Reflecting on 25 years of Women Against Fundamentalism

Sukhwant Dhaliwal reflects on 25 years of Women Against Fundamentalism, a coalition of women brought together in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair. For Dhaliwal, control of women’s bodies and minds lies at the heart of all religious fundamentalism


For some of us, 2014 is a momentous year. It marks 25 years since the Rushdie Affair and the birth of the feminist inspired coalition Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF). This June some of the members of WAF will launch a book that celebrates and discusses the on-going challenges faced by a feminism concerned with fighting both religious fundamentalism and racism.

Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was published by Penguin in 1988. Quite soon after its publication, a diverse mix of radical parties, working through their transnational connections, pushed for a ban on the book. The book was deemed offensive as ‘literary colonialism’ and as ‘religious pornography’; connecting anti-imperialist sentiment to an anxiety about the sexual defilement of Islam. Mounting international pressure to ban the book was followed by the pronouncement of a fatwa (Islamic edict) by the Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian religious and political leader, condemning Rushdie and his publishers to death. Khomeini declared that defenders of the fatwa would be revered as ‘martyrs’. In effect this was an incitement to murder. Fearing for his life, Rushdie went into hiding.

Whatever you may think of Rushdie or the content of his writing, what came to be known as the ‘Rushdie Affair’ was a pivotal moment in the history of British multiculturalism. As Julia Bard described at the time, the Ayatollah’s fatwa ‘broke the left and liberal consensus on anti-racism’. Should people defend the free speech of the protestors as ‘express(ions) of their culture’ or be seen to be siding with racists by depicting these actions as ‘barbaric’?

In the midst of these points of political tension, at a packed International Women’s Day event in Southall, on 8th March 1989, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) spoke out against the rise of fundamentalism in Britain and highlighted the implications for women. They issued a statement in defence of Salman Rushdie, the right to free speech and the right to not have their lives determined by so called ‘community leaders’ – invariably men. The event triggered the establishment of Women Against Fundamentalism. Around two hundred women had attended that International Women’s Day event. Encouraged by this response, SBS joined forces with Voices for Rushdie, Brent Asian Women’s Refuge and the Iranian Women’s Organisation to call a meeting at Conway Hall, central London where WAF was founded. The members of this newly formed group agreed to take a public stand against an anti-Rushdie march scheduled to pass through central London on 27th May 1989. For their counter-demonstration, WAF members coined the slogan

‘Rushdie’s right to write is our right to dissent!’ 

Images of that WAF protest in Parliament Square continue to provide strong visual representations of WAF’s (often precarious) political location – of women from diverse backgrounds standing together and boldly shouting slogans against both ethnic minority fundamentalists within the anti-Rushdie march and also at white fascists from the National Front that had turned up to abuse the demonstrators.

Women Against Fundamentalism - © Rob Kenyon Photo taken in May 1989 at Parliament Square
© Rob Kenyon Photo taken in May 1989 at Parliament Square

WAF was a broad coalition of women from a range of ethnic, national and religious backgrounds who were primarily united by their position as feminists and as vocal dissenters within their communities. Many were already involved in key frontline struggles including the fight against racist violence, supporting families subject to immigration legislation, challenging police brutality, supporting women fleeing domestic violence, standing up for women’s reproductive rights, and also challenging the Thatcherite agenda to destroy trade unions and shrink the welfare state.

Since WAF was formed during the height of the Satanic Verses controversy, it was perhaps inevitable that its members would be depicted as anti-Muslim. In fact WAF was far from solely focused on Muslim fundamentalism and consistently stood by its objective to challenge the rise of fundamentalism in all religions. WAF’s members joined forces with South Asian activists to speak out against atrocities committed against Muslims by the Hindu Right at Ayodhya in northern India in 1991 and again in Gujarat in west India in 2002. Challenging Christian mobilisations was also a vital part of WAF’s work for three key reasons.

– First, WAF arose (and was later revitalised post 9/11) in the context of assimilationist projects of British nationalism, of which Christianity was often a central feature.

– Secondly, WAF campaigned against the Establishment position of the Church of England as part of a demand for the separation of church and state but also because many of the demands being made for religious accommodation in Britain – such as for the extension of blasphemy legislation and faith-based schooling – were being made more credible because of the privileged position of Christianity. WAF took an active Disestablishment position and argued for the withdrawal of public funding from all religious schools.

– Thirdly, there was a vociferous core of Irish women involved with WAF from the outset. These women were also involved in a support group facilitating the movement of Irish women to England to have safe abortions. For WAF’s activism, this led to the foregrounding of concerns with reproductive rights and also with the power of the Catholic Church. Indeed it was the question of reproductive rights that highlighted the importance for fundamentalists of collaborative working and also their use of universalist human rights frameworks and forums.

Despite these broad interests, WAF was also often portrayed as being anti-religion. One of the earliest advocates of multifaithism, Tariq Modood, accused WAF of being ‘partly located in the prejudices of most Britons’. Yet WAF strictly differentiated fundamentalism from religious observance, which we saw as a matter of individual choice. WAF emphasised the importance of secularism, particularly of defending and strengthening secular public institutions, as an important mechanism for ensuring equality for all. In fact, WAF often allied with faith-based women’s organisations such as Catholics for Free Choice and Women Living Under Muslim Laws. But WAF members engaged in rigorous discussions to distinguish between right and left leaning projects – an ethical evaluation that the human rights academic Chetan Bhatt has noted is absent from the melange of identity politics and multifaith interventions.

WAF established itself as a women-only organisation because it recognised that the control of women’s bodies and minds lies at the heart of fundamentalist agendas. Fundamentalists have a vested interest in perpetuating women’s role as upholders of community morals and traditions. Women who refuse this role risk being demonised, ostracised from their community, subjected to physical violence or even killed. WAF persistently asserted women’s right to contest and question religion, culture and tradition, and to challenge self-styled leaderships that claim to represent them. This was most clearly reflected in its adoption of the slogans coined by members of Southall Black Sisters –

‘Our tradition, struggle not submission’; ‘Religious leaders do not speak for us’; and ‘Fear is your weapon, courage is ours!’

WAF included women of Muslim backgrounds who similarly did not want the religious right defining their engagement with Islam on any level – nor indeed to restrict their desire to critique Islam.

WAF women were located within the same critique of community representation politics as other critics of state multiculturalism (now multifaithism). As anti-racists they challenged the British state’s sidestepping of structural and institutional racism in favour of the co-option of deeply culturalist and ethnicist projects, the most conservative sections of minority communities. As feminists they raised concerns about women, being pushed out of negotiations, being silenced by depictions as illegitimate representatives of ‘authentic’ religion, culture and community. It was the religious dimensions of this ethnicism, primarily in the minority demand for state funding of religious schools that was eventually nurtured by New Labour and became a pivotal plank of Tony Blair’s attachment to multifaithism (the privileging of all religious affiliations). The implications for the education of young women and girls has been immense in terms of the restrictions placed upon their access to critical thinking, to (feminist) pastoral care, to personal sexual and relationships education, and to non-policed spaces of self exploration.

There was always an acute awareness that our concerns could be appropriated by right wing forces – whether by the Christian or the racist right (BNP and EDL) – and a number of strategies were adopted to emphasise that WAF’s concerns about minority fundamentalism were not (still are not) equal to a defence of right wing factions or a call to British nationalism. This involved WAF women playing an active part in anti-imperialist and anti-racist demonstrations, such as against the invasion of Iraq, against the EDL, and maintaining a vocal critical distance from the Christian Right’s attempts to appropriate WAF’s concerns about blasphemy legislation, shariah councils or other systems of religious dispute resolution.

Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity
Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity

An awareness that the organisation was being perceived as solely focused on Muslim fundamentalism led to an informal strategy of ‘speaking in pairs’ – where opportunities to speak publicly were taken up by women of different backgrounds who would share panels in order to speak out about minority fundamentalism and also about the problem with Christian mobilisations. Personally, as much as I agreed with the pragmatic need for the practice of ‘speaking in pairs’, I was also uncomfortable with it because I believe in my right to speak against all forms of fundamentalism, I wanted to avoid the risk of being pigeon-holed as a ‘Sikh woman’ that speaks about ‘Sikhs’. Indeed I found this practice at odds with an organisation that was founded in part as a challenge to the swathe of 1980s identity politics and their hierarchies of ‘authenticity’, such as demonstrating your credentials as a Muslim in order to intervene in a discussion about Islam. What had attracted me was WAF’s imaginative ways of disrupting such essentialist thinking.

Sadly, WAF is no more, beaten in the end by the intense emotional challenges of doing intersectional politics, including the desire to remain a diverse coalition and resist NGO-isation. To be a WAFer, to combine feminism, anti-racism, anti-fundamentalism, to lobby for secularism, together with a critique of the identity politics, the local, the national and the global, was quite literally exhausting.

All of this was overwhelming in the context of WAF members’ other work and family commitments. Nonetheless, WAF was highly valued by its members and being involved in WAF deeply affected lives and the forms of feminist organising. Even during periods of inactivity, WAF continued as a source of inspiration, a resource for political analysis and a method for political engagement.

This June, WAF women will be launching an edited collection of the autobiographical political narratives of the feminist activists who made up the organisation over the past 25 years. The book stems from a motivation to understand the unique pathways that led particular women to choose these complex arenas of feminist activism and how these choices related to other aspects of their lives.The various chapters within the book reflect on how their perspectives and their personal/political histories aligned and differed. The book will be launched at a WAF-style party. As Emma Goldman once said ‘If you can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution’. We hope you will join us.

The title of this piece is adapted from the title of Clara A. Connolly’s one year anniversary piece on WAF, which was written in 1990 but is still available here:

[i] Covered in the WAF journal special issue on reproductive rights/and fundamentalist interventions at UN events Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg.

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Sukhwant Dhaliwal moved over to academia after ten years of working on violence against women and girls, including for Southall Black Sisters. She joined Women Against Fundamentalism in 1995. Her experience in the voluntary sector complements an academic/research career that has covered projects on five out of six of the equality strands – ‘race’, gender, disability, age, religion and belief. She recently completed a PhD from Goldsmiths Sociology all about religion and local politics. With Nira Yuval Davis, she is co-editor of the forthcoming ‘Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity’ to be published by Lawrence and Wishart this June 2014. Twitter @UnRepresentativ

Feminism, Womanism and Intersectionality series “Complicit No More” curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam tackles the cross-cutting facets of complicity as they play out within our relationships to our bodies, each other, our communities, to media representations and to mobilisation.

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One thought on “‘Washing our dirty linen in public’

  1. Thank you for your informative article. This was not an organization I was familiar with and I welcomed the chance to learn more about the history of women working for equality.


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