abuse from left and right. The racists hated Rushdie and the Muslims equally, while left-wingers argued that the beliefs of all cultures should be valued equally, hence any criticism of Islam was wrong. The women of WAF believed that the fashionable ‘multiculturalism’ endorsed by the British government, claiming tolerance of all cultures as a British virtue, tolerated too much intolerance. The biographies of WAF’s supporters, born mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, written by themselves, demonstrate the diverse routes by which they reached this stance, mainly due to their experiences of discrimination from a variety of religious fundamentalisms. They provide fascinating insights into the diversity and some of the tensions within contemporary British culture.

One of the founders of WAF, Pragna Patel, grew up in London in a family of poor immigrants from India. She experienced racism in the street and at school. She fought a long battle against being forced into marriage by her conventional family, went to university and joined anti-racist movements but found them seriously sexist. She revived Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a movement initially of Asian women in a substantially Asian part of west London, one of the first arms of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement not composed entirely of White women. It became a support and campaigning centre for the many Asian women who experienced physical and sexual abuse and repression from husbands and parents. This led directly to the foundation of WAF, which aimed to be culturally inclusive. Its demands included disestablishment of the Church of England, cessation of state funding for all faith schools and the creation of a ‘democratic, secular society based on socialist, feminist, anti-racist and anti-discrimination ideals’ [60]. It campaigned for the legalisation of abortion in northern and southern Ireland, against sharia laws in Pakistan and sexual violence in India and much else. WAF declined in the later 1990s as its supporters were diverted by other issues, then revived following 9/11, when heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain reinforced Muslim fundamentalism.

Another founder, Clara Connolly, grew up in the Republic of Ireland in a Catholic family in which contraception was ‘unthinkable’, along with abortion and divorce, and women were expected to become wives and mothers. She fled to university, then became a teacher in Northern Ireland, mixing with Marxists and supporting the civil rights movement of the late 1960s. She married and moved back to Dublin, then moved with her husband to England when her doctor refused her the pill and she found that married women were not allowed to work as teachers. She helped Irishwomen coming to UK for abortions, then joined WAF as a space to campaign against Catholic and other fundamentalisms, as well as the patriarchal sentiments of Irish and other nationalists and of many left-wing men.

Gita Sahgal grew up in the very different, secular environment, in India, of the privileged family of the first prime minister of independent India, Jawharlal Nehru, her great-uncle. It was a household of strong women who had been active in the independence movement, demanding freedom also for women. Unlike other Asian women in WAF she did not grow up poor and a victim of racist abuse. She went to an international boarding school and university in Britain – a family tradition – and became active in socialist and anti-racist movements in Britain then in India. She married an Englishman, returned to London, joined SBS, worked for television and made films on anti-racist themes. She became another founder member of WAF as she recognised the harm done to other women by religious fundamentalisms and how radicals condoned it. In 2001 she moved to work for Amnesty International, but found it too tolerant of fundamentalists and insensitive to gender. She was dismissed when she opposed their support for a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay for his close association with Muslim fundamentalism. This issue fatally divided WAF in 2010 since some members opposed US treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo even more than they opposed fundamentalism. This was one of many conflicts within WAF. A prominent Black feminist joined but soon left arguing that it should support churches which did good, such as those with long records of opposing slavery and supporting civil rights. WAF’s reluctance to acknowledge the benign as well as the oppressive features of religions, and non-religious sources of oppression, was persistently divisive.

One of the editors, Nira Yuval-Davis, became a feminist and anti-racist in the Israeli army when she experienced sexual discrimination and harassment and opposed anti-Palestinian discrimination. She moved to London in the 1970s, joined SBS and later WAF. She stayed with it but always found its agenda ‘too narrow’, not confronting ethnic, racial and national fundamentalisms as well as religious. She writes: ‘This book reflects my personal and political desire to appreciate the importance of WAF-like politics, but also the need to better understand its limitations’ [139].

Another Jewish woman, Julia Bard, grew up in a secular family in London. She identified as Jewish, as a secularist but not an atheist. After university she lived in Israel but, appalled by the sexism she encountered, returned to London where she was equally shocked by the nationalism of the Jewish Chronicle advising Jewish people against supporting the anti-racist Anti-Nazi league because it was anti-Zionist and pro- Palestinian. This drove her to join WAF as a rare forum for sharing her experiences with women from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds and discussing solutions. But she felt that it ultimately became unproductive and was right to close, becoming too focussed on Islam and the tension with the anti-racists who could not bring themselves to oppose intolerant features of Islam.

Hannana Siddiqui moved to UK aged five in 1967. Her parents were tolerant Muslims who encouraged her to go to university and did not insist on an arranged marriage, though her brothers had more freedoms; she experienced racism at school and on the street. She later worked for SBS then WAF, but increasingly opposed secularism, believing that people should be free to express their religious belief if they did not impose it on others, that the Muslim veil is ‘a historical symbol of female oppression’ which she opposed but that French opposition to wearing the veil in public is ‘too extreme’.

Cassandra Balchin grew up in a prosperous non-religious household in Britain with a Yugoslav mother and an English father. She moved left in her teens and further left as a student at LSE in the early 1980s. She then lived and married in Pakistan for 17 years. Working as a journalist she became increasingly interested in progressive interpretations of Islam and called herself Muslim, while opposing its fundamentalist features. She left her husband and took her two sons to London where she ‘revelled’ in walking down the road and not being sexually harassed. She joined WAF, as a forum for lively discussion about resistance to fundamentalisms not just in Islam. She also joined the Muslim Women’s Network, which was committed to a vision of Islam in which women were equal. She faced hostility from some women in WAF because of her belief, though she shared their criticism of fundamentalist Islam. She concluded that WAF insisted on too simple a division between secularism and religion and should consider more profoundly the role of religion in the public sphere, suggesting that the state could support socially beneficial religious movements.

Other women were drawn to WAF through their experiences of nationalist and religious fundamentalisms and sexual inequalities in the US, Egypt, Australia and, no doubt, elsewhere. It was a brave, unique attempt to challenge an international issue but in the end it collapsed because it could agree on no clear solution to these massive problems which could win widespread support.


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