Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity, ed: Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis, (Lawrence & Wishart, 2014) includes essays by 19 members of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF), a remarkable secular, feminist organization in the UK. WAF was born out of the desire of women from the Islamic community to oppose the fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie. WAF rapidly attracted progressive feminists of every background and many nationalities - from Irish Catholic to Israeli Jewish to Punjabi Sikh to English Sunni Muslim. WAF shook up the British discussion of anti-racism when it challenged the misguided liberal "multi-cultural" approach, which assumes that the religious leaders of any particular community represent everyone in that community. WAF also broadened the feminist critique of Islamic fundamentalism by insisting that all forms of religious fundamentalism share an agenda aimed at controlling women and seeking political power.
Full disclosure: I was a member of WAF when living in London during the 1990s. I know several of the 19 women who, by writing in this book’s essays with candor about their lives and about their personal political development, illuminate the unique political contributions of WAF.
Pragna Patel (at left) opens the book with her chapter “Flying by the Nets of Racism: Patriarchy and Religion.” As a founder of Women Against Fundamentalism, her insightful overview of WAF serves as the perfect set-up for the rest of the essays. Born in Kenya in 1960 to Gujarat, Indian parents who were part of the influx of railroad workers to Kenya, she found herself at London’s Heathrow in a sleeveless cotton dress and flip-flops in December, 1965. As the eldest sister, she had to fight her way out of some constricting traditions, not the least forced marriage to a stranger. She was aided, she explains, by James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in particular this line: “You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
Patel explains some of the complex concepts that distinguished WAF’s politics from those of other feminist and anti-racist groupings. WAF developed a politics and practice of solidarity across communities. This stood in contrast to identity politics. In WAF, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and other women criticized the power structures inside communities while fighting racism outsiders aimed against those communities. The prevailing British “liberal” concept of multiculturalism erased gender and class differences by imagining each of these communities as homogeneous. Because much of the liberal “celebration of difference” was built around religious holidays, multiculturalism also sidelined secular members of those communities.
Patel ends her chapter with an examination of the difficulties in keeping WAF alive, not the least that most members had a primary political commitment outside of WAF and that Britain’s anti-racism actions were becoming increasingly dominated by fundamentalist groups, making the framing of WAF’s protests tricky.
Clara Connelly (at left) talks about the “twin influences of Catholic and nationalist ideologies on a woman growing up in southern Ireland in the middle of the last century,” in her piece “Confessional of an Anti-Clerical Feminist.” Despite many disagreements, some of them intense, she points to WAF’s precious contribution to the world of feminist thought. “…WAF filled a unique place in British feminism whose influence stretched beyond our numbers and our national borders.”
Julia Bard, whose activism in the Jewish Socialist Group overlapped with her membership in WAF, appreciated being with “people who were dissident within their communities in such a progressive way… People in the group were very courageous about challenging the Catholic Church, for example, or the Sikh or Hindu leadership, in situations where dissent was dangerous.” She herself was accused of anti-Semitism when she questioned the ancient custom of circumcision in her Jewish community. “There was a very strong sense of mutual support among the women. We did have some quite profound disagreements, and I think there were fault lines that we never managed to bridge.”
In “Made in Little India,’” Sukhwant Dhaliwal (at left), one of this book’s editors, feels that her family experienced its individual version of “the classic Punjabi immigrant to Southall story.” As the only daughter, “cultural reproduction seemed … to flow only through me” – from traditional clothing to religious education. She was lucky to have two brothers who supported her struggle to remain in the heart of her community without suffering the scary restrictions that hovered over her, such as arranged marriage. To avoid that fate, she made sure to get into a college and to stay on campus. That delicious taste of freedom led to her life of activism and intellectual achievement.
Sue O’Sullivan’s (at left) chapter is entitled “Change, Chance, and Contradictions.” She joined WAF during its relatively short period of reinvigoration following a hiatus. Despite many decades of political activism around socialism, feminism, HIV, and anti-war work, she found it hard as a newbie to locate herself within the organization. She had long admired the sophistication of WAF’s analysis and the energy of its actions, but once involved with the group she experienced a crisis of confidence that was common to many newcomers: “I was anxious about saying the wrong thing.” Years after the end of WAF, however, she happily finds “WAF women as organizers and participants” in many of the struggles and political groups she is now working with.
Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity provides an instructive sense of the WAF organization itself, by highlighting the process of political maturation through the essays of these 19 individuals. This important, compelling book delivers a taste of the unique experience of working with a truly international, profoundly cross-cultural group of committed feminists who, despite the end of this supportive organization, continue today to wrestle with the most troubling oppressions in Britain and abroad.